What Is Live-Fire Cooking? And How to Get Started
We talked to live-fire master Chef Yia Vang to cover all the basics.
Live-fire cooking can be found in many different cultures, but in our new series Stoked, we see a beautiful window into how the Hmong culture uses the technique. Chef Yia Vang, who was born in a Thai refugee camp where he lived until his family resettled in central Wisconsin, coaches us through different live-fire recipes that tap into his family’s heritage.
We sat down with him to learn more about the basics of live-fire cooking and why it recently seems to have become a trend at many restaurants.
Chef Yia explains that live-fire cooking draws people together, which we’re craving right now after the pandemic. "Live-fire cooking is this literal smoke signal," he explains, whether it’s done outside or in a restaurant. "If you go back to ancient times, people would gather around fire because it was their heat source and light source. Live fire is a community builder. After these two years, it’s so nice we can gather around a fire and connect again. Grab a drink and chill out and have a conversation face to face."
What Is Live-Fire Cooking?
Live-fire cooking is a method of cooking food over embers — wood or charcoal that has burned down into white ash. "I think that media has made live-fire cooking look super sexy like you’re cooking over big flames, but live-fire cooking actually does not cook with flames," Chef Yia explains. "Flames would cause burning and bitterness." Live-fire cooking is all about carefully controlling heat and understanding the ingredients you put over that heat. The term "live-fire" is pretty broad, and refers to any sort of cooking of embers, including grilling, cooking over a campfire or a live fire grill.
What Does Food Cooked Over Live Fire Taste like?
In chef Yia’s words, "You can’t fake that smoky, char flavor from the wood. Smoke is a whole other ingredient that infuses into the flavor of the food." Gas grills, grill pans and rubs simply don’t recreate the flavor. "When I eat something like a fatty branzini cooked over live fire and get that hint of smoke, I am transformed to thinking what it was like when my mom and dad grew up in the hills of Laos. You can be in a crowded restaurant in LA, but if they’re doing it right, you’ll be transformed to a different place.”
What Are the Best Foods to Cook Over Live Fire?
Large vegetables are ideal, such as halved heads of cauliflower, halved summer squash or root vegetables. That’s because they’ll cook slowly and have time to really infuse with smoke. Avoid thinly cut vegetables, which won’t have time to absorb the smoke. In terms of meat, reach for fattier cuts such as duck or a whole spatchcocked chicken. The fat from the meat will drip down, fanning the smoke and increasing smoky flavor. Avoid lean proteins like boneless, skinless chicken breast.
When grilling vegetables over an open hardwood fire, the key is to watch for the moment when the juices of the vegetables start to render away. At that point you know you’re about 1 minute away from perfectly charred vegetables. Chopped into bites, the grilled carrots, zucchini and yellow squash become little sponges that absorb all the delicious sweet and savory sauce.
How to Cook Over Live Fire
Equipment and Tools
- The live fire grill: Chef Yia prefers to cook over something called a live-fire grill, which is extremely lightweight and portable. If you’re cooking over a campfire, there are racks you can buy to set over the embers.
- The fuel: Opt for untreated wood chunks that are about 2 feet wide. You can buy these at any big box store. Oak works especially well because it burns well and is affordable. Make sure the wood is completely dry. You’ll also want a little hardwood charcoal and newspaper to get the charcoal going and a lighter of course.
- Tongs: These are necessary for flipping the food. You’ll also use them to mound the embers and create heat zones.
Chef Yia loves the Kudu because it’s lightweight, durable and transportable. It makes setting up and cleaning up live fire cooking extremely easy. There’s a rack that moves up and down, making it easy to adjust the cooking temperature.
Step 1: Arrange the Logs
Stack the logs into a square shape like they’re Lincoln Logs, keeping the center of the shape open. Place some hardwood charcoal and clumps of paper and cardboard in the center, making sure there’s enough room for air flow.
Step 2: Light the Charcoal
Light the charcoal in the center, which will catch on fire easily and get really red hot until it starts burning the wood around it.
Step 3: Wait about 30 Minutes Until Embers Form
This is a good time to prep the food you’re putting on the grill. You know the embers have formed when the wood and charcoal are covered in white ashes. Another test is to hold your hand 10 inches away from the embers. If you can only keep it there for a few seconds, the setup is ready for cooking.
Step 4: Create Heat Zones with the Embers
With your tongs, bank the embers up to one side of the live fire grill to create a hot side, warm side and cool side.
Step 5: Add the Food
You want to add the meat when the embers are at their hottest. Smaller cuts of meat cook quickly over the hot side of the grill, while larger ones, such as a whole chicken, might start on direct heat and finish over indirect heat. Vegetables should be placed on the medium heat area where they’ll cook low and slow.
Step 6: Control the Fire, Don’t Let It Control You
This is Chef Yia’s catch phrase throughout the show — in a nutshell, don't get scared of the fire. You can control how quickly everything is cooking with a few techniques. For starters, the Kudu grill has a rack that can move up and down. If you want your food over higher heat, move the rack down, and visa versa. If your setup can’t move up and down, keep a piece of cardboard for fanning the embers, which will make them hotter. If there’s a flame up, which usually happens from excess fat dripping down, remember, you can simply remove the meat or vegetable from the rack until the flames die down.