Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Open Hearth Cooking

"While rewarding in so many other ways, authentic fireplace cooking ... is a tedious, time consuming, physically demanding, dirty, and somewhat dangerous endeavor" - SpitJack.com
At this time of year we sing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It's fun, it's beautiful, it's nostalgic, and it's inherently dangerous. Let's start with the Safety Rules before discussing Open Hearth Cooking.
  1. Never leave a fire unattended. If you must step away, place a fireproof screen to cover the fire place.
  2. Keep your chimney clean. Chimney fires, while rather infrequent, can be frightening and even result in burning down your home.
  3. Do not burn pine or evergreen logs. Pine emits creosote when burned, and creosote buildup is the main cause of chimney fires.
  4. Keep the area near the fire clear of any thing flammable. Sparks can jump many feet out of the fire place.
  5. Keep the hearth clean of grease to avoid grease fires. Use drip pans when roasting or boiling to prevent the grease from dripping directly on the hearth.
  6. Keep a bucket full of water and a fire extinguisher near the fire place.

The first secret to enjoying Hearth Cooking is building a proper fire. You must skillfully build and maintain a very hot fire using heavy hardwood.Don’t skimp with the wood when starting the fire because you want lots of embers and coals to develop. Don't skimp on time either. It can take a hour or more to get the right fire conditions with lots of ember, little to no flames.

Once built, you must maintain the fire by poking about it, shoveling hot embers to and fro, and feeding it from both the front and the back. Place the largest log against the back wall. When it burns down in size, pull it towards the front and replace it with another large log. The rest of the time you feed smaller replacement logs from the front.

Improvisation sits at the heart of hearth cooking. You can make stand for kebabs, a grill, a frying pan, a griddle, or a pot by placing embers between bricks. Many foods like Flat Bread and Roasted Onions can be cooked directly on the embers. Other foods can be baked buried in hot ash, either directly, such as potatoes or Ash Cakes, or wrapped in oiled paper, large leaves, or clay.

Don't use your expensive copper bottom stove set! It could melt. For Hearth Cooking you need cast iron skillets and pots. These are heavy and the handles are always very hot but they are nearly indestructible. The best pots are called "Dutch Ovens". You can buy them with feet so you can shovel embers beneath the pot and with flat lids with a raised lip so you can pile embers on top of the pot. Dutch Ovens are used to cook NEAR to the fire, not IN the fire. To cook over the fire itself you'll want a crane or fireplace hook from which you can suspend pots.

Bottom Line

Open-Hearth cooking was the way to cook for centuries before the wood burning stove was invented. But as the quote at top notes, Hearth Cooking can be dangerous both to you (scalds & burns) and to your house (fire). I don't recommend learning this by trial and error. Learn from past experience through books, The Magic of Fire, The open-hearth cookbook, and with classes at Historical sites like this one in Camden, NJ.

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