Tips for Cooking Over a Fire

Are you an outdoor enthusiast? Since you’re here, there’s a pretty good chance the answer is “yes.” Cooking outside can be one of the joys of outdoor living when you know how to do it correctly. These tips and techniques are great for learning the basics or brushing up on what you already know.

Let’s get started.

Two Ways to Build a Cooking Fire

A good base is a MUST for the best cooking experience. Be sure you have the right “ingredients” before you start.

For a Wood Fire

  1. Light a pile of tinder (fallen pine needles, dry grass, wood shavings, tiny twigs).
  2. Once burning well, place small dry sticks (kindling) loosely on top; add more as needed until burning nicely.
  3. Add DRY split firewood, teepee-style, over the top (split logs produce the BEST heat and are EASIEST to ignite).
  4. Once flames die down, you’ll end up with a white hot bed of coals for cooking.

For a Charcoal Fire

  1. Fill a chimney starter with charcoal (briquettes or the hardwood-lump type). 
  2. Stuff newspaper into the base of the chimney starter and set the chimney into the fire pit. Light the newspaper to get it burning.
  3. When the charcoal turns gray-white (about 15 minutes), dump into the fire pit.
  4. Start a new batch of charcoal right away if you’ll be cooking for a while. By continuing to add hot coals, your fire remains at the appropriate temperature.

Move the wood coals or charcoal around and add a cooking grate if you need one.

    Cooking Directly on a Grate

    Clean the grates with a grill brush before cooking. Look for one that’s bristle-free so you’re not picking wire fragments out of your food. That’s dangerous. And gross.

    To prevent food from sticking to the grate, dip a folded paper towel in canola oil, grip it with long tongs, and rub over the grates. If using nonstick cooking spray instead, spray BEFORE you light the grill.

    Raise the grate away from the heat for a lower cooking temperature; bring it closer for a higher temp.

      How to Determine the Temperature of a Cooking Fire

      A rule of thumb is to hold your hand palm-side down near the height the food will be cooked. The number of seconds you are able to hold your hand there determines approximately how hot it is:

      6 seconds ~ low heat (300°)
      5 seconds ~ medium-low heat (325°)
      4 seconds ~ medium heat (350°)
      3 seconds ~ medium-hot heat (375°)
      2 seconds ~ hot heat (400°)

      Read on to find helpful tips for perfectly cooking all your favorite meats.

      Brats 101

      • Brats can be purchased precooked or uncooked.
      • For precooked, simply cook until warm all the way through and lightly crisped on the outside.
      • For the uncooked kind, cook over medium-low heat until done. Or precook in liquid and then finish over the fire or on the grill until browned.
      • Use tongs to keep turning them, browning all sides.

      Making the BEST Burgers

      • Make all patties the same size and press a dimple into the center of each. This helps them cook at the same rate. Rada’s Plain Food Chopper is great for shaping the perfect burger.
      • Season liberally when your patties are ready to hit the grill.
      • Check the temp with an instant-read thermometer; don’t poke too often or all that wonderful juice will escape.
      • Choose hefty buns to stand up to big, juicy burgers. Use softer buns for thinner patties.

        The Perfect Steak

        Rare (125° with a cool red center)
        Medium-rare (130° to 135° with a warm red center)
        Medium (140° to 145° with a rosy pink center)
        Medium-well (150° to 155° with a slight pink center)
        Well done (160° with a brown center)

        The perfect steak deserves the perfect steak knife. A serrated blade has a toothlike edge, making it easy to cut through meat with a sawing action. A non-serrated blade cuts smoothly and evenly, gliding through food. You can’t go wrong with either kind, so choose the type you prefer.

        Chicken-Making Tips

        Boneless, skinless chicken breasts dry out easily so it’s best to marinate them at least 30 minutes before cooking.

        Cooking with two heat zones is best. Just pile up hot coals on one side of the fire pit or grill; the other side remains free of coals. For a gas grill, light one side, leaving the other side unlit. This gives you direct and indirect heat.

        Place chicken on the indirect side to cook partway. Use tongs to move it to the hot side to finish cooking, turning to brown evenly.

        Add sugary sauces near the end of cooking to prevent flare-ups.

        To Make the Best Fish

        • Set the fish on greased aluminum foil; drizzle with oil and sprinkle on your favorite seasonings. Add a splash of liquid and tuck in some lemon slices.
        • Seal the foil around the fish, leaving room for steam.
        • Cook over low heat until done (it won’t take long–10 to 15 minutes, depending on the heat). Use tongs to remove the foil pack then carefully open (it will be HOT).

        Any day is a great day to cook outside. Make today great!

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