How to Grill Steak Over an Open Fire
One of the great joys in my life is cooking steak over an open fire. I love being able to take the time to build a good fire, letting it burn down until the coals are white hot, having to tend the fire while everyone else works on dinner, even though the steak is the only thing people will be talking about. For me cooking over an open fire feels luxurious ~ which I know is kind of ironic.
There’s something about the flavor you get from cooking steak over a wood fire that can’t be duplicated using any other cooking method. It’s that slow blistering heat from the coals, with wisps of smoke moving the earthy goodness from the wood into the steak that makes the taste unforgettable.
Hmmm Fire Good
Building a good fire, let alone a good cooking fire, shouldn’t be taken lightly. At my cabin, it usually ends up as a highly controversial activity, because everyone has their own special technique. One person will want to use the log cabin method, while someone else will be saying we need to build it like a teepee, or the kind of weird idea that we should put the kindling on top and let everything burn down, so the fire will last all night. It’s fun watching friends sitting around a sputtering fire after a few drinks telling each other they’re doing it all wrong.
The issue, of course, is that almost everyone learned how to build a fire when they were kids from their grandpas, their dads, a favorite friend, or relative when they were somewhere special – so the right way has less to do with technique and a lot more to do with messing with people’s memories.
The technique I use, which I learned as a Boy Scout, is a combination of the log cabin and teepee techniques. The names refer to how you stack the wood, for a log cabin the wood is stacked in a square, with each branch overlapping one another, like Lincoln Logs, while the teepee method stacks the wood in more vertical fashion with the branches coming together at the top in the shape of a teepee.
What I start with is a small log cabin of very small sticks and branches and then build a teepee around it with larger branches and split wood. This get’s enough air flowing into the fire that it burns quickly and has enough fuel to burn for a long time. It’s also scalable, so you can build whatever, and I mean whatever, size fire the situation calls for.
There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re building a cooking fire. The first and most important thing is the type of wood you use. When you’re going to be cooking over a fire, you want to use a hardwood (e.g. oak, hickory, mesquite, etc.) and not a soft wood like pine. The reason this is so important is that softwoods, especially pine burn differently and can give off a lot of sticky resin that can add a tarry flavor to whatever your cooking. I actually have the woodpile at my cabin separated into cooking versus non-cooking wood.
Size matters for cooking fires. When you’re cooking over an open fire, you want to cook over the coals, ideally when they are white hot. Coals provide much more even heat than flames do, and they’re a lot less likely to turn your dinner into inedible crispy burnt nuggets.
This means balancing the desire to build a huge fire that takes forever to burn down before you can cook on it, with a building a small fire that is ready right away but doesn’t produce enough heat to cook the food in a reasonable amount of time. I try to build a fire large enough to have a good layer of coals under the grate and have a small active fire with more wood next to the cooking area; this lets me move coals in and out depending on the heat I want.
Rub It Down
This is a cooking technique where the cut and thickness of the steak matters. I think thick cuts with lots of marbling work much better with this type of heat and smoke then thin cuts that tend to dry out. My favorite cut to use is a well-marbled, thick ribeye The fat in the marbling helps keep everything tender and juicy and helps to hold on to the smoke.
Since cooking this way adds its own unique flavors, I prefer a simple preparation for the steak that highlights what the wood brings. Normally I just use salt, pepper, garlic, and a little Worchester sauce. I like to add the Worchester sauce first and rub it in since its flavor penetrates deeper than the spice rub on top; sometimes I’ll add smoked paprika, lemon juice, or rosemary to the mix, the rosemary adds great flavor and is something you can also throw on the fire. The steak can be seasoned ahead of time and should be at room temperature before it goes on to the fire.
Touch it ~ Leave it Alone
You’re going to want to play with it, how can you not, it’s steak and fire, and you should have had at least a drink or two while the fire burned down. You’re going to want to play with it, you’re going to want to move it around, prod it, flip it, raise the grate, lower the grate, get the coals just right. The thing is you should leave it alone and let everything cook, except when you shouldn’t.
The biggest difference between cooking over an open fire and cooking on a gas or charcoal grill is that an open fire is much more unpredictable, there is a lot more variation in hot and cold spots as the coals burn down, and it’s a lot harder to predict flare-ups. This means you need to pay more attention to the fire then you would to a grill.
To help you along the way, here are a few tips for grilling over an open fire:
- Keep the tools you need to move the grate up and down and what you’re cooking handy.
- Get everything else you need to do for dinner done and set so you can spend your time looking into the fire and thinking about how much more you miss the ones that got away than the ones who stayed.
- Watch what your cooking, if you notice half the steak is cooking and the other half isn’t, move the grate or move the steak to make sure you’re cooking the whole thing.
- I usually set the grate somewhere between two to six inches above the coals. The way I figure out how high to set it is by putting my hand above the coals and seeing where it becomes uncomfortable to hold my hand for more than a second or two and set the grate there.
- The longer you cook something over the fire, the more flavor it will absorb. By cooking the steak longer at a lower temperature than you normally would it will absorb more of the wood flavor.
- The smoke and heat will make the outside feel firmer than it would on a grill, so if you’re used to telling how a steak is done by touch, be aware that it will feel firmer over a fire and adjust accordingly. This is one method where I usually use a thermometer to tell when it’s done.
All of this may seem like a lot of work, and while I admit it takes more effort than using a charcoal or gas grill, I don’t think of it as work. The way I look at it, anytime I get to spend a couple of hours tending a fire to cook a beautiful steak is a reward for doing something right!