If you love barbecue—like, really love barbecue—then you owe it to yourself to try out pit cooking.
Pit cooking is exactly what it sounds like: dig a big ol’ hole in your backyard, throw in some hot coals, throw in some meat, and wait a while.
OK, there’s a little more to it than that, but not much. And the result—tender, juicy, smoky meat that practically melts in your mouth—is totally worth the effort. Here’s how to master the ancient art of pit cooking in your own backyard.
Make sure you can have a fire in the first place
It’s been a dry summer in a lot of places, so check to see whether your area is under a fire ban. If it is, then you’ll have to save the pit cooking for when the ban gets lifted.
Gather your materials
This isn’t hard: you’ll need shovels, firewood, green wood for smoking, something to wrap the meat in (more on that later), and a wooden or metal panel or sheet to cover your pit. An old blanket will further help cut off the supply of oxygen to the coals, keeping your pit nice and toasty without flaring up.
Dig a pit
Yes, there’s some physical labour involved. Dig a hole—roughly a metre by a metre, and about half a metre deep for a family feast, although it can be smaller if you’re cooking something like a whole fish, or bigger if you’re making a meal for a multitude. Keep the dirt you unearth handy, because you’re going to pile it back on top of the pit eventually.
Line the pit with rocks
Find some medium-sized flat rocks (round ones take up too much space) and line the bottom and sides of your pit with them. This isn’t strictly necessary, but can help your pit heat your meat more evenly.
Soak some green wood in water
Green alder, maple, cherry, or applewood, soaked in water and added to your layer of hot coals (see the next step) will add some lovely smokiness to your meat. Soak the wood while you’re prepping your layer of hot coals.
Build a fire
You’re going to need to burn down enough wood to make a layer of coals, which will take anywhere from a couple of hours to the better part of the day, depending on the size of your pit. Wet the grass around your pit, just in case sparks fly, and always have some sand and water nearby to put out any blazes in unexpected spots. (And again, a fire ban means no pit cooking!)
Prep your meat
Flavour your meat, then wrap it either in brown paper (the kind that’s used for paper bags) or tinfoil. From there, wrap those packages in wet newspaper or burlap. You can encase the meat in chicken wire to provide a firm handle for pulling it out of the pit. Wondering what to barbecue? Fatty cuts, like chuck roast or brisket, work best, as does salmon, turkey, a lamb or, if you’re feeling ambitious, an entire pig.
Add your meat to the fire
Smooth out the embers, then lay the soaked green wood on top of the coals. Place the meat on top of that. Cover the whole affair with your wooden or metal cover, cover that with the earth you’re already dug up, then cover all that with your old blanket. Then sit back and relax—like all good things, this process takes some time. It’s traditional to let the meat cook overnight, which will likely have it ready for a noon-time lunch the next day. For most dishes, the cooking time is about 12 hours, unless you’re cooking an entire pig or a side of beef, which may take longer.
If your masterpiece is underdone (it happens to the best of us), you can finish up the cooking in the oven—keep the heat between 325 and 350℉. Serve with your favourite barbecue sauce (we’ve got a list of regional barbecue sauce styles here), some fresh vegetables and some cornbread—then sit back and enjoy!