This is the fourth installment of Off the Map, a column by chef JD Fratzke. It appears monthly at growlermag.com and occasionally in print.
Cooking outdoors over an open fire has become, over the years, my favorite way of preparing a meal. Whether it’s a few pork chops, a chicken, a pile of brats, or just sweet corn, asparagus, and bell peppers, the meditative act of starting a fire and working with it as it grows and changes has become a calming and satisfying element in my life. It’s sort of like edible tai chi—although no one at the park ever questions your wardrobe or wonders what the hell you’re doing over there.
The following is a list of my recent meditations on the act of outdoor cooking over wood fires in all kinds of settings and scenarios.
First off, if you’re in a hurry, you’re screwed. The fire needs to be monitored, of course, then fiddled with, cajoled, trusted, coddled, and fed regularly, not unlike raising a feral child or a recently hatched dragon. Give yourself a minimum of an hour and a half to build the kind of fire that will yield the coal base needed for the kinds of meals best cooked outside.
Giving yourself the necessary time simply means not rushing things and doing a minimal amount of multitasking. If I’m grilling at home in the firepit or the Weber, I usually start by prepping and marinating the protein, then getting all the sides and vegetables ready. Then I’ll pour myself something cool and delicious and start the fire.
In the backyard and at the restaurant, I have a pair of high-test, spring-loaded, 8-inch stainless steel tongs within arm’s reach at all times. They are easily found at a decent kitchen supply store and well worth the money. The tongs championed by your dad or uncle, the ones with the wooden handle—or, worse yet, black rubber grips—are useless. Not only will they accumulate all kinds of bacteria, but they’ll also eventually catch fire when left too close to the coals after you crush your seventh can of Mango Blonde.
When in the wilderness, my two fire necessities are a folding saw and an Army surplus aluminum shovel. Very little of the fuel you gather at a wilderness campsite will require work with a hatchet, much less a full-blown ax. Save the latter for the week at the cabin and the cord of wood you had trucked in by Dale and his boys for a C-note and a suitcase of PBR.
Keep your eyes up when foraging for firewood in the wilderness as you will need dry wood, not the stuff that’s been soaking up moisture from dirt and dead leaves on the arboreal forest floor. Look for standing deadfall (fallen trees leaning upright against another) or, if you’re lucky, driftwood piled on rocks above the shoreline. Most of the wood you gather to start and stoke your fire should be about as thick as your wrist or smaller, perfect for a folding saw—the same one you use to trim the evergreens in your front yard.
The shovel is for braising in a Dutch oven, which we’ll discuss in a moment. It’s best for moving whole piles of coals around the sides and on top of the lid for those hours-long, low-and-slow meals.
Grilling is the quickest way to feed yourself. If you’re working with animal proteins, game or red meat in particular, season what you’re cooking about the same time you have the flames on your fire rising high. While you’re letting those edibles absorb the flavors, feed the fire more kindling (smaller pieces of wood) until the heat begins to break the wood down into coals. Place a few larger pieces of wood off to the far side of the fire. When they begin to burn, lay out a bed of the smaller coals and turn the larger pieces perpendicular to one another so that they’re subject to a bit of airflow and will continue to burn.
I am a big fan of grill baskets both in backyard cooking and on wilderness trips. They work for everything from trout to pork chops to ham-and-cheese sandwiches. After a good scrubbing, I have also been known to drop butter-rubbed beef ribeyes directly on the Forest Service and state DNR iron pit grates we all know and love to hate. Don’t grill your food over direct flame. Burger King commercials are not the gold standard. Grill what you want to eat over high-heat orange and white coals.
Engage all of your senses in this process and remember that there is no shame in grilling after nightfall with a headlamp. Look at the sides and the top of what you are grilling. If it smells like it’s burning, it probably is and you should shift it to a cooler part of the grill or take it off the heat completely. Do you like more char? Shuffle the coals or push the meat to where you hear it audibly react. Want something more well-done or are grilling rather than frying your walleye? Be prepared to wait and push it toward the edge of the heat—it will take less time than you think to cook through without charring the outside. Whatever your protein, when you feel it’s finished, allow at least five minutes of resting time before cutting into it.
Roasting is the act of slowly cooking either a large cut of meat or a whole creature by rotating it over a heat source at an even temperature. This requires a lot of surface area for the fire, a hefty amount of wood, and a contraption that suspends your object of edible affection high enough above the fire to keep it away from flame, but close enough to benefit from a slow and constant heat. Spits (iron rods with a handle that rotates) are a common sight when roasting outdoors, as are the asado cross, a sort of double-cross iron contraption that can allow a whole mammal to be repeatedly flipped over a coal bed at an angle. Roasting is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the creature of honor can be regularly mopped or basted with any number of sauces. It also tends to cook the meat evenly enough so that the leaner cuts left rare near the bone are still juicy and tender while the fattier portions are fork-tender. If you’re having a party and all your friends want to participate in the meal, roasting is the way to go. Everyone can help rotate the spit or flip the asador, and everyone can baste the beast—it’s the perfect combination of participation, celebration, and observation.
Braising is probably my favorite method of open-fire cooking as it is the least forgiving and requires the most trust—both in one’s abilities and in Mother Nature. Braising was also referred to in the old days as “stewing.” Tougher, fattier animal parts were seasoned and then caramelized over high heat in their own fat, smothered with vegetables, drowned in liquid, then covered and allowed to cool until they just simmered—and were fed just enough heat to keep simmering for hours, sometimes from one dawn or sundown to the next, until the meat was tender and the broth in it thick and hearty.
There are hundreds of braising techniques custom-designed for nearly every edible animal on the planet, from squirrels to camel. What I love about a braising fire is that it is a metaphor for personal life, family life, and professional life: the heat will always burn down to coals, but feeding the coals keeps the whole pot cooking until the results are delicious. Braising requires both attention and neglect. It is, to me, the perfect zen method—especially when done outdoors in a campfire setting. Know that it will take some time—hours. After those hours, carefully brush away the ashes and coals from atop the Dutch oven so that they don’t fall into the braise (I’ve skipped that step before and the results truly suck) and use your tools to check in. Is the protein tender enough to fall apart? Do you want it that way? Dip in your spoon. Does it need salt or a bit more heat or a squeeze of the citrus you were saving for your cocktail? The patience of braising only asks that you take it exactly where you want it to go.