How to Take the Temperature of an Open Fire

Use your hand. But not how you think! 

Published May 23, 2023.

Cooking over an open fire defines the full-on outdoor cooking experience.

It’s improvisational. It’s also a little unpredictable and hard to gauge.

So, how exactly do you take the temperature of an open fire?

Simple. Use your hand.

(But not how you think!)

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We’re not asking you to burn your hand. This technique was created by my colleagues while working on The Outdoor Cook cookbook. It’s all about how long the palm of your hand can tolerate the heat (from a safe distance.)

Place your hand 2 inches above the grate and count until it feels too hot to keep your hand there.

Hot fire: 2 seconds

Medium-hot fire: 4 seconds

Medium fire: 6 seconds

Medium-cool fire: 8 seconds

Cool fire: 10 seconds

Here are a few more important tips when cooking over an open fire:

1. Start Early! Get your fire going early. The wood needs to cook down to mostly coals before you can put the food on, and this takes 30 minutes to 1 hour.

2. Clean and Season! While the stove and cooking grate are heating, use a pair of tongs to dip a wad of paper towels in vegetable oil and brush the grate (or pan). After cooking, clean the hot cooking grate while it’s still on the fire pit, using a grill brush. Then oil the grate again, leaving it to heat on the fire pit to let the oil create a seal. This seasons the cooking grate, making it more nonstick over time and discouraging rust.

3. Have Fun. Cooking outdoors with friends and loved ones should be relaxing and enjoyable. Take pride in all your open-fire cooking success. You’re a rockstar! 

And please, don’t burn yourself.

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