Despite the convenience of modern caravan kitchens, camp cooking always seems to taste better over a bed of coals. Whether it’s that inherent smokiness or the added ambience of the warmth and comfort of the fire, camp cooking is an essential accompaniment to any bush camp.
In years gone by, the thought of campfire cooking was fraught with terror. After all, who wants ash-laden gravy over their lamb roast? These days, we hardly bat an eyelid. We’ve invested in good products, the right tools and share the campfire with like-minded individuals, having picked up plenty of hot tips along the way.
A camp fire is a privilege and is something we should respect by always taking a few precautions. While regulations differ from state to state, make sure campfires are permitted at your destination. Campfires are generally banned during the fire danger season which can stretch from November until April. There are also Total Fire Ban days. Check with your local fire authority or national park office before you light a match.
The next step is to clear an area of 4m around the intended fire pit and make sure there are no overhanging branches. If there are no ready-made pits, then dig a trench at least 30cm deep and no bigger than 1m square. Alternatively, rocks can also be used to contain a fire, but beware that some river rocks can explode when heated. Portable cooking appliances such as Drifta’s Snow Peak Fire Pit are also permitted. Never leave a fire unattended and when it comes to extinguishing it, use water rather than dirt. Coals can still remain hot under dirt and risk burning others or relighting if disturbed. There are big fines for non-compliance, so do your homework to avoid any risk.
Lighting a fire
Lighting a campfire can be a challenging process. A fire needs a solid foundation, while allowing sufficient airflow to keep it burning. Two common methods are the tepee or log cabin structure. With the tepee, the kindling is stacked vertically, pitched against each other in a tepee shape with sufficient air gaps. Start with smaller pieces and add to it with larger kindling as the fire grows. The log cabin has a more solid foundation with kindling added in alternating directions like a log cabin to build the structure. Add small twigs and some paper within the structure in a criss-cross pattern and progressively add larger twigs as it grows. I find this structure a little more robust, whereas the tepee readily falls over, threatening to snuff the fire. The third approach is to wing it by criss-crossing and progressively add larger timber. Dry hardwood is the best guarantee for long lasting coals; softwoods tend to burn too quickly.
The secret to campfire cooking is in heat management; too much and it can end up like charcoal chicken - literally! Too little and you may end up filling up on beer and chips while you wait. It is best to create an area away from the main fire, assemble a bed of red hot coals and place your cookware on top. Depending on what you are cooking, you may need to put coals on the bottom or top. It’s worthwhile buying a camp cooking book to explore all the possibilities and helpful tips.
Campfire cooking is an entirely different animal than cooking over a stove and requires some specialist kit. Anything with a plastic or even a wooden handle is best left at home, as it only takes one error of judgement for that to end up as, umm… toast! It’s the same deal with non-stick saucepans. While stainless steel and aluminium slug it out for honours on the billy front, frypans and ovens favour cast iron or spun steel, while hotplates and grills prefer steel hotplates.
Other useful accessories include a long handled shovel to move the hot coals around, oven mitts, a trivet (stainless steel mesh disc) and an oven lid lifter. You can buy these at most camping stores.