Fireplace Cooking

Fireplace cooking may be a lost skill, but it's one you can regain with a little practice.

| October/November 1994

Except for Scouts toasting marshmallows or hotdogs on a stick over a camp fire, the skills of open fire cooking that fed our forebears for millennia are largely forgotten. The wrought iron tools and cast-iron utensils that baked many a venison stew, harbor-pollack chowder, or mess of ham and beans are relegated to antique shops. But much of the terminology lives on in the names of items still found on the kitchen shelves of today, and much of the old ironware is still cast — more for its curio value than for use. In the frantic hassle that passes for modern life, it is good on a chilly fall evening to light a grate fire and take the time to try your hand at fireplace cooking the way great-great-great-grandmother did. If the spit-roasted haunch turns out cold in the middle and the Yorkshire pudding burns you can always send out for a pizza or get some fish sticks out of the freezer and pop them into the microwave.

Any fireplace will happily cook while it heats — persuading your wood to do double duty. You can wrap sweet corn, potatoes, fresh-caught trout, and apples in tinfoil and bury it in the ash bank just as you would in a camp fire. But there's no timer or automatic thermostat to regulate a live fire for more complex recipes.

It takes constant attention to bake bread in a Dutch oven that is sitting in coals, with more coals shoveled into its dished top so the loaf cooks through and browns on top but doesn't come out raw in the middle and burnt to a char on the bottom. To maintain a simmer in the stew pot which is hanging by its bail from the trammel hook, the crane must be moved back and forth and the pot adjusted up and down while hot coals are continually moved around with a scuttle and ash rake.

You can have a crane that fits your fireplace wrought by a blacksmith or welded by a metal-working job shop. You can still find small stamped-steel coal scuttles for sale, but you'll have to fashion your own rake; they haven't been manufactured for a hundred years and more. A blacksmith or welder can make one by brazing a 1/4" x 2" x 4" plate of iron or ribbon steel to a handle made from a 2' steel rod with a loop fashioned at the end to hang it by. However, a small hand hoe from the garden will do fine so long as you don't let the wooden handle ignite.

Be sure to have on hand a more than ample supply of cooking wood: quarter and eighth splits of extra-well-dried, dense hardwood sticks for a long fire and a long-lived coal bed, plus plenty of shavings, splinters, and small kindling-size splits to liven the fire quickly if the biscuits threaten to fall. Best is a mixture of quick-igniting and hot-burning softwoods such as pine, and long-burning hardwoods such as hickory or oak.

Open the windows so you don't roast yourself along with supper, and perk up a banked or low, heating-type, hardwood-log fire until it's brisk enough to maintain a deep bed of live coals. For roasting on a spit, maintain a skirt of live coals under the burning logs so you can keep raking them out and under the roast. For frying on a gridiron or skillet, simmering beans in a footed pot, or baking in a Dutch oven, you'll also want to rake coals out onto the hearth and keep them replenished.

10/20/2013 12:44:34 PM

The very first line of this article floored me. Open fire cooking is still alive and well here in America. Mostly done outdoors because fireplaces that look like the one in your picture are an extinct breed. I only know of 2 people that have homes old enough that they had fireplaces that large, and they have been filled with more efficient inserts that have blowers and are regulated. I also know a man that had a huge fireplace built so that he could feel like a king, and he never uses it because it is more efficient to heat with gas and his wife does not want their children to crawl inside of it. That said, I have to tell you that just about every hunting cabin I have ever seen has a wooden cook stove that is used to make food. Not just bacon and eggs in the top but also potatoes and corn inside and even coffee can bread. Fire pits across America roast hogs every summer. We have a spit and we use it regularly from spring through autumn. My scout troops and 4H club all went camping and fishing and learned to catch, clean and cook in the woods not to mention the livestock that is butchered and cooked on spits over the roasting hogs. You also left out the aromatherapy benefits of herbs on open fires.

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