How to Cook Over an Open Fire

Photo By: Front Runner Outfitters

As much as you want it to be, adding boiling water to a bag of freeze-dried food, making a sandwich, or creating a charcuterie board for your camp meal is not considered “cooking.” While it is convenient for long travel days, there are times when you just need to start a fire in the fire ring and cook your meal over open coals. There is something intensely relaxing about preparing fresh ingredients and cooking them over a fire. It’s a sensory process. You can feel the heat, hear the crackling of the fire, see the flames whipping around, smell the food cooking, and ultimately taste your creation. It’s alchemical.

If you know nothing about cooking, never fear; there’s a great resource at the end of this article to help you plan your meals in the backcountry.

Our ancestors in the Paleolithic era threw hunks of meat onto open flame up to two million years before contemporary humans learned how to grill a perfect steak, but whether you call it barbecue, grilling, braai, yakitori, barbie, tandoor, barbacoa, or char siu, the technique is the same – placing meat or veggies over a direct flame to sear them, creating a Maillard Reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives fire-cooked food its distinctive flavor.

Meat and vegetables prepared to be cooked over an open flame, a braai.
Preparing a meal for open-fire cooking. Photo by Primus

Since life began on the African continent, I thought I’d focus on two open-fire cooking techniques that originated in South Africa — potjie (pronounced poi-key) and braai.

Open Fire Cooking: Braai and Potjie

While a braai can be a verb and a noun, there is one thing it absolutely isn’t – cooking with gas. Braai is intended to be cooked on an open fire. In fact, South Africans don’t consider anything cooked over gas as a braai. In a braai, the fire remains lit after the food is cooked and becomes a gathering place where people can talk, drink, get warm, and consume their favorite adult beverages. Or, as we call it, a perfect end to a great day in the backcountry.

On the other hand, Potjie (or potjiekos) is translated as “small-pot food” and refers to a cast-iron cauldron, also known as a Dutch oven, that is meant to be cooked over an open fire of wood or charcoal. Potjie was brought to South Africa by the Dutch Voortrekkers, and this cooking method is perfect for hearty stews, bread, potatoes, or anything you want to cook. If you don’t have the first clue about how to cook in a potjie, tons of books are available online to get you started – hit up your favorite online retailer, or better yet, go to a bookstore and order directly from the publisher.

Read More: Campfire Safety for Overlanders

True to their South African roots, Front Runner Outfitters has some great products to help you cook over open flames while you’re out in the backcountry while saving precious cargo space in your vehicle in the process. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Potjie Pot / Dutch Oven & Carrier

A potjie pot and Mounting Bracket for Front Runner Rack Systems.
Potjie Pot and Mounting Bracket for Front Runner Rack Systems. Photo by Front Runner Outfitters

There’s no better place to keep potentially hot, grimy, dirty, and cumbersome camp kitchen supplies than up and out of the way, outside the vehicle. Knowing that the Front Runner Potjie Pot Carrier offers a sensible way to travel with a potjie pot. The 2.1-gallon, cast-iron potjie pot is secured in the bracket by the three legs. The supplied ratchet strap threads through the lid of the pot and fixed points on the bracket. The entire system affixes to any platform rack with ease.

MSRP: $249.00

Front Runner Spare Tire Mount Braai / BBQ Grate

Food cooking over and open fire on Front Runner Outfitters' Spare Tire Mounted Braai.
Front Runner Spare Tire Mount Braai / BBQ Grate. Photo by Front Runner Outfitters

This ingenious stainless steel cooking grate stores over your spare wheel (fits 29” to 35” tires) and takes up virtually zero space. The grate features both grill and griddle sections, which are useful for all types of cooking. This grill is designed to be used over hot coals and not over a roaring fire.

MSRP: $259.00

Read More: Gear Chronicles: One Man’s Quest for Fire

These brands also have some great products to help you get the most out of your open-fire cooking. Here are a few that I think are perfect for the overlander as they fold flat and take up very little space when not in use:

Snow Peak Tabiki – Medium

Cooking over the Snow Peak Tabiki. Photo by Primus

The Snow Peak Tabiki is a grill and raised firebox for wherever you roam. It folds flat for compact packing in cars, and the stainless steel construction keeps it sturdy for seasons of cooking camp meals traditionally. The grill grate adjusts its height closer or farther from the fire for customized control.

MSRP: $349.95

Primus Kamoto OpenFire Pit – Large

A Primus Kamoto Open Fire Pit on the beach with a fire burning.
Primus Kamoto Open Fire Pit. Photo by Primus

Being a good steward of our public lands means leaving no trace. The Primus Kamoto OpenFire Pit raises your fire off the ground so you can enjoy a fire without damaging the earth around your campsite. This fire pit folds flat for easy storage and includes a grilling grate for cooking up your favorite delectables.

MSRP: $179.95

Barebones Living Cowboy Grill Steel Skewers

Primus skewers on the fire for dinner. Photo by Primus

Kebabs are so simple for a quick camp dinner and a great way to use up veggies and meat from the fridge! These skewers are great for easy cooking over an open fire. The sharp tip makes it easy to stick your favorite foods on the skewer, and the flat shape ensures the food stays on and turns when you are ready to turn it. Since they’re flat, finding a home for them in your rig is easy. 

MSRP: $24.99

Oh, and one more thing. Here’s a link to Primus’ Culinary Heights Cookbook to help you elevate your open fire camp meals:

Vegetarian bean burritos are an easy recipe when you're cooking outdoors.
Vegetarian Bean Burritos. Photo by Primus

I hope you enjoy some open-fire cooking while on the trails next!

Photo by Brett Willhelm

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