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  • Writer's pictureRusty Bowers

Open Fire Cast Iron Cooking

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

I'm welcoming the approach of fall by sharing my love of cooking over open fire. The cool crisp air is the perfect accompaniment to the smell of dried wood, smoke, and grilled meats. This is the perfect time of year to hone one's skills to master this old world cooking method!

Camping, Scouts, family oyster roasts, any of these could be the beginning of my love for cooking over open fire. It’s in my blood. Perhaps it's the challenge in learning to master things like balancing a cast iron dutch oven over the smoldering coals or placing the flat rock near the steady, building heat - it's not easy to describe, but there is nothing more primally satisfying than enjoying a delicious meal you've just prepared over open fire.

The greatest teacher of open pit cooking is trial and error; it will be frustrating at first but so rewarding along the way. Here are some tips to share to get you started on the path to mastering open fire cooking.

Grilling with Wood

Start with dried hardwood. I prefer white or red oak, but most fruit and nut woods work. Avoid hickory and mesquite wood due to their over-powering, bitter, smoky flavor. Similar to salting or seasoning, it is possible to over smoke your food.

When lighting the fire, avoid chemicals or lighter fluid, this will add unsavory flavors to the smoke. Instead, use natural fire starters or a mix of small, dry wood and cardboard.

The goal is to develop white-hot, even coals for cooking while avoiding flare ups that will scorch your food. Start with a small fire and slowly add larger pieces of wood to the pile to create a bonfire; building it larger than you think you will need. Let this fire burn, falling in on itself, creating the bed of white-hot coals.

Planning to cook over the fire for a long time? Add large, single pieces of wood to the edges of the fire to prevent flair ups and hot spots in the main fire.

Cooking with Cast Iron

Cast Iron cooking is my favorite style and works perfectly on an open fire pit. Whether the pan is placed on the grill, open fire, or stove top, cast iron gives any dish a delightful rustic flavor. Unlike aluminum and copper, cast iron is not an efficient heat conductor, but that’s the beauty of it. It takes longer to heat up and cool down compared to other cookware, but it's the capacity of cast iron to retain heat that makes it a great heat regulator and it will not be prone to pesky temperature spikes. In addition, due to the physical properties of cast iron and because cast iron pans are generally heavier than other cookware, they have substantial heat capacity, wherein lies their amazing searing power. A well-heated cast iron pan will provide the right foundation for a strong, rich, beautiful crust and even cooking. A well-seasoned cast iron pan will last generations and will quickly become your favorite, all-purpose pan.

Never Stop Learning

Mastering the skills to build and maintain an open pit fire is an art form that requires nurturing to develop. Developing techniques such as stacking cinder blocks to elevate your grill grate for slower cooking, placing vegetables and meat directly in the coals, or hanging whole vegetables from wires and racks above the flames, make open pit cooking more of a cult culture full of experimentation and educated guess work. Taking good notes and building off of past successes and failures, make cooking over open fire a culinary hobby full of interesting and fun twists and turns - explore new ideas and concepts and create something delicious.

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