Open fire cooking is a fantastic option for overlanders. Miles from any other human, you can enjoy the timeless romance of the open flame and that irresistible smoky flavor to your meals. And with the right equipment you can still Leave No Trace, even in delicate environments or where a partial burn ban is in place.
Cooking over an open fire is a time-honored tradition, one that has given us culinary gifts like kebabs, s’mores and cowboy steaks. But there are definitely some modern camping hacks you can make to get the most out of cooking on an open fire, wherever your overlanding rig takes you. From bringing along the right equipment to knowing how to prep your ingredients to salvaging your dinner when it’s singed, a little know-how goes a long way.
How to Embrace Open Fire Cooking On Overland Adventures
The great thing about overlanding is that it combines the best of the backpacking world and the car camping world into one exciting package. You can bring more gear along than you can when you’re schlepping the essentials along on your own two tired feet, but you can also get deep into the backcountry and take advantage of secluded BLM land.
That range can also put you smack dab in the middle of some tricky environments, though, where you have neither a fire ring nor grill provided by the campground and you might be encountering burn bans or delicate landscapes. And that’s exactly when you’ll want to be well acquainted with the ins and outs of open fire cooking. Here are our top tips for making it work:
Combine a Traditional Camp Stove With Open Fire Cooking
This backcountry kitchen approach can take a little getting used to. After all, you aren’t mimicking the controlled environment of your home stovetop, for example, the way you do with, say, the simmer control on a Primus Profile stove. Instead, you’re creating a more controlled, contained version of a campfire or grill fire.
That’s why many overlanders choose to bring a traditional camping stove in addition to their packable, collapsible fire pit. A compact all-in-one stove can quickly boil water, too, while staying fuel efficient. That way you can still boil up some rice or reduce a sauce while still getting to grill meat or veggies, roast tin foil packet dinners, or bake root veggies or desserts in the coals.
Invest in an Open Fire Grill
It’s wonderful when your campsite has a grill and fire ring available as part of the amenities. But part of the thrill of overlanding is going far beyond established campgrounds to explore truly wild places where dispersed camping is the only option. Whether you’re overnighting in a moonscape desert, far down in a beachy canyon, or in the forested north country, using an open fire grill give you more culinary options, and a sense of home anywhere you light it up.
Usually collapsible and foldable for easy cleaning and packing, an open fire grill piece of equipment keeps your coals off the ground so you can genuinely Leave No Trace. An open fire grill also contains your blaze more safely than grilling on an open fire that’s fully open. That’s why some burn bans are limited to open burning, or any fire that isn’t in an incinerator, outdoor fireplace, barbeque grill or barbeque pit.
Bring the Right Gear
You know that sinking feeling when you go to reach for the next thing you need and you realize it’s back at home? That feeling is even more dramatic when you’re hundreds of miles from home, much less the nearest town. The trick to packing for an overlanding expedition is to bring the essentials, and a few extras, without maxing out the limited space in your vehicle.
That said, if you plan on enjoying some open fire cooking, it’s not an unnecessary luxury to bring along basic grilling tools like tongs, a barbecue fork, a marinade brush, and spatula. Consider bringing durable, lightweight versions of these your outdoor cooking utensils that won’t take up too much room. Look for versions in wood, stainless steel, aluminum, or silicon that can stand up to repeated use and will wipe clean without a fuss.
Because you can’t bring your whole home kitchen along for the ride (unless you’re really, really minimalist), you might want to decide ahead of time which pans compatible with open fire cooking and different outdoor kitchen setups will work best for the kind of meal you’re preparing. A hot dog isn’t picky about how it’s quickly roasted over a campfire, nor is a s’more.
But if you’re cooking for a crowd, preserving meat from a hunt, or want to really tenderize a tough cut, it might be worth it to bring along, say, a tripod. Cast iron pans are always versatile, as are Dutch ovens. If you’re hoping for a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and eggs, you’ll probably want a griddle. Other dishes might call for a wok or plancha. As you plan your menu and what ingredients to pack, plan your kitchen implements, too.
Know Your Techniques
Open fire cooking isn’t the same as working with a gas grill or traditional camp stove. As Francis Mallmann, the Patagonian chef world-renowned for his open fire cooking techniques, once said, "There's a silent language to cooking that you can't write down. You learn by feeling, smelling, touching. You need to crave the romance of cooking with fire. That, or one can just eat at McDonald's, you know? There is happiness for everybody."
Rarely is it wise to put your food directly on a blazing fire. You’re more likely to burn your meal than get the quick saute or sear you might expect on the stove at home. Instead, go low and slow, gently roasting or smoking your ingredients by hanging them over the fire, nestling them in the coals, or setting them off to the side so the fire slowly, indirectly cooks your food. It might take a little more patience, but that unmistakable smoky tang will make the results well worth it.
To that end, add wood to your fire slowly to maintain a consistent size and heat. Few things are more frustrating than running out of charcoal or wood when your fish is only half-hooked or your sweet potatoes are still hard. Part of the fun of open fire cooking is getting to interact with your ingredients and heat source in a new way. You might just find you have a greater appreciation for the different flavor and texture effects you can create with a well-tended fire.
Because timing is so important to outdoor cooking, be sure to build your fire well before you’re ready to start cooking, and certainly long before you get hungry. Prep work is your friend, especially if you’re trying to time multiple courses, sides, sauces, or ingredients with different cooking times. Go ahead and get all your chopping, mixing, and organizing done on your cutting board and in your mixing bowls while the fire relaxes into coals.
Be Smart About Wood
Consider bringing a hatchet or axe to help break up ethically foraged wood and tinder. A shovel or trowel, too, is handy for stirring ashes and safely putting out fires without burning your hands.
If you’re planning to really Leave No Trace by leaving fallen limbs alone, you’ll want to pack plenty of charcoal, tinder, and lighting implements.
Even if you’re hoping to find wood at your campsite, you can’t always count on fallen limbs and tinder being available. It’s smart to bring at least a little something along so you aren’t left cold and hungry, but be careful whenever you pack firewood from home to bring to your destination. You could accidentally introduce pests and invasive species to an environment. Many parks and campgrounds are now urging campers to not pack in wood from other regions, but instead to purchase within the same ecosystem where the wood will be used.
Don’t forget to consider firestarter, too. You might not want to use a commercial fire starter brick for open fire cooking, since it may contain chemicals you don’t want mixing with your meal. Instead, bring along old mail (no plastic window envelopes, please), dryer lint, and cardboard egg cartons to help get your blaze going with recycled items.
Know How to Fix a Singed Meal
Cooking over an unpredictable heat source like an open fire can sometimes lead to mishaps. Maybe you let the meat sit a little too long or close to the flame. Perhaps you forgot that your hobo pack was still buried in the coals when some exciting wildlife passed by near your site. Whatever happened, all is not lost. Even a singed or burnt meal can be fixed.
Try to salvage whatever you can by scooping the unburnt portion of the dish away from what is singed or stuck to the bottom of your pot or pan. Scrape off the most charred parts of meat, veggies, or toast if possible. When in doubt, try to balance out the bitter, burnt flavor with acid like vinegar or lemon juice, or sweetness from sugar or honey. And of course, a little attention from your salt and pepper mill can go a long way.
Dry meat can be rescued with gravy, juices, broth, butter, or generous sauce. With poultry or fish, consider pulling off the skin before basting to minimize the char flavor and maximize moisture. For grains, consider changing gears and incorporating crispy rice into a stir fry or as a binder for meatballs, hamburgers, or meatloaf. Overdone pasta can be drained and rinsed to remove starch. Leave them to air dry out a bit before mixing it into casseroles or using in a cold noodle salad.