If You Can’t Stand the Heat… Cook Outside

Jenny Flores
16 Min Read

The heat of summer makes cooking in the kitchen more of a chore than a joy.  Fortunately, the weather is perfect for outdoor parties and cooking.  Cooking outside is a welcome change for adults and a lot of fun for children, who benefit from fire safety lessons while learning some science behind outdoor cooking techniques.

Campfires are one of the best things, in my opinion, about summer nights.  A tent pitched in your own backyard is transformed into a real camping trip once a fire is built.  There are just a few simple rules for building great fires safely.

First, you want to be sure you build your fire in a proper place.  This means your fire needs to be a safe distance from your tent and low-hanging branches, and close to a water source.  Do not use flammable fluids to start a fire.  Build your fire only as big as you need it to be and never leave it unattended.  Finally, make certain you have completely extinguished the fire when you are finished using it.  It is not the end of the world if you ruin a few recipes while you are learning to cook on a fire; letting a fire get away from you could be.  Safety is the only hard-and-fast rule when it comes to cooking outside.

In order to build a fire, you first need to put a handful of tinder in the center of your fire ring.  Tinder can be wood shavings, small twigs, or dry leaves.  Alternatively, it could be crumpled up newspaper or lint from your dryer.  It should be dry enough to light immediately with a match.  Ignite the tinder and slowly add more.  Once your tinder is burning you can start adding the kindling, gradually increasing the size of your kindling sticks.  As soon as you get a good fire going, add the larger pieces of wood that will act as fuel for your fire.  The manner in which you place the wood depends on the cooking technique you will be using.

For quick cooking, such as hot dogs on a stick, the best choice is a tepee fire.  To make this type of fire, simply lay the larger logs over the kindling like a tepee. This is a good fire for any quick outdoor cooking technique because the fire is concentrated in one spot.

If you are interested in stewing or baking in a Dutch oven, you need a lower flame.  This type of cooking works best with a crisscross fire.  A crisscross fire creates a long-lasting fire with plenty of hot coals.  As the name suggests, lay the larger wood over the kindling in a crisscross pattern in order to make this fire.

cooking outside in a dutch oven
Dutch oven.

A Dutch oven is a great investment.  You can make cakes, stews, and casseroles outdoors if you have one.  Once you have all of your ingredients in the Dutch oven, put the lid on upside down.  This will make it much easier to cover with coals.

Bacon and Cheese Potatoes

  • potatoes
  • bacon
  • cheese
  • onions
  • salt and pepper
  • herbs – rosemary or thyme match well with potatoes

The amount of ingredients will vary, depending on the size of your Dutch oven.

Put the Dutch oven on the hot coals to warm the pot.  Slice the potatoes and onions.  Chop the bacon and add it to the warm Dutch oven.

Once the bacon has cooked, scoop it out, leaving the grease in the oven.  Layer the potatoes, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and herbs, on the bottom of the Dutch oven.  Top with onions, then cheese and bacon.  Repeat the layers and cover.  Nestle the Dutch oven in the hot embers.  Using tongs, carefully place 3-4 hot coals on the lid of the Dutch oven.  Cook for approximately 45 minutes, until potatoes are soft and cheese is melted.  Take care when removing the oven from the embers.  It will be very hot.

The hot coals left by the crisscross fire also work really well for cooking in foil packets.  Foil packets are an easy way to give everyone their own individualized portion and clean up is a snap.  The following recipe is a dessert, but don’t stop there.  Fish can be cooked the same way, with the lemon and side vegetables in the same packet.

Foil Packet Pineapple Upside Down Cake

  • pineapple chunks, fresh or canned
  • pound cake, cut in cubes, or donut holes
  • butter
  • brown sugar
  • cinnamon
  • cooking spray
  • foil

Spray a double layer of foil with cooking spray.  Add a handful of pineapple chunks.  Add some pound-cake cubes or donut holes.  Top with a dollop of butter and brown sugar.  Sprinkle with cinnamon.

Fold up the packet and place it on the hot coals for about 15 minutes.  The butter will have melted with the brown sugar to make a sauce.  Top with a scoop of ice cream if desired.

The next outdoor cooking technique is a super simple box oven.  You can bake food, just like in your home oven, by trapping heat from charcoal briquettes inside an insulated cardboard box.  Because the briquettes are in the box along with the food you are cooking, do not use self-starting charcoal.  Self-starting briquettes will negatively affect the taste of your finished product.

outdoor cooking technique in a box oven

In order to make this baking box you will need a sturdy cardboard box that is larger than your baking pan.  Line the box with heavy-duty aluminum foil.  Tape the foil to the outside of the box with duct tape.  Again, you do not want any adhesive on the inside of the box which could change the taste of the food.

Lay a sheet of heavy-duty foil, slightly larger than your box, on the ground where you will be cooking.  Place a large, flat rock on each of the corners of the foil.  One side of your box will sit on these rocks, allowing a small amount of airflow necessary for keeping the briquettes burning.  Next, place four soup or soda cans on each corner, approximately 1 1/2” in from the edge of the foil.  Use these cans to elevate and stabilize a small grate.  Put your baking pan on top of this grate.

Calculate how many briquettes you will need for your recipe.  The temperature is approximately 35 degrees Fahrenheit per briquette.  Spread the briquettes on the foil under the grate, light, and carefully place the box over the food.

cooking outside muffins
Box-oven cupcakes.

You can bake anything in this small cardboard oven, from cookies and mini pizzas to casseroles.  One of my favorites is a Good Morning Breakfast Bowl.

Good Morning Breakfast Bowls

  • 12 slices bread with crusts removed – any type of bread is fine but whole grain bread holds up better.
  • 1 dozen eggs
  • 12 slices cooked bacon (not crisp)
  • butter

This recipe bakes at 350 degrees.  You will need ten briquettes.

Grease a standard-size muffin tin with butter.  Place one slice of bread into each muffin cup and press down in the middle.

Crack one egg directly into each slice of bread.  Place one slice of bacon on each egg.

Bake until eggs are done, 11-17 minutes, depending on how hard you like your eggs.

For the next technique, you will use basic supplies to create a vagabond stove and a homemade burner.  This stove will become very hot, as will the burner.  Exercise extreme caution, especially if there are children involved. This is a good option for times when you do not want to build a fire.

cooking outside on a vagabond stove

First, gather your supplies.  For the stove, you will need: a 1-gallon #10 tin can, can opener, tin snips, punch opener, and gloves.  In order to make the burner you will need: 1 shallow tin can, such as a tuna can; corrugated cardboard or sawdust, scissors, and paraffin wax.

To make the stove you first need to remove the lid from the can.  This will be the bottom of the stove.  Use tin snips to cut a 3”x3” door on the side of the can.  Bend the door out but leave it attached on one side.  This will be for ventilation control.  Punch three small air holes on the opposite side of the door.

For the burner, you will need to cut cardboard into strips slightly narrower than the depth of the shallow tin can.  Roll the cardboard strips into coils and set them in the can.  Melt the paraffin wax and pour over the cardboard.  Allow to harden.  It is a great idea to make extra burners.  They are fun and easy to make and essential to this cooking technique, but also extremely handy to have on hand for any emergency cooking situations.

To use your vagabond stove and homemade burner you first need to find an area that is relatively protected from wind.  This homemade oven can be used just like you use your skillet at home.  It is perfect for frying an egg or grilling a sandwich.  To extinguish the burner, remove the stove with a pot holder.  Smother the flame with a lid from a tin can.  Wait until the wax hardens before handling it.
vagabond stove

For our last outdoor cooking technique, we are going to build a smoker.  Old refrigerators make terrific homemade smokers for three reasons.  First, the large doors make loading and unloading food extremely easy.  Next, the metal racks (not plastic) can be used either to hang food from or lay food on.  Finally, old refrigerators can be found for next to nothing on sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.  They can be found for free on sites like Freecycle.

cooking outside in a diy refrigerator smoker
DIY refrigerator smoker.

You need an old refrigerator.  One-compartment refrigerators work best, but you can adjust them to suit the type of fridge you have available.  You also need a drill, a metal pan, four bricks, charcoal, and wood chips.

Remove all the bins, such as the meat and produce drawers, from the refrigerator.  Place the bricks in the bottom of the refrigerator in order to protect it from heat.

Drill a 4” hole on top of the refrigerator, using a 3/4” drill bit.  This will be the vent that allows you to control the airflow and how the smoke exits the refrigerator.  You can control the airflow by covering this hole with a brick.

Next drill three 3” holes on each side of the refrigerator.  These holes allow air to flow into the main smoking chamber.

Finally, season your smoker before using it.  Place a small amount of charcoal into the metal pan.  Light the charcoal and let it burn down to embers.  While the charcoal is burning, soak the wood chips in cold water.  Once the coals are glowing, open the refrigerator and place the pan of coals on the bricks you have laid in the bottom of the smoker.  Place a handful of soaked wood chips on the coals.  Close the door and regulate the time it takes for the smoke to diminish.  Replenish wood chips as needed.  Once you have seasoned your smoker, you are ready to use it.

You can use your smoker to cook anything from fish, fowl, and meat to vegetables and even salt or sugar.  If you have metal racks, purchase S-hooks from the local hardware store.  They will make it easy to hang any type of meat.  The following is a simple recipe that gives eggs a slightly smoky flavor.  The eggs are great eaten as is, but really delicious in a chicken or tuna salad.

Smoked Eggs

  • 4 oz. non-iodized salt or kosher salt
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 4 dozen quail eggs or 6-10 chicken eggs, hardboiled and peeled

Place the salt, black pepper, and garlic powder in a ziplock bag and shake.  Add eggs and shake to coat.  Put the eggs in the refrigerator for two hours.  Take them out of the bag and place them in the smoker.  Smoke for forty minutes.  Store the eggs in the refrigerator.

I hope you will try one or more of these outdoor cooking techniques on your homestead this summer!

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