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My Dad’s cooking skills leave a bit to be desired. As kids we learned to fend for ourselves on the rare times when Mom didn’t take care of dinner. We knew if Dad were cooking we would be stuck with hot dogs. And I’m talking hot dogs boiled in water – not grilled.
So you can imagine our collective surprise when my Dad came home and announced he was digging a pit roaster in the back yard. I didn’t even know what pit cooking/earth oven was, let alone believed in my Dad’s abilities to actually cook in it.
He’s proved us wrong a few times since then, but this Thanksgiving he really outdid himself. He cooked 40 pounds of meat which included a 22 pound turkey, a duck, a pork shoulder and a beef roast.
For those ignorant souls like me, pit cooking is slow cooking in a pit in the ground – sounds kind of crazy huh. Just think of a pig roast and you are pretty much there.
My Dad doesn’t do anything by half measures though and he wasn’t about to settle for an ordinary hole in the ground. One of his friends somehow got a hold of an old freeway sign. I’m talking about the big huge metal piping that is used to hang large directional signs over the freeway. He chopped it into 2 ½ foot sections and shared the love with a few of his friends – my Dad was one of the lucky ones.
They made metal lids out of scrap metal – it even has a handle for a Dutch oven hook. Afterward, my Dad dug a hole, stuck a few bricks in the bottom and then used the sign metal to create an instant pit roaster.
Cooking the meat typically takes 10-12 hours. So the night before, my Dad starts a fire around five and slowly lets the coals build up. Since we have a fire anyway (and my mom hates cooking) we always end up having a hot dog/smore roast. My parents always invite the neighbors and turn it into a big party.
The meat is seasoned as normal and then wrapped in 3-5 layers of tinfoil. While preparing the meat, burlap sacks are left to soak in water. Once they are fully saturated, they are used to wrap the tin-foiled meat. The whole package is then tied together with bailing wire. My Dad always uses the wire to create a loop for easy raising and lowing from the pit.
Once the coals are hot enough (typically 4-6 hours) the meat is stick in the pit. Once the lid is in place the whole thing is covered in dirt. The next morning, my Dad always tests the temperature on each piece to confirm it is cooked entirely. Once it is cooked, we typically leave it in an ice chest until we are ready to service dinner.
Pit cooking is a simple way to cook large amounts of meat with minimal hassle. If done right, the meat literally falls off the bone it is so tender and the flavor is exceptional. I’m not sure how many people we ended up feeding over the thanksgiving holiday, but we had enough meat for two big family parties.
I’d like to locate some metal to build an earth oven, so if anyone knows of a way to get a hold of freeway sign please let me know. I follow my Mom’s philosophy of cooking as little as possible. Fortunately Aaron loves to cook anything meat related. So in the interest of keep my family feed I really need a pit roaster in my backyard.
More info on pit cooking
Mother Earth News – This has detailed directions on how to build your own pit. It also has a few recipes at the end that sounds really good.
The New York Times – Even The New York Times is getting into the Pit cooking craze. This article does a great job describing the optimum use of fire and how to get the right type of coals.
Cowgirls Country – This is a quick description of how to do a modified pit while camping. She is a lot more ambitious then I am when camping. I’m all about keeping it simple.
The Salmons – These guys use a traditional pit and were semi-scientific about their experiences. They have pit summaries from 23 different attempts, but not all of their links were active.
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