Cooking Over an Open Flame: The Basics
Thousands of years ago, humans consumed raw meats and fish without any apparent digestive problems. Animals were killed or trapped, maybe skinned or maybe not, but nonetheless the meat was consumed raw without any preparation whatsoever.
Then fire came along and food preparation was changed forever. Fire changed the flavor of foods, and once flame and food came together, they stayed together.
How did early humans come to realize that foods cooked over flames tasted much better than raw foods?
A Lightning strike may have created a forest fire, and once the fire ran its course, humans may have discovered smoldering carcasses of animals among the charcoal. Of course, food was never to be wasted so the animals were probably dragged back to their shelter and consumed.
The likely method early on once humans learned to make fire for cooking was to toss the meat chunks or fish into the flames and then drag them back out once they resembled charcoal. The outside was charred and the inside usually raw, but it was a huge step forward. Soon evolution started the long process of making certain body organs obsolete, because humans no longer needed to consume raw meats and other foods.
A Handy Skill to Have
The problem with knowledge is that you do not know what you need to know until you need to know it. For example, how many of you know how to use Chopsticks? Chopsticks can be made quite easily out of small branches, and they will save your fingers and hands from burns when cooking over an open flame. Use them to eat with of course, but also use them to remove foods from the fire and from boiling pots or pans.
Use What You Find In Your Environment
Not having any cooking implements does not mean you cannot cook your food. You packed ready to eat foods in your pack, but they are all gone now, and of course, pots, pans, and forks were not packed because of the bulk and weight. Who needs pots and pans when you can eat out of the package right?
You managed to catch a few fish and a fire was not a problem for you, because you came prepared. However, what is the best way to cook the fish so it is not burned away in the flames.
Plank cooking is one method, and it all it takes is splitting a few stout branches. Use cedar, hickory or maple to achieve the best results. Obviously, you are not using a table saw to cut your planks, so they will be rustic. Place the split pieces side by side to create a cooking surface.
Soak the planks in water for at least an hour before using to keep the planks from going up in flames. Place forked sticks in the ground at both ends of your fire and lay green saplings across so you have a platform for your cooking planks.
Another method is to wrap your fish or meat in cattail leaves, maple leaves or even cornhusks if available. Walnut leaves according to some impart a wonderful flavor into food, so if available use them for added flavor. Soak the leaves in water and wrap and secure with wet twine or simply wrap and tuck securely.
You are not placing the wrapped items directly into the flames. You can use an offset cooking method or bury the items under some hot coals and ash. For offset cooking, place the wrapped items on a flat rock near the heat, or place over the heat using the same type of platform used for the planks. Turn often using your new chopsticks to ensure the food is cooked through on all sides.
Food can be encased in clay or mud and placed on top of the coals or under the coals for slow cooking as well. Use this method for longer cooking times such as when cooking large pieces of meat, and of course you can add any vegetables available. You can also place hot embers in a pit with your wrapped food and cover with soil. This method creates an oven for slow cooking.
This dish is from Changshu, a city in China’s Jiangsu province. The traditional method was to take a plucked and cleaned chicken stuff it, and season with whatever ingredients available and then cover in clay or mud and place over hot coals to cook.
Legend has it the recipe came about after a man stole a chicken and then wrapped it in river mud, and then he placed it on a fire to cook. The mud shell was to keep the smell of cooking from giving him away. Today the chicken is sometimes wrapped in lotus leaves or simple bread dough and then cooked over hot coals.
Flat rocks can be used to bake breads and even cook meats. However, carefully choose the rocks, because ones with high moisture content will crack and may even splinter and fly into your face or eyes when heated.
Bread dough can be wrapped onto a stick and baked over heat as well. If you just so happen to have the ingredients you can make “bannock” using a couple of sticks and fire. Bannock at one time was typically unleavened bread and was usually cooked on a hot rock, but today you can wrap the dough and bake on a stick or in a pan over your campfire.
Centuries ago, all that was needed to make bannock was some type of grain flour mixed with water, a flat rock and a fire. Bannock was made from any type of grain available and the cut bread may have been called flat cakes or scones by the Scottish. Bannock at one time was heavy, dense bread and often the only food available for a meal. Today many bannock recipes use leavening agents to give the bread a light airy texture.
The Scottish method was to mix the flour from any grain and water together and cook on a round piece of sandstone placed directly onto hot coals.
A Simple Bannock Recipe for Your Campfire
- 1 cup flour (whole wheat flour is ideal)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp of salt
- 2 tbsp of powdered milk (optional used for flavor)
- 1 tbsp of oil or butter or use just enough water to make the dough elastic enough to form
- Options include adding raisins, honey or any dried fruits or spices for flavoring
Mix all the ingredients ahead of time and put in Ziploc bags for packing. The mixture can also be frozen.
Bannock today has come to mean any bread baked over a campfire so experiment with the ingredients and try making it without any leavening agents as they did centuries ago.
Some Clever Tricks You Can Use
Water boils at 212ᵒ F (100ᵒC) but paper for example ignites at slightly over 450ᵒ F, so in theory you can boil water in a paper cup as long as the heat/flame does not make contact with any part above the waterline.
You have seen Les boil water in a plastic bottle over an open flame and you can too. Cut the bottom off a two-liter plastic soda bottle and you now have a pot to boil water. Put a hole on either side to string cordage through so the container can be suspended over the heat. It is important that the flames or heat do not make contact with any portion of the container above the waterline, and boiling will decrease the water volume so pay close attention.
Have an orange or grapefruit. Cut the fruit in half and scoop the fruit out of one-half and eat or save for later. You now have a small bowl to eat out of and to cook in. Crack an egg into the shell and place on or near hot coals to cook the egg. You can cook virtually anything in the fruit shell. Add water if needed. The shell of course will not hold up for long but it can cook you one or two meals.