Cooking Over a Fire Pit, Woodstove, and More – Grit – Grit Magazine

Add flavor to your favorite dishes by using some open-flame cooking techniques. Enjoy cooking over a fire pit, cooking on wood stove, and more.
There’s likely little that feels more timeless, visceral, and rewarding than building a fire and cooking your food. In a modern world of food-delivery apps, drive-thrus, and prepackaged plastic packets of passably palatable provender, there’s something about the direct relationship with flame and nourishment that reminds us of where we came from and, perhaps, connects us a little more tangibly to what it means to be human.
Fire cookery is often relegated to survival and “prepper” handbooks, but I contend it can and should be a more commonplace skill. I personally choose to cook over fire through the year to provide for my family in our purposely low-tech, off-grid home. I like that the fuel for our cooking can be sourced sustainably and directly from our own land as well. After all, the majority of my cooking fuel comes from wind-fallen branches and dried prunings and trimmings, rather than split cordwood. Furthermore, quite a few dishes are greatly improved by the sear and smoke of real fire cooking.
Since I’ve had a lot of practice, I’ve come up with some ideas, tips, and tricks to share with those interested in scaling their culinary skills back to Stone-Age tech. Whether you’d like to live off-grid, or you just want to impress your friends at your next camp-out, I hope this guide to three different low-tech fire-cookery methods will serve you well.
Even if you have no experience cooking, you’ve likely spent at least one starlit evening roasting marshmallows over a campfire. And if you have, you’ve probably learned one of the basic tenets of cooking over a rustic open flame: Pay attention! It’s easy to burn things into black char if you’re not watching.
In my experience, the most useful fire for roasting vegetables and meat and cooking bread isn’t the roaring inferno that weekend woodland warriors are inclined to build, but a carefully controlled, barely flaming bed of coals. You want to heat the food, not the sky, when it comes to basic fire cooking.
A good bed of coals doesn’t happen immediately, however. When cooking over a rustic open flame, you’ll need to build up a fire, let it burn for a few minutes, and then rearrange the “cooking surface” to a much more useful low glow. Use a stick or a poker to spread out the coals, hedge them in with some larger fuel pieces, and then balance your food as needed above the relatively controlled heat.
With your fire so prepared, you can now cook several delightfully simple dishes. Potatoes can be roasted in their skins. Simply poke a few vent holes through the skins (so the potatoes don’t explode!), dig some trenches in white-hot ashes, and bury them until done. The outer skins will likely be burned to a crisp, but the inner white flesh will be delectable with just a pinch of salt.
You can roast corn in its husk in the same way. I find that once the outermost leaves are burned black, the kernels within are caramelized to perfection.
Skewer meat on peeled sticks, season it with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and roast it directly over red-hot coals, like a marshmallow. Keep the pieces in small cubes or thin strips to ensure they’re cooked all the way through quickly and safely. Likewise, you can skewer apples and roast them on sticks for a tasty treat — though being patient enough to eat them without burning one’s tongue is a skill I still haven’t perfected.
Finally, with the same sort of fire, you can make your own version of delectable stick bread, a somewhat universal food that’s gone by many names depending on where you are: The Norwegians call it pinnebrød; the Scottish and many Native Canadian Nations, such as the Cree Nation, call it bannock; wilderness guides call it “campfire bread”; but all of us can call it “delicious.” Prepare your favorite biscuit dough, making it stiff enough to be fashioned into a 1-inch-wide rope. Twist the rope around a stick into a coil and affix it back to itself. (If you struggle with your dough’s consistency, you can instead form a tube of dough over the end of a stick, much like the seed head on a cattail.) Then, roast carefully over the glowing fire, watching as it poofs up, then nicely browns. Either melt some cheese over the hot surface or, as I enjoy doing, slather the cooked bread in melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
I guarantee that anyone who spends a summer evening with a meal prepared this way will come back smelling smoky, with sticky fingers and a huge smile on their face.
If you want to take out some of the chaos of direct-fire cooking and cook some dishes that don’t involve sticks, cooking over a fire pit or fire grill may be more your style. I use a simple setup: My husband cut a metal burn barrel in half, built a brickwork surround, and then laid a grate over the topmost brick course, providing a level cooking surface over the fire’s heat. It may sound too rough for real cooking, but I can confirm that it suits my needs! Two additional features I particularly value are being able to move unimpeded around the whole fire (allowing me to move out of the way of the smoke as needed) and having a table within arm’s reach.
Fire grills and outdoor kitchens are convenient during the hottest parts of summer, when the thought of cooking indoors may have you dripping in sweat. Many cultures closer to the equator have traditional setups featuring some variation on a fire-grill theme. Cooking with a nice breeze to your back is far better than filling an already warm home with smoke and heat. For folks who live off-grid or have no air conditioning, this is an important element to the day, believe you me!
Now, the function of a fire grill is much the same as a campfire: build fire, cook with fire. Where it differs, however, is the simple yet wonderful fact that you can use tough-as-nails cast-iron cookware on the grate. (I don’t recommend any other cookware, as the fire might damage it.) With this seemingly small alteration, a whole world of more convenient cookery will open up.
To successfully create a composed meal with a fire grill, my first order of business is to get everything prepared. Collect all the firewood you’ll need before starting the fire — the last thing you’ll want to do is have to run and get sticks while you’re in the middle of cooking. And the best firewood is, again, smaller-diameter sticks. These will allow you to feed a steady flame without creating the huge flare-ups that may come from cordwood.
Next, get all your food elements prepared as much as possible before the actual cooking begins. Even though the fire is more contained, it’s still a bit of a wild card that’ll require your full attention. I use a dedicated galvanized tub and, while still indoors in the kitchen, load it up with all the cooking oil, chopped raw food, plates, tongs, and spatulas that I’ll need while attending the fire. Again, it’s never a good situation to have to run away from your pans to fetch the salt you forgot!
Finally, get yourself some excellent oven mitts. Cast-iron pans heat up quickly, and you’ll need to be able to move them to different zones of the fire throughout cooking to prevent burning or oil overheating. As you get more accustomed to cooking with a living flame, you’ll be able to build up a “hot” side and a “cooler” side to your fire, allowing you to directly heat some pans while keeping others simmering.
As with cooking over a campfire, build your fire and allow it to burn down to some flaming, glowing embers before you begin cooking. Maintaining a low, steady burn is a lot easier to manage than dealing with a 4-foot-tall inferno. Low-burning flames will have less of a chance to flare up if the wind picks up too.
Some of my favorite foods to cook over an open flame are foods that are meant to be cooked over an open flame. You may have tried to make zesty, smoky baba ghanouj, baingan bharta, or shakshuka on your stove, but the tepid, smokeless heat offered by electric appliances just can’t cut the mustard next to truly fire-cooked foods. I’ve found that the searing heat possible with a cast-iron skillet and a direct flame makes for amazing naan and pita. Finally, one of my favorite ways to prepare a lamb or goat curry is to roast a whole leg directly on the grate. Once nicely seared, it can be cut into bite-sized cubes and added to your simmering curry sauce, spices, and vegetables for an unforgettable dish.
Whereas the first two methods I’ve mentioned in this article deal with the smoke and heat of direct flame, this third one is a gentler approach. If you heat your home with a metal woodstove, you may not realize that you also have a source of off-grid slow-cooking as well, for the low price of a few pieces of split hardwood.
The metal top of a cast-iron woodstove gets hot, obviously, and many folks who use wood heat keep a kettle of water atop their stoves to humidify the dry interior air. But if you can boil water, you can make a surprising number of simple dishes as well.
You can place almost any cooking metal or cooking vessel atop a woodstove, though I’ve found a pot with a lid works best. This keeps the heat working on your food, rather than escaping. A pot of water left uncovered may be steaming after half an hour, but a covered pot can come to a boil in less than 10 minutes.
As for possible dishes to cook on a woodstove, think low and slow. This cooking surface is ideal for many winter greats, such as simmered stews, toothsome beans, and all-day cooked bone broth. I’ve also used my woodstove to slowly cook down pints and pints of apple and pumpkin butter without burning it.
My favorite woodstove recipe is old chicken stew. Anyone who’s ever had to take out an old laying hen or a 5-year-old rooster knows their meat comes out like flavored rubber bands when cooked quickly — not pleasant! But when put into a covered roasting pan, cozied into place with root vegetables and spices, covered with water, and simmered from dawn to dusk on a woodstove, the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and the broth wonderfully rich. I’ve also heard from a hunter friend this is a great way to slow-cook venison.
Though it takes a bit of practice, the rewards of knowing how to partner with our ancient friend, fire, to produce satisfying and off-grid meals is something anyone would enjoy having in their skill set. There’s no better opportunity to start learning than the season that’s right before you. So, grab some sticks and a pan or two, accept some initial burned results, and get cooking!
Wren and her husband left the city and its dependency and went back to the land in the Ozarks. Every year, they’re getting closer to their goal of getting entirely off-grid, being as self-sufficient as possible, and living happily as modern peasants.
Originally published as “Cooking with Fire” in the July/August 2023 issue of Grit magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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