Roasting in Ashes and Coals: Tips for Open-Fire Cooking

Open-fire cooking in ashes and coals incorporates the contributions of various cultures, rediscovered eras and the entire life-cycle of an open fire.


| March 2015



Acorn Squash

Serve roasted acorn squash halves with abundant garlic slivers fried in olive oil, chunks of goat cheese, chopped cilantro, and a sprinkle of salt.


Photo by Keller+Keller Photography

The rediscovered techniques of open-fire cooking offer distinctive flavors and a unique culinary experience. Knowing which foods are most easily adapted to cooking in ashes and coals can be the key to successful hearth cooking. From ancient roasted egg recipes to techniques for avoiding exploding chestnuts, Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers background and best practices of wood-fired cooking. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “A Fire and a Stick.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Cooking With Fire.

Roasting in Ashes and Coals 

What can you roast by a fire using no utensils whatsoever? Most ingredients I’ve had success with in this mode exhibit a few common characteristics. Self contained, high-density items with moderate internal moisture (sweet potatoes, butternut squash) do well, because cooking by this method is low and slow and steady. It’s also good if the foods come equipped with a sacrificial layer that can be stripped away before eating (plantains, corn, garlic) since the cooking is done right down in the ashes, and some exterior charring and ash adhesion come with the territory.

Finally, it’s best to select candidates that are abundant and inexpensive (peanuts, potatoes), since there is usually some shrinkage. This sort of minimalist roasting, it must be admitted, is not the easiest to control. Inadvertent and tragic contact is sometimes made between the food and very hot burning coals; it can be tricky to tell if the foods are perfectly situated to cook evenly. And occasionally — especially when it’s dark and the party’s running into the wee hours — a few things just get lost in the ashes or explode.

All that being said, the technique has a good deal going for it, and not only for the obvious reason that you don’t need any tools. Like the traditional on-a-stick projects, it can be a great way to amuse guests around a campfire and let them take a hand in their own hearth-cooking projects. Most of all, with a little effort and attention it can yield very intensely flavored foods.

There are basically two ways to go about roasting with this technique, both requiring a fire that has burned hardwood long enough to accumulate a heap of coals and ashes. In one method, you bury the foods directly in the hot ashes; in the other, you set the foods near enough to the heat of the fire, within the hearth, that they simply roast. Both methods are slow going, which is not necessarily disadvantageous, since other sorts of cooking or merry-making may be carried out on all sides simultaneously.

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