Outdoor Cooking: Cooking In The Coals

Hot coals from a fire make the perfect outdoor stove. Here's how to cook a tasty outdoor meal over them—no aluminum foil required.

by Tessa Zundel

Outdoor Cooking: Cooking In The Coals - Photo by Chiot's Run/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com) 

I don’t use aluminum foil when cooking over a fire for health reasons, so I love cooking vegetables that come with their own jackets. My kids say that God gift-wrapped potatoes. In this second post in our four-part series on outdoor cooking with the family, we’re going to look at how you can cook “pre-wrapped” vegetables, like potatoes and onions, and other items in the coals of a fire.

Fire Safety

Outdoor Cooking: Cooking In The Coals - Photo by Linda/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com) 

Before we get to the food preparation, here are a few basic fire safety tips that you can add to last week’s rules for outdoor cooking:

  • Don’t wear loose clothing around the fire. In other words, no princess costumes or capes.
  • Keep hair tied back.
  • Only let older children blow on the fire to build up the flame, and don’t let them get too close to avoid ash from blow back.
  • Don’t let children attend the fire alone. Responsible adult supervision is required.
  • Avoid using fuels on the fire, and start it only with a match or torch.
  • Keep devices and other distractions away from the flame. This is not the time to text or play a game, and that’s true for both kids and adults.
  • Don’t build a fire in high wind. The fire will simply blow out or sparks will blow around.
  • Build a good fire ring or designated fire place.
  • Keep any dry grass in at least a 10-foot radius from the fire pit.
  • Don’t play in the fire or pull burning sticks out of the fire.

Steak and Potatoes

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Outdoor Cooking: Cooking In The Coals - Photo by Tessa Zundel (HobbyFarms.com) 

Cooking foods actually on top of hot coals is not a new concept. Many people wrap coal-cooked foods in aluminum foil, but our family does not. We’ll cook our thick, grassfed steaks and baked potatoes directly on the hot coals, though you could also use a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven placed on top of the coals.

Building a good fire with great coals is an art form that we’re still mastering. Once your bank of coals is ready, fan the coals gently with a large leaf to dust off any ash. Place large (around 1½-inch) steaks directly on a flat mess of coals. A strong-armed kid can use powerful tongs or a meat turner tool to turn them over about 5 minutes for each side for a rare to medium-rare steak. The warmer the coals, the faster the outside of your food will cook, though this won’t necessarily penetrate the inside at the same speed. If you want a well-done steak, use cooler coals and plan to cook for longer, or use a cast-iron pan for a little better control.

This video offers some more great tips for cooking meat over the fire:

If you’re cooking sweet or white potatoes you can place them directly onto the coals, as well. I suggest buying a good pair of grilling gloves that have thick material covering your hand and a good portion of your arm to protect the skin and hair when work with the food. Make sure any older children who are assisting with food placement over the coals have their own gloves. Also, you’ll want to find a thick stick or a cast-iron fire poker to gently turn your potatoes over at least once to thoroughly cook them.

The very outside layers of your potatoes will burn, but the inside will have a divine, woodsy flavor that pairs perfectly with homemade butter and some sea salt. The sweet potatoes should slide right out of their jackets, but be aware that they’ll be hot. Your coal-cooked potatoes are also delicious with homemade ketchup, perhaps made from your own tomato harvest. 

Onions and Sweet Peppers

Onions can be cooked the exact same way as your potatoes. I recommend using sweet, yellow onions. Plan to cook these for 30 to 45 minutes, constantly turning them so that the centers are sugary and soft. You’ll pull off the black, outer layers and slice up the juicy innards. If you have children who don’t like onions, they might change their minds after tasting them cooked over the fire.

Sweet peppers can also be cooked directly on the coals, but they’ll finish sooner. Wait for the skins to blacken and the pepper to become soft—about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your coal heat. Do the peppers last, as your coals are cooling down, to save the higher heat for thicker items.

The cool part about these coal-cooked foods is that they’re portable. Marinating some steaks on ice and shoving a few potatoes in the car before you take off for the beach is no big deal, and it’s all very filling. Add a few fresh veggies or foraged greens and you’re good to go have more fun!

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