Bonus Audio: What is it about a campfire?
Its high noon and a beautiful sunny summer day and we both must be hankering to be out in the woods camping because all we can think about is the magic of cooking over a live wood fire. Cooking in the wild poses challenges, for sure, but if you’re willing to carry a bunch of cooking equipment with you there’s probably no limit to what can be cooked on a campfire.
D: Is there anything that you can’t cook over a campfire?
A: I don’t know. You probably can cook anything if you’re willing to manipulate the fire enough.
D: Right, every cooking technique evolved from a live fire. A grill grate suspended over a fire, like a Tuscan grill, is probably the simplest. It still lets the fire get to the food but allows the cook to control the heat by raising and lowering the grate.
A: Put a pot on the grate and you can sauté, or braise, or boil.
D: Hell, you could throw a filing cabinet over a campfire and create an oven.
A: Or a burnt office.
D: It actually would work! You’ve got everything you need - stacked boxes to hold the food away from the flame and a casing to conduct heat around the boxes. You could stick a cake in the top drawer and a pie in the bottom.
A: True. But is baking in a filing cabinet the best way possible to cook on a campfire? A makeshift campfire oven is never going bake as evenly as a well insulated electric oven. The history of cooking is the story of getting away from fire, of putting distance or cookware between the food and the fire. But the cool thing about cooking on a campfire is that you have a chance to wipe all of that away and get back to how it all started.
D: We’ve always said the essence of grilling is flames and food. It’s not so much about smoke; it’s not so much about the kind of grill grate,
A: or about marinades
D: or rubs, or sauces. It’s about food and fire. And a campfire is the greatest expression of that. When you simply spear a piece of food on a stick and hold it over a fire you are enacting the purest form of grilling.
A: You don’t control the heat with any fancy equipment, but simply by how you hold the food and where you hold it. It’s like playing an instrument. One of the great things about cooking over a campfire is the challenge of playing the fire, and responding to it artfully.
D: So if the history of culinary arts is based on manipulating fire by putting blockades between food and heat, then cooking on a campfire is a way of getting back to the real craft of hands on cooking.
A: Absolutely! Cooking over a campfire is a real test of a cook, separating those who understand how to master a fire from those who don’t. Take s’mores, for example. It’s a simple and spectacular food that is easily screwed up if you’re not watchful and quick to respond.
D: All of your control is how close you allow the food get to the flame.
A: So how do you do it?
D: In a s’more all you’re cooking is the marshmallow.
A: And that’s also cool, because you have to get the marshmallow hot enough to transfer enough heat to melt the chocolate without allowing the marshmallow to burst into flame.
D: It’s pretty sophisticated. Who would have thought? So what are the tricks for making perfect s’mores?
A: You can’t just stick a marshmallow, which is incredibly high in sugar, right into a raging campfire. It will incinerate in seconds. You need to judge the heat.
D: You need to find a good spot, where there isn’t any flame. You want to look for a glowing bed of embers, preferably one that has burnt down so that the heat is glowing red all of the way across.
A: Which is always easy to find because all the other people, who don’t know the secret, will be hogging the area over the high flames on the other side of the fire.
D: Right, so you’ve found your spot. Now you want to hold the marshmallow over the coals raising and lowering it.
A: Slowly raising and lowering your marshmallow over the fire achieves the same thing as adjusting the flame on a stove to get the right temperature.
D: You want to slowly roll the marshmallow to get even heat all of the way around the marshmallow. Don’t just flip it like a steak, which will make some parts of the surface burn before the inside is evenly heated. After a while the surface of the marshmallow will begin to dry and swell (not brown).
A: This is the point where most people mess up. They don’t realize that the outside of the marshmallow has to get completely dry before it will start to brown. So browning takes a long time to start, but once it starts, its going to progress quickly. Usually right before its ready to start we get impatient; stick the marshmallow close to the heat to get it to brown, and before we know it, ignition - incinerated s’more.
D: You have to be patient and you have to check it often.
A: Okay, so we’ve achieved the perfect toasted marshmallow. What about the chocolate? One of my pet peeves is when you bite into a s’more and the chocolate is still hard.
D: I think the chocolate has to be pretty thin. Hershey milk chocolate bars seem to be a near perfect thickness, and (here’s the crucial point) you have to let the marshmallow-chocolate-cookie combo sit for a minute. This gives the heat from the marshmallow a chance to soften the chocolate and it lets the marshmallow cool down a little so it doesn’t goosh out the sides when you take a bite.
A: A perfectly cooked s’more is an astonishing food, and I know I really shouldn’t mess with perfection, but I can’t help it.
D: I’ve used shortbread cookies instead of graham crackers and replaced the chocolate bar with a chocolate spread like Nutella.
A: Brilliant, introduces a new flavor, hazelnuts, and its easy since Nutella is a spread so you don’t have to melt the chocolate. Recently. I’ve been working with toasted caramel s’mores, replacing the marshmallow with a caramel candy, and the chocolate with thin slices of apple – sort of a candy apple riff on a classic.
D: A sprinkle of smoked sea salt, like Halen Mon Gold, would be awesome on there.
Salted Caramel Apple S’mores
Makes 4 servings
8 traditional chewy caramel candies, such as Kraft
1/2 tart green apple, cored and cut in 8 thin slices
1 teaspoon canola oil (optional)
8 cinnamon graham crackers
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or sel gris
Light a wood fire and allow the embers to burn down to a red glow, or light a grill for direct medium heat, about 375°F.
Unwrap the caramels and flatten between the heels of your hands to about 1/2-inch thick. Pierce 2 caramels through their narrow sides onto each of four long skewers or sticks.
If you have a grill grate you can grill the apple slices if you want. To grill them coat the slices with oil and grill over a medium-hot part of the fire until marked, about 1 minute per side. Arrange 2 apple slices (grilled or not grilled) on each of 4 graham crackers. Arrange on a plate.
Hold the caramels about 6 inches from the fire until they brown lightly on both sides and start to collapse, 3 to 4 minutes, turning often. When the caramels are on the verge of collapse, place each skewer on an apple-topped graham cracker. Sprinkle with fleur de sel and top each with one of the remaining graham crackers. Holding the graham sandwich in place slide the skewers from the centers.
Let the s’mores rest 30 seconds before eating.