Today’s article was in response to a request by a reader. Please let me know if you have a topic you would like addressed.

Our great grandparents regularly cooked over an open fire but that is a skill that has become lost on our generation and it’s time to bring it back. Most of us have gone camping, built a fire and roasted marshmallows but you might be surprised how many have not.

Several years ago we took some friends and their children to a cabin on the California coast. They had traveled out from Utah and we expected them to enjoy outdoor living. The cabin was more of a beach cottage and was comfortable and stocked with every convenience we needed. Our children, and we, wanted a little more adventure so be brought the ingredients to make s’mores. Imagine our horror when our friends reported they had never made s’mores. They were even strangers to toasted marshmallows! After an hour we were all a sticky mess and having so much fun. I’m sure they have not forgotten that day. The time may come however, when cooking over a fire will be a necessity. Now is the time to learn the skills you will need to make this time a fun adventure rather than days of burnt, vile tasting food.

Cooking Over an Open Fire

Wood – Campfire cooking requires a clean-burning, hot fire using dry, seasoned wood when possible dry wood or seasoned wood is not available your fire will produce lots of smoke and make cooking more unpleasant. When possible you should look for dead limbs if you do not have your own supply of wood.

Fire location – When possible build your fire in a fire pit or barbecue. If you must place your fire on the ground be sure to prepare it well. Clear the ground of all vegetation and surround the area with rocks. In the case of a natural disaster, solar flare or EMP you may be using this pit for quite some time so take the time to do it right.

After you construct your fire pit prepare for winds. Any wind may cause sparks which could ignite a fire in other vegetation. You will want to have a way to create a wind break. You can use a board or sheet of metal, even a tarp as long as it is kept a distance from the fire. It is best to build your fire eight feet or more from vegetation such as bushes and also eight feet from any structures to prevent sparks from igniting a fire.

Before you begin your fire be sure to have a hose or a bucket of water nearby, just in case. If you are cooking directly on a grill have a spray bottle filled with water handy for small flare ups.

To build a fire for cooking you will want plenty of coals and you will want them to be ready at the same time so you can place them evenly below your grill or over and around you Dutch oven.

In order to have an even fire place kindling on the bottom of your fire pit. Before lighting be sure you have rocks or bricks placed appropriately to hold your grill. Light your kindling and get it started. Once you have a fire started add your wood, again evenly spaced so as they burn down they will provide coals which will all be ready at the same time.

Once the last flames die down and you have white coals, arrange them appropriately for your needs. You can make a large pile at one end of your fire pit and less at the other to create two temperature areas. You can also place an even bed down, add your Dutch oven on top of the coals and then place more coals on top of the oven.

If you are using a grill place it on the rocks you have placed for that purpose. Cook food directly on grill or in a pot or pan.

When you are finished cooking mound the coals together to create more heat if you need the heat. You can now add fire wood gradually to create a fire for warmth. If you are finish with the coals. Spread them out and douse with water. Stir, and douse again. Check coals for at least the next hour to be sure they are all extinguished.

There are some tools you should consider purchasing when you are thinking of cooking over a fire. I have fond memories of pie irons. I remember making the most yummy pies with them in our own back yard. If you are unfamiliar with them pie irons they have been around since 1964. A pie iron is a way to cook grilled sandwiches and fruit pies over a campfire. This is done by placing two pieces or bread, tortilla, or pie crust inside a cooking compartment formed by two metal casting that hook together with a hinge. Metal rods with wood handles are attached to the pie iron so it can be safely held over a fire to cook the contents. Within a few minutes you have a perfectly toasted sandwich or pie.

One of my favorite ways to cook with coals is foil dinners. To prepare a foil dinner place a variety of the following in the middle of the shiny side of a large piece of aluminum foil:

  • Meat-such as hamburger, steak, chicken, or kielbasa. Chicken should be removed from the bone and sliced to ensure it cooks completely.
  • Potatoes-sliced or cubed for faster cooking.
  • Vegetables-carrots, onions, beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini or any other vegetable that you like. Carrots, peppers and onions should be cut into smaller pieces to reduce cooking time.
  • Sauce- foil dinners can dry out if you don’t add some type of sauce. This could be canned soup, (don’t add water), catchup, barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauce or even Italian dressing.
  • Seasonings- if you still want more flavor you could add taco seasoning or barbecue seasoning or any favorite spice from the cupboard.

When you are finish creating bring the long ends of the foil together above your food and fold over two or more times. Keep folding down almost to the level of the food. Then roll or fold the open ends of the foil towards the middle. Cook the dinner by placing a few coals under it and a few coals on top. Use barbecue tongs or a shovel to place the coals. It only takes a few coals, more and your dinner could burn. Your dinner should only take 15 minutes to cook. Check it carefully by unrolling and testing with a fork. BE CAREFUL when opening as the steam will be hot!!

It is best to use heavy duty foil for a foil dinner, since it will be less likely to be punctured.


If you use thinner foil, use two pieces. Heavier foil also helps prevent the food from burning. The sauce you use and the steam created will cook your meal.

Dutch ovens are another terrific way to cook using coals. Check your April 2010 issue of the Totally Ready Newletter for information on purchasing and seasoning a Dutch oven and some great recipes. If you are going to cook over an open fire you need a Dutch Oven or two or three.

Dutch oven cooking is a fun family activity during the best of times and a life saving activity during the worst of times. Dutch oven cooking is one of those skills that everyone can easily learn.

Barbecue Grilling

Not everything that is cooked on a grill needs to be grilled. A few years ago we were holding a family reunion at our home. One morning as we were preparing breakfast smoke began to billow from the dishwasher. I knew this could not be good and I called for help. The men came running and disconnected the unit and dragged it outside. The kitchen was not fit for cooking and the kids were hungry so we took our pancake batter out to the grill. We found an old iron frying pan and a griddle and finished on the barbecue grill.

For grilling you will need a few things. You will need to have cookware on hand that is heavy duty enough to withstand the high and concentrated heat produced on a grill. Spend a little more money and get a set of pots and pans that can also be used over an open fire in your fire pit. You will need long handled utensils to prevent burning your hands and arms. You will need long oven mitts for the same reason. Finally you will need a fuel.

When considering fuel always have a back up plan. If your grill is propane what happens when you run out of propane? That same grill can be used with charcoal or with wood chips or even with small logs. There are directions for making your own charcoal in the May 2010 Totally Ready Newsletter. If you haven’t already run off a copy for your binder do that today.

In the June 2010 Totally Ready Newsletter there is an article dealing with Grilling Safely. That article should be in your preparedness binders and referred to at least at the beginning of every barbecue season.

Fondue Pot

Do you remember the fondue pots that were so popular in the 1980s? They are perfect for warming up small amounts of food, melting butter and cheeses or creating sauces. Storing a few cans of sterno will give you plenty of time for small preparations. A tuna can stove or even a candle can also be placed under a fondue pot to heat contents.

Boil in a Bottle

There are many recipes for cooking by placing ingredients in a zip lock bag and placing it in boiling water. This is not recommended as there really has been very little research done into the hazards or lack of hazards, involved in heating food in plastic. The recipes are still great and will work just as well if you use a quart size canning jar to do the cooking. If you have several people all wanting an omelet use a large stock pot. Mix up the omelet ingredients and place them in the pot of boiling water. Everyone gets the breakfast they want and you can let the water cool and use it to wash your dishes in that same pot.

Haybox Cooking

Haybox cooking uses a small amount of fuel to begin the cooking process and finishes the cooking using insulation. Several months ago a reader wrote to tell me she cooks this way and just did it instinctively one day when she needed to leave home before the meal was finished cooking. She used blankets as insulation to finish cooking. This method was used extensively during World War II as fuel was rationed and in short supply. This would also be a great way to cook if living in an urban setting where fuel is even more scarce and you want to keep the fact that you have food unknown to others.

Step One: When choosing a pot be sure you have one with a lid and that it is the appropriate size for the amount of food you will be preparing. The pot should be small enough so it is at least half full after all the food has been added.

Step Two: Place all ingredients in pot. Meat should be cut into bite size pieces. Cover and bring to a rolling boil. Simmer for 3 minutes after the temperature reaches boiling stage.

Step Three: Place hot, covered pot into the insulated box you have prepared and cover with insulating material. Cover insulated box tightly with a lid or piece of wood. Box should always be at room temperature when beginning.

Step Four: Food will take 4 times longer than the normal cooking time to be ready to eat and should be timed to finish in 4-6 hours or the temperature will cool down too much and the foods could spoil. If food needs to be cooked for a longer time, remove pot from the box, bring to a boil again for at least three minutes and return it to the box for the remainder of the cooking time.

Step Five: When food is cooked remove pot from container and serve. Leave insulated box open so moisture can evaporate before storing.

Directions for construction and cooking times can be found in your September 2010 Totally Ready Newsletter.

Solar Cooker

A solar oven or solar cooker, is a device which concentrates sunlight for use as a heat source to cook food. Solar ovens use no fuel and cost nothing to operate, making them perfect for living off the grid or preparing for a disaster.

There are several types of solar cookers, models you can construct at home and those sold commercially.

An oven constructed at home has a glass or plastic lid with reflectors inside the box to concentrate sunlight sufficient to heat the box and cook foods. The top can be removable or hinged so food can be easily placed inside. The box should also have insulated sides to retain the most heat.

Because black pots retain heat so well they are the type used in a solar cooker. Pots and pans can be spray painted with fireplace paint to achieve the black color and heat retention.


A solar cooker whether homemade or purchased, cooks food by concentrating the heat from the sun, raising the temperature inside your cooker. Solar cookers must be turned towards the sun and rotated every hour or two to follow the movement of the sun or the temperature within the oven will fall. The oven should not be opened during cooking or the temperature will fall and fail to properly cook the food inside. Solar cookers are ineffective on cloudy days.

Cooking times depend on several factors, the equipment being used, the amount of sunlight, how diligent you are about moving the cooker to follow the sun, outdoor temperatures and wind, and the quantity of food to be cooked. Just as with any cooking the larger the pieces of food, the longer it takes to cook. As you would when making a foil dinner, foods should be cut into smaller sizes for cooking. Because temperatures can vary widely conventional cooking times cannot be relied upon. Cookies can take up to two hour to bake for example. Solar ovens should always be experimented with before there are no other options. They take a little experimentation before they should be relied upon.

The biggest disadvantages of solar cooking is the unreliability of the sun to be shining when you need it and your availability to move the oven as needed to keep the temperatures consistent.

Rocket Stoves

Rocket stoves are low-mass and designed to burn small pieces of wood very efficiently. Cooking is done on the top of a short insulated chimney. A rocket stove is easy to construct using low-cost materials. The stoves can be constructed out of almost anything that is non flammable, such as: tin cans, metal barrels, bricks, etc. A skirt around the pot helps hold heat in, increasing efficiency.

Rocket Stoves use branches, twigs, small wood scraps, or just about any small combustible material to create heat. The fuel burns creating a very hot fire, and eliminating smoke while using a very small amount of fuel. The design ensures that the heat goes into the cooking pot, not into the stove.

Large ovens can be constructed using two 55 gallon drums, one inside the other. There are limitless possibilities. Smaller ovens can be constructed using #10 cans and scrap metal or pipe.

Rocket Stoves more efficient, more clean, and use less fuel than an open fire and is inexpensive to construct.

Take some time today to determine which cooking methods will work best for your family. Begin purchasing the items you will need, practice using them, and turn your power outage crisis into an adventure.


Contact Carolyn at [email protected]. If you still haven’t subscribed to Carolyn’ newsletter check them out at https://blog.totallyready.com/announcing-the-totally-ready-newsletter/