A fire pit BBQ is one of the most common and easiest ways to cook great food on an open wood fire. Rather than using gas or charcoal as your primary fuel, you can use a real hardwood fire to get the best heat and flavor intensity possible. Cooking on a fire pit grill isn’t hard but it is quite a bit different than cooking on a standard grill or barbecue. However, the rustic and primitive feeling of cooking outdoors over a real firewood fire is second to none…and the food turns out fantastic! Here is some info about fire pit barbecue cooking and some tips to make the most of it.
Equipment: What do you need to cook on a fire pit BBQ?
- Fire Pit Grill: A fire pit grill is a fire pit which is designed to hold a grill grate over the fire pit. There are various versions of this with different sizes and styles but the basic principle is the same. You start your fire in the pit beneath and then lay the cooking grate across the top to make it a fire pit barbecue.
- Barbecue Utensils: Obviously you need cooking utensils to cook on your fire pit. Basic grilling utensils, such as tongs, fork, and spatulas, are fine for most basic fire pit grilling techniques.
- Good Firewood: Of course your fire pit barbecue is only as good as the quality of firewood you put into it! Don’t skimp. Try to use good, well seasoned, hardwood firewood. Avoid softwoods or woods that have piney, medicinal smells as they burn. I really prefer fruit and nut woods for their savory, slightly sweet smoke that compliment many types of foods. For more info about firewood and good types of firewood for cooking, see my Firewood section.
- Fire Pit Rotisserie: For bigger roasts, cooking them directly over a wood fire on a grill grate can be difficult. With only direct radiant heat and the close proximity to the heat source, it is very likely that the surface of your roast will burn to a crisp long before the interior is even warm! For these larger roasts, like whole poultry, tenderloin, leg of lamb, tri-tip and even rib-roasts, a fire pit rotisserie can bring a whole new dimension to your fire pit barbecue cooking. Some rotisseries can be bought, or built, that simply sit around your fire pit or campfire, holding your food on a rotating spit above the fire so that it cooks evenly and slowly in the rising heat and smoke. Some rotisseries actually secure to your fire pit. An example is seen here and you can find others for the Sojoe Fire Pit. For smaller cuts of meat that you would typically cook right on your grill grate, a rotisserie is not necessary.
- A Lid: Not all fire pit grills come with a lid. Most come with a mesh screen to protect from flying embers. While the mesh screen does hold in some of the heat, it is not ideal. A lid helps you to withhold heat so that you can do indirect heat grilling and to generally hold your heat and smoke around your food. However it is optional for fire pit barbecue cooking. While this is not necessary for smaller cuts that grill quickly on direct heat, it can be beneficial for larger cuts you want to cook or smoke slowly. One option is to build a lid yourself or have one made for you. Another option is to find a lid from a charcoal barbecue which fits your grill. One of the fire pits I use often is relatively small and therefore its perfectly with a Weber 22-1/2″ kettle grill lid. If you search around you should be able to find something that works for you.
Some Tips For Cooking With Real Firewood on a Fire Pit BBQ
- Use Good Firewood: As mentioned above, using good firewood makes the difference between good grilled food and great wood fire cooked food. If you use soft woods you will not get the heat and core of embers you should have and you will lose heat faster. Also, many resinous woods like pine can have medicinal smells that are pleasant but clash with most foods. Poorly seasoned wood (green wood) is also a problem because it does not burn easily and much of your heat energy goes into boiling away the water in the wood, so your temperature does not get as high. Use good, well-seasoned, hardwood firewood. I almost always use fruit or nut woods as I like their flavor the most. Woods like apple, almond, walnut, hickory, mesquite, oak, madrone, peach, pecan and others are all excellent. See my Firewood section for more info on firewood and starting firewood.
- Start Early, Cook with Embers: As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, such as on my Wood Grill page, cooking over large open flames is a sure fire way to burn your food quickly. Ideally, you want a nice core of hot glowing embers. Let the wood burn down to this stage, which can take a bit of time. Once you are cooking over hot embers, occasionally stir the embers with a poker to get more oxygen to them and keep them burning. The exception to this rule is rotisserie cooking. Over a rotisserie you can vary the height of your roast so that it receives the best heat above the fire. This can be done even with open flames, provided they aren’t so big that they envelope your rotisserie roast and burn it.
- Use a Lid if Possible: If you have something that will work as a lid on your fire pit barbecue, it can help to use it to withhold heat and cook your food most evenly. You can also use a lid to do indirect heat cooking for larger roasts if you are not rotisserie cooking them. The lid helps retain heat, but also holds all that good hardwood smoke so that it can permeate your food and enhance the flavor.
- Use a Rotisserie for Larger Roasts: As mentioned above, if you have access to some sort of rotisserie which will hold your larger roasts up over your heat source, this can really aid in making your food succulent, juicy and perfectly done. As the food rotates above the fire, smoke and heat cook it to its savory best. The rotation helps to ensure that it is cooked evenly and doesn’t burn on one side or the other. Check out my pages on Rotisseries for Grills and my recipes such as Spit Roasted Leg of Lamb and Tequila Lime Chicken!