Cooking - Starting the Fire

Fire in Fireplace

When selecting wood for fires, hardwoods, if available, are best. They burn cleanly and produce less smoke. If the wood is damp, it will dry if it is kept indoors for a few days before it is used. If dry wood is needed in a hurry, place pieces of wood on end around the walls of the fireplace so that, as the fire burns, the wood will heat up and dry out for use.

Wood for cooking must be split. Small pieces split in half will burn more slowly with less flame. Pieces split into quarters will burn rapidly, providing the flames necessary for roasting and producing coals quickly for baking or cooking on the hearth. Kindling is needed for starting and maintaining the hearth fire and for heating the brick oven.

To build a fire on andirons:

  • Shovel old ashes and coals under them, leaving a one-inch space to allow air to circulate.
  • Use wood shavings if available, or roll pieces of dry newspaper into tight rolls or knots and place them on top of the ashes.
  • Lay three or four pieces of kindling on the andirons and place three or more pieces across these.
  • Lay two pieces of wood split in quarters across the kindling, leaving an air space between them.
  • Light the paper, starting at the back and working toward the front.
  • Once the kindling has caught and is burning well, place two more pieces of quarter-split wood across the two already in place.

If you do not build the fire on andirons:

  • Lay two halves of a split log directly on the fireplace floor, perpendicular to the opening to the hearth.
  • Using the logs as andirons, prepare the fires as directed above, leaving air spaces between the logs and the back wall of the fireplace.
  • After the basic fire has been built and is burning well, the fire may be adjusted according to the receipt that will be prepared.
  • For a roaring fire needed for rapid cooking for reflector ovens, and to produce coals for use with Dutch ovens, use quarter-split dry wood.
  • Stack the logs three inches apart to allow enough air to circulate for a clear-burning fire.
  • Crisscross the logs with kindling.

A roaring fire will produce coals quickly, usually requiring one or two hours. A moderate fire is needed for boiling and stewing. For this, use a combination of quarter and half-split dry wood, stacking them alternately for even heat. A slow fire is needed for slow cooking and soup stocks. Use half-split logs, set across the fire parallel to the opening of the fireplace, setting them one to two inches apart. A slow fire will build up coals gradually after two or three hours.

From experience, we know that there are four problems with hearth fires, but there are also solutions, so the cook can proceed with the recipe selected.

  • A fire will not ignite properly if there is too little air. This happens when too much wood has been laid on it at the start, so that air does not circulate. When the fire is built, leave air spaces between the wood and kindling, especially when the wood is damp and will only ignite with difficulty. If the fire will not start, the only solution is to take it completely apart and rebuild it. Leave more air space and use less wood at first. Add more as the fire burns.
  • If the top layer will not burn, more kindling may need to be added between layers. The kindling will flame and heat the top layer so that it will ignite.
  • If the fire dies down too rapidly, the logs may be too close together. Use tongs to move the logs apart and create more air spaces. This problem may be the result of using wood that is damp or too large. If so, more kindling may be needed underneath the logs.
  • After you have removed the coals to use with a Dutch oven, the fire may die down rapidly, especially if it is burning in the slow-to-moderate range. This is because the coals provide a bed of heat that will keep the logs burning. To replace the coals, place dry kindling under the logs, so that they will burn more rapidly and drop into new coals.

This information was taken from the Open Hearth Cookbook by Suzanne Goldenson and Doris Simpson. Used by permission.

Pot of stew
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Last updated: July 30, 2016

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