3 Ways to Cook over a Campfire (2020)

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Some of my best memories of childhood are of sitting around a campfire. Come to think of it, some of my best memories from adulthood are also of sitting around a campfire! They give warmth, facilitate social interaction, and are a place for sharing stories with one another.

Throughout human history, fires have been our meeting place. They’ve given us warmth and nourishment. A huge part of that is, of course, cooking!

And whenever there’s a chance to cook over a campfire, I jump at the opportunity. Whether it’s cooking smores, a sausage on a stick, or an entire feast on a campfire cooking grate, I’m there! So in this post, I want to share with you my three top ways to cook over a campfire.

Getting Started: Wait for the White Coals

Start your campfire as usual by lighting kindling with burning newspaper. As the kindling alights, place some slightly thicker branches over the fire to start to get some consistent fuel burn. The more the fire gets established, the larger the logs you can throw on the fire. It’s nice to have a few thick firewood logs on a fire that you plan to do cooking over, because those larger logs will provide consistently high heat as they turn to coals. 

To get the best results, enjoy your fire with a few drinks and stories and wait until your fire burns down to white coals. Once the flames have petered down, it’s time to start cooking.

If you cook over the licking flames, you’re likely to get less than ideal results. Flames lick at your food and cause it to char. They also lead to uneven heat distribution across your plate. By contrast, white hot coals leave a more stable heat distribution and are less likely to char your food. Don’t worry – white hot coals are still very hot. Hot enough to cook up a feast!

3 Ways to Cook over a Fire

1. Use a Stick to Cook Sausages and Marshmallows

This is probably the most fun method for children (and children at heart). You can either use a metal skewer that you can buy from your local supermarket, or you can go for the good old stick hunt and find the perfect stick from the nearby terrain. Of course, try to get a fallen stick rather than one that’s still attached to a dead tree to minimize your impact on the environment.

Then, it’s just a matter of skewering the food onto the end of the stick and having some fun! I could talk about bumping each other’s food off sticks and competing for the best little spot to cook your food as a ‘negative’ of this method … but I think it’s really all just part of the fun.

Things you could cook using the skewer method include:

  • Marshmallows for S’mores
  • Sausages or Hot Dogs

I think the true downside of this approach is that you can only cook really basic foods – sausages and marshmallows being the obvious two options.

By contrast, options #2 and #3 allow for some more sophisticated cooking.

2. Wrap your meal in Aluminum Foil and place it in the Coals

When I was growing up, the typical meal was a potato wrapped in aluminum foil. Then when I met Rosie she took this to a whole new level with the foil packet campfire meal. For this method, you can prepare your meal in advance and wrap it in foil, ready to go when you want to cook. This is perfect for a family who wants to have the meals prepared in advance to prevent any stress (it also means you don’t need to pack all the cooking utensils.

Then, when the fire is down to red and white coals, place the aluminum foil into the fire and let it gather heat. We find it takes quite a while for this method to work – particularly if you’ve got meat that you will want to ensure is cooked all the way through. There might be a few times when you have to take the food out, check it with a skewer, and then place it back into the fire. You might also want to rotate it regularly so the heat is evenly distributed around the meal. Also note that just because one meal is done, it doesn’t mean the other is – different areas of the fire let off different amounts of heat.

Some of our favorite foil packet foods are:

  • Baked Beans and Veggies
  • Salmon and Asaparagus

3. Use a Grilling Grate

We recently bought a grilling grate for camping and it’s been amazing! You can cook larger, more complex, and fresher meals with a good grilling grate. Or, you can just do the regular old hamburgers and sausages over the grill – that works, too!

Here are some examples of foods you can cook over a grate:

  • Hamburgers
  • Grilled Chicken
  • Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
  • Grilled Corn
  • Chicken Kebabs
  • Steak and Veggies
  • Pizza

The benefit of a grilling grate is that (with a good one such as a swivel stake grill) you can adjust the height of the grill above the fire. This helps you to regulate the temperature on the food as it cooks, leading to better results. Furthermore, you can cook just like you would on any grill – spread out the meals, flip the meat when required, and so on – which leads to far better results than the crude foil packet method.

There are three main types of grilling grates you can use:

  • Flat Bed Grate. These grilling grates look like hospital tables that you use to eat while sitting in bed. They have legs on each end that you stand on either side of the fire pit. They’re nice and simple and pack flat nicely. But they also often feel unstable because the legs need to stand on flat terrain that’s equal on either side. That’s hard to achieve, and you’re often stacking rocks under one side to balance it out. The other thing that’s a little annoying is that flat bed grilling grates tend not to have an option to raise or lower the grate to get it at the perfect height for cooking over your fire.
  • Tripod Grill. A tripod grill is a grill that stands on three legs that straddle the fire at equal distances from one another. The legs meet directly above the fire, and a chain hangs down from the middle to suspend a grill grate above the fire. With tripod grills, it’s really easy to adjust the height of the grill, but we find the grill swings too much, especially when trying to flip a steak or burger.
  • Swivel Stake Grate. These are our favorites. They stand on one stake which is hammered into the ground beside the fire with a mallet. A grate protrudes from the stake and can ‘swivel’ over the fire or, when it’s time to cool the food, be swiveled away from the fire. You can also adjust the height of these grates up and down the stake.

Conclusion

When planning to cook over your next campfire, your meal choice will depend on how much time and space you have. If you’re driving right up to your campground, a heavy grill and cooking supplies are no problem. But if you’re hiking in and out, maybe a skewer and a few sausages makes more sense. We find with kids, sometimes it’s easier to prepare the meal in advance and place it in a foil packet for cooking.