MASTERING THE BASICS
CONSIDERING YOUR ENVIRONMENT First examine where you are cooking – is it inside or outside? This may affect the flow of air through the fire. When setting up, keep in mind that all fire requires ventilation.
WHAT ARE THE WEATHER CONDITIONS? Is it hot or cold, dry or humid? Cold or wet conditions may make it harder to light a fire. Is your fire subject to wind conditions? If so, you may need to shelter it.
WHAT TYPE OF WOOD DO YOU HAVE? Know your wood and its burning properties as some woods burn at higher temperatures or a quicker rate
WHAT IS YOUR FIRE SET UP? Are you using a firepit or a woodfired oven? Make sure it suits your requirements and you understand how it works. The ideal environment for cooking over fire is an open area that is not too exposed. You are looking for dry conditions.
READING THE FIRE Be aware of the sounds and visual signs of your fire. Learn to understand and recognise the six stages of fire while identifying the hottest and the coolest part of the fire. Listening to the fire gives you an indication of how vigorously it is burning. Smoke is associated with various stages of burning. The presence of flame and the colour of embers is a good indication of heat. COOKING OVER FIRE It takes time to develop a sixth sense for the subtle art of cooking over fire. In truth, one is never truly in control of a fire; you just need to work with it. There is no temperature gauge; the act of cooking is reduced to experience, patience and instinct. But experiencing that challenge is exhilarating, and the fruits of your labour will be rewarding.
Cooking over fire is about capturing a moment, enjoying the process of selecting an ingredient and then appreciating the way that ingredient cooks simply over natural heat. It is not just about the finished dish. It is every step you take along the way that makes the finished dish so special.
While there are many methods for using fire as a form of cooking, there are only two ways the heat can be applied: directly and indirectly. This determines how intimately the ingredient is in contact with the heat.
DIRECT Perhaps the most straightforward and recognisable method, applying direct heat sees the ingredient cooked directly over the embers, which may be intense and fast, or gentle and slow (see the fire life cycle guide on page 108). This technique applies to grilling and also to cooking directly on or among the embers or ashes.
INDIRECT Indirect methods work via conduction, radiation or convection. These can occur through physical mediums such as a cast-iron pan or a griddle placed on top of the fire. Salt baking and clay baking also fall into this category. Food can also be placed adjacent to the heat source; I refer to this as indirect offset cooking. This form of cooking over fire is useful for long slow rendering of fats, as it avoids excessive fat dripping directly onto the coals and creating a flare up (see pork chop, page 102).
Sometimes you may choose to combine both methods, cooking by direct means followed by indirect means or vice-versa. Equally, you may require both methods for cooking more than one ingredient at the same time. This can be achieved by establishing two zones. One zone is for burning wood, which can be used for indirect cooking. This also creates embers, which can then be moved to a second zone for direct or indirect cooking.
For your first time, gather some simple ingredients, light the fire, let it develop and wait for the flames to die down to burning embers. Hold the back of your hand 30cm above the heat source. How long can you hold your hand over the embers? You’ll feel hotter spots and cooler areas within the embers. The intensity should give you an indication of when the embers are ready for cooking.
SHARPENING YOUR INSTINCTS
The fire tells you when it is ready for cooking and the ingredient tells you when it is cooked; you just need to listen and learn. It is visceral, not an academic exercise. Honing your senses will help you master cooking with fire. The more you do it, the more you will come to understand how ingredients respond to the heat.
Having learnt the six stages of the fire you must exercise patience. You can’t rush a fire and you can’t just walk away and expect it to look after itself.
You’ll hear different sounds coming from the grill, whether it be marron flesh dancing and popping in its shell, fish skin crisping as the fat renders beneath it, the whistle of eggplant steaming on the inside – or just the burn of the fire. The first time I grilled abalone there were gentle cracking noises as it cooked over embers and I found it astoundingly beautiful.
With time, interpreting these sounds becomes second nature. It may sound odd, but when I cook with fire I feel at one with the ingredient. I’m consumed by fire and immersed in the moment. It is a profound connection that enables me to get the best out of the ingredient.
KNOWING YOUR LIMITATIONS
Don’t try to feed 10 people on your first go. There’s plenty of time to cook for groups and the recipes in this book will help you do that. But first you need to gain experience.
Like all good things in life, you only get out what you put in. If you put something on the grill you need to commit, stay there and see the moment through. You’ve chosen that moment in time, so honour it. Focus and cook. With such high heat, the moment could be over in a flash. Timers don’t work when cooking over fire; you need to watch, listen, smell, feel and be brave. It will be worth it.
This is an edited extract from Finding Fire by Lennox Hastie, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $64.99, available in stores nationally. Photographer: ©Nikki To