This mini series of posts has been inspired by the occasional questions of our camp life. “What do you do all day?”, or “do you eat a lot of granola bars?” Maybe that last one isn’t exactly the question, but you get the point. When we started out in 2015, Woody did all the cooking. Today, camp cooking, or cooking in general, has become a hobby for me. I’m still learning to deviate from recipes, and using intuition to be creative. You see, my old escrow life ingrained follow the instructions! So I stumble, “Babe, it says I need smoked chipotle powder!??”
There is something magical about a campfire. I’m convinced it has to do with some sort of deep, evolutionary connection. Basically, a campfire is a gathering spot, a place to decompress, share stories… and, make meals. Even the preparation of the fire lends itself to some sort of meditational ritual.
Most of our camping is in state parks, and 95% will have a decent fire ring and grate to work with. So, my post is making the assumption that fires are allowed, a safe spot has been established and some basic camp tools are at hand.
Keys to a Successful Campfire
PREPARE. For a successful campfire you’ll need to gather three elements of fuel: tinder, kindling and firewood. Here are my tips on each:
- 1) Tinder. I use paper receipts and tiny slivers of wood. My tip: look where wood has been split and/or near the ranger station where wood is sold.
- 2) Kindling. if it’s allowed, use downed branches around the campground, an inch in width, and snaps when the two ends are pulled together.
- 3) Firewood. The drier, the better. We like to buy our firewood outside the campground where it’s cheaper and we select the pieces. Another tip: search vacated campsites for any wood left behind.
ORGANIZE YOUR LAYOUT. The standard structures such as teepee, log cabin, lean-to, or pyramid can be found on the internet. Since we’re cooking, look to the cabin layout which creates a compact, and hot fire. My personal technique is to build the cabin shape on top of two parallel pieces of firewood, about 8″ apart. This lifts my cabin and allows any breeze to flow through.
OH, TO BE PATIENT. Seeing flames does not mean it’s time to start cooking. It’s best to let the fire burn at least 45 minutes, to let the big pieces of wood breakdown. As they breakdown, move those glowing pieces to create a bed of hot embers under the grate portion of the fire pit. To maintain consistent heat it’s important not to burn all the wood at once, but circulating more wood in, as you build a bed of hot coals.
FEEL THE HEAT. It may sound like a dare, but holding your hand a few inches from the embers provides a good sense of your cooking power. Can you barely hold it there for 2 seconds? Then you’re at about 500° – that’s hot! Should you choose to cook directly on the grill, you’ll want it that hot to burn away any food particles, particles=bacteria. If you can hold your hand there for 4-5 seconds, you have a medium heat, say about 350°-400°. I found this super handy printout, “Ready, Set, Grill!” at RealSimple.com.
I find it funny, but I’ve had “helpful” campers offer up their lighter fluid to assist my slow and steady burn. Seems like campers like bonfires over cooking fires. When kindling is wet or stubborn, I have a secret weapon: candle wax! I bought a 3 pound brick of partially used bees wax for .50 cents at a garage sale – lasted us for months. Other tools I have on hand are cheap tongs and a crappy hatchet. I swear the tongs work better than any poker for adjusting the fire. And even though my hatchet is crappy, it can break down firewood to be something between kindling and chunky firewood – a good way to get those big pieces burning.
Many of my fires don’t take flight quickly. There have been times I had to rebuild my layout after an unsuccessful start. And, I’ve done a fair share of huffing and puffing to get a fire to take hold. I shift, stir, and add wood, sometimes frantically, to get things going well enough to reach a decent heat…