For Tasmanian-born chef Sarah Glover, cooking over fire is as much about place and connection as it is about flavour.
Author and chef Sarah Glover grew up in a large family in Tasmania. It was before internet and on-demand TV and meal times stick in her memory as the most enjoyable times of the day.
‘I remember meal times in my family with such fondness,’ she says. ‘They were such an important time for us to come together, to create our own entertainment and connections.’
It’s those connections which set Sarah Glover on the path she’s on today. Connections to food, to place, to community and to her Tasmanian roots. And it all begins around a fire.
From Start To Finish
As well as writing cookbooks, Sarah spends her days travelling around both Australia and the US creating and hosting events that celebrate cooking in the outdoors.
For someone who grew up hunting and foraging food with her dad, Sarah developed an appreciation of where her food comes from at an early age. And the link between foraging for food in the bush to preparing it in an equally instinctual way over a hand-built fire pit, is a pretty easy one to make.
‘I grew up hunting with my dad from a really young age, so a connection to the land and what we ate was always a part of our lives,’ she says. ‘It’s definitely influenced who
I am now and given me the awareness to really look into where the food we enjoy comes from. It has given me a hunger to be part of the entire process from hunting and gathering, through to cooking and then enjoying the final product.
‘I’d say about 50 percent of my cooking happens on a fire pit with about 30 percent on a barbecue and 20 percent on a gas cooker. Even if I’m making a salad or breakfast, it usually has some cooked or smoked element.’
So Many Variables
Cooking over fire can be hard to get right for a lot of us, simply because there are so many variables. But Sarah reckons that’s probably the bit about cooking over a fire that she loves the most.
‘I absolutely love the unpredictability of it all,’ she beams. ‘It’s kind of an early-on relationship – you always begin with a bit of a tentative approach, not quite sure if it’ll take off, what the next move will be – and even if you do the same thing each and every time, it always ends up a bit different.
‘I love that with fire cooking, you can follow the same recipe to a tee, but depending on the wood you use, how the fire takes off, the direction of the wind, you can end up with a totally different flavour at the end. It’s honestly just a whole lot of fun and always ends up tasting a bit different – but bloody delicious all the same.’
The Fire Source
For those of us who have cooked outdoors, the familiar process is lighting a fire, allowing it to die down and then cooking over the more predicable heat of the slow-burning coals which are left. But for Sarah, cooking over a fire pit affords three separate and useful heat and flavour sources: coals, smoke and flames.
‘I cook with all three,’ she says. ‘When you start with flames, you get a lot of smoke for the first hour – so anything you cook in that hour will take on a really smoky profile. After that, it reduces and you can use the heat [of the coals] to cook more evenly. It really depends on what the recipe calls for, but since I barely cook just one dish at a time it’s nice to use a combination.’
According to Sarah, the commercially available lumped charcoal doesn’t give the same depth of flavour as ‘just straight fire’ and says that contrary to what many people believe, burning wood rather than lumped charcoal gives you a lot more control about how much heat is being distributed where.
‘It’s a bit more work but means the flavour profile is much more layered and far richer.’.
Timber And Taste
And without revealing any of the secrets she’s learnt from years of experimentation, Sarah says she’ll seek out certain types of wood depending on what she’s cooking. Over the years, she’s worked out which timbers burn at different temperatures and how different varieties and even the age of the wood can play a role in creating different flavour profiles.
‘Every tree produces different oils, which can affect how quickly the wood burns,’ she offers. ‘Generally, you want a hardwood that’s dried out – it’s important to avoid anything green or any wood with a really high oil content such as eucalypts.’
But how and where the timber comes from is also important to the process. Because just as it’s important to know where your food comes from, it’s important to know where and how the timber is sourced, too. Well, as realistic as that can be when you’re building a fire to feed as many as 300 people, which Sarah has done.
‘I always like to forage a portion of the firewood I’m using from where I’m cooking,’ she sys. ‘It’s pretty special when you can hunt or fish in an area, forage some herbs then find firewood and kindling from the same area. It truly provides a taste of that region.’
Frames And Equipment
As is perhaps expected from someone who builds events around what she does, Sarah uses large frames above her fires from which she hangs various things at various heights depending on what they are and the heat they require to cook. But as well as being a delightfully theatrical way for participants to watch the cooking process, it turns out they’re common pieces of equipment which have been used for generations.
‘Using frames in fire cooking has been around longer than I have,’ says Sarah. ‘Everyone has a bit of a different spin on it, though. I’ve observed some of the legends like Francis Mallmann and have adapted things here and there to create a frame that works best for me.
‘I’ve been cooking with fire since I was 16, so it’s definitely a work in progress. Every time it’s a bit different and I’m not sure I’ll ever stop working on it.’
There’s some other basic equipment Sarah recommends in order to get the most versatility from your outdoor fire pit when preparing a meal.
‘I have a good cast iron pan with lid in my car at all times, but I also can’t go past a paint scraper and a hammer – you wouldn’t believe how much they come in handy.’
Of course it’s not just meat Sarah cooks on fire, but when asked what’s her favourite thing to cook over a fire pit, she considers the question carefully.
‘It’s like asking someone who’s their favourite child,’ she laughs. ‘Though I do really enjoy cooking a whole animal such as wild deer or even lamb. Not only does it look impressive, it’s a really sustainable way to honour the whole animal and you get to try every part of the meat.’
But while doing this in the conventional way of having the whole beast spinning on a rotisserie is a practical way of ensuring an even cooking process, Sarah prefers to turn it manually and regularly, using her frames and a series of hooks.
Then when asked what the strangest thing she’s cooked over a fire, she didn’t need to think.
On the face of it, the connections to food through knowing where it comes from and the connection to place through where and how it’s prepared are hugely important to what Sarah does. But as she explains, there are connections that run far deeper within us as humans.
From a ritualistic sense, cooking over fire is a very primal way of preparing food and it links us back to a time where there weren’t other options.
‘It’s amazing to be be able to connect with the past generations,’ she says. ‘I often think how interesting it is that fire cooking hasn’t actually evolved that much.
Though, when you start off with something pretty good – why mess with it?
‘And because humans will instinctively be drawn towards a fire, it’s one of my favourite parts of sharing a meal, the cooking, the storytelling and the connecting. This is especially relevant using any form of outdoor kitchen as there are less distractions like walls or a TV.’
Smoked lobster roll with chilli oil mayo
2 long red chillies 1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup whole-egg mayonnaise, plus extra to serve 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 lemon, zest and juice 1 lime, zest and juice
2 stalks each flat-leaf parsley, mint and chives, finely chopped sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 long bread rolls 4 lettuce leaves pickles, to serve
Put your lobsters to sleep in a lidded bucket of ice. Light your fire and let it burn down until you have nice coals (or use hardwood charcoal). Heat a medium cast-iron frying pan over the coals, add the chillies and let them char a little. Take the pan off the heat and rest for five minutes before adding the oil and placing back on the heat to infuse while you prepare the lobsters.
Slice each lobster in half from the centre of the head through to tail, brush with chill oil and and place, flesh-side down, on a grill over the coals. Cook for five minutes, then flip them over and brush with some more chilli oil. Sprinkle with the garlic and cook for another five minutes, or until the flesh is cooked though. Remove from the heat and rest for five minutes. Pull the lobster meat out of the shell and place in a bowl. Add mayonnaise, the citrus zest and herbs and gently toss – the lobster should be lightly coated, but not weighed down by the mayo. Add more mayonnaise, if needed.
Taste the mix; if the salad needs more brightness, add a squeeze of lemon and lime juice. Season to taste.
Spread some extra mayo on the inside of the buns and grill for 1–2 minutes on each side or until toasted to your liking. Place a lettuce leaf in each bun, and fill with a generous mound of lobster salad and pickles before serving.