Open Fire Cooking

Nothing tastes quite like food cooked over an open fire. It adds a great deal to the atmosphere of an event with an early period theme. Mistress Rosemounde's article describes how to prepare a feast for 150-200 persons. Here are some things you might like to try for smaller groups.

Preparing the fire:

The most important part of open fire cooking is the firs. The wood used should be a non-resinous hardwood because it will give the best heat and make the best bed of coals, which is what you will be cooking on. When you cook on a charcoal fire you wait until the flames have died down and then cook the food over the coals. The same is true of an open fire. If your wood supply is low, you might want to add some commercial charcoal to the fire. The Boy Scout Handbook is an invaluable source of information on building various types of fires. If you are planning to cook for a large number of people and are not familiar with this type of cooking, it would be a good ideal to try it out a few times on small groups before getting in over your head.

Types of cooking:

There are various types of cooking techniques that can be used outdoors. The article on outdoor feasts covers roasting on a grill or spit. Other types include teaming (see Brigands chicken in the last issue) by wrapping the food in leaves (grape, cabbage and lettuce can be used) and then in clay and baked in the coals. This works well with seafood, fish and small chickens and birds. Besides meats, vegetables can be cooked in this manner.

Wet cooking or boiling can be done quite well with the proper equipment. This was one of the most common cooking types during the Middle Ages. Often several different foods were cooked together in the same pot thereby saving on fuel. A side of bacon might be cooked in a broth with dried peas, making two dishes in one. A pudding might be placed in a sealed container such as one of pottery or an animal stomach, and cooked in the same pot, giving three dishes. This is a good idea to try as it makes cooking easier.

A fourth method is baking in the coals or ashes. Various types of breads can be cooked this way. You can either place the food directly on the hot ashes and cover them with more, or you can use a dutch oven of some kind. You can also heat flat stones in the fire, brush away the ashes and bake the cakes or breads on the hot stones like a pancake griddle.

Types of cookware:

Mistress Rosemounde's article gives a good description for constructing a grill for cooking on. Rebar can also be used for making spits for roasting chickens or meats. The worst thing about spit cooking is that you need someone to turn the spit constantly. The best thing is that you can set your spit to the side of the fire and place a container under it to catch the drippings. You can then bake a pudding such as Yorkshire pudding on top of the drippings and that is really good eating!

Iron kettles of various sizes can be found at junk stores. Make sure you clean it out well before using. I have been told that lye will remove the iron rust scale that forms in old kettle that hasn't' been used for some time. You will either need a trivet of some sort to set your kettle on, or a large tripod to hang it from. you can make a quick large tripod from rebar, hooking the top together with a piece of chain. A hook on the end of the chain will hold the kettle. A trivet can be made form some handy rocks or the tripod iron things used to transport some kinds of wire. The cast iron kettle or cauldron was not the common early period cooking pot for all cultures. The Huns had them, but the Celts and Germanics used riveted ones. The Gundestrup cauldron is an example of one used for ceremonial purposes. The problem with riveted cauldrons is that they frequently leak at the seams. I have been told that if you cook oatmeal in the cauldron, the goo gets in the cracks and seals the cauldron for ever and ever amen.

The most common type of vessel was pottery. For the most part they were glazed with fine clay particles (the famous Roman terra sigillata) or by rubbing and burnishing with a smooth stone, although some cultures used lead and salt glazing. The hardest part about cooking in a clay vessel is finding one. Check with your local potter or take a class in ceramics and build your own. Most early cooking pots have rounded bottoms. This is because a shallow depressing in the coals would allow the pot to be stable, while allowing coals to be piled up on the sides. rounded bottomed containers transfer heat better and the contents are easier to stir. The Chinese wok is an example of this.

Another common cooking container was the animal itself, or at least certain parts. the Scythians are described as cooking meat in the skin of the animal, and indeed it can be done. The meat is placed inside the skin and the legs of the animal are either staked at the four corners of the fire pit or tied up in a kettle-like arrangement. Water is added an the meat is cooked. The subcutaneous fat from the skin adds to the broth and as long as the contents are wet above the fire line, the skin will not burn through. American Indians in the northeast cooked in containers of birch bark using a similar techniques. Instead of placing the skin hover the fire, heated stones could be added to the contents of the hide to heat it. Of course meat can be put into the cleaned stomach or intestines of the animal and fried, boiled or roasted. The Scottish haggis and our sausage are examples of this.

The ancient Irish dug a pit in the ground and lined it with stones. Because of the height of the water table, the pit soon filled with water. hot stones were thrown in to heat the water and meats wrapped in straw were added to cook. Modern attempts to replicate this have shown the meat to emerge clean and quite tasty. There is a modern Breton dish of pork cooked in straw that perhaps has a similar origin. When selecting stones for use in cooking, stay away from shale and sandstone which may retain water and explode when heated.

It is difficult to give exact times for cooking on open fires since there are so many variables, such as the type of wood used, the depth of the coals and so forth, but don't let that stop you from experimenting!


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