What is an Altar Fire?
The phrase altar fire describes any setup designed to light a cooking fire above ground level. Traditional ones can be made out of several large logs laid at right angles or staves lashed together. These would then be topped with earth to form a non-flammable layer. Modern ones tend to have a metal tray to build the fire in, supported by a metal frame. Recycled half- barrels are sometimes used. A grate is placed over the fire to put your pots and pans on.
Altar fires are ideal on campsites where ground fires are not allowed, usually because the site owners want to protect the grass, as they keep the heat well away from the ground. They can also be easier to use due to the fact that the grid where you place your pans is at a fairly similar height to your cooker at home so constant bending down is not necessary.
Breakfast ideas for camp - why not try making some of these once your fire is going?
Preparing to Build a Cooking Fire
Preparation is key – make sure you have enough dry wood available in suitably sized pieces as once the fire has been built and lit it will want tending and close supervision. The wood you choose is going to be a big factor in how successful you are. There is no point chopping fresh wood as it will be green and damp and will create a lot of smoke. This will be too cool to cook over. Some types of wood are better suited to cooking, so make sure you check what you are using first. Firewood is provided by some campsites so check if this is the case before you leave home. If not, you will need to bring your own with you.
Think about the weather - is it so dry that one spark could cause a forest fire? If so please don't light a fire. If it is windy you will need to come up with some sort of shelter for your fire, but don't use anything flammable for this purpose (such as your tent!).
Building the Fire
When cooking on an altar fire you don’t want the cone shape and big flames of a typical campfire – you want a flat bed of hot coals with little to no flame. To achieve this lay the fire in the following order:
- Fill the fire with tinder or crumpled paper (tumble dryer lint makes great tinder).
- Lay kindling over the paper layer. To cover the whole area evenly, lay several layers, alternating direction with each one.
- Light the paper to start the fire.
- Wait until the kindling is burning well to add firewood.
- Distribute firewood evenly over the fire area.
- As with barbecues you should wait until the flames have mostly died down to start cooking.
- Optional step: If you want a really advanced set up with different heat “settings” you can arrange the coals so that one end is giving off more heat than the other. To do this, use a stick to rearrange the coals once the flames have died down and you have white coals left. Push them so that you have more at one end of the fire area. This will be the hottest part.
You are now ready to begin cooking! Bonus tip: Coat the outside of your pans with washing up liquid BEFORE you begin cooking. It acts as a non-stick layer and makes washing the black stuff off the outside pan afterwards much easier. If there is black stuff on the inside of the pan you might need a new cook…
I hope this has been a helpful guide to making a cooking fire in an altar fire. If you are new to cooking over fire try to keep the recipes simple so that you can concentrate on keeping a decent fire going. Snack lunches would probably be a good place to start, rather than a three course dinner! I hope you enjoy your outdoor cooking experience!