LEFT: Add fire-soaked logs to give the meal a smoky flavor. CENTER: Wrap each piece of meat in its own grocery bag and a double layer of damp newspaper. RIGHT: Inspect the coals in the backyard barbecue pit.
Insulation of the covered pit with a layer of basement.
Soaking green aspen logs  and added to the fire to give the meal a smoky flavor.  Each piece of meat is wrapped securely in its own grocery bag, then wrapped in a double layer of damp newspaper.  Once the pit is covered, it is further insulated with a layer of subsoil.  Under the gaze of a group of hungry neighbors, the author and his wife sweep the dirt out of the hole.  The dinner smells wonderfully good. . .  and There you go ! Come and get it while it’s hot, all you barbecue lovers!
PHOTO: PAUL KING
The author and his wife sweep the dirt from the pit.
Cut out the finished roast.
If you’ve ever been hungry for the irresistible taste of real barbecue (as opposed to the charred chops that most weekend chefs cook on their grills), it might be time to consider building your own barbecue in your backyard. . Homecoming stoves are much easier to build than you might think and don’t require any fancy equipment or utensils. I actually dug my family’s grave myself in the hard, rocky soil of New Hampshire!
Pit barbecue is nothing more than the slow cooking (and wet smoking) of meat, poultry or fish – in an airless hole – for about 16 to 20 hours until the meats are tender, juicy and tasty. The simplicity of this method of preparation, along with the low cost of the base construction, make it an ideal, inexpensive way to feed a large crowd with truly delicious food!
My introduction to barbecue
I first got acquainted with authentic barbecue years ago when I was traveling to Georgia, Louisiana and Texas on business. I have found that the best meat is served, usually on paper plates, in small, out of the way restaurants. . . places with a few rough tables (or just a counter) offering an assortment of homemade sauces that can curl your unsuspecting tongue!
But one day at a friend’s ranch outside of Tyler, Texas, I was served an absolutely delicious piece of home-grilled beef that rivaled anything I’d tasted at the commercial stalls. . And after seeing the ordinary pit in which the meat had been cooked, I couldn’t wait to come home and dig one myself!
Go dig a hole!
All you will need to make your own barbecue pit are the tools used to dig the opening, some sort of cover and a supply of dry wood… it’s that simple! The crater I dug was three square feet and three feet deep, but you could make your own bigger if you think you ever want to cook up a really big feast. When digging your pit – a process that took me about three hours – be sure to stack the basement nearby for later use. (You can set aside rocks and topsoil for potting or other garden projects.)
Pretty much any hard wood or metal board will do for a blanket, but I had a quarter inch piece of steel plate cut in a landfill. (At $ 3.00, that was the only cash expense involved in building my “underground oven” … a cost you could easily avoid by rummaging in your own backyard for the correct size plank.) You just have to have the blanket you choose a few inches wider than the dirt opening.
To smoke your food, you will need a bed of glowing embers about 2 1/2 feet deep at the bottom of the pit. I have found that a wheelbarrow full of pieces of oak or maple – when burnt – gives me the depth of embers I need … but of course it’s always better to have Following rather than less coals. (And make sure you only burn non-resinous hardwoods in your cooking chamber.)
I usually light the fire for our weekend barbecue around six o’clock on Friday night. Newspaper and kindling are used to start the first logs well… and I keep adding the pieces of dry wood until there is a good, thick layer of embers. At this point, it’s a good idea to water the grass around the pit to extinguish any sparks that might fly away when you add wood to the fire … unless, of course, it’s raining (a while also includes the barbecue cooking process).
It takes about two hours to build up the necessary depth of coal … and this “break” gives me plenty of time to do the other necessary preparations. As the fire grew, I chopped down a young aspen – 1/2 to 2 inches thick – and cut it into four equal lengths (about 2 1/2 feet each). After they have soaked well in a bucket of water, the aspen pieces (or whatever green wood you could use) will be placed on the embers to give the meat a smoky flavor.
A plain brown packaging
Then it’s time to prepare the meat for its underground grilling. Put each piece of beef (or pork, poultry, fish, etc.) in its own clean, dry grocery bag, which should then be folded tightly around the food. If you don’t have paper bags available, you can use butcher’s paper instead (as long as it doesn’t contain wax). Then, as a final pre-bake preparation, wrap each package in two sheets of soaked newspaper… this blanket will hook onto the inner wrap and wrap neatly.
My family thinks roll chuck roast is the best red meat to grill in a pit… but a brisket will be tasty, too. (We’ve found that lean meat, like rib eye or sirloin, doesn’t work as well as fatty cuts.) And, while we’ve never cooked deer in our own pit, I’ve tasted delicious barbecued venison. Remember, however, that any meat will taste as good as the cut quality you select … no matter how long you grill it.
As for poultry, we tried different sizes and types of birds. . . but now we only use 12-15 pound turkeys in our pit. We also sometimes like to cook fish. . . especially split mackerel. Not only do swimmers taste great when smoked underground, their bones get as soft as canned salmon. (Be careful with the thorns in all grilled fish, however, as larger bones sometimes don’t soften completely.)
In hell …
When the coal bed is ready, I smooth the embers with a shovel and lay the 2 1/2 foot aspen branches – in a platform shape – on top. The meat packages are then placed on this wooden “grill” and the lid is placed on the pit. If smoke escapes under the cover, plug its exhaust holes with part of the basement left by the excavation. Finally, pile all the remaining soil on the lid plus an old blanket, which will help keep the heat in the pit.
After all this preparation, which will probably only take you half an hour at most, you can sit back and relax. . . while tomorrow’s tasty dinner slowly roasts in the backyard! (I usually close our pit around eight or nine at night and let the feast cook overnight.)
And on the table
Around noon the next day, I sweep the earth covering the hole, lift the cover. .. and raise the smoking price off the ground! When you are ready to remove your meal, make sure to wear protective gloves and move quickly … as the coals can ignite when the surge of oxygen from outside hits them (of course, you will have to extinguish such flames. at once).
When you unpack the salted packages, you’ll have a pleasant surprise or two. The outer wrapper of the newspaper should still be soaked, but the meat inside will be hot and juicy. You will find that barbecued poultry has a moist, oily skin while roasts come out of the pit very tender with no crust. (The first or two times we tried the technique, the embers hadn’t built up enough heat before closing the hole… and as a result, the meat was undercooked. If this happens, you can always finish cooking your dinner in a moderate oven at 325 ° to 350 ° F.)
Enjoy your barbecue!
And now comes the best part of the pit kitchen. .. when you sink your teeth into a succulent bite of steaming meat – maybe even topped with a spoonful of spicy sauce – and savor the fruits of your labor. Accompanied by a serving of fresh sweet corn and juicy tomatoes from the garden, the barbecue is a summer meal fit for a king! And, as your taste buds will tell you, that’s the real thing… sho’nuff!
Published on May 1, 1980
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