I recently got a book called Do: Wild Baking by Tom Herbert. It has lots of ideas and recipes for cooking outside in rustic conditions. One of the things he recommends is heating a flat stone on the coals of a campfire and cooking food directly on it. I decided to give it a try.
I was spending some time in Frankfort, Michigan, and I went to a rocky Lake Michigan beach the day after a thunderstorm. The waves were churning up all sorts of things, and I found a few promising rocks. Later at home I built a fire in my backyard pit and cooked some pita bread to go with white chicken chili, which I also cooked over the fire. Here’s how I did it, and what I learned along the way.
The process of making the dough began the night before. I took my sourdough starter out of the fridge and fed it, leaving it to rise at room temperature overnight.
The next morning I mixed the dough using the following ingredients:
White flour – 300g
Water – 210g
Salt – 6g
Starter – 60g
Olive Oil – 1 1/2 tsp
I mixed the flour and water first and let it hydrate for half an hour. Then I mixed the other ingredients and kneaded them together well for about ten minutes by hand. I covered the dough and left it in a warm place for several hours to bulk ferment. 30 minutes and then 60 minutes into the bulk ferment I gently stretch and fold the dough.
Just before starting the fire, I put the dough on a well floured surface and divided it into seven small balls. (I was going for eight, but ended up with seven in order to keep them the same size.) I put the balls on a pan, covered it with plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge.
Next I washed the stone really well with soap and water. After drying it I put a little olive oil on the cooking side, but this seemed to soak into the stone, so I’m not sure if it did anything.
I built my fire with rather small pieces of wood and fed it frequently. This is so the logs could break down into coals more quickly. I let it burn for maybe an hour. I left the stone in the fire pit next to the fire at this point so it could start to warm up.
I took the dough balls out of the fridge and rolled them into flat rounds with a rolling pin about 1/4 inch thick. I placed them on a well floured cutting board.
Back at the fire, I spread the hot coals evenly and placed the rock in the center. The remaining logs were pushed to the sides surrounding the rock. It was clear that the rock was taking a while to heat up and that the fire was dying too quickly, so I placed more logs around the stone so they could burn.
Cooking the flatbreads took longer than I thought, maybe 5 to 10 minutes each. Getting the dough on the stone was tricky. I used a spatula, but the dough needed a lot of flour so it didn’t stick to the spatula. Some folded and looked bad. I flipped and repositioned them with long tongs, usually wearing fire-proof gloves. The center of the stone was cooler than the edges, so the challenge was getting the middle of the dough cooked before burning the edges.
I found it helpful to fan the coals in between each bread in order to bring the temperature up. By the last few, the stone was finally hot enough to make the pitas puff up with a big bubble in the center.
We ate the pitas with white chicken chili cooked over the same fire in my cast iron Dutch oven. It was not a quick way to cook dinner, but it was delicious. The breads need to be eaten pretty much right away, they don’t keep very well, they get tough.
Next time I try it I might build the fire right on top of the stone so it has plenty of time to get really hot, particularly on top. Then when I’m ready to cook I’ll brush the logs and coals off of the stone. The stone cracked a bit as it cooled, so I might need to find another rock before trying again. Back to the beach…