Opn-Fr-Cookry-art - 6/23/07
"Outdoor Open Fire Cookery" by Count Sir Gunthar Jonsson, CIM.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This class handout was written for a class taught at the Ansteorra King's College in 2007. It also includes as an appendix some discussion of the class which appeared on the SCA-Cooks mail list.
Outdoor Open Fire Cookery
by Count Sir Gunthar Jonsson, CIM
In the SCA we spend a lot of our time outdoors camping. This is the perfect time to discover a more period way of cooking than over Coleman stoves and fast food. By learning to cook over an open fire we can become more in tune with our ancestors as well as providing a more period feel to the entire encampment.
There are no real treatises on how to cook over an open fire although some Arabic manuscripts do talk of open cooking. Most of the open fire cooking was done in the field, usually from long travels or military campaigns. But we do have many sources of illustration of camp kitchens. From the Bayeux Tapestry to Scappi woodcuts there are glimpses into the tools and methods of open fire cooking.
Of course, even in the hall all of the cookery was open fire but cooking in a camping environment offers many more challenges than the very scientific and controlled great kitchen. Wind, rain, temperature and available wood all provide challenges to the cook. There is also the problem of transportability. In a great hall you can have storerooms of goods, meat delivered from the butcher, bread from the permanent ovens of the baker, and giant hearths and cauldrons for cooking. You don't have this luxury in camp. The period cook had to feed an army on what could be loaded in a wagon or scavenged from the surrounding area. This alone led to never really knowing what was to be cooked until that day.
This class will touch on some period techniques but also methods that have been used for thousands of years. This won't be so much an in-depth discussion of how the medieval army cook fed the masses but ideas for you, the history student, to approach cooking over a spit and open fire.
The dishes presented in this class will cover techniques from ancient to period to modern and are designed to give the student some ideas they can expand upon to feed their hungry camp without having to resort to Coleman stoves or Cajun cookers. Nothing gets a camp more in the period mood than the smell of woodsmoke and freshly prepared food.
There will also be cooking with pottery demonstrated. Cast iron was virtually unknown in period and metal was expensive. Cooking in pottery was the most common method in either camp or kitchen. Pottery cooking is terrific for slow even cooking and does well when surrounded by coals or hot ash. People have been cooking in pottery for thousands of years because it was inexpensive, easily available and very good cookware with the proper knowledge.
The main thing to remember about cooking with pottery is to avoid sudden temperature extremes. Moving a cool pot directly onto a hot fire can crack it and ruin the meal. Always do a slow adjustment of temperature. Add coals slowly under the pot until the desired temperature is reached. Many pots do best when placed directly in the coals so there is even heating all around. Although frying pans and such do fine on a grill, it is best to refrain from doing long term slow cooking on a grill because this causes temperature differences.
One of the more interesting techniques for open fire cookery is spinning meats instead of spit roasting. This is a very old method dating back centuries and is still commonly displayed at Hampton Court and Colonial Williamsburg.
The thing to remember about spinning or most roasting technique is that you don't put the food directly over the heat. The food is put to the side so that basting juices and drippings can be caught in a pan underneath, there is far less chance of a flare up and you don't have to put your hands directly over the heat source.
The higher you have the string the better because it is the winding and unwinding of the string which turns the meat. The longer the string the less time you have to twist the loop.
The first thing you should do is truss the chicken. Do not truss it tightly, though, because white and dark meat cook at different times so if the white meat is done then the dark meat will be undercooked. Truss the chicken so the wings and legs aren't flying out but not so tight that the white and dark meat cook all as one package. Also, when cooking poultry in this way you can stuff it with aromatics and, if properly sewn shut or trussed, you will lose very little of the juice.
Trussing or using a net is also a good idea for roasts or boneless legs of lamb. Remember, the object is to have the meat in as compact a form as possible. So make sure the meat is tightly trussed.
The first thing to make for this is your turning string. Take a bit of kitchen twine that is twice as long as the point you want the chicken to hang from the crosspiece and make a loop at each end. These loops will go over the skewers.
Then make the "hinge" by taking another much shorter string and tying that in a loop around the hook or crossbar the meat will be suspended from. Loop the twisting string through the gap of the hinge string with the two end loops hanging down.
Now take the trussed bird and insert a metal skewer through the body and behind the wings. Flip the bird and insert another in the bend of the thigh and leg. Test it a bit and make sure it hangs level, adjusting the skewer until it is right.
Place the bird on a plate and bring it to the fire. The strings should be hanging off to the side of the fire and not directly over it. Test with your hand to find a nice hot place to hang the bird. Now bring the bird up to the string and, while holding it with the plate, slip the loops over each side of one of the skewers. Pull away the plate until the meat is hanging suspended on the twine. Spin the meat around until the string is totally twisted and then let go. The bird will spin quickly at first and then slow down. The string will then twist the other way. Keep an eye on the bird and when it finally stops spinning, twist the string again and continue. Let it roast (starting with the breast side down is usually beast) until the meat is almost to the correct temperature. The, putting the plate under the bird again, swap the string to the other skewer and let the bottom half roast.
I've found a regular sized bird will take from 2 1/2 to 3 hours on average. This could be longer or shorter depending on wind, the fire, air temp and moisture.
"Beggar's Chicken" or Clay Roasted
A method of baking meat and vegetables that dates back to the Stone Age is to wrap it in river clay, dig a hole, put ashes in the hole, insert food package, cover with coals and then cover with earth.
Although this may sound dirty and unappetizing it is a wonderful method of cooking. The clay bakes hard and even has the added benefit of stripping feathers or scales off birds and fish. Hedgehogs were even baked like this and it was noted of the added bonus of having the spines stripped off the cooked meat.
If you aren't wanting to cook your meat with fur, scales or feathers then be sure to wrap it well in banana or lotus leaves, parchment paper or aluminum foil. A couple of layers at least will do.
The first thing to do is dig a hole about a foot deep, or more depending on the size of what you are cooking. Basically you want it deep and large enough to be properly insulated in the earth. Start your fire so you will have a nice bed of coals for when the cooking begins.
Now we go on to the main event of preparing the food. The most common and historical method of doing this is to go to a nice riverbank and scoop up a bowlful of clay. Unfortunately most of us don't have the luxury of a nice riverbank and really worry about just what might be in that clay. So there are a few other options. One is to get a good non-toxic modeling clay from your local arts and crafts store. The brand we have in the demo is called "Delight Air Dry Clay" and bakes up rock hard so be sure to have a hammer available.
Another way of doing an in-ground bake is to make a salt crust. A salt crust is mainly salt mixed with some form of bonding agent. One method uses kosher salt mixed with egg whites. This is a nice way to get rid of extra whites and does a good bond. But I prefer the other method of mixing kosher salt with flour and water to make a very thick salt paste. This holds together better than the egg white method and dries harder. I have found a box of kosher salt is about the right amount for coating a Cornish Game Hen.
For the class we are using Cornish Hens but just about any food can be cooked this way.
When using a salt crust having it cook in an aluminum pie pan makes life a lot easier. Mix up the crust and put a thick layer in the bottom of the pan. Now prepare your hen by stuffing the cavity with aromatics and wrapping it in several layers of parchment paper, aluminum foil or large leaves. Remember to totally cover it otherwise dirt or ash or salt will get on the finished product.
Lay the hen on the salt crust in the pan and pat the remaining salt over the hen. Make a fairly thick dome and be sure to patch up any holes.
If you are using clay, just stuff and wrap the hen and form the clay around it. No pan is really needed because the clay sticks together nicely.
Go out and put a couple of shovelfuls of hot coals into the hole, then lay the pan or clay wrapped bird directly down onto the coals. Shovel more coals on top and then cover with dirt. Check the type of soil you are burying the meat in. Thicker clay-y soil needs less heat than loose, sandy soil. The looser or wetter the soil the more fire you need in the hole.Stick some kind of indicator on top of the hole so you know where it is. I almost lost dinner the first time I did this and forgot to mark the spot.
In a couple of hours, dig up the bird and carefully crack off the crust. Shake as much of the coal, dirt and crust off and then carefully unwrap your meal. It will be pale and almost steamed looking. Remove from the wrapping and your primitive cooking methods look downright elegant.
Roasting in a Dutch Oven
If you don't want to go to all the trouble of digging a hole and you have a nice Dutch oven or potje you can make a beautiful roast. I like adding a bit of smoke flavor so I'll throw a handful of woodchips in the bottom of the pot. Then cover with a layer of aluminum foil. Put a screen or piepan with holes punched in the bottom over the foil so that it is a bit above it. The foil will catch drippings. You can put vegetables down in the foil if the grill leaves space. Doing it this way will keep the meat above the drippings and also keep the bottom of the oven clean. Just carefully lift out the aluminum foil and sweep out the charred wood chips.
To roast the chicken. Prepare your chicken as you wish, stuff with aromatics and season. Trussing lightly will help prevent parts touching the sides and sticking or scorching. Place the woodchips, foil and grill into the oven and then the meat onto the grill. Cover and then put the oven over a layer of coals you have spread on the ground. You don't need many. Then place a small layer of coals (or six or seven briquettes) over the top to make all around heat. Occasionally check the temp of the coals and lay down a new bed once it gets a bit cool. Rotate the lid a couple of times and replace cooled coals there as well. Check the temp after about two hours.
The easiest thing to do over an open fire is to make a stew. If using pottery you can place it directly in coals and ash. Do not put potter over open flames. Maintain a steady heat.
If using cast iron it is fine to place over a fire or you can set it on a bed of coals like when roasting. Use your "S-hooks" to regulate heat by raising or lowering or just move the coals and fire around.
If roasting on a spit, one thing to remember is that food will tend to rotate around the spit. Make sure you have either spit forks to hold it in place, tie it on with twine or take two metal skewers and insert them on either side of the spit rod through the meat to grip and turn the meat. Spit roasting does not have to continuously turned, although that really does provide a superior roast, but you do have to watch carefully and not let it blacken too much. Once the outside is nicely charred, move the spit away from the fire or cool down the fire and let it slowly roast. It's good to have a dripping pan underneath to catch the drippings and mix with whatever you are basting with.
If you are roasting sausages it is best to tie them on with twine, even if you are using a long rope of interlinked sausages. Wrap the length around the spit and tie securely.
Some Suggested Recipes
Although we like to think so, meat does not make the meal. Here are a couple of items you can also prepare easily over the fire to round out the meal.
Okay, I'll start with more meat, just to be contrary.
This is a very period recipe that tastes wonderful to the modern palate and is a great start for learning to cook in a pottery skillet.
Chicken and Leeks
2 1/2 lbs of boneless chicken. I prefer thigh meat.
1 1/2 cup (12 fl oz) olive oil
1 cup (8 fl oz) chicken stock
dash of vinegar
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 cup (2 fl oz) chopped fresh parsley
1 large bunch leeks
Clean and dry the chicken. Put oil in the skillet and place over medium hot coals. Do not heat too fast. Add the oil. Once the oil is heated then add the chopped chicken meat a bit at a time controlling the temperature. Once the chicken is in you can add more coals until it is sizzling. Once the chicken is browned, remove it to a platter. Remove some coals until the heat feels medium low, basically a decent simmering heat. Discard most of the oil, leaving just a light covering on the bottom of the pan. Add the broth, vinegar, pepper, parsley, leeks, and return the chicken to the pot. Bring to a slow simmer, cover, and cook until the leeks are tender and chicken is done.
There was a great love of fruited drinks all through the period and making fruit syrups to serve is a great way to have a period drink without resorting to alcohol. This lemonade was mixed with either hot or cold water and drunk in all seasons. Cooking down the lemon syrup makes a lemonade much richer and deeper than the usual modern lemonade and beats the hell out of powdered drink mix.
Take equal parts of squeezed fruit juice and sugar. Heat slowly in a pot and stir until the sugar dissolves and reduces into syrup. When cooking in a clay pipkin I feel it is better to add the ingredients and then place it over the coals so as not to shock the heated clay with liquid. Once cooked down the syrup keeps very well for quite a while in a sealed jar.
Bread is so easy to make outside. If you are really good you can make a wonderful risen loaf in your Dutch oven. I'm not that good yet. But making flatbreads over the fire is something anyone can do. Here are a couple of wonderful recipes to try out.
3 cups flour
1 cup ice water
3 T shortening
1 T salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
a pinch of baking soda
Combine all ingredients and form into a dough. Cut into 4 or 5 equal pieces and roll each piece out into an 8 inch circle. Take a fork and prick the surface of the dough and cook it on a hot greased griddle. Turn once with a spatula. They cook fast.
This is from an article on making Irish Soda Bread on the griddle
4 cups flour
1 heaping teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 3/4 cups buttermilk (about)
In bowl, mix dry ingredients; add just under the amount of buttermilk called for. Knead lightly to mix, adding more buttermilk if too dry, or more flour if too wet.
Turn out onto floured board and knead lightly again. Roll out into 1/2- to 3/4-inch-thick oval. Cut across dough in both directions to create pieces approximately the size of a deck of cards or slightly larger.
Grill pieces for 5 to 10 minutes on lightly greased hot cast-iron griddle until soft brown spots begin to form. Turn. Grill on all four edges, too, standing pieces against each other and turning as all four edges cook. Remove and cool.
Breads can be split lengthwise and eaten with butter and jam (great while still slightly warm). Bread is best the day it's made rather than following days. Makes about 20.
Other things you can do is to have vegetables in the dripping pan under your spitted or spinning meats to roast in the juices. Or wrap them in several layers of aluminum foil and toss directly into the coals.
This class is nowhere even close to a comprehensive digest
of open fire cookery. It is part experiment, part discovery and part a sharing
of knowledge. Cooking over a campfire is slow, leisurely, hard work,
gratifying, period and definitely worthy of further experimentation. As we
strive for more authenticity in our dress and camps having several camp
kitchens cooking up period and even not-so-period meals for our hungry campfolk
takes us one more step back with our ancestors.
Links of interest:
SCA-Cooks list: sca-cooks at lists.ansteorra.org
Period spit project: spit-project at lists.ansteorra.org
Potjie pots: www.thecellarstore.com
Camp tools: www.pantherprimitives.com
<end of class handout>
Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2007 17:46:19 -0500
From: "Michael Gunter" <countgunthar at hotmail.com>
Subject: [Sca-cooks] Outdoor cookery class post mortum (very long)
To: sca-cooks at lists.ansteorra.org, spit-project at lists.ansteorra.org
The open fire cookery class I held at King's College this
weekend was more attended than I anticipated. I had
expected 6 - 10 people and had 22 sign up. Luckily they
were a wonderful group who tolerated the heat and
smoke and 2 hour class well and with good cheer.
This was my first class on outdoor cookery so I expected
some problems and I learned a lot.
We got on site around 8 am and started setting up and
building the fire. I dug 4 holes for the Cornish Hens and
prepared both regular wood and charcoal. We had a nice
pavillion set up along with a long table for demonstration
purposes. There were benches around the firepit which
also helped with the class.
By the time students began arriving we had two chickens
spinning, one in a Dutch oven roasting and two of the
hens in crusts buried.
Although I did have several pages of class notes for handout
I did most of the talking off the cuff and tried to leave the
discussion free-form with just an outline to keep things on
track. The students were knowledgable, helpful, inquisitive
and a lot of fun.
Things went fairly well although doing an open fire demo
in June in Houston, TX really isn't a good idea. It was bloody
hot. I also caught my nice period shoes on fire a couple of
Because of time constraints, the heat and the fact that the
skillet I'd been promised was much smaller than expected some
of the demo was not included. So we didn't do the griddle bread
and Chicken & Leeks. But what was demonstrated was the Spinning
Chickens, Dutch Oven roasting, Cornish Hens in salt crust and clay,
vegetable packets cooked in coals and period lemon syrup.
Make sure all the tools you plan on using are there beforehand so you
know what you are working with. I wanted to demonstrate cooking
in the pottery frying pan but the two beautiful pans that Mistress
Gwyneth presented me were too small. I did bring a regular frying
pan just in case but decided the real part of that class wouldn't be
done in a modern skillet.
We didn't do the bread mainly because Elizabeth was just too hot
to do it. There are recipes in my handout so that the people can
try it at home.
One important lesson is to get a lot of coals burning before class
begins. I kept running out of coals and had to make more during
the class. I need probably at least three coal chimneys and have
batches of charcoal burning all the time.
Spinning Chickens need to be put closer to the fire. They took too
long to cook because there wasn't enough heat.
The Cornish Hens were an utter failure. Although they were almost
perfect when I tried out the recipe they didn't cook at all during
the class. I realized the loose sandy soil of the teaching site doesn't
hold heat as well as the more loamy soil where I tested the recipe.
Next time I need a lot more fire in the holes. I was really disappointed
in this but the students at least got to watch the preparation of
the salt crust and clay. They just didn't get to see the end results.
The dutch oven roasted chickens have worked every time. They cook
quickly, look nice, taste great and are easy to show and prepare.
I was able to serve this to the students.
Although I didn't get to serve the spinning chickens to the class, they
were served later that night at the pot luck and were perfectly cooked.
Moist breast meat and dark meat cooked through.
The lemon syrup cooked in the pottery pipkin over coals was a huge
hit. It cooked up just right and the students were amazed with the
The veggie packets were simple and cooked very quickly in the coals
so they were also offered for sampling afterwards.
I learned a lot in teaching this and I hope the students enjoyed it
as well. I did get a lot of very nice compliments on it later and even
had the Kingdom Bard come over and ask Elizabeth and I to bring
our stuff up to his area and teach cooking in Feburary.
I most especially wish to thank my lady Elizabeth for her extremely hard
work, dedication, boot in the ass, and belief that I could pull it off.
Mistress Gwyneth & Mistress Clara for making me agree to do it. (And the
The Barony of Stargate for providing the site, pavillion and tables.
And most of all the fabulous students I had. They took all the
with humor, provided respectful appreciation of what I was trying to get
across and challenged me with questions. I couldn't have dreamed of
Date: Tue, 12 Jun 2007 12:07:32 -0500
From: "Michael Gunter" <countgunthar at hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: [Sca-cooks] Outdoor cookery class post mortum (very long)
To: sca-cooks at lists.ansteorra.org
> I do have a question about this part on the spinning chickens. Did you
> simply put them up on a spit in the open air or did you have them in a
> standing half dome to reflect back the heat?
I was really wanting a heat reflector. One of the things I mentioned
in my talk was how much better spit roasting is when done on a
proper hearth that concentrates most of the heat outwards.
The chickens were pretty much freely swung next to the fire
and they need to either be a lot closer or the fire needs to be
hotter. I still don't recommend having the meat directly above
the flames, though.
Date: Tue, 12 Jun 2007 12:13:14 -0500
From: "Michael Gunter" <countgunthar at hotmail.com>
Subject: [Sca-cooks] Lemon syrup.
To: sca-cooks at lists.ansteorra.org
> It's sounds like a very learning experience! I'd love the lemon
> syrup in a pipkin recipe!
It's very simple. Equal parts of lemon juice (I'm planning on trying
this with other fruits as well) with sugar. I used turbadino sugar
because I feel it may be a little closer to period and definately
tastes better. Cook and stir over fairly low heat until the desired
consistancy is achieved. Then mix the syrup with either hot or
cold water to taste.
> My frying pan is also small...I think they have to be or
> they would crack (seen one do that) they also have to have even heat
> below..no hot spots.
There are larger frying pans out there and, if used correctly, work
very well. The main thing is to avoid hot and cold spots and to
change temps gradually.
> So..perhaps flat breads were done on griddles? Perhaps just a
> flat piece of metal(hmm...shield?) The frying pans make great
> oat cakes!
Actually I was planning on cooking the bread on an iron griddle.
The pottery frying pan was going to cook Chicken and Leeks.
I've heard of soapstone griddles but have no experience in how
well they actually work. Hoecakes got their name from being cooked
on hoe blades or shovels.
Copyright 2007 by Michael F. Gunter, 3621 Frankford Rd., Apt 336. Dallas, TX 75287. <countgunthar at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.