Besides bringing that camping feeling to your backyard, having a fire pit can unleash many other positives. In this article, I want to chat in general terms about fire pits and what I like about them plus brush over a few points of consideration on cooking with wood fuelled fire.
If you would like to know in detail how I built my fire pit please go here to our forum and read through these in-depth instructions you can also join our forum and ask questions about the build. Briefly though, building a fire pit is a very easy project to do and there are many different ways to do it. A fire pit can be as simple as a campfire surrounded by some rocks or a brickwork of art with cooking gadgetry built in however, you decide to build yours the main thing is containing the fire and coals so the operation of your fire is safely controlled (especially in built-up areas).
Spit roasting Pekin ducks over a fire pit with an Auspit battery powered unit (image above)
The main reason I decided on a fire pit was to use for cooking during BBQ's and special occasions when we had people over. The idea that a fire pit could be used for heating wasn't one of my main feature requirements (living in a subtropical climate) but I'm sure it would be useful for that purpose in cooler parts of the world. So cooking was my primary reason for building our fire pit and this is because fire and wood smoke are great at making all those original, aromatic, and tasty flavours which are difficult to reproduce using modern cooking methods.
I suppose the obvious thing that concerns people when considering a fire pit is the "fire" part. Western society has moved away from using fire in everyday cooking because there are more convenient ways to cook food rather than getting wood, cutting wood, building a fire, and managing the fire to get it to a stage where it can be used for cooking. So it's more convenience sake and not danger that we have turned to other methods of cooking. Still, how good does a pizza taste when cooked in a wood fired oven!? A fire pit really isn't any different to running a wood fired pizza oven in the backyard but people do tend to get a little scared and worried simply because the fire pit is open rather than enclosed.
Actually, an open fire (in a fire pit) really isn't that dangerous or hard to control and is quite safe to do. Campfires rarely burn fiercely or get into a position where they need to be extinguished due to rising embers or escaping flames. The only time a normal campfire becomes a problem is in bad weather (eg windy day); extremely dry fire hazardous conditions; poorly located; or human stupidity such as poor supervision, intoxication, flammable liquids, etc. Otherwise, making a campfire and doing some old fashioned cooking or roasting a few marshmallows is a very low-risk activity.
I've personally had a lot of experience with campfires (being an ex-soldier) and I can never remember a time when a campfire got out of control except for once when a guy got lazy and didn't clear his individual campfire area where he lit up his small hexamine stove for a brew – this caused a small brush fire, which needed to be put out by several of us and left him very red faced (human stupidity)… Overall, people shouldn't be scared of fire but as the saying goes everyone should respect it. Therefore, if the ignorance of fire is what's holding you back from making a fire pit and using it for cooking, then do a little research on how to make a fire and read up on fire safety then you'll soon find out how basic it is to do. Cooking with fire is no more dangerous than cooking with anything else that generates heat you just have to familiarise yourself and follow appropriate safety guidelines (which tend to be common sense).
Look into my fire… the ember glow ready for cooking (image above)
Nevertheless, cooking with fire even if you are familiar with campfires can be a little tricky – not in a safety sense – but in a technique kind of way. I do have experience with fire but until recently I never really used a camp fire for cooking except for the odd fish on a riverbank, can of beans, or making a billy tea, however, real proper roasting for a large group of people is something I haven't done much. Yes, I've been to functions where a pig was roasted on a spit and things like that except I never really took much notice of the cooking and just basically did the eating and drinking!
The challenge for me has been the "technique" for cooking with fire and this part of the process is just as satisfying or interesting as the eating bit. How do you cook over a fire – what method, how long do you roast a cut of meat or a whole duck, at what part of the fire cycle is the best time to cook, how far away should the spit roast be located from the embers, and overall management of a fire for cooking? These are some of the questions I've found myself asking/wondering. And then you have other factors that make every fire slightly different to add in variability in turn affecting cooking times, things like surrounding temperature, type of wood, humidity, etc.
As you can see, cooking over a fire pit is not as straightforward as turning the electric oven on; nevertheless, and despite the extra effort cooking over fire takes, the end results are often fabulously better than other ways of cooking plus the theatre of fire adds an extra entertainment element to the whole process.
Our fire pit and lunch setting (image above)
As at the writing of this article, we've only used our fire pit once so far since it was built about 4 weeks ago and it really was a great family day. We spit roasted three of our own home-grown Pekin ducks and I used a battery operated camping spit called the Auspit, which is a really nifty piece of kit and it worked a treat! Unfortunately, I have to admit to slightly overcooking the ducks (I'll mark that down as part of the learning curve) but the marshmallows were a huge hit. Seriously, there's something about being around a fire that relaxes everyone and it did feel like we were on a camping trip in our backyard. We also roasted potatoes in the coals and overall the fire pit was a resounding success helping to make the big family day a memorable one.
Our fire pit probably did start off as the poor man's pizza oven being easy to make and costing much less; however, I can see now it's much more than a trade off and it's actually a really good way to cook and a great feature on those special occasions. Yes, I would definitely recommend building a fire pit and bringing the camping experience to your backyard; and yes, I probably do need to use my fire pit more to become a better cook with fire although I don't think I'm going to mind the extra practice at all…
Video on how to build a fire pit