When camping, one of the most important considerations outside of where you’ll sleep is what you’ll eat! Cooking over an open flame is one of life’s basic pleasures. There are several schools of thought about how to best cook over a fire – whether that be your campfire, grill, or gas stove.
Open-fire cooking is generally best done with seasoned cast iron. Other pans may be used, but direct contact with the flame will likely become damaged and potentially leach unpleasant flavors or chemicals into your food.
If you don’t have a cast-iron skillet and plan to do a lot of open-fire cooking, it is definitely worth the investment. Here is my favorite one, found on Amazon. I love how it comes with a sleeve that goes over the handle, for safe handling.
What Types of Cookware are Best to Use for Cooking Over an Open Flame?
To successfully cook on a fire, it’s important to have the right tools and implements. You don’t want to melt the plastic handles on pans best kept in the kitchen, and you don’t want to use any material that may break down under the intensity of the heat. Let’s look at some of the top options for doing it right.
Here is a list of the top four materials to pull out when you’re ready to stoke the fire:
1. Cast Iron
Cast iron doesn’t top the list out of nostalgia, or because “that’s what has always been used.” Cast iron is extremely durable. It is also porous, so although it heats slowly, when it’s hot, it retains its heat and browns fairly evenly.
Here’s a video I did of the best oils to season cast iron:
2. Stainless Steel
When looking for stainless steel that you will be using to cook over an open flame, you’re going to want to look for a good, quality product. 18/10 stainless steel products are very durable and have a high heat tolerance (safe up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit.) Reliable sets, like the ones made by Cuisinart. Here is the link to a good set, on Amazon.
They are safe to use and will not transfer any metal taste to your food.
High heat may cause some oxidation to the outside of your pans resulting in different colors splaying across the bottom.
In case you want to skip cooking over an open flame, I wrote an article on how to make a simple stove called What Is a Hobo Stove? (And How To Make One). Be sure to check it out.
3. Anodized Aluminum
Aluminum and anodized aluminum are not the same things. If you use a regular aluminum pan over an open flame, you are likely to end up with burned food, and maybe a hole burned in your pan.
Anodized aluminum is stronger than regular aluminum.
The anodizing process occurs when aluminum or an aluminum alloy is immersed in a specific mixture of chemicals, and then an electric current is run through the chemical liquid while the aluminum is submerged in it. This process strengthens the aluminum and is leaves it scratch resistant.
Anodized aluminum pans, such as these found on Amazon, are typically less expensive than stainless steel plans but do not typically heat as evenly.
4. Copper Pans
When you are looking at copper cookware, you want to make sure that you are really looking at copper and not just a copper coloring. You’ll know the difference by the price tag. If you’re looking at a copper pan and the price just seems too good to be true… it probably isn’t really copper.
Copper cookware, like these (Amazon Link), can be expensive.
Copper provides superior heat conduction, so it doesn’t typically require higher heat levels for cooking. It also heats up very quickly. If you’ve banked your fire to a lower flame level, or even if you’re using hot coals, copper could be a good option for residual heat cooking.
Can You Use Aluminum Foil Over a Fire?
Aluminum foil, particularly heavy-duty aluminum foil, is a fantastic helper when cooking over an open flame. It’s relatively inexpensive, disposable, and takes up very little space in a camping kit.
Aluminum foil is a cook’s favorite friend when making packet meals or baked potatoes that are going to bake in the fire’s coals, as opposed to flambeeing over an open flame.
Alternatives to Pots and Pans for Cooking Over a Fire
If you find yourself unprepared or don’t want to purchase something additional for cooking on a fire, consider some of these options:
Old Cookie Sheets
Some outdoor cooks like to use old, sturdy cookie sheets that they no longer use for their quality home baking for their camp cooking. They don’t care if the bottom of the cookie sheet gets a little burned – it’s well-used and being repurposed. Simply line the inside of the cookie sheet with aluminum foil to avoid a sticky mess and cook away.
Whether you choose to place a cooling rack on top of your cookie sheet to let it function somewhat like a grill grate or you make it your grill grate, it is again recommended that you line it with heavy-duty aluminum foil.
If you are going to place your cooling rack directly over the flame, make sure it is a quality anodized aluminum and doesn’t have any plastic or rubber on it.
The heat-rated piece of this is critical. Most stoneware is not rated to be used above 450 degrees Fahrenheit. An open flame will likely exceed that temperature, so make sure the stoneware you choose is rated to at least 550, if not 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
The heat-rated stoneware works similarly to the cast iron pan. It is porous, heats slowly, but holds its heat evenly. Some people like to use their heat-rated stoneware cookie sheets on top of a cooling rack to make pancakes or biscuits over a low fire.
A Cleaned Out, Thick Metal Coffee Can
We’re back to the probability that these will burn your food on the bottom, but they’re also disposable. This option allows you to use what you have without investing in any additional camping gear.
There won’t be any handles available, so use fire-safe tongs and extra caution when removing the can from the heat.
Tips and Tricks for Cooking Over a Fire
Watch Your Hands!
The handles of your open-flame cookware will likely be metal. Make sure you have thick, fire-resistant hot pads to protect your hands and lower arms from both the pan’s heat and the flames.
Some camping aficionados recommend heavy-duty leather gloves specifically made for working around campfires. For that same reason, you’ll also want to have some longer-handled utensils for stirring, flipping, etc.
Have Two Separate Cooking Areas
This isn’t suggesting you have more than one fire pit, but it is a good idea to have an area to the side that is specifically for the hot coals you are using to bake or heat your food. You can have your pot of pork and beans heating while you roast your hot dogs over the flames.
Consider Investing in an Open Fire Grill/Rotisserie
One of the joys of camping is getting everyone involved. Want to have something a little more “gourmet”? You could consider putting a roast on a rotisserie and letting everyone take turns rotating it.
Plan Your Menu in Advance
There are very few limitations to what you can make when you are cooking over a campfire if you plan in advance. A souffle might be a bit ambitious, but believe it or not… it’s been done too. If you plan for what ingredients and tools you’re going to need, you can accomplish anything.
Are you worried about the lack of refrigeration? There are always powdered options for staples – eggs, milk, etc., that can be rehydrated. If you are going to use these options, be sure to make a note of the conversions so you know how much water to add to how much powder to end up with your desired amount of measurement.
With a little preparation and forethought, you can ensure that you have the right food and cooking gear to cook safely and effectively so that you can focus on enjoying your hiking or camping adventures.
Can you put cast iron on coals? Cast iron is perfectly safe to place directly on coals for cooking. Cast iron maintains its structure in extremely high heat scenarios and distributes it evenly.
Is it okay to boil water in cast iron? Very well-seasoned cast iron pans can handle boiling water without rusting issues.
For more, check out What’s the Best Way To Prepare Food in a Survival Situation?
Anne James has a wealth of expertise in a wide array of interests, including quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, and making jelly.
She has a professional canning business and has been featured in the local newspaper, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is.
With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass.
Lovingly known as “Jelly Grandma” by her grandkids, Anne hopes your visit here has been a sweet one.