If you own a fire pit, you know how great of an addition it is to the area right outside your home. Fire pits are perfect accessories during outdoor gatherings, especially during winter. But did you know you could even use them to cook food? Yes – fire pit cooking is a thing, whether it’s for hotdogs, burger patties or even some good ol’ s’mores. And if you’re planning to try this, or it’s been a while since you last did so, here’s a guide that will help you get this right.
When it comes to cooking with a fire pit, you can opt to burn wood or charcoal, or even a combination of both. Between the two, however, charcoal comes with the benefits of (1) being easy to light up and (2) burning considerably hot. Furthermore, unlike wood, charcoal does not give off a strong, smoky type of flavour to your food. Hence, it’s not going to overpower any flavours from seasonings in your cooking.
Meanwhile, wood is the classic choice between the two for fire pit cooking. It’s not that much harder than charcoal to light, provided you are using the proper wood and understand how to set it up right. In terms of arrangements, you’d find the ‘log cabin’ or ‘teepee’ setups of wood to be the most effective methods. Your tinder can consist of small, quarter-inch-thick straw, pine needles, dry sticks or bark. It’s recommended that you stay away from using paper and leaves, as these can quickly generate fly ash and risk causing a fire outside of your fire pit.
What’s the best wood to use for fire pit cooking? That would be dry seasoned hardwood. Hardwoods like oak will burn hot and fairly cleanly. On the other end of the spectrum, do avoid softwood and green wood, as this is likely to ruin your food. Green wood tends to sputter too much while softwoods can release an acrid toxic resin that you wouldn’t want to end up tasting once you eat.
Remember: if you choose charcoal for cooking but later on want to sit with your friends around a nice burning fire, simply throw some logs over the hot coal after you’re done with your meal.
Bear in mind that safety comes first. Any fire you start has to be done in a way that minimises the chance of something going really wrong. So firstly, ensure the fire pit isn’t being installed under an overhang or set of overhanging foliage. For a fire pit set on the ground, you want a deep, sandy base preferably. Additionally, fire pit rings (portable or permanent types) are a good way of providing a shield from a breeze if there happens to be some wind on the day.
The next step is checking you’ve got all the equipment you need. First item on the list? Your grill. Although you’d find a wide range of styles and sizes available, what’s essential is that it’s a cooking grill which is designed to stand over the fire. Then you’ll need the basic barbecuing utensils – namely tongs, a spatula, and a grill brush. Ideally, these should have long handles because you wouldn’t want to end up with toasted fingers as you flip your meats around. Lastly, consider having both digital and surface thermometers, particularly if you’re new to fire pit cooking. An instant-read digital thermometer will alert you when your meats are properly cooked for sure, while a surface thermometer allows you to know exactly how hot the grill is.
Finally, aim to set up your fire pit so as to avoid cooking directly over flames, or over too much smoke and heat. The most practical solution for this is using a two-zone system. Through such a system, on one side of your fire pit, the fire will be burning down logs to embers. These embers will then be pushed over to the other size, where you’re able to cook over and around them. Follow this method and your food is unlikely to be charred by flames.
As best practice, you ought to start cooking your thickest cuts of meat and slowest cooking pieces of food first. Why? This allows everything to be done around the same time. Keep in mind also that the thickest cuts will need some rest, and they’ll be cooking for another few degrees further once they’re removed from the grill. To ensure you take them off the grill at the right time and avoid them being overdone, again – an instant-read digital thermometer would be extremely helpful.
Direct heat, as in heat from cooking directly over the embers or coals, is the ideal heat for smaller cuts of meat, as well as cuts which you might not want cooked all the way through (e.g. steaks) Hot dogs, kebabs, hamburgers and the like are perfectly suited for fire pit cooking over direct heat.
Meanwhile, indirect heat is best for larger cuts of meats, such as roasts or whole chickens. You’ll be needing a lid for this method. You place the meat more around the embers than directly over top, then place the lid over your fire pit. This will trap heat, and the convection of hot air and smoke will slowly cook your meat through without burning up the outside and leaving the inner portion raw.
Here’s a final rule in fire pit cooking you should abide by: keep a bucket of fresh water at all times. The reason? Of course, in case you’ll find yourself needing to extinguish a fire that’s getting out of control. There can be a variety of situations like the ground being a bit drier than you thought it’d be, which you can’t always foresee or expect. So in the event you’ll have to swifty put out a sudden blaze, have your bucket of water ready to the rescue.