How to Cook Over a Fire
It doesn't matter whether you're barbecuing in your backyard or circling a fire at a campground, you must cook over open flame.
Nashville, Tennessee–based Derek Wolf will quickly tell you that he is neither a professional chef nor a trained photographer. Still, in the past two years, he’s turned documenting mouthwatering fire-based cooking (mainly involving massive, sizzling hunks of meat) into a full-time career via his more than 470,000 Instagram followers. Here are seven of Wolf’s tips to help you nail the best meals of summer.
Choose Your Fuel Wisely
This is perhaps the most heavily debated decision in the fire-cooking community. While your access to different types of wood may dramatically change your choice (there isn’t much mesquite back East, for example), Wolf looks for two general criteria when choosing fuel. “I tend to only use hardwoods, and specifically fruitwoods,” Wolf says. “They break down into coals really well. You want a wood that gives off a good flavor but isn’t so overpowering that it’s impossible to taste your food.” You also don’t necessarily have to go with wood. “If you don’t have anything else, lump charcoal is fine. Five-pound bags are really easy to carry,” Wolf says.
Mind Your Temps
“Cooking with fire is all about putting your food on at the right time,” Wolf says. Put a steak on when the flames are hot and licking everything, and you will burn it to a crisp. Put it on too late, when the fire isn’t hot enough, and you’ll be eating raw meat. How do you know that sweet spot? “The prime time to put it on is right as the coals and the wood are starting to transition from a black to a gray and right as things are starting to break into coals. You will hear it. You will get that sizzle—the amazing sound of the steak hitting the grill,” Wolf says. In addition to sight, Wolf uses touch to gauge if his fire is ready. “Some woods burn really hot, and some don’t burn as hot. Carefully put your hand about four inches from the fire. If you can hold it there for longer than four seconds, it’s not hot enough. If you can leave it there for only one second, it’s too hot. It has to be in that two-to-four-second range,” Wolf says.
This isn’t your propane barbecue or Traeger grill that will hit the temperature you want with a turn of a knob and the touch of a button. The fire will dictate the best time to put your food on and take it off. Wolf suggests respecting that fact. “You want to make sure you give ample time for your fire to be ready, as well as know that once it is ready, it is go-time. That doesn’t mean, ‘Lemme go grab another beer.’ That means, ‘Good luck, you have to cook now.’”
Make Sure It Looks Good
“You eat with your eyes first,” Wolf says. “With any classically grilled meats, people usually associate grill marks as something that is attractive, but I like an amazing crust throughout the whole meat.” Wolf puts olive oil on the meat, and then marinates it with salt to help that crust form. He suggests being extra careful when cooking with oil over a flame, because once it lights up, you might have to wait as long as 30 minutes for a grease fire to die down. He also suggests trying a cast-iron skillet. “It really gives that crust you’re looking for. The key is letting your all-metal skillet sit over the fire for two to three minutes before you put the steak on,” Wolf says.
Keep the Seasoning Simple
“If you’re camping or RVing, all you need is high-quality salt,” Wolf says. “Jacobsen Salt from Oregon is fantastic. That’s pretty much all I use.” He prefers sea salt for its strong flavor. “You need less of it than kosher salt, so you get a lot more bang for your buck on sea salt,” Wolf says.
Pack a Plan B
Yes, you will wow your friends if you perfectly cook a whole lamb filled with wild foraged herbs over a spit. You can just as easily wreak havoc on a camping trip if you mess up that elaborate recipe and your whole group goes hungry. Wolf’s suggestion is to be ambitious in the scope of your meal for the group, but hedge your bets with something you know you won’t mess up. “Don’t be afraid to fail—just bring a second thing to cook,” he says. “If you want to cook it, have fun, but bring something you know how to do.” Burgers are an excellent backup.