Managing Heat While Cooking On A Campfire

If you are reading this, I will assume that you know how to light a fire for camp cooking. If not, I suggest opening Youtube and typing “how to light a fire”. Lighting good cooking fires is a skill that is far better to watch than read about. While lighting one is easy, managing the heat while cooking on a campfire is harder.

Once your campfire or backyard barbecue is going, the aim is to have a solid, steady and largely smoke-free heat source to cook on. Now, there are a few ways to go about this – one is to make a massive, raging fire and then shovel out a few loads of coals to cook over. That is a great method when it’s cold and you have a bit of time up your sleeve. However, if you’ve just arrived at camp or have just woken up and the fire is in its infancy, you are much better off using small pieces of good quality, dry hardwood, no thicker than 2in. It doesn’t matter whether you use an axe or splitter or just collect smaller, dry branches. Building the base of coals with smaller bits of wood makes it burn faster, cleaner and hotter. Then, when you have finished cooking, feel free to drop the big logs on and sit back for a few hours.

Check out this awesome campfire recipe for Campfire Double Cheeseburgers from Harry’s camping cookbook Get 10% off when you use the code ‘campfire’ at checkout, this week only.

Low Heat

campfire cooking low heat

Low, steady heat is best for gentle campfire cooking like toasting bread or sandwiches, cooking steaks before the reverse sear (check out page 102 for more info on cooking steaks), or making sauces. You only need a thin bed of coals and about 8in between the coals and the cooking surface. For reference, the grill pictured is 9in high. 

There’s an easy way to tell if you’ve got it right. If you hold your hand 4in above the grill, you should be able to keep it there for eight to ten seconds. An infrared thermometer should read between 250°F to 300°F (120°C and 150°C).

Medium Heat

camp cooking medium heat

You will do a lot of cooking on fires at this level of heat. It’s the perfect temperature to cook most vegetables and meats that need to be cooked evenly and right through – fish, crayfish, sausages or chicken, for example. Under your grill, you want a healthy shovel of coals and sticks and to get the heat source, and a little bit of fire, about 6in from the cooking surface.

The temperature should be around 340 to 430°F (170 to 220°C). You shouldn’t be able to hover your hand 4in above the grill or campfire for longer than five seconds.

Medium/High heat

campfire recipes medium high heat

At a medium/high heat is where the majority of my camp cooking happens. It is hot enough to comfortably boil water, cook most meats and brown up anything in a pan. To get this much heat, you either need a serious load of coals only about 4in below the grid, or a bit of flame licking the cooking surface. 

Using the hand-guestimation method, this is the right temperature when you can only hold your hand over the heat for three or four seconds, which is about 520 to 610°F (270 to 320°C) at the grill.

High Heat

fire grilling high heat

A fire this hot is reserved for a small handful of tasks, particularly for finishing a piece of meat as part of a reverse sear. The coals will be 2-4in below the grill with clean, smokeless flame high above the grill.   

You need to treat this with a lot of respect because this is a quick way to turn a cutlet into a bit of coal with a bone sticking out of it. If you are using an infrared thermometer, most likely it will have maxed out its range (over 650°F or 350°C), and you won’t be able to hold your hand over the heat.

This is an edited excerpt from Fire To Fork by Harry Fisher, which has over 70 awesome recipes for cooking over fire. Learn more about how to make the most of campfire and backyard cooking and grilling by ordering a copy below. Every copy sold plants one tree. Get 10% off when you use the coupon code, ‘campfire’ at checkout. This week only.

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