5 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking over an Open Fire

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

There’s such a thrill and joy in cooking over a campfire, beach bonfire, or even your backyard fire bowl. Foods roast and blister, developing a rich, smoky flavor unlike anything else. But unless cooking over an open flame is a regular ritual for you, mastering this art requires an awareness of the most common mistakes that foil the best of intentions. Here are five pitfalls to avoid when cooking over an open fire this summer.

1. Not being prepared.

There’s a real reason the Boy Scout motto is “be prepared.” If you come to camp without the right tools and preparations, you’ll be eating burnt food all weekend.

Follow This Tip: Don’t rely on the campsite to provide dry wood and a camp grill. Prepare as many of the ingredients ahead of cooking as possible — chop vegetables, mix sauces, make baking mixes — so that you can spend more of your cooking time tending to the fire.

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2. Being impatient.

Just because you see flames does not mean that your bonfire is ready for roasting hot dogs.

Follow This Tip: A good fire for cooking is primarily hot coals and just a few logs of burning wood. Depending on the fire and weather conditions, a new campfire can take 30 to 45 minutes to burn down to the right conditions. Let the fire burn down a while before you cook over it. A bed of glowing coals is ideal for roasting.

3. Add all the wood at once.

Building a really big fire is another rookie mistake I see all too often on camping trips. The problem is a big fire burns down pretty quickly, and then you’re left with coals that are too hot and no direct flame. Even worse is that without more wood to fuel the fire, your campfire is likely to go out on you mid-rib roast.

Follow This Tip: Build a small starter fire with kindling and smaller logs of wood. Let this burn for at least 30 minutes, adding some larger pieces of wood as needed. This will give you a nice, warm base of coals and plenty of direct heat when you’re ready to cook. It also ensures you’ll have plenty of wood to burn throughout the evening.

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4. Cooking directly over the flame.

The image of roasting hot dogs or marshmallows directly over an open fire is so ubiquitous, most folks think that method is sound. Unfortunately, placing food directly over an open flame is only guaranteed to do one thing: burn that food.

Follow This Tip: Build a fire on one side of your fire bowl, fire pit, or fire ring, and use the other side as a place to move hot coals. Then you can place a camp grill directly over the fire to boil water, roast meats, and grill vegetables. The hot coals can be used to cook vegetables in aluminum foil packets or for baking cobbler in your Dutch oven camp stove.

5. Cooking the food too long.

My husband (a non-cook) is actually the person who taught me that cooking over an open flame means more heat for longer periods of time, which means more carryover cooking. Carryover cooking, which occurs during resting, is the continued cooking of food off of its direct heat source. For larger items, carryover can continue for up to 20 minutes and result in a five- to 10-degree internal temperature difference. Fire-roasted foods stay hotter for longer after cooking — foil-wrapped corn will continue to steam off the fire; same goes for potatoes. This is especially true of large pieces of meat or whole fish.

Follow This Tip: Plan to remove your food from the grill just before you think you should, and give it plenty of time to rest (read: cool) off the heat. Remove large pieces of meat, such as steaks or whole fish, about five degrees below their target temperature. Cover the meat with foil and rest for five to 10 minutes before slicing. A digital probe thermometer is a must-pack for campfire cooking.

What are some of your favorite campfire cooking tips?