Introduction: How to Build a Pit Oven (And Cook a Salmon in It)

Picture of How to Build a Pit Oven (And Cook a Salmon in It)

We had a BBQ at the weekend and thought it might be fun to do a little backwoods cooking with a pit oven. The meal was to be a whole salmon which had been taking up valuable real estate in the freezer for about a year, so we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get rid of the beast. After a bit of research on the net, we set to the task. It was a fun little project and we all had a good laugh pretending to be cavemen!

Step 1: Dig the Hole !!!

Picture of Dig the Hole !!!

No great surprises here, just grab yourself a spade and start digging. You'll need to find an open piece of earth with no fire hazards overhead (overhanging trees etc.).

Our hole measured roughly 2'(l), 1'(w), 1'(d). We tried to keep everything pretty square, but that's only because we're slightly anal and I don't think it's that important in the great scheme of things. We made sure we kept the pile of excavated earth near to the pit so that it was close at hand when we needed to bury our feast!

N.B. At this point you may want to make sure that any nosy neighbours etc. haven't got the wrong idea about this hole in the ground you're digging; police searches and BBQs rarely mix!

Step 2: Line the Pit

Picture of Line the Pit

We had a search round the garden and found a load of medium sized stones (like those you might find on a river bed) and some flat slabs of rock from a collapsed wall. We lugged these back to the pit in a wheelbarrow and began to line the pit.

The earth at the bottom of the pit was loosened up to give the rocks something to bed into. Starting with the walls of the oven, we used the slabs to line each face. We then used the remaining slabs to form a base for the oven. With a bit of trial and error, we managed to find bits that were just wide enough to push against the wall slabs, giving them some support.

The medium stones were then dumped onto the base and spread out so that they formed a fairly flat and even cooking surface.

And there you have it, one pit oven, ready for action!!!

Step 3: Build the Fire

Picture of Build the Fire

Now for the fun bit... Fire!!! We gathered together plenty of small, dry twigs for the kindling and some larger branches for the main fuel of the fire.

We started by loosely scrunching up some newspaper to form the base of the fire. On top of that went the kindling and then the larger branches.

Next we lit the paper and danced around the fire like madmen, celebrating our power over nature!!! (Not really!)

It goes without saying but, take great care when building and lighting fires; even though we were careful there were still a few singed hairs here and there!

We kept the fire fueled with larger and thicker branches making sure that the fire burned evenly over the whole pit. What you're aiming for is a nice even distribution of glowing embers over the bed of the pit. This will heat the stones, and it is this heat, retained by the stones, that will do the cooking.

We planned on burning the fire for about two hours to give the stones a thorough baking, but after an hour we'd run out of wood. The solution? We just chucked a load of charcoal onto the embers and retired to watch England Vs Israel on the TV.

Step 4: Prepare the Salmon

Picture of Prepare the Salmon

Just time before kick off to prep Sammy (the salmon). Traditional methods of pit cookery use large leaves to wrap up the meat. This protects it from being contaminated with earth when buried. More modern methods tend to use kitchen foil as a substitute.

We rolled out a length of kitchen foil long enough to accommodate the fish and doubled it over for extra protection. It was then lightly greased with butter and on went Sammy.

The corners were pinched up to form a tray so that our baste wouldn't spill all over the place. Next we thinly sliced a lemon and put that inside Sammy along with herbs, seasoning and a little butter.

The baste was made by melting some butter and adding lemon juice, honey, seasoning and paprika. This was then poured all over Sammy.

We then sealed everything with another doubled up sheet of kitchen foil that was crimped together with the bottom sheet.

Step 5: Bury the Beast!

Picture of Bury the Beast!

1/2 time and the fire's hot. The charcoal's done its job well and it's time to put Sammy in the oven.

Guides found on the internet suggested removing the ashes before placing the meat in (or at least scooping them up to one end of the oven) so that the meat is in direct contact with the hot stones. We didn't bother with this and just laid down a couple of layers of kitchen foil over the embers as an additional layer of protection.

In went Sammy, another layer of foil and then the earth. We shoveled carefully at first, progressing to great big spade-fulls, until Sammy was well and truly buried.

Step 6: Let It Cook

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We reckoned about 1 hour 30 mins would be enough for Sammy to be cooked through (purely guesswork). By the time match had finished and we'd had our burgers and hot dogs, it was time to get digging again.

Step 7: Dig for Treasure!

Picture of Dig for Treasure!

Obviously you want to be careful at this stage, one false move with the spade and dinner's ruined!

We knew Sammy was about 4" down and once we saw the silver glow of the foil, the rest of the extraction was done by hand. Again, be careful here, we were surprised by how hot the earth, the food and the stones still were.

After about 5 minutes, he was out and ready for the table.

Step 8: Enjoy the Bounty!

Picture of Enjoy the Bounty!

And now, the moment of truth. We gently peeled back the foil to a release of steam and a great smell... It had worked!!! Sammy was perfectly cooked; the skin peeled off easily and the meat just fell of the bone.

Thanks Sammy, you were one great fish. There was more than enough to go round and everyone had their fill.

Step 9: The Cleanup

Picture of The Cleanup

Next day and time to clean up. After removing any non bio-degradables (like foil etc.) we just filled the pit in, leaving a nice little mystery for archaeologists of the future.

I hope this helps if you decide to make your own pit oven. After blundering through our first attempt I'd recommend it and we'll definitely be building another one soon.

Thanks for reading.


EddieDigits (author)2016-09-30

Been doing some reading on earth ovens, straight after reading your Instructable I stumble on this article.... isn't that your oven in the photo? Turns out, being anal about digging a nice hole isn't such a bad idea.

vickilynn5 (author)2015-04-10

Would this work at the beach? How do you make sure the stones aren't from a river?

James IanW (author)2014-12-05

An excellent modern take on the traditional 'Hangi' cooker. Be careful that the stones are not from a river as they can actually explode ;-)

mmmegsie (author)2014-11-16

this is a great idea for camping!! I'm definately going to suggest this to my camping group this summer!

mortero (author)2013-12-16

I found this recipe and made it. It is nice. That taste is singular. Thanks

ysmith1 (author)2012-06-08

You could also wrap the food being cooked in wet hay, grass or straw and add a layer of clay or mud. Food cooked in this manner is so tender and wonderful. Cheers

antioch (author)ysmith12012-08-19

awesome, sounds so much tastier and natural!

buggvin (author)2010-07-08

Only thing I would add is to be careful where you get your rocks you use in the oven. Taking one from a riverbed, or anywhere from a watersource isn't a good idea. If the rock has absorbed a lot of moisture, when heated up it can explode.

karthikvasudevan (author)2009-08-28

cool idea. im gonna try it on my camping trip or any time i get the chance.

mandrake (author)2009-07-30

Thank you for this great and funny instructable. I am going on a fishing trip with friends and I plan to impress them with my pit cooking skills. That is if we catch any fish of course.

maruawe (author)2008-11-21

You can wrap your food in wet canvas (old Army tent) You get a lot of steam that way . We usually put the seasoning in the water that we use for the canvas. you can also use wet canvas for the bottom base with charcoal directly on the canvas ... Sure do envy you that meal ... Pit cooked is the best tasting food that I have ever eaten food.......................................................

Scncgeek (author)2008-11-21

Excellent writing

King Hippo (author)2008-08-21

I am surprised you found success with river rock. It has been my experience that when you use river rock, or any other non-porous rock, there is a strong possibility that they will explode as a result of the heat. Shards of extremely hot rock can quickly ruin a pleasant evening. Wahi a na kupuna Hawai'i, 'oi aku ka 'ono o ka 'ilio kalua ma mua o ka 'ono o ka pua'a kalua.

Fred82664 (author)2008-07-28

Yumyyyyyyyyy! I done some thing like this a few times when I was fishing on a river beach. a party of four of us the first eight walleye and a few cat fish went in the pit. we used the scraps for chum and bate what a trip that was . Buddy s, Beer and fishing

tunipstar (author)2008-03-29

Well the fish slice too!!!

GorillazMiko (author)2008-01-04

Nice job, that is one big salmon you have there.

zeero360 (author)2007-09-12

we were gonna make 1 of these, but i wanted a pizza oven instead can you show me how to make 1 if you no how

Cassi (author)zeero3602007-12-31

go to and they've got great instructions for how to make your own pizza box solor oven. Cassi

tts.spy (author)zeero3602007-09-13

from last week's weekend builder! :)

How to build a Pizza Oven

phatphehy (author)2007-10-27

in New Zealand the indigenous Maoris call it " hangi " and in the Pacific islands they call it 'umu(earth oven). they been cooking like this4 a thousand yrs-usually start fire-pile on wood and stones on top wait for stones to turn white hot(stones u hav r ideal)-chuck out big embers-settle stones flat at bottom and add food(work quickly)-criss-cross-sticks or branches at top of pit(support)-spread cover across pit(should be breathable)-thick blanket frm linen closet ideal(dnt let wife catch u) cover with veneer of earth to the point u cant see steam rising frm pit-cook anything u can cook in conventional oven(my aunt makes bread) or anything u can fit into it(no limit to size)-timing depends on amount of food in pit-your size pit will take half hour-ok

kadris3 (author)2007-09-16

this has long been used for beans called "bean hole beans". families have their own recipies which they share w no one. these have been passed along for many generations. another varition of this is the traditional lobster bake. Mainers place the lobsters over hot coals w clams and a few eggs smothered in seawead. when the eqqs are hard boiled, the lobster and clams are done. nothing tastes better. seaweed provides the moisture fr steam, and also insulates the catch. never better than on the sea shore. now i'm hungry. i gotta go cook something. thanks fr sharing the ancient and still used cooking meathod.

MD_Willington (author)2007-09-14

Cool... best I've done is cook a 40lb Chinook right on the beach... Good times!

Grady (author)2007-09-14

Boy, I tell you; you sure know how to make a person hungry. It sounded as it may had been something on the line of how the true, primitive indians may had done, but with the leaves & not the foil. I'd like to try this, myself. Thanks

smmiller506 (author)2007-09-13

This is great idea. I've used a cardboard box on it's side lined with tin foil and a built in metal grate to smoke a fish. Didn't turn out too well. I didn't have the coals hot enough. Thankfully, it was precooked, so not so bad. If you want something to complement the fish, you could take a big ham and completely cover it in mustard and rock salt. Put that directly on the coals and the mustard hardens up, creating a shell that won't let coals through. A layer of foil never hurt though, in case something goes wrong. Pull the ham off the coals, peel away the mustard and rock salt layer and enjoy!

TheScientist (author)2007-09-11

wow that was awesome :) in New Zealand these are called a hangi. usually the hole is bigger, and you start making it at 6/7 in the morning for lunchtime. if you put a damp sheet over the top of the food before the dirt, it makes it a bit easier to get the dirt off again later, especially if you trail the edges of the sheet up out the sides of the hole :)

theque (author)2007-09-11

coolzorz now im gonna try it.

junisponds (author)2007-09-11

what a fun idea for camping.

crapflinger (author)2007-09-11

when we go camping we usually bring a whole chicken (once it was a turkey...big mistake) with us....we season it then wrap it in tinfoil...make pretty decently sized fire and just put the chicken underneath the's a little less precise than the pit method (since you've actually still got flames on top..but the chicken is burried in the embers underneath)...but it makes the best roasted chicken ever

Mr Tenacious (author)2007-09-11

cool, i tried making 1 of these once but it failed

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