How to Grill Without Actually Using a Grill

fish cooking over campfire
Roman Tsymbol/Shutterstock
Roman Tsymbol/Shutterstock

Okay. We get it. You’ve got your grill game down cold. You’ve mastered briquettes, gas, and wood. You turn out perfect steaks and amazing burgers. You’ve even dabbled in grilling fruits and desserts, and your friends and family can’t throw a summer party without asking you to step up for cooking duty.

You’re ready for the next challenge: grilling without a grill. Maybe you’re out camping and didn’t feel like lugging your expensive/heavy Big Green Egg all the way into the backwoods. Maybe you think you’ll try some outdoor baking now that the grilling seems too easy. You might even be stuck in a situation where you just don’t have a grill, but still want to cook over fire. 

In those cases, you have three basic options. You can cook over a campfire. You can cook in or over a pit. Or you can go Full MacGyver and build yourself some sort of a grill with the materials at hand.

coffee pot and sausages
Myles Tan / Unsplash

Cooking over a campfire

According to grilling guru Meathead, founder of 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. 

fish on the grill
Adrian Infernus / Unsplash

Going full MacGyver

What if you want to use a grill, but don’t have a grill? There’s no one solution or set of solutions for every possibility here. Instead, you just need to use come creativity. 

MacGyvering up a grill requires two things: something to hold your heat source, and something to hold what you’re cooking up off of the heat. Where you find those two things is between you and your god. 

Meathhead offers the simplest example: “Pack the grill (grate) from your barbecue when you go camping. Then you can set it up over the campfire, or dig a pit slightly narrower than its diameter.” Boom! Grill!

Headley says you can get away with using higher-quality cookware. A frying pan resists heat pretty well, and can hold a bed of coals as well as anything else. It’s more like cooking on a Hibachi, but does the trick. 

Another trick Meathead recommends is finding a flat rock and setting it in the fire. “After it heats up, you have a griddle just waiting for some meat, or even pancake batter.” However, he warns to use only dry rocks you’ve patted even drier. If there’s water in the cracks, it can expand rapidly and crack the rock, or even make it explode. 

If you’re not in a position to just use a campfire or a pit, you might have trouble finding a container to hold your embers. Kunio Takori, a Nagasaki-based grill afficianado and life-long tinker, built his first improvised grill by welding an old radiator in half… but he says he was mostly showing off. Any metal container with a chamber to hold your fire, and a reasonably stable bottom will do the trick. Just make sure it won’t tip over when it’s full of embrers. 

Under no circumstances should you attempt to MacGyver a gas grill. Those things are complicated, and use a pressurized explosive. If you like to tinker, stick with regular fire.

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