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You should be cooking over a campfire (or firepit) in the summer

<i>EntropyWorkshop/iStockphoto/Getty Images</i><br/>A cast-iron Dutch oven is a versatile piece of outdoor cookware
EntropyWorkshop/iStockphoto/Getty Images
A cast-iron Dutch oven is a versatile piece of outdoor cookware

By Casey Barber, CNN

(CNN) — No disrespect to s’mores and hot dogs, which have earned their spot at the top of the “food you eat around a campfire” pyramid. But they’re not the only foods (sweet or savory) you could cook and enjoy in the great outdoors — or in your backyard.

I’m a cook who doesn’t have central air conditioning in her home, so I’ve frequently relied on my gas grill for making as many meals as I can when the weather gets hot and steamy. As the years have gone by, however, I’ve turned to my backyard firepit as another option.

There’s just something fun and a little adventurous about cooking over a live fire. It can also feel a bit intimidating if you’re used to the controlled world of induction burners and the quick turn of a knob, but it’s easy to get the hang of campfire cooking once you’ve done it a few times.

This summer, why not take it upon yourself to cook a few simple meals over a fire? Consider this challenge your earned-in-advance summer cooking badge.

Start with a few key items

As with an indoor kitchen, you’ll need a few crucial tools to make your outdoor cooking expeditions a success. Don’t worry, they’re nothing fancy — you likely have most of them in your arsenal already.

• Cast-iron skillet and/or Dutch oven: Do not use coated nonstick or ceramic pans since they’re not designed to withstand the high heat of a fire. Cast iron is naturally nonstick and can handle the heat evenly.
• Fireproof barbecue gloves: Upgrade your everyday kitchen mitts and get an insulated pair of gloves that offer better protection.
• Long-handled metal tongs and a spatula: Again, be mindful of using items that can withstand high heat. Inexpensive plastic spatulas will likely warp or soften when left near the heat of a fire and wood burns, so keep any utensils safely away from flames.
• Heavy duty aluminum foil: You’ll need this when making foil packet meals.
• Camp grill grate: A basic metal grate with foldable legs allows you to place your skillet or ingredients above — not directly in — the fire.

Get ready to cook safely

If it’s your first time cooking over live fire, you’ll probably be a bit nervous.

“The biggest safety risks are getting burned by not wearing gloves or by a grease flare-up,” said Dani Meyer, founder of The Adventure Bite blog and author of “Stress Free Camping.” Keep your gloves on and protect your arms with long sleeves when reaching over the fire.

Even if you’re not cooking anything over a campfire or firepit, always keep a bucket of water or a hose within arms’ reach to douse any flames quickly and stop a fire from spreading out of control.

If you’re planning on cooking greasy or oily foods, be aware that sparks from the fire can ignite the oil and start a grease fire. Because water makes a grease fire spread, it shouldn’t be used in this instance. Keep a tight-fitting lid on hand to smother any flames in a skillet and use dirt or sand to extinguish any grease fires if necessary.

Start simple with skillet meals or foil packets

Think of a hot fire as your outdoor stovetop — if you’d cook it over a stove burner with a skillet or pan, you can also make it over a fire with a grill grate.

Once the fire has been burning for at least 10 minutes and a bed of shimmering coals is building under your logs, place a grill grate over the fire as your cooking surface. You can test the heat of the flames by safely placing your hand in the approximate spot where the grate would go. If you can hold it there for about five seconds before you need to pull it away, you’re at the sweet spot for cooking.

You can preheat your cast-iron skillet on the grate, cook food directly on the grate (great for steaks, chops or kebabs) or cook using foil packets.

Foil packets are one of the easiest meals a campfire cooking newbie can make: They are simple to prep in advance and store in the fridge or in a cooler until you’re ready to cook, and can incorporate almost any combination of vegetables, proteins and seasonings you can dream up (such as breakfast burritos!).

For skillet cooking, you can experiment with some of your usual one-pan meals transferred to the outdoors. Grilled skillet mac and cheese or skillet pizzas are always comfort food favorites, or make skillet fajitas and serve with tortillas freshly warmed over the fire. Try campfire nachos or loaded elote tater tots for a group snack.

Go to the next level and cook in the coals

If a hot fire is equivalent to an outdoor stovetop, cooking in the coals and embers once the fire has died down is equivalent to cooking in the oven. Unlike the strong but variable heat of flames, coals have a more steady heat with which to work. However, “coal cooking is more advanced and can be a bit finicky,” Meyer said.

This is because it takes a while for a fire to burn down to the point where you’ll have enough coals to cook in, and it takes some trial and error until you can determine how long it will take for your meal to cook in a bed of coals.

Foil packet meals can be placed directly in the coals or embers — be sure to turn them occasionally for even cooking.

For larger meals, it’s time to pull out the cast-iron Dutch oven, an incredibly versatile piece of outdoor cookware. Just as you would with its indoor counterpart, you can cook slow-simmered stews such as classic chili or chicken and dumplings, or use it for baked casserole dishes such as enchiladas or lasagna.

You can even use a Dutch oven to “bake” carby snacks such as cheesy pull-apart garlic bread or monkey bread. Meyer recommends lining the Dutch oven with parchment paper or foil before adding sticky or messy ingredients, “because cleaning a Dutch oven out when you have burned something is awful,” she noted.

One note: High-sided stainless steel firepits, such as Solo Stoves, aren’t the best option for cooking in coals. You’ll need a lower-to-the-ground fire ring or firepit if you’re not cooking in a campfire.

Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good Food Stories.

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