While the men have been hauling rocks and building a root cellar, I have been spending some extra time perfecting my cast iron cooking skills. Weather depending, almost all of our meals are created outside. I enjoy cooking over an open fire, and I am thankful for the skills that I have acquired. However, I also return home with a new respect for the pioneer women that cooked this way year round and thankfulness for some modern luxuries.
Campfire cooking can be as simple or elaborate as you would like to make it. I feel my set up is quite adequate without going overboard. I have a large firepit , a grate, one dutch oven, one cast iron bean pot, a skillet, an iron frame to hang the pots, several hooks, potholders, a spatula and a couple spoons. To begin with, you will need a good strong fire with lots and lots of hot coals. One of the biggest mistakes that I still make is underestimating how many coals I will need to complete the meal. Be sure to start a fire at least a couple hours before you plan to cook to make sure you will have enough coals for baking.
While I am building up coals for baking, I usually have a pot of beans or soup cooking in the bean pot. This way, you can use the heat for cooking one part of the meal while you build up coals for stage two. A rather unscientific way that I have discovered to judge the temperature of my bean pot is to quickly run my hand directly under the pot. If I can hold it there for about 5 seconds or so, the pot is cooking on low. If I can hold it for 2-3 seconds, it is probably medium heat and if I can’t put my hand there at all then the pot is cooking on high. Always remember to plan on more time than usual for cooking a pot of soup or stew to allow for the uneven cooking of a fire.
The next stage that I tackle is my skillet cooking. After I have some good coals built up, I can slide some out from the fire. My firepit has an opening in the rocks that I can slide coals in between. Then I can span the rocks with a metal grate and place the skillet on top of the grate. This spot works well for sautéing vegetables or making a stir fry to go with rice that is cooking in the bean pot. The skillet is a wonderfully versatile pan and you can cook some meals entirely with only it, if needed.
The dutch oven I save for last because I will need a lot of coals for cooking with the it. It can be used for cooking a huge variety of items including baking sweet or savory dishes. The basic idea is that it becomes your oven, with the unpredictability of a campfire. I pull a large amount of coals away from the fire and nestle the filled dutch oven on them. I try to nestle it as flat as possible. Then the lid goes on and more coals are heaped on top. Heat rises, so be sure to go heavy on the coals on top. I usually check the meal when the coals on top begin to turn to ash. Longer cooking meals will probably need a fresh batch of coals, shorter cooking items will usually turn out fine about the time 80% of the coals are ash. Remember to turn the dutch oven to ensure even cooking on all sides. Also, if you are cooking multiple sets (2 or 3 batches of biscuits), the first batch will take the longest time and all subsequent batches will have significantly shorter cooking time. Another hint is that you can line the dutch oven with parchment paper for especially sticky dishes or if you are cooking multiple items in a row and do not want to mix flavors.
Campfire cooking takes much longer than using a modern kitchen. However, it is also a great way for families to learn about making fires, science and heat. It can be used for living history demonstrations and lessons. However, the biggest benefit I have found with our campfire cooking has been the time spent afterwards around the firepit. It is a relaxing time away from all modern distractions, and I have seen some wonderful conversations evolve around the dying coals. If your family fixes a few meals over a campfire, be sure not to dash inside afterwards. Take your time and linger around the fire. Sometimes you find your family reminiscing, sometimes they will be making goals and plans for the future, and sometimes they will evaluate their lives and discover new things about themselves. This is always my favorite part of the evening. Be sure not to miss this great opportunity!