Cookin' Outdoors with Johnny Nix                                
Y'all Eat Yet?                                                                                                 
Open Fire Cooking
  • Building A Fire Pit
  • Starting A Fire
  • Cooking with Coals
  • Weather Tips

Before starting a fire choose an area that is free and clear from any flammable material just in case any sparks are blown in the wind.   Do not build a fire close to tree roots to avoid damage to trees.  If you choose to build the fire ring from rocks make sure they are dry and have not been soaked with water as they will explode when heated.  Choose rocks that are flat and can be placed without fear of tipping over.  Flat surfaced rocks are quite handy as a shelf to place lids or skillets upon even coffee pots to keep warm.

Moisture that is in the ground will prevent a fire from reaching its full potential.  The ground will have to "cure" or dry out  before the coals will mature.  To prevent this we recommend removing the topsoil by digging approximately 5-6 inches deep and placing a barrier  on top of the dirt such as metal, rock or even brick as we have done in our own pit at home.  If this is not intended to be permanent you will be able to leave no trace by cleaning out the ashes and replacing the top soil back in the hole when you leave.  

We recommend a rectangular pit approximately 3 foot by 5 foot rather than a round pit which makes for a smaller distance to reach to remove heavy pots from the fire. 


A good way to start a fire is with twigs or sticks that are on the ground and dried out.  We also use purchased Fire Starters on occasion to help get the fire going.  After the fire has started begin placing larger pieces of wood on the fire and place a couple along the perimeter of the fire.  Wet wood makes much more smoke than fire so this will help the wood to dry out and will prevent much of the smoke arising from the fire.  We prefer hardwoods such as hickory or oak for a good cooking fire.  We also add woods such as apple or pecan from time to time when grilling for the wonderful flavor that they add to food.  Avoid woods such as pine or red oak which burn rapidly and leave a bitter taste to your food.  Remember that if the smoke from your fire stinks so will your food.  

Never let any one throw trash into your cooking fire pit.  Plastics and Styrofoam will remain and will ruin your next cooking adventure.


When cooking over an open fire the most important thing to learn is how to maintain control of the heat.  This is done with coals from the wood and this takes approximately an hour to begin to have enough coals to use for cooking.  Remember it’s the heat from the fire not the flames you need for cooking so a big blazing fire may be really pretty but will only get you burnt offerings.  

Our system of using different length of hooks to hang dutch ovens over the fire assists us with regulating the heat needed to cook over an open fire.  Very simply, the longer the hook the closer to the heat the hotter the pot.  

Cooking soups and stews are the easiest dishes to cook to start learning how to manage heat control.  Start the dishes nearest the fire to bring to boil then gradually move up and away from heat to maintain your ideal cooking temperature or low simmer.  Remember that heat rises and with a cooking system such as ours you can easily move the pot up and over to get the heat needed.

Baking dishes such as breads, cakes and casseroles takes a little more practice and the use of top coals for the oven effect and top browning.  Generally we like to start our cakes and breads over the fire using our middle length hook and allow to cook approximately 15-20 minutes or until the sides of the cake or bread start to pull away from the side of the oven; then add a generous amount of top coals and raise the oven to maintain the lowest heat or totally remove the oven from the fire.  This will allow your cake or bread to continue to cook and top brown without burning the bottom.  Remember to watch your food and monitor for "hot spots" or areas that are browning too much and rotate your lid on your oven by a quarter to half turn if needed.  Cakes generally take around 45-60 minutes to bake depending on the thickness and moisture level.  Remember that cooking in a Dutch oven with the lid on prevents moisture from escaping and therefore will take a little longer than in a conventional oven.

Weather conditions always influence your cooking.  Here are some tips to remember when cooking over the open fire.

1.  Wind adds oxygen to the fire and will cause wood to burn hotter and faster.  It will also change the direction of the heat rising up to the Dutch Oven. 

2.  Increased humidity makes your fire burn slower and cooler.

3.  Direct sun or shade can affect cooking temperatures especially in the summer months.

Regardless of the weather conditions it is possible to maintain consistent cooking temperatures if you pay attention to what is happening to your fire.  Practice and watching your food will bring you great outcomes and much enjoyment.