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How to build a barbecue pit and above-ground spit

For a rugged back yard adventure, try pit and spit cooking

If you've always wanted to dig out a pit and roast a hunk of meat over the open flame, here's your chance. You'll be admired far and wide for your culinary skills - as long as you don't char the darn thing to a crisp and burn down the neighborhood.

Roasting meat over a spit requires a lot of hard work: before, during, and after. Be prepared to get up at midnight - or sometime in the wee hours - to build your fire. Then, for the next fifteen hours or so, you'll be babysitter, spit inspector, fire tender, baster, and, with any luck, beer drinker. Not necessarily in that order.

Pigs, cows and goats lend themselves to slow spit roasting over a ground-level pit. Do not get carried away with the drama of cooking an entire carcass, though. You will be much better off cooking any large chunk of meat in sections. The meat will cook much more evenly and the tender, juicy portions won't toughen up while the tough sections take more than their share of time to soften up a little.

Pit and spit cooking is ideal for a large party - preferably one out in the country where there is plenty of room to gather around the fire - or not.

Prepare the pit the day before, if not earlier. Select a location away from any type of wood structure. The actual pit should be at least three feet wide, and if you want to use a ton of charcoal, then you only have to dig it about six inches deep. Hickory or dry hardwood is better for any type of long-term cooking, however. Soak a few sticks 24 hours ahead of time; not only will your fire last longer, but you'll have some wonderful smoky flavor wafting into the meat.

For hardwood, you'll need to dig the pit at least 1 1/2 feet - 2 feet deep. You want to build the spit as close to the ground as possible so the meat will cook. Make sure you have enough wood - and never use any type that you can't identify. You don't want some stinky, coated log messing up the food. Worse, yet, it can make you sick.

So, stick with regular wood, maybe throw on some mesquite. When digging the pit, just pile the dirt to one side if you're going to refill it later. That will give your friends more room to stand around and admire your expertise. For added safety, cover the rest of the surrounding grass with dirt or gravel. Dry grass has a thing about wayward sparks.

Just so you don't run out of wood, set aside a stack about three times the size of your pit and then add some more. Gather up some kindling to get it started. Place kindling to either side of the spit and not directly under the meat. Place drip pans or a layer of sand in between the fires to catch grease. This will prevent flareups that will burn and ruin your chunk of meat. Once the fire starts, aim for a good bed of coals. Add the wood and use a rake to create an evenly heated cooking bed. Keep adding wood - most of it will burn at a pretty good lick - that's why you have the water-soaked logs.

The meat, once you put it on, will need to cook within a temperature range of 200 degrees to 250 degrees. A motorized spit is ideal so that the meat continuously bastes itself. Don't even think about building a manual spit - you'll wear out the arms of your guests.

If you have any handyman skills, a spit with motor should be pretty easy to build. You need a fireproof rod that has crossbars or prongs to hold the meat in place. The frame can be a simple upside down "T" with notches along the main bar for adjusting the height of the rotisserie rod. Talk to your mechanical friends about hooking up a small motor attached to a bicycle chain, which is in turn attached to a handle at the end of the rod.

You should also check prices at the local home improvement stores for detachable rotisseries. You may be able to find an affordable one that is easily adaptable to fit on wooden braces.

You will also need a good-sized place to do the carving - one that's sanitary, by the way. Don't be tempted to use a pocket knife to carve out a few pre-tasting chunks. That's called double-dipping among other things. Do it the right way.

The actual cooking time is difficult to pin down, and depends on many factors: weather, wind, outdoor temperature, the size of the meat, when you want to eat. The best gauge - really the only one you should rely on - is a meat thermometer. You can find longer-style temperature gauges at most home improvement stores; they're also used for deep-frying in large pots.

Once all the above steps are complete, you can relax and enjoy the food and the company. Oh, wait, you're the host - you're on cleanup duty, too.



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