On a dark night in the Maine woods, a campfire draws people together. The warmth and flickering light, the crackling embers and rich smell of woodsmoke — these things combined stir a deep-rooted sense of comfort. Perched on fold-out chairs, logs and picnic tables, campers stare into the dancing flames.
On such occasions, it’s an age-old tradition to hand out some marshmallows and roasting sticks and make the most common campfire snack in America: s’mores. Why not get a bit creative and try cooking something new this summer?
First things first
Good campfire cooking, no matter how complicated or simple the recipe, starts with a well-built fire and a little practical knowledge.
“What happens to most people is they try to cook over a fire that’s too hot,” Greg Shute, vice president of Chewonki, an environmental education organization based in Wiscasset, said. “They use softwood, and it just flares up. Softwood is really great to start out your fire with, but having an assortment of wood types, including hardwood available, gives you coals to cook over.”
Campfire cooking is one of the key outdoor skills taught at Chewonki through camps, trips and workshops. In fact, learning how to cook tasty meals in the backcountry is one of the highlights of Chewonki’s teen wilderness trips. On every evening of the trip, the group splits up campground duties so that every task — from wood collection to washing dishes — gets done.
“We follow Leave No Trace principles,” Shute, who is a Master Maine Guide and has worked for Chewonki for the past 32 years, said.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a national organization with a goal to protect the outdoors by teaching people how to enjoy it responsibly. Much of LNT education focuses on seven core principles, and one of these principles is to “minimize campfire impacts.”
Most public campsites in Maine have established campfire locations that include fire rings — metal or stone circles built to contain the fire to a specific spot. When fire rings are not available, Chewonki-led groups build their fire on a fire pan — some people simply use the lid of a metal trash can — to minimize their impact on the environment. Or, if camping on a coastal island, they’ll build a fire below the high-tide mark, to be washed away by the ocean. If these options are not available, they simply don’t build a campfire. They use backpacking stoves to cook their meal instead.
Another thing to consider before building a campfire in Maine is whether or not a fire permit is required for that site. Most campsites in Maine do not require a special permit, Shute said, but some remote campsites do.
It’s also important to have something on hand that can extinguish the fire, such as a bucket of water. Then, once you have responsibly gathered an assortment of logs and kindling, it’s time to start a fire.
“We teach our staff not to rely on any of the fire starter stuff you can buy,” Shute said. “We pick up birch bark already on the ground, dry it and save it in a zip-lock bag. If you have a good supply, you can pretty much get any fire started with less than pencil-sized twigs.”
Birch bark contains a natural oil that’s flammable, Shute said, and it can be separated into thin layers so you increase the surface area to be burned and allow more oxygen to feed the flames.
Thinking beyond foil
Working for Chewonki and as a Maine Guide, Shute has cooked many meals over open flame, and he has all sorts of tips for making campfire cooking easy, safe and low-impact. For example, he prefers not to use tin foil while cooking because it can easily break apart and get mixed up with the coals in a fire pit.
“We rely on good, sturdy cookware to do all our cooking and baking,” Shute said.
For car camping — camping at a location you can drive to — Dutch ovens, fold-out grills and cast-iron cookware are great options. But at remote campsites that require you to carry in all of your gear, these items are too heavy. That’s why one of the most treasured possession of a Chewonki trip leader is a lightweight fry-bake pan.
“It works almost like a Dutch oven,” Shute explained. “We can cook anything from pizza to blueberry cobbler in it. You cook it over a low flame and build on top of the fry bake pan a twiggy fire. It’s a pretty easy way to make some really tasty desserts.”
A reflector oven — a lightweight metal container that encloses the food on all but one side and bakes it by capturing heat from an open fire and reflecting it toward the food — is another tool Chewonki trip leaders use on a regular basis to make a variety of baked goods, including cinnamon buns, cookies, pies, biscuits and breads.
Instead of carrying freeze-dried meals, Chewonki trip leaders try to create backcountry meals out of fresh food as much as possible by carrying frozen vegetables and fruits to be used as they thaw, as well as preparing, mixing and packaging ingredients before each trip. They minimize the trash they create by packaging most of the food in zip-lock bags and reusable containers, and these items are never thrown in the fire. All plastic gets packed out of the wilderness.
Mix it up
S’mores are certainly delightful treats, but there are plenty of other snacks and meals that can easily be cooked over a campfire. Here are just a few easy campfire snacks to consider.
Popcorn can be cooked in a pan with a lid with some butter and spices, or simply buy Jiffy Pop, a popcorn brand that combines popcorn kernels with oil and flavors in a heavy-gauge aluminum foil pan. This pan has a short metal handle, which is really too short for cooking over a campfire comfortably (without burning your hand), so consider how you might lengthen that handle — perhaps by using duct tape and a stick?
Another great campfire snack is caramelized citrus. Just cut an orange or grapefruit in half, brush the inside with honey, and place the halves face down on a grill top to caramelize it. Angel food cake also crisps up nicely on the grill.
If you have a frying pan, that opens up a whole other realm of campfire snacks, including “frico,” which sounds fancy but is really just a grilled mix of shredded asiago and parmesan cheeses.
If you’re looking for something sweet, try baking cake in a dutch oven or fry-bake pan.
“We regularly take brownie mix out into the field, and you can buy powdered egg mix instead of taking raw eggs with you,” Shute said. “We do instant puddings as well, and all of those things are pretty lightweight with not much time investing in the preparation or cooking.”
If you have skewers or “marshmallow sticks,” wrap some pretzel dough around them and slowly roast the pretzel over the coals until it’s golden brown. These go great with hot dogs, which are also great for cooking on a skewer. In fact, you can make a hot dog curl into a squid shape over the flames if you slice it just right: once through the center, then three times lengthwise, stopping about an inch from the end for the squid’s head.
Bringing it back to the s’mores — that traditional sandwich of toasted marshmallow, graham cracker and chocolate bar — why not jazz it up? Instead of a chocolate bar, try another type of candy. Peppermint patties and peanut butter cups work well. And instead of graham crackers, try thin cookies or wafers. Of course, there’s really no substitute for a crispy, fire-roasted marshmallow.
Soft Pretzels on a Stick
3 cups flour
3 tablespoons spelt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon yeast
1½ cups water
1. Mix dry ingredients first, then add the water.
2. Knead for up to five minutes.
3. Make a 6-inch coil about an inch thick.
4. Wrap the coil around a stick, twisting the dough as you go.
5. Brush your masterpiece with egg whites.
6. Patiently cook the pretzel over the embers of the fire, not the flames, and rotate the stick slowly to harden the outer crust and bake the pretzel through to the middle. Depending on the heat of the fire, this will take about five minutes.