Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Campfire cooking with charcoal briquettes

Over 10 years ago, a reader to my former writing project on Suite101.com posed a series of Dutch oven questions. The reader -- named Sheila -- found that the Dutch oven was the ideal piece of camp cookware because it solved a few "camp cooking problems."

Even after summer campfire restrictions were in place, the Dutch oven let her avoid "hot dogs, red meat and a lot of processed foods." She was able to create a myriad of one-pot meals in the three-legged cast iron pot.

Sheila's questions

Camping took her mind off of her ailments, said Sheila. Since she often didn't have the energy to build a campfire, she used charcoal briquettes to cook her meals. "A lot of times I go camping because I’m not feeling well and making a fire, especially learning by trial and error," said Sheila, "is exhausting and time consuming."

Here's her dilemma: "I found that the charcoal briquettes sank into the soft ashes in the fire pit that the state park provides. I’m thinking that next time I’ll put the briquettes into an aluminum cake pan and cook from there."

Sheila believed that charcoal briquettes were a good "way to cook up dinner." She asked:
  1. Can you perk coffee on charcoal briquettes?
  2. Will an old lightweight aluminum coffee pot work?
  3. Can you cook pancakes or eggs on a cast iron griddle over charcoal briquettes?
  4. What types of pots are good on charcoal briquettes in addition to cast iron?
"I’d like to try some cast iron Dutch oven and other types of charcoal briquette cooking using what I have and see if I like it first before getting any special equipment," concluded Sheila. "I was just checking to see if I got some of the beginner’s rules correct."
Cooking with charcoal briquettes
The answer to Sheila's questions was a resounding yes. While I prefer campfire cooking, charcoal briquettes are a good substitute for those times when campfires are banned.

Here are my general rules:

Cooking with charcoal. Charcoal makes a good ready-made source of heat for camping. The briquettes are easy to count and light. And they burn at a predictable rate. Here are four considerations :
  1. Chimney charcoal starter. Don't use lighter fluid to ignite charcoal briquettes. Instead, crumple one or two sheets of newsprint in the bottom compartment of a chimney charcoal starter and light. You'll have gray ash-covered coals in about 20 minutes.
  2. Heat control. Control the heat by adding and removing burning briquettes. This takes practice. Start by placing a thick field of briquettes under the skillet or pot. Then watch the food. If it's cooking too fast, remove briquettes with a pair of tongs. Add burning briquettes if the food is cooking too slow. And, yes, Sheila can brew coffee in the aluminum coffee pot and fry breakfast on the cast iron griddle.
  3. Fire safety. You need nearby water source to douse any fires. Purchase a galvanized steel bucket and ash shovel to collect spent briquettes. Drown spent coals inside the bucket. When all fires have been extinguished, discard the ash and briquettes. 
  4. Wind shield. Charcoal briquettes burn hotter and faster under windy conditions. In a brisk wind, coals that normally burn for 60 minutes may evaporate within 30 to 45 minutes instead.
Use a firepan. It's important to protect the environment and to guard against wildland fires. Any fireproof implement can be turned into a firepan. Set a baking sheet (or any iron or steel sheet) between two or more bricks to hold the coals. You can also cook in a kettle-style barbecue. You'll need to elevate the pots and pans two to three inches above the coals.

Cookware. Any cookware can be used when cooking over a charcoal fire. However, don't place burning charcoal briquettes directly on top of any cookware that isn't cast iron. Conversely, don't set anything directly on the briquettes. Thin-skinned cookware (like aluminum) will warp. And enamel pots can burn and chip. Either suspend pots over the coals with a chain or use a grill to hold them two to three inches above the fire.

After our conversation on Suite101.com, Sheila purchased several fireproof bricks at a local brickyard and a pizza sheet and grill at a secondhand store. She planned to suspend the grill between two bricks, about two and one-half inches above the charcoal. After setting the pizza sheet on top of one or two bricks, she said that she'd burn the charcoal directly on the pizza sheet.

No comments:

Post a Comment