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Meat on a grill
Cookin' it up.
Angie Mosier

How to Cook over an Open Flame

Two world-renowned pitmaster-chefs share tips on harnessing the power of fire

Neil Patrick Harris is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wondercade. In his spare time he also acts — fairly well, too, as his Tony and Emmy Awards can attest.

March 14, 2023 8:48 pm

Neil here, your hungry host back with you. With something hot. Not that, you minx! Something literal. Fire up the…fire! I chatted with two prominent pitmasters — chef Rodney Scott, a South Carolina-based barbecue aficionado who’s only the second pitmaster to win a James Beard Award, and chef Melissa Cookston, 7-time world barbecue champion and the only American woman to be one! They’ll teach some tips that will make your open-flame cooking a sure-fire hit (see what I did there?). Because there’s a lot more to outdoor cheffery than s’mores.

Sparks fly when chef Melissa Cookston whips up dinner
Stephanie Mullins

First! Plan your menu. (Disclaimer: I’m married to a chef; I didn’t need Melissa and Rodney to teach me that tip!) Rodney says his favorite healthy foods to cook over a fire include chicken, fish and vegetables — carrots, onions and more. “You get that little char that brings out a natural sweetness,” he explains. Same for Melissa, who likes to use a low-calorie piri-piri sauce as a marinade for red snapper or dip for grilled vegetables.

Then, plan your fire…. Don’t just grab a heap of logs, some lighter fluid and a match…fire fails are no joke (though, let’s be honest, sometimes fun to watch on social media). “Start small and safe,” Rodney explains. “Don’t cook too close to your house, and make sure a fire extinguisher is nearby just in case.” Smart.

Chef Rodney Scott cooks barbecue on a grill
Chef Rodney Scott’s grilled dishes mop up the flavor
Angie Mosier

Now it’s time to start the fire! Pro tip from Rodney: “Take some rolled-up paper and use some leftover bacon fat as an accelerator. You don’t get the harsh chemicals of lighter fluids, and it smells great before it’s lit.” Once you’ve got the fire going, he says to wait about 15 minutes before you start cooking — that’s enough time for any soot to burn off, and it won’t flare up and tarnish your precious meal. Melissa says when the coals turn white, you’re good to start cooking.

Next, it’s time to cook…. Rodney recommends positioning the food 5 to 6 inches from the flame. That goes for anything, whether it’s a weenie on a stick or roasting a whole hog. “That way, your food doesn’t burn before it starts to cook,” he adds. 

Melissa says that anyone can get started cooking over fire using a grate, and for the more adventurous, a rotisserie. Both methods are great because all the oils and fats drip off the meat, into the fire and then precipitate back up to the meat. Yum. Rotisserie cooks the meat more evenly, but she notes to be careful not to let your fire get too close to the product, or flare-ups may arise.

Like your meat rare? I gotchu, Boo. Just move it closer to the fire. “The closer to the fire, the higher the temperature, which will char the outside while the inside is still a very low temperature,” explains Melissa. She adds an important final note familiar to any carnivore: be sure to use a thermometer to ensure the dish is done. “140 degrees for fish, 165 for chicken,” she says. “Thermometers are a must-have.”

Finally, one last tip: have fun. “There’s nothing more mesmerizing than cooking with fire,” says Melissa.

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