Fire building 101: How to build a fire to cook food on

This part will deal only with fire building

Doug F posted in BBQ
8w ago

So you want to build a fire to cook some food? Great! This will teach you the basics of building that fire. This isn't really the same as building a fire for survival, although they do share the basics.

When building a fire to cook food, it's important your fire will give you a clean and enjoyable flavor. The tutorial is going to be based on the fact you are at home, or someplace where you have access to resources.

Building a fire takes a lot of practice, so don't feel defeated if the first time doesn't work out. Building a fire also takes a lot of patience. If you try to hurry the process, you will fail. As you may have noticed, I say "build" a lot, and that is because that is exactly what you are doing. Start off small, and build it to the size you need.

Fire ignition

There are many ways to start your flame. Above are the most common, but not all of them are good.

Let's start with matches. These are my least favorite way. They don't always light properly, and they are extremely sensitive to wind and moisture. Just avoid them if possible.

The old lighter is next. As a rule, these work well. The longer grill lighter is the one I prefer, mostly because I can put the flame right where I want, with a little more ease. Lighters are not perfect though. I have had them fail on me more than once. The main reasons they fail are because they run out of fuel, or because some debris or water has got into it.

Next is the kitchen torch. I must say this is the most fun and easiest way. Since these torches burn so hot, they can light almost anything in any condition. They do suffer the same drawbacks as a normal lighter though.

Now my preferred method is the ferrocerium rod. These are very cheap, but they do require a metal scraper. I use the back edge of a knife, since I carry a pocket knife all the time. They work a lot like flint, except a ferrocerium rod produces a much hotter spark. These take a bit of practice to use well, but they work all the time in all conditions as long as your tender is dry.

Fire tender

Fire tender is what you light to start your smaller sticks and twigs. This is a very important part to get right. The good news is, you have countless options here. You can use anything from dead grass to coconut husk/hair, even dead garden plants. As long as it is dry and fibrous you should be fine. Make a loose ball of the material you are using with your hand: this is called a bird nest.

You can also make your own tender by making feather sticks and shaving thin slices of wood into a pile. The above photo is a small version using bamboo skewers and my pocket knife. It was 4:30 am and I did not feel like going out into the yard in the dark to look for sticks. This method works well, but it takes a lot of time and patience.

Now for a cheating tip. You can take a cotton ball and spray it with a little vegetable oil and then place it in the tender "bird nest" to save yourself some work. You can also use a paper towel with a little oil. This works very well if your tender is slightly moist/damp.

Let's build a fire

You never build a fire on flat ground or surface. Always build an elevated surface to build on. If you are building a fire on a grill grate, it is not as important, unless it's really wet. If you are using an elevated grate, I still put a layer of sticks or often charcoal down.

Yes it needs cleaned out.

Yes it needs cleaned out.

As seen here, my grate is off the ground, but I used a layer of charcoal to build my fire on top of. This is also a nice method if you are going to be cooking in wet conditions or for a long cook time. If you build a platform to build your fire on, you can add a layer of charcoal onto it as well.

That hatchet has started more fires than I can count.

That hatchet has started more fires than I can count.

A very important step is to have everything ready to go before you start. That way you are not looking for the things you need during that critical starting process. I even line it up in the order it gets used.

Place your bird nest on top (in this case I did cheat and used a cotton ball with a little vegetable oil on it because I was running out of time). Once your tender is down, add your small sticks and twigs. Make sure the small sticks and twigs break easily. If they want to bend, do not use them. You need a good amount of these small sticks – more than what is shown in the picture above.

If you follow these basic steps, you should have a nice fire you can start building from. Add larger bits of wood as your fire grows until it reaches the size you desire. Remember: be patient, do not hurry and you will be successful.

I hope this gets you started. Remember it takes a lot of practice. I know this post is really long but I wanted it all in one post for you to reference. I will make another post about what types of wood are good to use. and how you can flavor your fire as well.

As always, if you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments below. I hope you are having a great week. Stay wonderful FoodTribe! I love you all!

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Comments (36)

  • My attempt:

      1 month ago
  • Thank you so much for this!

      1 month ago
  • Yes, yes, yes, and thank you, Doug! This is awesome! Can't wait to get all the things and try to start a successful one. 😁

      1 month ago
  • Fire!

      1 month ago
  • Nice!

      1 month ago