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The world we live in today has changed drastically since our grandparents and parents were young – everybody recognizes that and we hear it all the time. With rapid changes in technology come drastic changes in lifestyle. What clothes we wear, cars we drive, appliances we use, programs we watch on TV, movies we enjoy, and food we eat – are all greatly influenced by changes in technology. There are, however, some vital life skills that never change. From generation to generation, we continue to have certain basic requirements that never vary. As a result, we need to acquire skills our ancestors found necessary for daily survival that are equally important in our modern lives - just not necessarily on a daily basis. Cooking is one of those skills.
Open fire cooking is much more than just a fun thing to do on a camping trip. It is important to all of us at Campfire Cafe that this basic skill is not forgotten because there are many reasons why knowing how to cook is a handy skill to have. If you should ever have to deal with a natural disaster, you might find yourself without power, at the very least. We all know that hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and ice storms can cause power outages for days, and sometimes weeks, even in major cities. In today's modern kitchen, even a gas range can require electricity to operate. Microwave ovens would be totally useless, as would an electric range. Gas grills would be good as long as the supply of propane held out, and charcoal grills are great – if you've got plenty of charcoal on hand. A quick trip to the store might not be possible.
There is one source for cooking that is usually always available – firewood. Even in the city there are trees and deadwood, especially after a storm. Unfortunately, storms generate other sources of firewood, too. In any case, wood to burn can typically be found. Of course, there are other requirements for cooking over an open fire than just wood, but generating a heat source is the most critical necessity.
If a weather disaster strikes today, chances are the power outages are going to be temporary, so if you are prepared and can get a campfire going, it won't be long before a good meal can be enjoyed. This can be important if you consider that loss of power, even for a day, can mean a good amount of food in the freezer will thaw and need to be cooked. This level of preparedness alone makes learning how to cook outdoors something to consider, but outdoor cooking is also a lot of fun!
You don't need to wait for a camping trip to learn open fire cooking skills. Campfire cooking can be enjoyed at home, right in your own backyard. Many cities do have rules against having open fires in residential areas and checking with local authorities is recommended, but often a safe, well-built fire pit for cooking is allowed. In fact, many municipalities that do not allow burning of leaves, are not permitted to prohibit residents from cooking on an open fire.
Learning to cook over an open fire at home is something the whole family can enjoy. Teaching children to be responsible around a campfire, as well as how to properly build a safe fire pit, is equally as important as teaching them to cook. Cooking at home will help develop these skills while just doing something thatís fun. By the time the next camping trip rolls around, your campfire cooking experience will be a good one and the meals much appreciated after a long day of hiking, swimming or boating.
In addition to being able to impress friends and family by cooking a meal like Smothered Pork Chops, Baked Corn Casserole, and Jalapeño Cornbread topped off with a Black Forest Ribbon Cake – a good campfire cook is just at home in the kitchen. Although you may not be inclined to cook at home in the kitchen on a regular basis, itís definitely a good thing to know.
Cooking can be messy, and trying to keep from making a mess when learning is just about impossible, not to mention it takes the fun right out of things. Being neat and tidy when cooking outdoors is just not that important. If food falls on the ground, or slops over the side of a pot into the fire – it's just no big deal. Preparing recipes and learning to grill, roast, bake, steam, fry and stew outside first will eventually mean better skills in the kitchen. Knowing how to cook is a good skill to have.
There's really no age requirement for learning how to cook and this is a life-skill every kid should learn. If kids are not old enough to handle sharp knives or tend a fire, participation is still possible. From adding ingredients, to stirring and mixing, thereís always a task for even the youngest family member. Spending time outside together, cutting up vegetables, following a recipe, poking in the fire, and working together to make a meal is something that people have enjoyed doing for centuries. It's still fun, even in the high-tech, fast-paced world we live in today. Why? Because we all still have to eat! The best reason of all to learn how to cook.
Now that we've covered some of the reasons learning to cook is important, and that learning outside over a campfire is a good option - we need to talk about some of the equipment you'll need. If you really want to do it right, you need to learn about different firewoods, cooking gear, cast iron pots, and accessories that will make the job easier and the cooking experience successful. There are weather conditions that will have a direct impact on cooking time, like wind. You'll need to learn how to maintain your equipment, as well as the fire itself. A cook fire is not a blazing bonfire and learning to control the heat is key to successful open fire cooking.
Think of outdoor campfire cooking as a sport and, as with any sport, the right equipment can make all the difference. In the Camping&Cooking Video Library, you'll learn about each of these topics and how to get started. We cover everything from building a fire pit to selecting the right pots, and we'll share some tips and techniques that will have you cookin' like a pro in no time - and then we'll suggest some great open fire recipes that will amaze your friends and family!
We especially like to hear about parents teaching their kids to cook outdoors. Cooking itself is a life skill that we should teach our kids, but today's busy lifestyle simply doesn't always allow that to happen in the kitchen. We suggest making outdoor cooking a family project that begins with preparing a fire ring in the backyard. Even in urban areas where burning leaves is not permitted, local codes may allow open fire cooking!
Start by digging a hole 6 inches deep, by 3 feet wide and 5 feet long. Line the hole with a piece of metal such as corrugated sheet metal, even a metal trash can lid - or lava rock. This will make starting fires easier because you will not have to "cure" the ground to dry out any moisture before your bed of coals can mature for cooking.
We recommend making your fire pit rectangular instead of round because reaching in to lift heavy pots off the hooks will be easier if you can get closer. Although you will see us use a round fire ring, we have over 25 years of experience lifting Dutch ovens of food up and over the fire. If you feel your level of experience is a tad less than this – go with the rectangular shape!
After digging the hole, set up your Cowboy Cookset, adding the Swing Grill and other accessories if you have them. Line the perimeter of the hole, outside the Cookset sideposts, with large rocks. Any rock will work, but choose some flat rocks to position around the top if available, and do not use creek rocks or rocks that contain a lot of moisture - they will explode when they get hot!
Flat rocks will be handy to set a Dutch oven lid or skillet on when cooking. They also provide a flat surface good for a bowl or platter, and they will reflect heat. Large flat rocks positioned to stand up around the fire ring can help, but since the wind direction will vary, be sure to position these rocks on each side of the ring.
Once your hole is prepared, Cowboy Cookware® is set up, and rocks are in place – you're ready to build a fire. This is a great way to get your kids to pick up all the small limbs, sticks and twigs in the yard – because that's exactly what you'll need to start a good fire! Begin by stacking the small sticks and twigs pyramid-style, and you can use a wax firestarter to get things going quick and easy. Keep adding larger sticks and limbs until your base fire is blazing pretty good ñ then add some good, dry, split hardwood logs. Don't go crazy and add too many, too fast. Just start with one or two smaller logs and allow the fire to build.
At this point – you have what we call an "ornamental fire". It is nowhere near ready for cooking! Allow your fire to develop a good bed of coals before even starting to cook. Once the fire has been burning for at least an hour and a half, you should be ready to begin cooking.
The type of wood you use to cook with will depend heavily upon what's available in your area. There are a few woods not to use, as they can add unwanted taste or be hazardous. Pine, spruce, cedar and other evergreens of this type are really not good choices because the sap content can leave soot on foods, greatly affecting the taste. They also contain high levels of tannin. Tannin is used primarily in curing animal hides - obviously not something you want to use when cooking. Red Oak also contains tannin, but White Oak is a good choice. Pine is a good choice for starting a fire, but not for cooking.
The best woods for open fire cooking are nut woods, and some fruitwoods. The most popular being hickory that has aged for 6 to 12 months. Aging the wood allows it to retain enough water to make smoke, but burn quickly and produce coals. Walnut, black walnut, pecan, cherry or apple are also very good choices that flavor the food without being overpowering. Another great choice - if you have access - is mesquite. For long-lasting, hot cooking coals, nothing beats Ash wood.
Hardwoods should be well seasoned to burn slowly and give longlasting heat, producing excellent coals. Wood pieces should be 16 to 18 inches long, and split. Rotten wood will produce no coals and has no place in a cooking fire.
Cooking with wood produces the finest quality food taste. Nothing equals the smoke-flavor enhanced taste foods acquire from the wood. Add that to the wonderful flavors derived from cooking in seasoned cast iron and, well - it just doesn't get any better!
Wood is a natural fuel, and by using it you stay in touch with the earth's natural cycles. You also gain an awareness of the environmental impacts of your energy use. Buying firewood keeps the money you spend close by, circulating within your community and contributing to the local economy.
Wood does not contribute to the greenhouse effect the way fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal do. When oil, gas and coal are burned, carbon that has been buried within the earth for tens of thousands of years is released in the form of carbon dioxide, a by-product of combustion. The result is an increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the main cause of the greenhouse effect.
Carbon is released as carbon dioxide when the wood is burned, but it is part of a natural cycle. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the air as it grows and incorporates this carbon in its structure. When the tree falls and decays in the forest, or is processed into firewood and burned, the carbon is released again to the atmosphere. This cycle can be repeated forever without increasing atmospheric carbon. Cooking or heating with wood, therefore, does not contribute to the greenhouse effect.
Just like any other outdoor pursuit, campfire cooking will be more successful and enjoyable with the right equipment. The gear designed by the Campfire Cafe crew is the result of over 30 years of experience cooking over a campfire, the hearth, and in the kitchen. The entire crew was instrumental in the development and extensive testing of all the Cowboy Cookware® equipment and accessories. COWBOY COOKWARE can be used over an open fire for outdoor campfire cooking, or in an open hearth for indoor fireplace cooking. A free-standing frame must be constructed for use in a fireplace. Click here to print the plans for building a free-standing frame.
The Cowboy Cookset is the cornerstone of essential equipment needed to cook over an open fire. Without a method to safely hang Dutch ovens, cooking will not be even and heat control will be minimal. You need an apparatus that is made to last so it will not bend or warp under the heat of any fire you will ever build, and is impervious to weather conditions. Although an iron cookset will rust a little if left outdoors, a quick hit with a wire brush and a spot of black stove paint will keep it good as new!
We recommend five hooks in all the sizes to control the heat for any dish. A fire poker and lid lifter are also needed. A utensil hanger keeps everything at arm's reach, so that is a useful accessory. The side posts and crossbar shold be made of 3/4 inch steel to provide a sturdy frame.
The Cowboy Swing Grill is designed to swing in and out away from the fire. If you've never cooked over an open fire, then perhaps you cannot appreciate the beauty of this feature. But if you ever use it once, you'll never cook without it again! A campfire gets hot, smoke gets in your eyes, and none of that is pleasant. The Swing Grill keeps you out of the smoke and away from the heat when performing cooking techniques that require constant attention – like sautéing, grilling, braising, or frying. It also makes an excellent side table!
The Cowboy Turn Spit came about because we wanted to slow roast large portions of meat. When Pam and Larry are cooking for the crew – that means a lot of food has to be prepared and everybody wants to eat at the same time, of course! This product will hold a lot of meat, with about 3 feet of cooking length between the side posts, and two meat prongs to hold everything on the spit. The Turn Spit attaches to the Cookset side posts and is adjustable up and down, with 4 quarter-turns for excellent heat control. Made of stainless steel for easy clean up, and fits inside the Cowboy Cookset carry bag.
Our Cowboy Warming Grill is specifically designed for keeping things warm or handy. 12 x 19 surface, the grill attaches to the Cowboy Cookset side posts. We use it to heat bread, keep the coffee pot warm, hold basting sauces, spice cans and much more. Itís usefulness continues to become evident every time we use it, and we donít know why we never thought of it before now. Comes with all the hardware to attach to the cookset side posts, in a padded, canvas carry bag.
The Pit Kit™ is specifically designed for "leave-no-trace" open fire cooking. It is extremely versatile in allowing open fire cooking on any surface, wood decks, concrete patios, asphalt parking lots, grass, gravel - you name it! Designed for use with the other pieces of Cowboy Cookware®, the Pit Kit™ can also be used simply as a fire pit for cold or chilly nights sitting on your deck or patio. The kit requires you obtain a metal drum and have it cut in half for assembly. Not to worry about ragged cuts on the barrel, as the kit contains side strips to cover these edges.
There are certainly other implements on the market one could use - but we have found nothing to compare to the quality and function of our Cowboy Cookware®. All of us at the Campfire Cafe have cooked over an open fire without this gear at one time or another. Of course, you can ride horses without a saddle, golf without a cart, hunt without a gun, or play baseball without a glove – but where's the fun in that! Get the equipment you need for maximum enjoyment and successful results.
We no longer stock the Cowboy Cookset or Swing Grill, but you can order these items from our former show host by visiting his website at http://www.yalleatyet.com. Horse.com has a limited supply of Turn Spits, Warming Grills and Pit Kits available for purchase, but for reasons unknown have decided not to continue selling Cowboy Cookware after current inventories are depleted. Visit http://www.horse.com to order items they currently have in stock.
Stages of the Fire
When cooking over a campfire, the pot is not placed directly in the flame. You will have more control keeping food well above or beside the flame, and preferably over coals. Learning to maintain the fire is the single most important ingredient in successful open fire recipes.
A "start-up fire" describes the fire 15 to 30 minutes after lighting. There are no coals and heat comes directly from the flames.
A "base fire" is one that has been burning for 30 to 60 minutes. It has produced a few coals, maybe a shovelful or two, and is not ready for slow cooking cakes, roasts or casseroles. It can be used for grilling meats or starting recipes that need to boil, like soups, stews or steamed dishes.
A "cook fire" has been burning for at least 60 to 90 minutes. Coals now replace the first logs used, and there is a substantial amount of heat. Logs added to the fire and coals will light quickly. If a recipe requiring moderate or low fire is being cooked, add new wood to the outer edge of the fire. Most recipes start with this level of heat - hot enough to heat the cast iron, with a decent amount of coals for top-down baking.
A "slow fire" is one that has been burning for more than four hours. This fire can be regulated by adding more wood to suit specific cooking needs. Add one or two logs for a lazy fire with gentle flames that keeps generating coals and cooks slow and low. Add two or three logs to generate flames with some height (about 7 to 8 inches) to bring a dish to a boil, start meat to roast, or get a casserole going. Add three or four logs to get a roaring fire going. This fire is good for creating coals quickly, char-grilling steaks, and for warming yourself - not for cooking most recipes.
Coals are used extensively when cooking Campfire Cafe recipes. It is important to learn how to generate a continuous supply of coals. Fires burn better and generate more coals when logs rest directly on the ashes. Cast iron Dutch ovens work like an indoor oven, using heat from above and below. This is why the lid on camp Dutch ovens is flanged – to keep the coals in place. Since cast iron holds heat, it is often not necessary to leave the oven over the fire when top coals are added. You will often see us pull a dish, add coals and leave it to continue baking on the cook table.
Effects of Weather
Wind has the most noticeable effect on cooking times. On a still day, food will cook much quicker and times will need to be adjusted. Look at your food, poke it, touch it and learn to determine what it looks like when it's done. On a windy day, cooking times will be longer and the use of coals even more critical. Cooking times in this book are meant to be used as guidelines, and strictly adhering to them when campfire cooking will often result in burnt offerings!
Hardwoods like hickory or white oak burn longer and generate good coals. Stay away from red oak – it adds a bitter flavor. Softwoods like pine are okay to start a fire, but not recommended for cooking. Use dry, well seasoned, sound wood. Keep hardwood kindling on hand to "punch up the fire" and generate coals quickly. Rotten wood will not produce coals and should not be used for cooking. Hickory, mesquite, cherry, apple – many hardwood chips can be used to add special flavoring. Soak chips in water for at least an hour before using. This will prevent flames and promote smoke.
Coals are used extensively when cooking open fire recipes. It is important to learn how to generate and maintain a continuous supply of coals. Fires burn better and generate more coals when logs rest directly on the ashes. If your wood is not completely dry or cured, place logs around the outside of the main fire and allow them to dry a bit before you need them. As you need additional logs, drag these perimeter logs onto the fire and replace them with more logs, to keep a continuous supply of drier wood.
Once your cook fire is established, add one or two logs at a time to keep replenishing your bed of coals, or to “kick up” the fire when flame is needed. Cast iron Dutch ovens work like an indoor oven, using heat from above and below. Hot coals are placed on top of the Dutch oven to cook from the top down. This is why the lid on camp Dutch ovens is flanged – to keep the coals in place. Since cast iron holds heat, it is often not necessary to leave the oven over the fire when top coals are added. You can pull a dish completely away from the fire, add top coals and leave it to continue baking on the cook table, ground, or a flat rock. This is especially helpful when first learning to bake cakes. Remove the cake from over the fire well before you fell it is necessary, as it will continue to bake and overbake if left in a hot Dutch oven.
MAINTAINING AN OVERNIGHT FIRE
Banking a fire can be done when you have a good hot fire, but little wood to maintain it, or if you plan on keeping the fire going overnight. Lay logs, parallel to one another and close together, across the top of the fire. This will diminish the use of oxygen and slow combustion. You should also shut off any breeze coming into the fire. A large flat rock or stack of logs can be used to block a breeze, as well as a metal fire shield. To re-ignite a fire from coals, or produce more flame, gently and steadily blow on a small area from the side – not above or over – the fire. When a small flame develops, add twigs or kindling to “catch up” the fire, and proceed by adding small split logs as when starting a fire.
EXTINGUISHING A FIRE
Sprinkle water over a fire that still has flame, coals, or smoldering chunks of wood. Do not flood the fire pit should another person be likely to need it within a few days. Throwing water on a fire is not enough to ensure that it is out. Make sure a fire is out by stirring the fire bed and checking for smoke. As an added precaution, dump a bucket of dirt or sand over the ashes.
Wind has the most noticeable effect on cooking times. On a still day, food will cook much quicker and times will need to be adjusted. Look at your food, poke it with a fork or spoon, touch it and learn to determine what it looks like when it's done. On a windy day, cooking times will be longer and the use of coals even more critical. Cooking times for all recipes are meant to be used as guidelines, and strictly adhering to them when cooking over the campfire or gas/charcoal grills will often result in burnt offerings!
Windscreens placed around a cookfire can be helpful in some situations. If there is an abundance of rocks, increasing the height of the sides of your pit can also work well on a windy day. For the ultimate control during windy conditions, use a fire pit like the Cowboy Pit Kit we designed. The round shape of the barrel or trough of a pit will direct the heat up, and the depth of the pit will keep the wind from burning the wood too quickly and diminishing the coals.
Keep in mind that cooking is effected by altitude, temperature, and humidity. Recipes may have to be adjusted for these factors. For example, higher elevations and low humidity can result in tough baked goods. Modify recipes by making one change at a time, as this may be all that is necessary. Liquids will evaporate more rapidly, creating the need for more liquid in baking. Baked goods rise quicker and must be watched carefully. Three basic adjustments for high-altitude baking are: reduce baking powder; reduce sugar; and increase liquid. Any one, or all, of these adjustments may be necessary – you’ll just have to experiment.
Cakes tend to stick more at high altitudes, so grease Dutch ovens or line with quick release foil. Also, fill only half full, not the usual two-thirds, as cakes may overflow. Ingredients such as eggs or butter are considered liquids and may need to be increased. Also, increase baking temperature, but decrease baking time by about 20 percent. Solid shortening used instead of butter can give better results at high altitudes. Also, be careful not to over-beat your eggs, and use extra large eggs. Too little egg will make a cake dry. High humidity has less of an effect generally, but adjustments opposite those for high altitudes can be made.
It is possible to cook in a light rain if you have a good fire going. Position bottom logs, or use rocks close to the fire, to build a loosely constructed “bridge” of new logs over the burning fire. Leave enough space between these logs to allow heat to escape upwards and continue cooking food hanging over the fire. The “bridge” of logs will block most of the rain, allowing the fire underneath to keep burning. Be sure to keep your wood dry, and add logs under the “bridge” as needed.
Knowing when to use flames or coals takes some practice. Generally, high flames are used only for boiling and frying, or grilling meats. By frying, we mean either in oil, or sautéing, braising and pan-searing. All of these cooking methods will require the flame to be picked up a bit.
When bringing foods - like soup - to a boil, you can generally just punch up the fire or add some small, dry hardwood pieces. Once the liquids get to boiling, the new pieces of wood will have stopped flaming and you’re back to a nice bed of coals for simmering.
If you are frying, you’ll want to add a split log or two to sustain the flames during the whole process. Moving the logs around will allow you to keep the fire hot under the skillet until the frying is done.
High flames have no use in the baking process. A good bed of coals with very low flame and a high hook are key. Remembering this will help prevent burning the bottom of your baked goods.
Baking requires a good bed of coals to provide both bottom and top heat. Always begin by hanging your Dutch oven over the fire on a middle hook for medium heat. As a general rule, cakes will remain over the fire for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the depth of the oven and the density of the cake. Dense fruit cakes or cobblers will require longer cooking times.
After a cake begins to cook and pull away from the edges, it is removed from the fire and top coals are added for the final stage of baking. The cast iron will remain hot, providing enough bottom heat to continue cooking without burning. The most common mistake made when baking is leaving the Dutch oven over the fire too long, as the heat it retains will quickly burn the cake even when removed from the fire.
Understanding the difference between a cookfire and a campfire is important, as is learning to maintain your cookfire.
1. An ornamental fire is about flames. A cooking fire is about heat. The heat comes from embers or coals, from flame, and from a combination of both. Managing a fire for cooking means learning how to produce coals.
2. Start your fire long before you’re ready to cook – at least an hour and a half before you begin cooking the first dish. Burn well-seasoned, dry hardwood logs, and add new logs as needed – one, two or three at a time – to maintain the bed of hot coals required for the recipe you’re cooking.
3. The key is to keep the fire hot enough to ignite fresh logs quickly. It you keep it this hot, there will always be small shovelfuls of coals for baking.
4. The thing you want to do is keep the wood burning fast enough to replenish coals as they’re being used. A slow fire can be punched up and made hot real quick by adding a little kindling or small split pieces of wood. Hardwood that’s sound, dry, and well-seasoned will generate coals quickly. Slow your fire by banking it with ashes.
5. The fire has basically three types of flame;
(1) Low flames are one or two logs burning lazy on a hot bed of coals. This flame produces coals slowly;
(2) Medium flames are two to three logs with flames that have a little life to them but are only a few inches tall. The logs are burning on a hot bed of coals, and this fire burns fast enough to generate coals about every ten to fifteen minutes;
(3) High flames are three to four logs burning pretty fierce on a substantial bed of coals. This is a roaring fire with a lot of energy, tall flames, and high heat; and it produces coals quickly. Don’t try to cook recipes on this fire. It’s good for grilling meats or deep frying – but it’ll burn up most everything else.