Humans have evolved with fire. Here’s looking at keeping it that way.

These are some of life’s greatest mysteries:

Why can we sit around a campfire for hours, our gaze limitlessly entranced by the lick and hiss of a flame up toward the nighttime sky?

Why is it that steak, that fish, that vegetables will never taste better than when cooked on, or in, a blazing bed of coals?

Really, at the end of the day, even as it ravages large swaths of our countryside, though its smoke can kill us, and our kitchens continue to move towards more sleek, modern, homogenous technology that hides away all the good stuff, why are we so drawn to something as age old as fire?

“Civilization really begins around that cookfire,” says Michael Pollan in his Netflix series, Cooked, based on his book of the same name. “And even now, fire does draw us together.”

As we all know, millions of years ago, our ancestors survived by hunting and gathering, sating themselves through constant grazing of vegetation and consumption of raw meat in order to fuel their large bodies, block heads, and small brains.

The first fire-cooked meals were likely opportunistic—a wildfire leaving barbecued animals and plants in its wake and ripe for eating. Later evidence of fire cooking dates back some 400,000 years to Israeli caves, where indications of roasted meat remain, while as recently as 40,000 years ago, we can say for certain that flint and friction were used by man to make his or her own fire.

When early humans discovered cooking—which really is just the transformation of food, one way or another, through heat—meals were suddenly easier to eat. They didn’t require hours of chewing, they broke down more readily in our gut, and, of course, they tasted better.

Less time eating meant more time for socializing, which likely also aided our evolution into such communal creatures, and perhaps even played a role in the development of language, and likely as a result, our anatomy changed, too. Our brains got bigger, our teeth got smaller, our jaws got weaker, much more akin to what we look like in present day. And the rest is history—all thanks to the simple combination of fuel, heat, and oxygen into fire. 

“The reason people love fire is because they have to love fire, because it makes them human,” says Mike Bertelsen of the Cowboy Cauldron Company, our sister company, noting that we are the only species to cook our food. “Because it includes all of the social interaction that we are designed to do as a species. And because, when you get food involved, that’s as primal as it gets. The only thing more rooted in our human behavior than cooking on fire is sex. That’s why people keep coming back to it—it’s simply the most satisfying.”

But unfortunately, in recent centuries, we’ve evolved away from it. Up until as recently as the 18th century, we cooked our food over an open flame, with heavy cauldrons and spider pots heated over a live fire or placed directly into the coals. In the 1790s, New England inventor (and one-time turncoat) Sir Benjamin Thompson, aka Count Rumford, would create the predecessor of the modern cookstove, forever hiding our kitchen and home’s heat source, or at least for the foreseeable future. Whether or not that’s progress is in the eye of the beholder.

“Behind every electric outlet, even behind every microwave oven, there is somewhere a fire burning, probably of fossil fuel, but it’s hidden from us,” said Pollan in Cooked. With a flame, at least, “It’s just right in front of us.”

For that, for most people, in the age of gas cooktops, sure, but even more so electric and increasingly induction cooking, not to mention the microwave and fast food, we no longer know how to cook with fire, and in fact, we have become afraid of it.

“The reason that pellet grills and Big Green Eggs are easy cooking devices is that most of the variables have been eliminated—they’re essentially just ovens,” says Bertelsen. “Newcomers to cooking with live fire are often intimidated because they are afraid of failure. I suggest keeping the stakes low, with sausages or burgers, until you get a sense of how it works. You still get all the fun, with very little potential for downside. Every time I build a fire, I get a little bit better.”

And of course, the reward is infinitely high, indeed, as old homo erectus taught us, as cooking—in general, but certainly with fire—yields some of the most flavorful forms of food.

First, there is the Maillard reaction, commonly referred to as “browning”—a seemingly simple but rather complicated set of chemical reactions that take place as food is cooked. At high temperatures—above that of boiling water—amino acids and sugars are altered, producing molecules that affect not just the color but also, most importantly, the complexity of flavor and aroma.

It’s why a fresh-baked loaf of bread is so much more intoxicating than a ball of dough. It’s why we salivate over a grilled burger, fried fish, or even sauteed vegetables in primitive ways that we just don’t for things that are raw, poached, steamed, or boiled. It’s why we throw a last-minute torch on our sous vide steaks.

Then, there is the smoke, which plays a particularly important role with indirect heat, when a hunk of brisket or a rack of ribs is marinated in a long, slow bath of wood essence—with compounds from the apple, the cherry, the mesquite, the oak helping to impart that characteristic smoked flavor. Purists argue over which kind is best.

With direct-heat cooking, on the other hand, it’s a moot point, according to the science-minded culinary bible that is Modernist Cuisine.

“Once the flames of ignition have died and the coals are glowing hot, neither briquettes nor hardwood charcoals have any flavor left to impart,” wrote authors Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, Maxime Bilet in the first chapter of their 2011 tome. “Any aromatic compounds the fuel once harbored were vaporized and destroyed long before the food was laid on the grill.”

Instead, they insist, in this instance, flavor comes less from the fuel than the food itself:

“Dribbles of juice laden with natural sugars, proteins, and oils fall onto the hot coals and burst into smoke and flame. By catalyzing myriad chemical reactions, the intense heat forges these charred juices into molecules that convey the aromas of grilling food. These new molecules literally go up in smoke, coating the food with the unmistakable flavor of grilled food.”

All we know is, it tastes damn good, whatever way you do it. And it’s a lot of fun along the way. And in this day and age, of all ages, we think more people should be gathering kindling, striking matches, firing up their grills and smokers and cauldrons.

For that, we’ve asked a few of our friends—experts of different forms of fire-based cooking—to share their wisdom on getting started.

—Jess Pryles, Hardcore Carnivore

Save time by starting with a charcoal chimney.
“All you have to do is fill it full of charcoal all the way to the top and then I usually put a fire lighter underneath and light it, and that’s it. You just leave it, and the whole chimney will eventually catch in about 10 to 15 minutes…Dump your coals out and you’re ready to grill.”

Pile your coals on one side for a two-zone system.
“That gives me a definitive hot and cool zone to grill on.…Where that comes in handy is with things like bacon or chicken wings things that usually burn on the grill, ’cause I can start them on that really high heat and then before they burn, I can move them across to the gentle heat to make sure they cook all the way through.”

It’s okay to cheat the system sometimes.
“I build wood fires in my offset smoker, but I usually start with a bit of charcoal still, just to give them a chance to catch. Most folks in Texas have pear burners and that’s what we use on most ranches for fires. A lot of the time the ye oldy ways of starting a fire have been outmoded by modern conveniences.”

Mike Bertelsen, Cowboy Cauldron Company

Use dry wood.
“Dry wood is key. Smokey fires really intimidate people. And most of the time, when you build a smokey, crappy fire, it’s because you used wet wood, which creates steam.”

You sit around a teepee. You cook on Lincoln logs.
“There are two styles of fire, really. The teepee fire is the bright campfire for when you want to see the flame reflected in the faces of the people around the fire. That’s the exact wrong thing to do for cooking. For cooking, you do Lincoln logs—you build a crosshatch, with good air flow—which will burn into a deep bed of coals and then give you the tool you need to cook on.”

Build a bigger fire than you think you need.
“Lots of folks only know artificial charcoal briquettes. They are designed to smolder, not burn. They don’t get very hot but last a long time. Real wood charcoal can get really hot but doesn’t last as long, so use more, or be ready to add extra if you need it.  Even though real wood charcoal is a bit more expensive, the extra few dollars is worth it. It’s like buying better beer. As for my favorite wood - I prefer oak.”

—Max Frisbie, Mill Scale Metalworks

Take the time to burn that wood into coals.
“You’re really cooking with very little actual fire. The main goal is to create that ambient heat that radiates off the wood after it’s had a chance to burn down into those coals.”

Get good air flow.
“Start with a clean firebox where you can really get good air flow coming around and on all sides of the wood. The goal is, instead of that smoke sitting in one spot, you’re constantly having that hot air pulled across the product. This alleviates the smoke being stagnant and creating a product that is overly smoky. Think of it like the commercials on the aerodynamics of a moving car. We like to trim and shape the product we're cooking in a way that improves its aerodynamics and reduces drag in the cook chamber.”

Smoke your veggies.
“We got a case of gorgeous baby carrots and left them whole and filled the entire smoker with them, giving them a delicate smoke before finishing them on the grill. Smoke is as much of an ingredient as salt and pepper.”

July 01, 2022 — Dennis Powell