Cooking over a campfire
According to grilling guru Meathead, founder of amazingribs.com and author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, the first thing you need to know about campfire cooking is you never want to cook over the open fire. Says Meathead, “Flame has bad flavor, and it’s likely to burn. It’s hard to cook well over flame.”
By contrast, embers give you a solid bed of even heat, so you can cook your meal approximately the same across the entire space, rather than ending up with some parts charred and some parts nearly raw. Fire moves about on its fuel, making for hotter and colder pockets. It’s one reason fire is so pretty to look at, but also makes it a poor cooking tool.
To cook over a bed of embers you have two options. The first is to wait, or as Meathead puts it, “Make a teepee. Let it burn down to embers until you’ve got a nice cooking (base).”
Your other option is what Meathead calls a “key fire.” After you set your fire, but before you light it, clear out a line leading out of the fire, like the tail on a capital Q. As the fire burns, scrape embers into the tail to create a flat bed outside the fire proper. This lets you get your dinner cooking before the fire burns out, while still enjoying the stable and reliable cooking heat.
Once you have your embers, the next question is what to cook with. A sharp stick run through your meat, skewer-style, is simple. Plus you can get one on site and burn it when you’re done, so you don’t need to pack anything.
The next level up from that is a skewer stick and some kind of support, like a Y-shaped stick or a pile of stones, or you can make a full spit on two supports. This lets you go get more beer while your food is cooking.
If you don’t mind packing, Orlando-based executive chef Michael Senich and Meathead both recommend recommend a cast-iron skillet. They’re heavy, but durable and hold heat very well. You can cook everything from fish to vegetables to steaks on them, and they let you get fancier with spices and sauces since they wont fall or drip into the flames right away.