Open Fire Grilling
There’s something elemental about an open fire. And no, I’m not trying to be ironic here. It’s a magical thing; which, yes, started civilization, and all that. But to me it’s much more immediate. To me, fire draws me in, it captivates me. Fire, perhaps because of it’s storied history, or perhaps despite it, has a fantastic presence. And while that something indescribably elemental about fire makes it captivating, it also seems to make it a center for social and cultural gatherings. It’s a wonder, fire. It’s a conversation piece. And then, without even planning it, the conversation drifts off from the fire to other things. Other equally elemental things. Life, the cosmos, sex. The stuff that makes us.
And food. Of course. Not pink, french champagne. But the simple stuff. Steak. Salt. Smoke. Grilling.
If this is starting to sound like a supremely masculine activity, think twice. I’ve spent many a night around a campfire with men and women alike, and the conversations almost invariably head in the same direction. Men revel in these experiences. And they should. That said: I have yet to spend an evening a woman around a campfire who doesn’t actually end up enjoying these evenings, these conversations, this specific type of socializing. It’s universal. It’s elemental.
Open Fire Grilling – How to make it work
There’s a trick to grilling, whether on an open fire or in a modern top of the line grill. It’s more or less the same trick, in fact, as all cooking. The trick is this: Get the temperature just right, and keep it there. Obviously there are different versions of Just Right depending on what the goal of the meal is. The really exciting part of open fire grilling, however, has little to do with the temperature, and much more to do with your comfort, confidence, and willingness to trust yourself as the Pitmaster of the fire pit. You’re the one calling the shots. It’s your success, or failure, which will determine how good the meal is. And it’s almost entirely done without measuring tools, a closed and controlled space, or that level of familiarity you have with your nice 2-burner propane grill at home. Grilling on an open fire is the wild west!
Now, about that trick: Get the temperature just right, and keep it there. There are still a few things that you can control, within reason, even on an open fire. Just like in a charcoal grill, the best grilling happens when the charcoals are all glowing embers. Well, you can make that happen in a fire pit too. It takes time and work, but it can be done.
Today’s recipe isn’t a food recipe. Rather, today’s recipe is how to make a fire that will give you just about the right environment for open fire grilling.
- Two large logs, chopped to size to fit in your fire pit.
- A grill, and suitable supports for the grill.
- A medium pile of 1 to 2 inch thick sticks. This should be just about as much as you can reach your arms around.
- A medium pile of fully dry twigs, about the thickness of your pinky finger. This should be just about as much as you can reach your arms around.
- A medium pile of fully dry tinder. These are the small, very dry twigs, leaves, grass, bark, and anything else that's easily flammable. This should be slightly more than you can grab with your two hands.
- Lighter, matches, or other tool to light the fire.
- A suitable, legal, and safe fire pit.
- A large bucket of water to use to control or extinguish the fire, as needed.
- Some fire logs or split wood.
- Your meal. Steak, sausages, pork chops, loins, some fire-resistant vegetables. Higher starch veggies are best for this: carrots, zucchini & yellow squash, pineapple, onion, turnip, beet, etc.
- Some friends and/or family.
- Lay the two large logs into the fire pit so that they are close enough to hold the grill up themselves. With these in place, the grill supports that you plan to use can be more for control than necessity.
- Build up a small mound in between the two logs of the tinder. On top of this, place a few of the twigs, and a few of the sticks.
- Light the tinder.
- Carefully tend the fledgling blaze until it has started to spread to the twigs and stick. Build this up in the tepee fashion, encouraging the fire to grow strong quickly. What you want is a fast, hot burning fire with moderately small fuel.
- Add the twigs and sticks onto the fire as it grows.
- Carefully press the fire down, compressing it as it burns. This will keep it hot, keep the heat concentrated on the available fuel, and help to ensure that it burns down to coals sooner. Do not do this in a way that may cause injury to yourself or others.
- Continue to build the fire with the sticks and twigs, and compressing it down as you can, to keep it burning hot and fast.
- If done properly, this should burn down to embers in approximately 60 minutes from when the fire really got going. If you used slightly larger sticks, it may be more like 90 minutes.
- Once the flames have mostly died down (there should still be some flames dancing around), and there is an intense heat radiating from the remaining fire embers, carefully and slowly spread the embers out so that the heat is reasonably evenly spaced.
- Lay the grill down on top of the two containment logs, using your support for stabilization. This could be other sticks to support the edges of the grill. Be very careful, the fire should still be putting off an intense heat.
- Put the steaks and other meats down in the middle of the grill, and the veggies around the edges (if there's space).
- Grill these for about 10 minutes per side, or longer for a colder fire.
- After 20 minutes of total cook time, Serve and enjoy!
- If you want to continue to enjoy the fire, I recommend adding the fire logs and/or split wood to the fire pit as soon as possible after you're done cooking. The embers should still be plenty hot enough to re-kindle a respectable fire, and the larger fire wood should burn slowly, allowing you several more hours of enjoyment, socializing, and even perhaps other fire-roasting for subsequent meal courses.
- If you're removing the grill from the fire, be very careful. It is very hot, will burn your hand, and may cause damage to any surface it touches. I recommend using tongs to take it off the fire, and putting it into your water bucket (if the bucket is metal) or onto bare earth to cool.
If you're an adult, please exercise caution, care, and follow all applicable laws, regulations, and general guidance practices concerning fire in your area.
Once the cooking and eating is done, the meal was served, enjoyed, and cleaned up, sit back for some socializing, and enjoy your fire. You’ve earned it.