Building a campfire is a fun and wonderful experience, and I never get tired of creating the base of a good campfire whether it’s by teepee or log cabin. But you don’t have to be an Eagle Scout to know when it comes to cooking over a campfire the fire is just the beginning because it’s the coals that make the basis for good cooking, not the flames.
The average campfire coals burn between 300-600 degrees Celsius based on the number of coals, oxygen level, and the wood that was burned to create these coals. This is cooler than the burning flames, but that steady heat can be used from cooking because it disperses in the open air.
The “coals” are what’s left over when the wood has been thoroughly burned, causing it to break down. This is the best time to cook as the heat is even, at a more reasonable level, and more controllable than an active fire.
In my experience, cooking over campfire coals generally doesn’t involve the same level of precision to temperature like cooking with an oven, and certainly doesn’t hold up to the pinpoint precision of the professional barbecuers who customize cooking rigs for competition. They absolutely must keep the heat and moisture of their rigs at a critical level while for campfire cooking it’s more about just having steady heat that isn’t going to fade too early and then watching the food itself.
Let’s jump into this question further to take a look at how hot campfires get, how hot campfire coals get, and what that means at the end of the day when it comes to cooking outdoors or building a fire that will burn hotter, longer.
Let’s dive in!
Why Does the Heat of Campfire Coals Matter?
Because most recipes are given by temperature and not everyone has thermometers for outdoor cooking. In fact, despite the fact that outdoor thermometers exist many of us rarely use them. And while that might seem crazy at first there is a good reason for it: in many cases it’s just not practical.
I’ve been cooking over campfires at various times for three decades now and I’ve never once used a food thermometer. That doesn’t say it can’t work for someone else, and in fairness just because I haven’t done it doesn’t mean it’s not viable in some circumstances but for the most part learning how to judge when you have “a good bed of coals” that is going to last for as long as you need to cook matters a lot more.
Especially since the coals needed to cook pancakes and eggs for 10 people or to cook two cast iron Dutch Ovens full of dessert for 45-50 minutes are very different as the latter needs more coals that are going to burn for a longer period of time.
Campfire Temperature Vs Cooking Temperature
Campfires at full burn can easily reach 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s assuming this is a normal fire and not a bonfire, and not infected with burners like oil, tar, or gasoline. The fire is at its hottest when it has the most fuel, which is when the burning process is happening. Flames jump up because there’s plenty of oxygen, plenty of unburned carbon.
As the fire breaks down wood into coals, these retain heat for a much longer period of time at a lower level. This is more ideal for cooking and is why if you pay attention to experienced camp cooks, when the fire is going they’re prepping everything else. There might be an occasional glance to make sure the fire is burning well and throw on a few more pieces of wood depending on how many coals are going to be needed for the cooking up ahead.
Because of this, you shouldn’t be scared by temperatures like 1500. You’re not cooking over the actual flames, you’re waiting for the coals to break down. Even at those temperatures being far in excess of what you’re used to on the oven, you will be using heavier cookware that needs more heat to come through (looking at Dutch Ovens) not to mention the fact there’s a huge different between 375 in a metal box designed to keep in heat and 500 in the open air diffusing heat literally every single inch further away from the base of the fire.
Simply learn to build a good campfire that leads to a good set of coals and that is all the basis that you need for getting going with a great outdoor cooking fire.
How Hot Should Your Campfire Be?
When we’re looking at cooking, the temperature doesn’t matter so much. As long as you’ve taken the time to build a decent sized fire and allowed it time to break down, you should be good to go. The best situation is cooking on a low flame fire that has plenty of coals, or a bed of a coals. If you need a bit more heat while cooking over a long period of time, toss in some thin slices of hardwood over the bed of coals. They will burn, releasing a little heat before adding more coals to keep the steady heat going.
A steady solid heat in the 500 degree mark means a grill set about a foot above (where it will sit in most camp sites, the heat dissipates to something more comparable to a home oven. If you create a normal fire using tinder, kindling, and fuel to build up a good wood fire. Either Teepee or Log Cabin methods of building a fire work.
The key is just getting a healthy fire you can keep adding heat to.
This is why cooking hot dogs is easy and properly cooking Jiffy Pop over a fire is so difficult. The hot dogs can hit major heat from an active fire while the need for an even heat for Jiffy Pop made it challenging to cook inside, much less outside on a campfire. There are people who can do it – but they’re the practiced masters who know how to adjust to the challenges of any given fire.
How Can You Affect Campfire Temperatures for Cooking?
There are a few different ways you can affect the temperature or at least the concentration of that. The best for making one section hotter is stacking up coals over there while pushing coals away can make another section cooler. There’s also some temperature differences based on what wood was used since thicker hardwoods are denser and thus burn hotter.
When it comes to dealing with fire temperatures for cooking far more is about proper setup than the temperatures of the fire and as long as you go about that the right way you will be set up for a great outdoor cooking experience.
Hottest Burning Hardwoods
These aren’t necessarily the hottest burning hardwoods according to lab tests – I don’t know if there’s a hardwood deep in a rainforest that burns with the fire of a thousand suns, but there are a few common hardwoods that are known for burning long and hot, and that are easy for most readers to get ahold of. Those are the ones I’m gong to focus on here.
The four big ones are:
- Oak (no big surprise there)
- Ash (for such a lightweight wood Ash burns surprisingly hot before breaking down to coals)
If you have access, most Elm burns very hot and so does Cherry, although good Cherry wood is best left for smoking or flavoring meat, IMO. Bit of a waste for a general cooking fire, not to mention the smoke will flavor a little bit so if you want to take that out of the equation stick with the regular hardwood options.
These burn hotter than other hardwoods and the coals from them tend to burn just a little bit longer. This makes them great for when you have an extended period of campsite cooking.
Tips for Cooking Over a Fire
Getting good advice from an experienced outdoor cook, because all of us tend to develop our own “feel” for cooking or grilling and how do you explain a feeling or instinct? That said, most of these feels are based around practices that have been repeated so often they’ve gone beyond habits. I’ve cooked over literally thousands of grills, smokers, open fires, etc, so there are deep instincts here that pop up even when I’ve been away from the practice for a while.
Have the Right Tools Ready
You need gloves designed for handling heat or oven mitt gloves specifically designed for outdoor use (believe me, you don’t want the ones from your everyday kitchen), pliers that can grip the long handles of Dutch Ovens, and other similar tools. We always have a metal fold out table where hot containers can be set down, but the point is to have the right tools so you’re not trying to improv how to pick up a heavy pot out of an active fire.
That’s not the time to be wondering how to get something done.
Only Use Hardwood
Never use softwood in a fire. Aside from the fact it just doesn’t burn as well, as hot, or as long, softwoods like pine have a sticky sap or tar. This damages pots and cookware, puts a terrible flavor on food because of the smoke, and can cause breathing issues for heavy asthmatics. Pine makes good cheap furniture. It shouldn’t get anywhere near a fire that’s going to be used for cooking of any kind, shape, or form.
For those who don’t know what hardwood vs softwood is: hardwood is lumber from trees that lose their leaves in the winter (deciduous) while softwood is lumber from trees that are evergreen and don’t lose their leave (conifers).
Feed the Coals
The bed of coals is the primary source of long-term even heat, but once they’re spread out at the bottom of a fire pit or grill, don’t be afraid to add a few extra pieces of wood to keep feeding it. A little bit of fire is okay, you just don’t want to dump in a bunch of wood and create a huge roaring fire underneath the cooking area.
Have a Set Up Cooking & Eating Area
Set up your cooking and eating area first. That way if you have hot pots to lift out of the coals directly you have a place to set it. You want a place to put dishes, stack food, and where others can sit after collecting their food. This helps reduce confusion (and possible safety hazards or injuries) because you have everything properly set up from the beginning.
Why Campfire Temperatures Can Be So Different from Ovens
When you’re cooking outside there’s an open fire in open air, which means diffusion. Ovens are built to contain and maintain a temperature for an extended period of time. Also if you’ve ever cooked with a cast iron Dutch Oven, that’s some sizeable metal to heat up and move through. I don’t know the science of it in detail, but basically you’re moving from a compact box designed for steady heat (oven) to an open area with heat diffusing rapidly in even the best of outdoor conditions.
That makes a huge difference when it comes to effectively transferring heat from the source into the food. This is why fires can have such a high temperature but not immediately burn up food. They’re not air fryers after all.
The biggest takeaway I’d give to new people: Don’t worry about it.
Seriously. Make a good fire, break it down to coals, and then start stacking up those hours learning to effectively cook outdoors.
Common Campfire Questions (FAQ)
Here are some of the most common questions about campfires answered, coming from 30+ years of experience loving the flames and camping in the great outdoors.
How Do I Cook Over a Bonfire?
You don’t. Nothing bad’s going to happen if you have a hot dog on a stick or a marshmallow for some S’mores, because a burst of heat on a small area lets you cook it through even with uneven heat. Main point is just cooking it through and through. However, for any type of an actual meal you absolutely shouldn’t plan on cooking over a bonfire at any point. It just doesn’t make sense.
What Wood Burns The Hottest?
The heat does vary based on being dried or seasoned, contained or open air, but generally for hot burning wood you want to cook with look for cherry, oak, hickory, and ash. You can find a good BTU chart here for how hot certain hardwoods and softwoods burn. Keep in mind the higher the number the hotter the burn.
Why Can’t You Use Pine In Cooking Fires?
Pine is a terrible wood for heat, for coals, and it has a sap or tar that tastes terrible, put off a bad smoke, and can damage pots and pans you use to cook with. There just is no good benefit to using pine or another softwood in a cooking fire.
Will Aluminum Cookware Melt Cooking on a Fire?
Good aluminum cookware should not as most aluminum cookware is treated to prevent heat or fire based damage, so you should be fine especially cooking over coals. That said, I’m still more of a fan of cast iron or stainless steel because of personal experience using both and good outdoor cooking gear made of those materials can last for decades.
Experience Makes for a Great Camp Cook
Nothing beats time over the fire for learning exactly how to build your idea campfire to cook over. Even in winter, months removed from my last campout, I can clearly see in my mind the bright white of the burned wood, the orange glowing coals underneath. It’s hypnotic, and while many memories are just sitting around the fire at night laughing, talking, telling ghost stories, those memories are all involved full stomachs from a delicious meal.
If you’re worried about messing up the first time just remember this: make a great fire that burns down to a solid bed of glowing coals. How do you know if they’re glowing? Blow on the fire when it’s burned down if the white glows yellow and orange, you’re doing great.
Cooking over coals is steady heat, and if you slightly overcook things to be on the safe side, so be it. I’ve watched complete newbies adjust from a Thursday night to being pretty competent by Saturday night so just enjoy the process, and the delicious meals will follow.
As long as you follow that advice, and common sense safety advice and setup, then you will have no problem beginning your journey on the way to becoming a great campfire cook.
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