I am standing by the fire, smoke-bathed and teary-eyed, wearing fireproof leather gloves and reaching into the flames to move a glowing log. At my feet a half-dozen potatoes are blackening menacingly, not far from a pheasant I have trussed up and strung from a steel tripod.
"It becomes obvious when you do it," William Rubel told me. Rubel is the author of 'The Magic of Fire,' a definitive and often poetic book on cooking with live flame, either in the fireplace or, as I am trying to do now, with a campfire. "All you need is the fire. And maybe some courage."
Fire cooking requires no special gear or secret knowledge. It confounds the fussiness of the modern kitchen, with its "temperature gauges" and "adequate lighting," and returns us to a primal art guided by touch and smell. This is how all humans cooked before the advent of the enclosed range, and indeed how millions around the world still do. But for some of us certain instincts need to be rekindled. Even your trusty Weber kettle is civilized compared with trying to bury a paper-wrapped trout in a bed of hot ash as the maw of hell rages just inches away. When you cook over a campfire, the whole world is the cool part of the oven, and you're standing in it.
Or, rather, squatting in it, for this is ground-level cuisine, defying our evolutionary prerogative to stand upright, instead inviting us back to the dirt – where I find myself now, knees cracking, watching the pheasant spin slowly on its string. The bird should have been done long ago, I conclude, pointing the laser of my infrared thermometer at its pallid skin. As I frantically check my clipboard notes, I realize that none of what I'm doing is very predictable, and all of it may soon be on fire. My courage is failing.
But let us back up a bit, to when the day was younger and the fire was not yet a shimmer in the kindling.
The Rubel method for outdoor firemaking is: Lay two old, dry, hardwood logs parallel in a level spot sheltered from wind. Fill the space between the logs with dry kindling and set ablaze. When that's plenty hot, lay three logs across the first two. Let them burn down; replenish often.
Fire cooking is done not over the flames but in the radiant heat beside them or over the glowing coals they leave behind. You can roast directly on the embers, shove embers under a grill (made of metal or from stalks of green wood laid across two rocks), or shovel them on top of your Dutch oven to slow-simmer a stew. You therefore want a steady supply of embers, a space in front of the fire to spread them around, a stick or shovel, and, if you're making more than a single steak, plenty of logs.
And that's really all you need. If you have nothing but fire and a fish, you have dinner. "The simplest thing to do with a cleaned fish is to roast it on glowing embers for a few minutes on each side," said Rubel. "You don't even need to scale it." The skin will blacken and fall away, "and it will be perfect on the inside."
If you have not been dropped into the wild naked, however, you can afford more elaborate preparations. Fish can be tied in a double layer of oiled paper (grocery bags are best) and either placed directly on the embers or buried in ash and embers to bake. The oil raises the burning point of the paper, says Rubel, though I still have to stomp on my two wrapped trout from time to time to beat out the fire. But as tempted as you may be, do not wrap fish in foil, which seals too effectively. As for the classic spud-in-foil, forget it. Pierce the potato and place it on the coals, says Rubel, until it's black all over. After 40 minutes it may even be glowing, but fear not: It will quickly cool, and the interior will be perfect.
If you are hunting game birds – or, in my case, getting D'Artagnan to ship them to you – you will want to roast them. In British homes in olden times, small terriers were trained to run on a kind of gerbil wheel to keep spit-roasting birds turning. These devices are hard to come by today, and illegal in some more terrier-friendly states. There are other ancient methods at your disposal, such as standing the meat on a rock by the fire and turning it from time to time, and the more hypnotic string roasting: trussing the bird, hanging it in front of the fire from a tripod or a tree limb, winding it up, and letting it unwind and wind again. If you have a Dutch oven you can set it beneath the bird to catch the drippings. Or, as I am doing, fill it with a bunch of chopped cabbage and a bottle of Riesling; it will slowly cook down into a gamy choucroute.
As my pheasant twirls above the Dutch oven, something strange happens: I smell things actually cooking. I pull the fish back from the flames and put them in the ashes to keep warm. Instinctively I push the pheasant closer to the fire and pinch and prod its thighs and breast until I sense it's nearly done. Then I cut it down and put it in the warm cabbage. I've long forgotten my clipboard, and I'm using the laser thermometer only to distract some hungry dogs.
Then, when it feels right, I pull my entrees off, one by one. The fish is astonishing; perhaps tenderized by my stomping, it is both moist and slightly singed. The pheasant is unbelievably tender. And I never thought I would feel this way about a baked potato, but it offers a concentrated earthy blast, not the mealy insipidness of your standard tuber. The skin is black and crackling and smells of smoke – delicious.
I can't take credit for this bounty. The fire, with its shifting moods, is a cauldron of different cooking techniques: steaming, baking, searing. And luck deserves thanks; I'll surely make different mistakes next time – although I also know which ones I'll correct. "The biggest problem," Rubel told me, "is that people are afraid to try. You have nothing to lose but a potato."
The Tools of the Trade
Obviously, when man first started cooking with fire he did not have access to anodized woks. And while there is no lack of gear you can add to your outdoor kitchen – including a hand-cranked blender for backwoods margaritas – part of the pleasure of cooking with fire is doing so with as little as possible. But there's nothing wrong with a few conveniences.
There are any number of cookset configurations, including nonstick, to aid you if you need to boil water or make pea soup under the stars. MSR's ultralight cooksets tend to get campers drooling.
Dazzle friends, distract dogs, and alarm your SWAT team with this Bonjour laser thermometer, which takes the surface temperature of food from a safe distance [$99; bonjourproducts.com].
If you buy only one, choose an iridescent Ken Onion design from Kershaw: It features a gasp-inducing mechanism that makes it seem as if you are packing a psychedelic switchblade [$75; kershawknives.com].
The traditional kind has stubby legs and a flanged lid, which means you can shove embers underneath and pile them on top. But if you are planning to hike with minimal back pain, consider GSI's legless hard-anodized aluminum edition [$70; gsioutdoors.com].
How Hot Is It?
You don't need a thermometer to take a fire's temperature.
In the bizarro world of fire cooking you're heating as much from the sides as from below. And the sideways radiant heat of the flame is largely predictable. It's subject to Newton's inverse square law: The heat decreases by the square of the distance (though temps can vary a bit according to fire size and breeze). Here's a rough chart of heat versus distance from flame that you might want to keep handy.
Target Temp. Distance
100 8 inches
400 4 inches
800 2 inches
Game birds have not been bred for tender flesh, so while they're extremely flavorful they are often drier and tougher than your old friend the chicken. And they vary more than anything farm-raised: Age, diet, and season affect flavor and texture. As a rule, game birds stay moist when cooked hot, fast, and rare, but you should treat your first time with an unfamiliar bird as an experiment.
Looks Like Dark, fatty flesh
Tastes Like Rich and unctuous, though the flavor of duck varies. Can be sinewy.
How to Cook Rub with salt, then string- or spit-roast 20-30 minutes. Or split down back, open flat, skewer each side, and prop in front of a fire. Turn as needed.
Remember Duck doesn't grill well, because fat drops onto embers, causing flare-ups.
Looks Like Leaner than domestic turkey; better balance between white and dark meat
Tastes Like Fine-textured, with a taste similar to pheasant
How to Cook Spit-roast before a moderate-to-hot fire. If using a thermometer, remove from fire when deep-thigh temperature reaches 130ºF.
Remember It's lean. Turkey, like most wild birds, dries out if cooked too long.
Looks Like Tender and sand-colored; very lean
Tastes Like Fine-textured, with delicate flavor – especially in the breast, the prize of the bird
How to Cook Rub with salt and olive oil inside and out. Pheasant is done when rare.
Remember To prevent breast and legs from drying out, wrap in thin slices of bacon. Pancetta is best.
Looks Like Tender and dark pink
Tastes Like Wild quail is gamier than the succulent farm-raised version. It's also leaner.
How to Cook Rub with salt and olive oil, stuff fresh herbs in its belly, and hang in front of fire.
Remember Quail are small and cook quickly – 20 minutes or so. Eat with fingers.