This year though, my neighbor accidentally supplied me with the final ingredient to making the fire pit a must-go destination in the back yard: two ceramic coated cast iron cooking grates from his old grill. Since that rainy day in his driveway, my family and I have cooked out roughly once a week at the somewhat remote fire pit.
Having planted a crop of sweet corn, we had lots of great fire roasted corn to go along with grilled onions, tomatoes and whatever meet we drug home from the store that week.
I'm not a big fan of store-bought charcoal, but charcoal is what you need if you don't want your food crispy and black on the outside and pink or cold on the inside. Slow, low heat is the key to perfectly cooked food. But, keeping an even heat with a wood fire is difficult at best, so if you don't want neat little bricks loaded with flammable chemicals but want to cook over charcoal, here's the simplest way I know how to produce this handy campsite friend.
1. Build a camp fire with some good dry hardwood. You're going to need to build this first fire and burn it down a while, but subsequent fires won't take as much work.
Making a fire
I like to start off with three or four pieces laying on one another forming a triangle or square. I put my tinder in the middle and lay kindling on top. Using a Bowie knife or similar with long strokes on a piece of wood along the grain, pushing away from you, will produce ample kindling and if you take time, you can make decent tinder this way too. I usually just grab some dry grass, thistle or milk weed silk, dry leaves, or scrape some very dry bark into shreds. Apply a match, lighter or sparks till your fire is going. Feed it regularly to keep the kindling burning in contact with the fire wood till the fire wood is burning.
2. Once the logs are well burned into the glowing charcoal state and most or all of the sugars, moisture and other bits have burned off, use a fire tending stick or poker to break up the logs and tame the fire down a bit. You want to break it into large, fist size or smaller, chunks of black and/or glowing charcoal that is still radiating a lot of good heat.
3. (optional) Pile this up under your cooking grate and let the grate heat up. I usually add a piece of feeder wood to one side, a bit away from the food, so that I can be making more charcoal for next time if I wind up burning this batch all the way down.
Cooking over Charcoal
Cook your food over the coals, blowing on them to keep them just burning and glowing to provide even heat. Sometimes I continue to add kindling or shavings to provide some smoke flavor to the food and provide fuel to keep things rolling. I also keep a cardboard tube handy for blowing on the fire. The trick here is not to put your mouth on it like a wind instrument and blow through it but to take advantage of laminar air flow by keeping the tube end an inch from your mouth while you blow. The low pressure created in the tube when you blow down it draws air in around the end you're blowing in along with what you provide, moving a greater volume of air through the tube, reducing your work or increasing its effect. This is a standard piece of kit in my camp cook box.
4. As soon as you're done cooking (or when the charcoal is all black / glowing) and enjoying the fire, slowly pour water over the charcoal and burning wood to extinguish the fire. Your charcoal is ready to go for next time and will be much easier to bring up to temperature with just some kindling. Just leave it in the fire pit and as long as the pit is well drained, it should be easy to get going again next time since it will have little in the way of moisture retention. You can always add more wood to your fire as you need to replace charcoal. We've cooked about 5 meals over the charcoal from just 6 pieces of wood in this manner.
That's about as simple as it gets and all you need is regular fire wood like oak or, most desirable, hickory. Cedar is also a nice add-in but the charcoal is much less dense and shorter lived than that made from hardwoods. You can also use charcoal in the construction of an improvised water filter to help reduce the presence of metals and pollutants. It won't remove bacteria but will make the water more palatable. You should treat or boil the water to make it potable before drinking.
A bag of store-bought charcoal costs about $20 or so. A bundle of camp fire wood can be had for $5 in most places (depending on where you are) or for free if, like me, you heat with wood and are always cutting down dead or diseased trees and making firewood. Economical + fun. And no smelly chemicals.