Thursday, June 27, 2013

Building, Smoking, and Cooking in an Inground BBQ Pit

I turn 30 in just over a week.  I thought I might have some pre-30 anxiety, but so far, so good.  Of course, it helps that I am at a good spot in my life with work, hobbies, and love.  But I still wanted to do something special for the big day - something I have never done before.  So, after some contemplating, I decided a pig roast would be a perfect way to celebrate both my birthday and Mary May and I's engagement.  I have been to a number of pig roasts, but never done it myself and I wanted to do it the old fashioned way - in a pit, in the ground, filled with hot coals from a wood fire.

There are quite a few BBQ forums out there with info about cooking in a pit in the ground.  Some pits are pretty darn impressive.  Mine is pretty darn redneck.  I found a fairly flat area with no immediate overhanging trees or brush and measured out a 4' x 5' square.  I got out the pickaxe and shovel and went to work.  Over the course of five sessions, each roughly 40 minutes long, I learned the meaning of "back breaking work".  On the first day, I was riding on adrenaline.  On the second, I was questioning my decision to dig into hardened red clay soil.  After the third, I found muscles in my back I never knew I had - only because of how sore they were.  On the 4th day, a particularly hot, humid day, I started wondering just how long this was going to take.  But on the final day, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, pushed through, and finished the pit.  At 3.5' deep, it was finally ready to cook in.

Digging an inground BBQ pit - not advisable if you have nosy neighbors!

I then did a little more research and found out a bit more about how to prep the pit, what woods to use, cooking times, temperatures, and other useful information.  Since we have a lot of Maple on our property and it goes particularly well with pork, I decided to cook with Maple.  I found as many that were dying as possible and went to work.  Although I borrowed a chainsaw from a friend, I never actually used it - instead opting for a combination of a hand saw, hatchet, and machete.  So, for the next 8-10 days I spent about an hour a day cutting trees and limbs for the BBQ.  My lower back, fresh off of digging the pit, was excited to get a rest.  My upper back, shoulders, and upper arms were less than thrilled with my decision to note use the mechanical saw.  I gained a thorough apprecation for old time lumberjacks and foresters - even wearing a flannel shirt one day in a tribute of sorts (of course, I sweated through it in about 3 minutes and tossed it to the side after that).  But thankfully, it didn't take too long to construct a nice pile of Maple logs as well as branches and smaller limbs to get the fire going.

The next step was to head to Home Depot.  There I picked up two, high temperature cinder blocks, two 5' x 4' pieces of plywood, a 10' role of 36" chicken wire, a piece of non-galvanized tin, and a role of burlap.  These were all integral pieces of the pig roast process as detailed by this awesome country cooking blog.

Although I am quite familiar with cooking over a fire and coals, I am not familiar with cooking in a giant hole in the ground.  So, before we drop the pig in the ground, sometime in the wee hours of the morning on July 5th, I wanted to do a test run.  I had picked up a couple of Boston butt roasts on a ridiculous sale a couple of months ago and we also had a few chicken legs that someone gave us - they were the perfect testers.

Cooking over a wood fire and hot coals is nothing new for the Haerer-Pratt household

So Sunday, I got up earlier than usual and went outside to start the fire.  Immediately I realized my first mistake - not covering the wood pile.  It had rained hard the night before and everything was wet.  After nearly an hour, I couldn't get the fire to stay lit.  My inner Eagle Scout was ashamed.  Ready to give up, I walked back inside and flopped down on the couch.  I was already half exhausted and sweating profusely.  But just before I was ready to waive the white flag, along came Mary May, who helped pick me back up and gameplan how to get the darn fire started.  No matter what crazy ideas I come up with, she always supports me and helps me get back on track when things don't go as planned - one of the many reasons I love her.

We decided to try a 'fire in a box'.  I grabbed an extra phone book (because who uses those things these days), a medium sized cardboard box, and the lighter and again disappeared out the back door.  I threw a bunch of small branches and kindling into the pit, then turned by attention to the box, which I sat on the ground directly next to the pit.  I crumbled pages of the phone book in the bottom of the box, covered the pages with kindling, and applied the lighter.  It lit, quickly, and stayed lit.  Then the box begin to catch and it was time for the moment of truth.  I waited until about 1/3 of the box had been burnt and then pushed it over the edge of the pit.  Miraculously, the kindling in the pit lit, then the small branches, then some bigger branches.  I threw more and more small to medium sized wood on the fire and, with Mary May's help, we got that baby roaring.  Finally bigger logs began to dry out and light and over the course of the next two and a half hours, I burnt enough Maple (as well as some small Oak), to get about a foot or so of coals in the bottom of the pit.  By now, we were nearly 2 hours behind schedule, so I decided a foot of coals would be enough.

Most of the time, I supervised the fire and worked on drying wood while it burnt.  I also prepped the lid and some smoking logs by soaking them in water.  After the fire got lower I started prepping the meat.  We had three chicken legs and two Boston butt roasts.  I rubbed all three of the chicken legs with a healthy dose of poultry seasoning.   I then wrapped two of them in a paper bag that I dampened with water.   The other I covered in BBQ sauce and put in aluminum foil.  I put a rub on both pork roasts that consisted of brown sugar, cayenne pepper, chili powder, mustard powder, garlic powder, onion powder, ground black pepper, paprika, and a small amount of sea salt.  The larger roast I wrapped in foil and again covered in BBQ sauce.  The smaller roast I wrapped in a brown bag and dampened.  I then wrapped all but one of the meat packages in burlap that I had soaked in water for about an hour.  The wet burlap helps the packages not catch on fire and also helps the meat steam while cooking.

Rubbed, sauced, wrapped, and ready!

For the pig, the process will be a little bit different (including use of chicken wire and the sheet of tin), but for this batch, I used a sling to carefully drop a cinder block into the middle of the pit.  I then attached a wire and chain to a tin fire saucer that we had and placed the wrapped meat on it.  I lowered the saucer onto the cinder block and steaked the chain into the ground, so we could easily remove it when done.  I then tossed two soaked Maple logs into each side of the pit to provide plenty of smoke for flavor.  I then covered the pit with the two pieces of plywood, which I had also soaked in water.  I used the dirt I had extracted from the pit when I dug it to fill the gaps between the boards and around the edges, so that there was no smoke visibly escaping.  After that, we watched and waited.

I quickly realized that watching was boring.  You could literally see nothing, which I took as a good thing.  And after about 9 hours in the pit, we removed the dirt, slid off the lids, and used the chain to pull the meat out of the pit.  That flavor of Maple smoke filled the air and the BBQ smelled delicious.  We took it inside and unwrapped each piece of meat.  We were eager to see how it would turn out.  As you can probably guess, cooking in the ground is an inexact science.  It is easy to both under- and overcook meat.  Thankfully the chicken was cooked perfectly.  The pork was cooked through, but could have probably used a little more time for our liking, so we gave it another hour in the oven at 300 degrees.  That did the trick.

The meat in the foil cooked slightly more and the meat in the brown bags cooked a little less, but had much more of a smoky flavor to it.  Everything was delicious, but to my surprise, the chicken was actually my favorite.  However, I think with some of the lessons learned, the pig is going to be out of this world delicious!

A Boston Butt Roast that was mighty tasty!

What would I do differently?  Well for starters, I might actually add a little dirt back into the bottom of the pit.  It pains me to say it, but I think 3' is plenty deep enough for everything I will be cooking in it - including the small pig.  The other option is that I increase the amount of hot coals in the bottom to about 1.5' or more, which should be an easier task with dry wood.  That of course is something else on the agenda - covering the wood with a tarp about a week in advance of the cook date.  Other than that, I thought our test run was a success and we have had leftovers all week.

Hopefully this helps anyone out there thinking of doing an inground BBQ.  It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun and by now, most readers of this blog know that I love a good challenge.  Plus it is extremely gratifying, especially when you can share it with family and friends.  So, if you have a hankering for a pig pickin', feel free to swing by Hillsborough on July 5th.  If not, you will just have to wait and read about it here in a couple of weeks!  Tight lines!


  1. Homes in our development or subdivision slowly sink into the ground and break apart because of a massive peat layer. We did a 35 grand soil correction. Barbecue pit is probably not a good idea around here...

    Gentle, smoky, cooking is still king though.

    1. Yeah a BBQ pit might be a bad choice given the sinking factor and flamability factor of peat.

      Low and slow!

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  3. Hey thanks a lot I find this very informative and plan to have a pig roast this 4th of July and think ur method is a great jumping off spot with a few added ideas of my own thanks again and I'm very interested in how ur pig came out

    1. The pig turned out great. It is not the easiest way to cook, but it is really fun and rewarding.

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