Introduction: 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 !!!

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

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

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

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!

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

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!

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!

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

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.