DEEP PIT BBQ

From what I can find, deep pit BBQ seems to concentrated in Southern and Central inland California, from the Imperial Valley to Bakerfield, and in adjoining Arizona and Nevada. Deep pit BBQ involves burning lots of wood in a deep hole in the ground, placing the wrapped meat on top of the coals, covering it up, and letting it cook for 12 - 18 hours; very similar to the Hawaiian imu used for cooking kalua pork for a luau. Pits are often large enough to cook several hundred pounds of meat at one time for large events. The meat is dug up and shredded then served with ranch-style beans and salsa or BBQ sauce.

As a teen, I learned to deep pit BBQ from a man named Andy Dufresne. I build my first pit in about 1976, a 2x2x4 foot deep formed and poured concrete pit. We used that pit for several years until the State decided they were going to build a highway through my parents house and covered up my pit!

I was "pitless" for a few years and last year I decided it was time to build a new one. The formed and poured concrete was a pain, so I decided to try something new. I had a concrete pipe laying around that was 24 inches in diameter (inside) and 3 feet long. I dug a hole in the ground and buried it flush with the ground. Then I formed and poured a 4x4 foot concrete slab around it, and poured 3 inches of concrete in the bottom of the pipe.

It turns out the pipe is the perfect size to fit a perforated steel basket from an old washing machine. I got two of those baskets and they stack perfectly inside the pit. The bottom one holds the coals to make removal so much easier. The top basket holds the wrapped meat and has a chain handle to pull it out when it is hot.

The key to deep pit BBQ is that the pit has to sealed airtight after the meat is put in. The lid seals the air out and the fire is extinguished, the residual heat from the pit slow cooks the meat. If the pit is not air tight, the coals continue to burn and the meat will be reduced to ashes. The best way to seal the pit is to cover it with a flat steel cover, put a canvas tarp over the cover, shovel a 3-4 inch layer of sand or dirt on top, and wet it down well with a hose. I poured another 4x4 foot slab at the back of the pit and put a small concrete block retaing wall around it, this gives mw a place to store the sand which seals the pit.

PREPARING THE MEAT
Buy the cheapest, toughest meat you can find, usually shoulder clod; the long, slow cooking time will tenderize it. Cut the meat into 3-5 lb chunks. Peel lots of garlic and cut the cloves in half lengthwise, stab holes in the meat with a long knife and shove the garlic into the holes. In a cake pan, mix some vegetable oil and Liquid Smoke. Roll the mix in the oil and Smoke mixture, coating it well, then sprinkle it well with seasoning salt. Place the meat into a oven bag and seal it up, do not poke any holes in the bag. Wrap the meat in a layer of aluminum foil to protect the oven bag.

PREPARING THE PIT
You need enough dry hardwood to completely fill the pit. Anyone with a pit also has several large mature Eucalyptus trees that shed big branches on a regular basis. I start with a pile of small twigs and newspaper for kindling, and start piling on larger logs ending up with logs about 4-5 inches in diameter. Anything larger will take too long to burn down. When the pit is full and overflowing with wood, light it up and wait. It will take 2-4 hours for the wood to burn down to embers. The cooking heat comes from the walls of the pit, not from the embers so it is important to let the embers burn down well. This makes for maximum heat stored in the walls of the pit.

Place the wrapped meat in the second basket, set it in the pit, cover it with the steel cover, the tarp, and the sand. Wet it down, soaking it completely to seal it. Now for a leap of faith - walk away. There's no way to check on it. This is always nerve wrecking when you are preparing meat for a large party - you'll pull the meat out a few hours before your guest arrive so you can shred it and keep it warm. If you didn't seal the pit, you'll have several pounds of cremated meat - if you didn't build enough fire, the meat won't be cooked.

The meat will cook for 12 - 18 hours, depending on the size of your pit, the amount of wood, the amount of meat, the ground temperature, etc. It will take some experimentation to get it figured out.

I have cooked several different things in my pits including shredded beef, shredded pork, whole chickens, whole turkeys, and even a whole suckling pig. Someday, I'd like to try a whole emu for Thanksgiving :)

Good Luck and have fun!

Posted 12/31/06

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