Campfire Cooking : Fire Roasting a Whole Turkey
Updated: May 8, 2019
To celebrate my brother's 30th birthday, my family gathered at one of our favorite places, my uncle's cabin in the Appalachian region of Southern Ohio. This place holds cherished memories for both of us, and it felt so good to be there again! With a whole weekend of no agendas or cellphone service ahead of us, we knew some campfire cooking was in order.
We love cooking with fire! The lack of control makes the results unpredictable, but with some time and practice you can learn how to manage the heat to work in your favor. The extra challenge is so worth the payoff in tastiness. Hours spent marinating in the smoke paired with the fresh spring air creates a perfectly crispy crust full of flavor. And as always, the best flavor starts with high quality pasture raised birds!
Building your structure:
There are lots of ways to build structures for hanging meat over a fire, but we believe in using what you have. In this case, Andrew found a pile of branches from a recently felled sycamore tree on the property, and used wire to lash the poles together. Your structure might look very different, and that's ok!
Here’s what you need:
3 long poles (green wood) of similar length
3 slightly shorter poles (also green wood)
Heavy duty, yet flexible wire. Andrew used some aluminum wire he had on hand. (Rope or twine would do the trick too, but wire is the sturdiest and easiest)
Here's how he did it:
Tip: Build your structure before you build your fire to give you safe access to your structure. Since the meat will take hours to cook, Andrew built this in the morning, then started the fire about an hour before hanging the birds.
Take the three long poles and anchor them into the ground in a tipi shape over the fire pit. The ground was soft, so this was easy for us. If the ground is hard you may need to sharpen the end of your poles with your hatchet and pound them into the ground. Use the wire to lash the three poles together at their intersection. Tip: Choose green wood (freshly cut) when selecting your poles. Dry wood could catch on fire and collapse, sending your dinner straight into the flames.
Next cut a slit into the ends of two of the smaller poles to form your braces. To do this, position the hatchet blade on the end of the pole. Find a handy piece of firewood to use as a mallet and gently whack the back of the hatchet to make a split. Place the other end of the pole on the ground near the rear tipi pole, and wedge the split end about halfway up the adjacent pole. Wrap wire around the split, pulling the two halves together. You might want to also wrap around the crotch of the split to keep it from splitting too far. Repeat with the other brace.
Lay the final pole across the supports made by the braces (to form an A shape) and secure with wire.
Run a piece of wire (or cooking twine) for each bird from the top of the tipi down over your cross pole. This is where you'll hang the birds. Attaching the wire/twine at the top allows you to easily slide the bird from side to side across the cross pole to adjust heat.
Building your fire:
If you're attempting this method, we'll assume you've cooked with fire at some level before so we won't go into a fire building tutorial. Just build a nice roaring fire. Get it going and start feeding it 30 minutes to an hour before you start cooking.
Your goal is to maintain consistency. You're after flames, not just coals, so keep the fire fed throughout the process. Watch the progress of the birds. If they're cooking too fast or burning, push the logs further away from the birds. If you need more heat, push the logs closer. There is no perfect formula we use for cooking with fire, just watching and monitoring.
Cooking your birds:
If you start with quality meat, you you end with a quality meal, plain and simple. Since we started with excellent pasture-raised turkeys, we didn't need to do much to them! If you're using turkey, we recommend a smaller bird, around 6-8 lb. This helps with even browning and faster cook time, as well as easier handling and transporting. You could try this method with chicken as well.
We used a dry brining method to season the turkeys. This is great for camping because we seasoned them at home and popped them in the cooler, so they were all ready to cook the next day! Essentially, dry brining is covering the bird with kosher salt a day or two in advance allowing the flavor to slowly diffuse into the meat. The salt also changes the structure of the meat allowing it to lock in moisture resulting in a juicy and delicious bird. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP! If you want an in-depth lesson in salting, read Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat.
Here's what you need:
1 heritage breed turkey (or chicken), pasture raised
Cooking twine (4-5 ft)
Instant read thermometer
Here's how he did it:
If using a frozen bird, let it thaw completely in the fridge or submerge in cold water. Once it's thawed, a day or two before cooking, cover the bird and cavity in an even layer of salt. At this point you can also add any seasonings or rubs you'd like. We added some paprika, garlic and black pepper. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use, or pop it in a cooler to take on your camping trip!
Once your structure is built and your fire is going (see above) soak about 4 feet of cooking twine in water, which will keep it from burning. Use cooking twine to truss your bird. There are many ways to do this, and we don't have step-by-step photos to show you how, but there are some youtube tutorials that will give you an idea (like this one) or find your own way! Just make sure it feels secure when you lift it by the string.
Hang the bird from the wire you secured from the top of your tipi structure. Place the bird where it will receive steady heat but is not being licked by flames. This is a slow cooking process. It took about 5 hours total for our birds to reach temperature.
Once the skin has browned to your liking, cover with tin foil and continue to roast until the thermometer reads 160 degrees. Again, this will take hours, so don't worry if it's taking a while. We covered with foil about half way through. This will vary depending on the size and placement of the birds and the heat of your fire. Watch, monitor, and trust your instincts. You don't have to hover or watch it the whole time, just check in now and then to see if they need turning or the fire needs feeding.
Remove from heat and let rest for 15 minutes. Carve and serve with brown butter ramps!
For your next camping trip, try branching out from hotdogs and consider roasting a whole bird over the fire. It takes more time and attention, yes, but it's a delicious and memorable way to elevate your campfire cooking. When cooking with fire, the chance of failure is always there. If it burns, or you don't eat until after dark, that's ok! Learning to cook great food over the fire takes time. But when it works, oh baby it works!