Campfires conjure images of roasting hot dogs or marshmallows on sticks or grilling food on a grate over the flames. Direct heat is a wonderful way to cook food, but there are some things that don’t work well when cooked on a stick. Meats and junk food work well for roasting, but vegetables and some kinds of seafood don’t cook well with traditional campfire techniques.
To steam food over a campfire, you need a way to hold boiling water, a basket of some kind for the steamer, and (ideally) a cover for the boiling water to hold the steam in. Cooking food by steaming usually takes 5 to 10 minutes.
Steaming is one of the best ways to harness the heat of a campfire to cook food without burning it. Because the heat is going into the water, the food is cooked perfectly, and the risk of burning is zero. Unlike cooking food directly over the fire, steaming moderates the heat and protects the food from overcooking.
Let’s discuss how to improvise a pot and other ways to steam if you don’t have a pot with you. Either way, you’ll be prepared.
4 Steps to Steaming Food Over a Campfire
This process is actually a lot easier than you might think. Just follow this 4 step process, and you’ll be on your way to a hot meal in no time.
Step #1- Choose a Vessel
Most steaming methods require a cooking pot of some kind. You can use a cast iron dutch oven, an enameled tin pot, or an aluminum or steel cook pot.
I actually recommend carrying a boiling pot with you, like this lightweight model found on Amazon, when in the wilderness. It’s compact and easy to hold or hang over a fire.
Keep in mind that whatever pot you choose for steaming food over a campfire should have a tight-fitting lid. It’s not 100% required, but it sure does make things easier.
Any method that requires putting the pot directly on the fire should use a cooking pot – not just any metal bucket. Most metal buckets are galvanized to protect from rust.
The material used to galvanize steel produces toxic fumes when placed in a flame.
Since steaming food uses the vapor coming off hot water to cook food, steaming in a galvanized bucket on a fire is a bad idea. Don’t do it – there are better ways to heat water.
Food cans are a little better. They are galvanized on the outside, but the inside is lined with tin, which keeps the food safe. While most cans will be a bit small for steaming, they will still work in a pinch.
However, avoid soda cans since they are made from thin aluminum lined with plastic. The aluminum in these cans burns through quickly, and the inside is lined with plastic that melts when heated. Avoid soda cans for cooking on a campfire.
Step #2- Build an Optimal Campfire for Steaming
While a roaring campfire is great for sitting around and roasting marshmallows, you’re better off waiting till your flames have burned down a bit when cooking over a campfire. This will not only establish the hottest fire, but you’ll be less likely to get burned while trying to adjust your pan.
Unlike other campfire cooking methods, steaming isn’t too picky about the size of the fire or type of wood. You don’t have to wait for coals, either.
Your fire should be big enough to boil water in the pot, but that’s the only stipulation. Construct a fire that will work for whatever else you are doing, and the steamer will be just fine.
Quick tip: If you are only using the fire to cook, consider building a “hunter’s fire.”
To build a hunter’s fire:
- Take two pieces of wood about eighteen inches long and as thick as your ankle and lay them in a V.
- Stack your kindling and smaller pieces of wood between the bigger logs and start the fire.
- Feed in just enough wood to keep a small fire going. This fire is just big enough to heat a meal.
Check out this quick video if it isn’t 100% clear:
To cook on the hunter’s fire, use the V logs as a stand for a pan or grate. This fire will boil water or heat food but won’t create a lot of heat. It also goes out quickly, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time waiting for it to die down or working to put it out. The hunter’s fire is great for a quick meal.
Step #3- Choose Your Steaming Method
You need something that sits above the water in your pot to keep the food out of the water while allowing the hot steam to cook the food.
There are several options on this front that range from a commercial option all the way to a little improvisation. Choose the one that fits your needs best.
Option 1: Commercial Steamer Basket
This is actually something that anyone can pack in their camping or survival kit. Something like this nice collapsible basket found on Amazon, will work nicely for your campfire steaming needs.
However, this isn’t 100% required since you can improvise a steamer from things you probably already have on hand. But it sure is nice to just be able to throw the thing in the pot and be ready to go.
Option 2: Grate Steamer
This is probably the easiest way and someone that can be easily improvised even if you are mostly unprepared.
Put water in a pot and place a grill grate on top of it. Once the water is boiling, place the vegetables on the grate in the path of the steam.
This method works without a cover, but it’s better if you can cover the food to keep the steam in. You can use foil to improvise a lid for the grate. Sealing the steam in will help the vegetables cook faster, but it’s not mandatory.
If You Have No Grate.. Skewer the Food
If you have a pot but no grate, you can use twigs or skewers to improvise a grate. Poke the skewers through the food and lay them across the top of the steamer pot. As a bonus, the skewers are easy to remove when the food is done.
Option 3: Pie Plate Steamer
One option for steaming food over a campfire is to use an upside-down pie plate (or a similar improvised dish) inside a pot for steaming. The pie plate should be at least a quarter of an inch smaller in diameter than the pot. You need a little room around the edges of the pie plate so that steam can billow up around the food.
To steam food, fill the pot with water that is just under the depth of the pan. If the pan is disposable, you can even poke some holes in the bottom with a fork. Let the water boil, place the vegetables on the bottom of the pie plate, and cover the pot. In just a few minutes, you’ll have perfectly steamed food.
Option 4: Shallow Plate Steamer
If you have a plate that isn’t deep enough for the pie plate steamer, you can still make it work.
Make three balls of aluminum foil (or rocks will work in a pinch) and place them in the water. Let the plate rest on the foil balls to keep it out of the water. Steam the food as described above.
Option 5: Basket Steamer
If you have a colander or a wire basket, you can improvise a steamer.
Make sure you can suspend the basket in a pot with the basket bottom up in the air at least an inch. Add water to the pan until it’s just below the bottom of the basket. Add vegetables, cover, and steam away.
Step #4- Place the Pot and Steam the Food
When you are steaming food in a pot over a fire, you can suspend (or even hold some pots) over the hottest part of the fire. The water moderates the heat and keeps the interior of the pot at a reasonable temperature no matter how hot the fire below.
It Might Take Longer to Cook Than You Think
It’s hard to give you an exact time to wait before checking on your food. It will change depending on how hot you got your embers, how thick your pan is, what you’re cooking, how much food you’re cooking, and what seems like a million other aspects.
What I can say is that it may take a bit longer than one might expect. My advice is to wait at least 10 minutes before you check any kind of food. You definitely don’t want to check too frequently, as it would defeat the purpose to constantly let all of the steam out.
Depending on what you are cooking, it could take anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes to be cooked thoroughly. However, once you learn how long it takes with the system you are using, you can remember that info for the future.
Here are some general guidelines:
- Most vegetables will likely be ready in about 8 minutes. Try 5 if you like them firmer, and try 10 if you like them softer.
- The cooking time of meat depends on the size of the cut. However, most fish can be done in around 3-5 minutes and denser meats between 5 and 10 minutes. Be sure to avoid undercooked meat. My advice is to learn to love well-done food in the wild. Personally, I don’t like steaming meat anyway. However, this works great for fish.
In my opinion, the best way to steam anything is to cut it into small pieces and skewer it.
What if I Don’t Have a Metal Pot?
Even if you don’t have a metal pot, you can still steam food.
However, you still need a vessel to hold water for steam, but it doesn’t have to be a cooking pot. You can improvise a steamer from aluminum foil or water containers made from plastic or other non-fire-safe materials.
Foil Pouch Steaming
A foil pouch called a “hobo dinner” is an alternative way to steam food over a fire. This isn’t ideal but will still work for something like vegetables or edible plants.
Here’s how you do it:
- Make an envelope from aluminum foil and place your food in it.
- Add a small amount of water and seal the pouch tightly.
- Place the envelope near – but not directly over – the fire. The foil doesn’t offer any shielding from the heat, and there’s not enough water to buffer it either. It should be in a place that is too hot to keep your hand for an extended period, but not so hot that you immediately jerk it back.
Your food will steam from the water in the pouch. When you think the food is ready, you can open the packet carefully to check. As long as the foil doesn’t tear, you can re-fold it and put the packet back over the fire if needed.
Quick Tip: Let the food steam for a little longer than you would keep food in a steamer basket. Since there is less water to transmit heat, this method is a little slower than a basket.
If you want a quick easy way to heat food or water outdoors, 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.
Steaming Without a Fireproof Pan
This is something every hardcore survivalist knows. Even if you only have a plastic bottle or bucket, you can still boil water and steam food.
Instead of placing the plastic over the fire, you put heat into the water to boil it. The secret is to use hot rocks.
This method will work for containers made of plastic, wood, bark, or any other organic material. Still, avoid galvanized metal if you can. The heat from rock boiling is less, but better safe than sorry.
To boil a gallon of water, you will need a bucket or other container large enough to hold at least a gallon and a half (bigger is better) and two dozen rocks about the size of an egg:
- Place the stones in the fire to heat for thirty to forty-five minutes.
- Once they are extremely hot, use tongs or sticks to pick up a couple of rocks and drop them into the water.
- Give them a few minutes to transfer heat to the water, then add a new rock and remove the cool stones.
- Keep bringing hot stones from the fire and removing cool ones until the water is boiling.
- To steam food, you’ll have to keep adding rocks for a while so that the water keeps boiling.
You can improvise a steamer using any of the methods above to hold your food while the water boils.
Here is a video showing how to boil water with hot rocks:
Be Careful When Heating Rocks
If you decide to use hot rocks to boil water, be sure to follow safety guidelines.
Don’t put wet rocks into a fire.
This includes stones that you have previously used to boil water and stones that you find in streams, lakes, or puddles. Most kinds of rock have tiny pores that absorb water.
If you drop a wet rock into a fire, the water will turn to steam and expand quickly. The expansion causes the stone to explode and throw out shrapnel. You don’t want to be anywhere near an exploding rock.
You should also avoid obsidian, quartz, shale, and slate when heating stones to boil water. These rocks can explode in a fire even if they are dry. If you aren’t an expert geologist, there is an easy test to see if a rock is safe to put in a fire:
- Gather a handful of rocks to test. Small is best – small rocks mean small explosions. Big rocks mean big explosions.
- Build a fire large enough to contain the test rocks.
- Put the test rocks into the fire.
- Get back – way back. Fifty yards is a reasonable distance.
- Wait quietly for about twenty minutes.
- If the rocks are going to explode, it will happen within fifteen minutes. You’ll know when they do.
- After twenty minutes, put out the fire and recheck the rocks. Besides violent explosions, other warning signs include rocks that crack or split in the fire. Fresh cracks and splits are just explosions that didn’t quite happen. Also, look for rocks that disintegrate in the fire. These aren’t dangerous, but they won’t work for cooking, either.
If the rocks don’t explode or crack, they are safe to boil water with. If they do explode, you’ll need to find some different rocks for boiling water.
The next time you are cooking over a campfire, try steaming something. It’s simple, easy, and it lets you put your focus on other things for a few minutes while the steamer is working.
If you’re tired of one-pot campfire meals or burned veggies, maybe campfire steaming is for you.
Can You Put Stainless Steel on an Open Fire?
A stainless steel pot can be put over an open fire to cook food. The melting point of stainless steel is over 2,507-2,786 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the alloy, while a typical campfire or bonfire can only reach 2,012 degrees Fahrenheit.
What are the Best Foods to Steam?
Steaming is a versatile cooking method that works on firm vegetables and delicate meats, like fish. When cooking with steam, it’s best to cook the food first and season afterward.
- Asparagus – the traditional way to cook asparagus is in a tall, thin steamer. Campfire steaming works just as well for asparagus. Steam thick spears for six to eight minutes, or thin spears for three to five.
- Broccoli and cauliflower – These are actually two different colors of the same vegetable. Cut them into florets or steam the heads whole. Steam for about seven minutes for the best flavor.
- Carrots get much sweeter when steamed. Cut the carrots into chunks or spears. Steam for five minutes for crispy carrots, or ten for soft ones.
- Green Beans – steam the beans for about five minutes for al dente, or seven to ten if you like your beans a little softer.
- Leafy greens and cabbage also work well in a steamer. Slice them up or shred them, then pile the pieces in the steamer. You’ll need ten to twelve minutes to get them cooked through.
- Brussels sprouts – these little guys get a bad rap from overcooking. Only steam them for about five minutes for a slightly crisp, tasty treat.
- Artichokes – this is a vegetable that takes a little prep work, but it’s worth it. Pull off the toughest outer leaves and trim off the top 1/3 of the cone. Trim the tough tips off the remaining leaves. Place stem up in the steamer and steam for about half an hour.
- Summer squash and zucchini – another case of the same plant in two colors. Cut the squash into spears and steam for five to seven minutes.
- Potatoes – cut potatoes into cubes or quarters. Small cubes need 20 to 25 minutes to steam. Big quarters or halves need 25 to 30 minutes. You’ll know the potatoes are done when you can poke a knife into a chunk of one, and the blade pulls out without lifting the potato.
- Fish – grilling over a fire is a great way to cook red meat, but fish is often too delicate for that treatment. Steaming is a quick way to cook fish that won’t leave you with most of the fish stuck to your grill. For more flavor, try adding herbs to the boiling water. The aromatic steam will improve your fish.
- Chicken – the intense heat of a campfire can be too much for chicken, leaving it dry and tough. Steaming chicken leaves it moist and tender. You can also steam chicken to get the inside mostly cooked, then put it over the fire briefly to sear the outside for the best of both worlds.
- Eggs – you can make great boiled eggs in a steamer. Steam them for six minutes to get soft-boiled eggs or twelve minutes for a hard-boiled egg.
Of course, you can also steam any edible wild flora you happen to come across, just make sure you learn to avoid the inedible types. Overall, I’d stick to steaming fish and plants you are 100% sure are safe to eat. For example, wild ferns and mushrooms are great candidates for steaming.
Are There Any Foods to Avoid Steaming?
There are some things that are probably left best unsteamed.
Red meat, hot dogs, and other sausages will cook best over the open flame. Any kind of bread should be baked or roasted. Sweets are probably best cooked over the fire, too. Who wants the gooey mess without the delicious crispy bits?
Rice is traditionally steamed at home, but it’s another dish that shouldn’t be steamed over a campfire. Rice is usually steamed directly in the pan, with minimal water and no buffer between the rice and the metal pan. That works well with a stove that has good heat control. It is much harder to achieve with an open fire. When cooking over a campfire, leave the rice at home.
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.