Editor’s Note: Drinking or eating something hot and warming yourself by a campfire are three sure-fire ways to beat the cold when you’re outdoors. The trouble is, if you’re not a big outdoors-y person, the prospect of how to build the perfect fire to heat yourself up — or to cook something nice and warm — can seem daunting. I went looking for advice and found some from Oliver Thames of OYRO. This guest column was penned by Oliver with helpful tips for budding outdoor folks like me. I hope you find it useful.
I was born and raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry where wood fires are a regular occurrence. In 2011, I launched Bull’s Bay OYRO, a catering company providing wood-fired oyster roasts for parties. Needing a cooker, I designed my own and worked with area welders to create two prototypes using scrap metal. Today, the Bulls Bay OYRO cooker is being ordered from California to Maine! Needless to say, I have learned over time how to build the perfect fire. Here are my tips.
What makes for a good cooking fire is properly seasoned hardwood cut into stove wood sized pieces. Building the fire so that it can breathe is necessary so that it can have the proper amount of oxygen to heat up the wood and eventually burn into a nice bed of long lasting, hot coals. This stage of the fire also eliminates most of the smoke making it easier to cook over.
I use a variety items I keep around for starting my fires but my go to items are usually dry tightly twisted newspaper, a couple of pieces of fat lighter followed by seasoned kindling. If I’m out in the wild I’ll start with twigs and pine cones, adding larger pieces of branches as the fire grows. I’m also not above using a small piece of fire log. It works great as a starter along with paper in wet conditions. I always have a box type container around for tossing small pieces of kindling wood in picked up from my wood pile or left over from carpentry projects. When I use non-hardwood, such as pine, to start my fires I use it sparingly so that it will burn off and not affect the taste of my food.
I think the best hardwoods for cooking are oak and hickory. They both burn hot and for a long time with a nice aroma that gives food a delicious touch of smoky flavor. While I like both, the oak has become my favorite for cooking because there is less smoke than the hickory, but I love the smell of hickory burning on a cool day. I have found apple, pecan, and walnut great for cooking and they have a fantastic aroma as well.
There are many other species of hardwood that are great for cooking, too. They all have different qualities such as heat, smokiness, coaling, and aroma. Depending on which is most abundant also determines what type of wood would I use for my cooking needs. More importantly, though, is the moisture content of the wood being used. Properly seasoned wood burns hotter and longer with a more consistent heat.
The most obvious way to tell if wood is aged enough is the weight. If it is fresh cut, it will be full of moisture and be considerably heavier than properly seasoned wood. The next thing I look for are cracks and splits in the wood. As the wood dries out it will shrink, causing these tell-tale signs on the ends. And the last thing I look for is if the wood has a hollow sound when it strikes another piece of wood or solid object versus a dead thud.
Thanks to Oliver for providing these tips about how to build the perfect fire. If you’ve learned some other tips and tricks that are handy when you’re out building a campfire, feel free to share them below in the comments section.