Cooking outdoors satisfies a primordial “roughing it” feeling. Everyone has cooked a wienie on a stick, but few have tried pit cooking, where you literally cook food underground. It does not conform to our modern “do it fast” state of mind, taking hours pull off. And pit cooking does take effort to dig a pit and prepare the coals. But you can cook a lot of food such as whole chickens, hams or a roast. And by layering foods in the pit, whole meals can be prepared all at once. The working principal is that heat retained in rocks and hot coals slowly cooks the meal.
So here are the basic steps to cooking underground:
• Dig a hole two or three times larger than the aluminum foil wrapped food to be cooked, including room for rocks.
• Line the pit with flat rocks. Do not use rocks that retain moisture, such as from streambeds. They may explode through expanding internal steam.
• Build a fire in the pit that will create a lot of coals, burning logs two to four inches in diameter. Unless you want an extremely hot pit to cook a turkey or a pig, logs larger than four inches will take too long to burn down. Add logs to the fire as it burns, as you’ll need a lot of coals. Good wood for coals production include oak and hickory. Let the fire burn rapidly for at least an hour. The pit should be almost full of coals when ready for food placement;
• Remove the coals with a shovel (be careful). Place the foil wrapped meat on top of the rock lining, then shovel in a thin layer of dirt followed by a two-inch layer of coals. Next place a layer of foil wrapped potatoes, followed by another layer of dirt and coals. Vegetables like corn on the cob, cut up broccoli, etc. goes on next, then top the whole thing off with at least a three inch layer of dirt.
• Allow meat the size of a chicken to cook at least 3 to 3 ½ hours. Cut up pieces will cook quicker. It will take practice to get the cooking time down right. Be careful not to tear the foil wrap when removing food, and be safe with the heat.
This slow cooking method gets meat tender and moist, and if properly done cooks vegetables to perfection. You will leave a lasting impression with your friends by digging supper up out of the ground. A good source for outdoor cooking information is “Roughing it Easy” by Dian Thomas.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.