Campfire Pizza How-To
There are many food dishes I've cooked only once, then moved on and forgotten about them, but campfire pizza isn't one of them. From the crust to the toppings, there are so many variables about a pizza to experiment with... including the technique of how to bake one by a campfire. In the last few years, I've baked nearly ten pizzas by campfire, and I still haven't perfected it; however, I've definitely learned a ton along the way, and I'm here to share.
Heck, maybe if the very first camp pizza was a work of perfection, I would have lost interest for lack of a challenge, but that was not the case. The first pizza was a disaster. I had picked up a ball of dough from the frozen section of a grocery store, which was the first mistake; the dough baked up like cement. Mixing my own dough isn't ideal for truck life either, because of the obvious mess, the extra dishes, the lack of storage space for a surplus of non-staple food ingredients, and so forth... plus, activating yeast when it's cold outside is a challenge of its own.
The first few pizzas were constructed right on top of a stainless steel grill grate and suspended over open campfire coals to bake, as was recommended by some articles about how to make a "barbecued pizza"--but it was a real struggle to bake the pizza evenly over campfire coals this way (an actual barbecue grill has a lid you can close to create a hot air pocket for even baking, but this was slightly less the case by an open fire). The bottom of the pizza crust would always burn before the toppings were even remotely warm.
Fast forward to almost a dozen pizza attempts later, and I've nearly got the kinks of campfire pizza worked out. A lidded cast iron skillet/dutch oven is the superior tool for campfire baking... and not only for pizza!
Cast iron has remarkable heat distribution and retention abilities, which means that if you apply heat to one part of the pan, it eventually spreads the heat to the rest of the pan (instead of having drastic hot and cold spots like a steel pan does); and, cast iron stays hot long after removing it from the heat, compared to other kinds of metal. This makes it perfect for evenly baking or roasting, and allows you to have more control over the heat level, even when dealing with the erratic heat of a campfire!
There is general strategy I follow: construct the pizza in a cold cast iron pan, put the lid on, and set the pan approximately six inches above a low-heat bed of coals, using a folding easel-style grill grate for example. With long metal tongs or something of the sort, pile up a bed of hot coals on top of the cast iron lid, so the lid stays very hot. Since it was always a struggle to bake the top of the pizza without burning the bottom in those early attempts, I decided to try "broiling" it from the top this way, and with only very mild coal heat from below to avoid scorching the bottom early on. It works!
When in doubt, it's better to begin with less coal heat in general while you get the hang of it. Think of it this way: it's much easier to correct a doughy, under-cooked pizza crust by increasing the heat at the end, than it is to salvage an already burnt and blackened one. :)
As for the conundrum of which dough to use, my tried and true favorite is the ready-to-bake pizza dough ball from Whole Foods Market's prepared foods deli. It costs around four dollars and bakes up perfectly; all you have to do is dust it with a little flour (so it's not insanely sticky), stretch it out to fit your pan, and... before piling the toppings on, remember to poke the surface area with a fork a few times so it doesn't bubble up during baking.
A little part of me wishes I had the wherewithal to mix up my own dough, but all things considered, it's terribly impractical to my mobile, minimalist lifestyle. I will stick with the convenience of pre-made pizza dough. There are rumors that Trader Joe's sells a great pizza dough, too. Perhaps I will branch out and try some other options in the future.
Now that you've just taken a crash course about how to bake a campfire pizza, here are a few recipe ideas:
Average baking time: 30-45 minutes, depending on coal heat, crust thickness, etc.
Bbq Chicken Pizza
Your favorite barbecue sauce
Mozzarella + pepperjack cheese
Sliced red onion
Diced orange or yellow bell pepper
Grilled chicken chunks (grill or rotisserie your own chicken over the fire if you have time!)
Garnish with freshly minced scallions before serving
Bacon, Leeks and Cream
Cream sauce: simmer on low heat 1/3 cup heavy cream with a teaspoon of flour, pinch of salt and black pepper, dash of nutmeg, and a generous shake of grated parmesan until slightly thickened
Bacon, cooked and chopped
Mozzarella + Gruyere cheese
Sliced leeks (if you're intimidated by leeks because you've never eaten them, I urge you to try them! They cook up very soft and sweet, with a mild green onion flavor)
Sauteed Winter Chanterelles were a great addition to this combo, but you could use another wild mushroom variety or omit the mushrooms
Crab and Artichoke Pizza
Roasted garlic*, smashed with a fork and gently shmeared on the prepped dough, instead of sauce**!
*[How to roast garlic: Chop a couple centimeters straight off the top of an unpeeled head of garlic, to reveal some cloves. Drizzle with olive oil, wrap in heavy duty foil, and let it roast near the campfire coals for an hour, rotating occasionally. When ready, the soft garlic cloves pop right out of their skin with a little squeeze]
Mozzarella + parmesan cheese
Sprinkle of Italian seasoning and/or Old Bay seasoning
Dungeness crab meat
Marinated artichoke heart, squeezed to drain out excess juices
Sauteed Chanterelle mushrooms were a great addition to this combo, but you could use another wild mushroom variety or omit the mushrooms
**pesto also seems like it would be a great sauce to try with this flavor combo!
Thanks for reading, and definitely let me know how it goes when you try making your own campfire pizza!