Camp Cooking With Zippo: Campfire Chicken and Grilled Corn

Nothing tastes better over an open wood fire than sealing in the natural juices of a whole chicken with a great dry rub and letting the fire do the work. Dry rubs not only impart fantastic bold flavors from the many spices used, but they also help seal in the juices when the sugars in them caramelize on the outside of the meat you’re grilling. Smoke from a wood fire further enhances the flavors of the delicate chicken, creating a piece of meat that is juicy, tender and, when properly executed, will fall off the bone with perfect texture.

While roasting over a wood fire is the pinnacle in primitive cooking, the techniques required more attention to detail than the neanderthal brain could comprehend. The fire must not be too hot; the smoke must not be too present and the meat must not be too lean for the elements to bond in tasty cohesion. The experience of cooking over a campfire is a sensory cooking adventure that awakens the rustic side of anyone’s persona. Meat and fire: Let’s begin to make Campfire Chicken with Grilled Corn.

This recipe is courtesy of Croix Valley Foods grillmaster Damon Holter. More can be found at

To prepare the campfire chicken:

Selecting an all-natural whole chicken is preferred for this type of dish, rather than a commodity bird plumped up on a factory farm. The reasoning behind proper selection here is that factory-farmed birds tend to be larger (which will take longer to cook), and they have a higher layer of fat under the skin (which, when rendered, can cause nasty flare-ups and burn your meal). All natural or free-range chickens are leaner and simply better for you to begin with and their usually smaller size make them a breeze to work with over the fire.

Start by spatchcocking the chicken. The term spatchcock refers to the method of removing the backbone of the bird and butterflying it by laying it out flat with the breast meat up. Remove the backbone easily with a cut on each side of the bone or with a couple of snips with scissors (you may also need to break the sternum with a little force of the hand or cut with a knife to make it lay flat). This method allows more surface area of the chicken to come in contact with the surface of your cooking grates, promotes even browning of the skin all around the bird, and protects the meat from drying out. This allows the heat to hit the ribcage and transfer through the bird, rather than simply hitting the skin and burning. A spatchcocked bird is also juicier, as the skin side of the bird is upright throughout the cook, allowing the fat to baste the meat as it renders and flows down.

Your bird is now ready to be rubbed. Use a good commercial dry rub or any combination of spices you find pleasing to your palate. For a quick and flavorful dry rub, consider the following:

  • 6 Tbsp. Granulated garlic
  • 3 Tbsp. Granulated onion
  • 3 Tbsp. Salt
  • 2 Tbsp. Raw sugar
  • ½ tsp. Black pepper
  • ½ tsp. Paprika
  • Cayenne Pepper to taste

To rub the chicken, lightly coat the entire bird in oil. The oil will aid in crisping the skin and will make the dry rub adhere better. My favorite method for this is to make a quick application with spray cooking oil. Once oiled, evenly coat the chicken with your rub, working it into all of the nooks and crannies of the meat. Do this task while you prepare your fire, allowing time for the meat to reach room temperature and for the flavors of the spices and salt to begin to penetrate the skin.

NOTE: As a general rule of thumb, always allow your grilled meats to reach room temperature before grilling. Grilling cold meat promotes uneven cooking, where the outside of the meat can cook faster and become dry while the center remains undercooked or raw.

Time to prepare the fire! Light a match, burn wood and get to cooking? Not exactly the case here. To prepare the campfire for proper cooking, you want to burn a large enough fire to sustain about an hour’s worth of good coals without doing much to add more wood. Take the time to let the fire cook down, so you have an even amount of embers, at least an inch or more thick, that can be evenly distributed under the poultry. You can always keep more wood burning on the outside edges of the fire pit, just not directly under the meat.

Note: Try to use only hardwoods for cooking chicken. The coals will last longer and impart a better flavor. Some wood, such as pine and green woods will give off bitter flavors when burning sap-filled bark.

Using a suspended cooking grate over the fire, place the chicken, skin-side up, over the coals and let the fire do its job. Keep a careful eye on the chicken to ensure that the chicken is placed high enough from the coals to prevent scorching, but close enough to cook. Cooking times will vary greatly, depending on the number of coals and other burning wood around the chicken. The chicken will is done once it reaches an internal temperature of 165⁰F, usually within an hour if the fire is burning at 375-400⁰F. Moving the coals around the evenly distribute the heat will keep the chicken cooking evenly. Who doesn’t like poking a stick in a fire?

TIP: Too much smoke will ruin your meal. Once the fire is ready for cooking, if new pieces of wood need to be added to the fire to keep it going (or to allow for marshmallow roasting and singing Home on the Range), only add a few pieces at a time and keep the smoke to a minimum. The flavors from the embers will create plenty of smoke to flavor the chicken beautifully as it cooks.

For the Grilled Corn:

Prepare the corn for the fire by peeling back the husk down to the base of the ear and removing the silk. Place corn in cold water for about 15-20 minutes. Fold the husks back onto the corn and grill, alongside the chicken for about 20 minutes or until the kernels are tender, rotating the corn every 5 minutes. Serve the corn with whatever salt, butter or spices you wish. Remember, it will only take about ¼ of the time that the chicken will, so plan the cook accordingly.

Enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of the campfire, and most importantly, enjoy the fruits of your labor!

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