Rick Bayless describes pit-roasting a lamb in authentic Mexican style in his cookbook, “Fiesta at Rick’s” (an online variant of the recipe for a pig is here). He laments that few people will ever try it, but that was just a challenge for our food-obsessed small farm that raises both goats and vegetables. We decided to adapt his method, using one of our goat kids (even more authentic), as the menu centerpiece of an end-of-season party (full menu here) for our farm’s 2012 CSA members. We’ve done a spit-roasted goat before, but the whole pit-roasting method seemed even more interesting. We followed his directions fairly closely, but found that some parts could use more clarification or elaboration. Here are our notes on what we did, what we will do differently next time, and what we wish we had had more information about before starting out.
Planning the pit
The cookbook suggests building the pit the day before the event. Given all of the other prep that needs to happen the day before the event, we think this is a bad idea. Build the pit well in advance, and if anything goes wrong, there’s time to fix it. I (Joanna) put an estimated 6-8 hours into pit building. Building it the day before would not have left time for much else, in our case. Also, though Bayless suggests the camaraderie of pit-building with a group is a great thing, I think pit building is more efficiently done alone (or perhaps with one assistant). This isn’t an enormous pit, and there is only moderate need for bulk muscle work (at least from a farmer’s perspective) but lots of need for attention to detail in measuring it, keeping the side straight, and carefully getting the right size/depth. Once it comes to putting in the bricks, there really isn’t room for more than one person in the pit. In any case, there’s no reason not to build it ahead of time, since it should be pretty stable once built.
The soil type will also affect the amount of time/effort needed to build the pit. We chose among two locations: one that would have been a relatively easy location to build a pit in nice, deep alluvial soil, and the other in dense upland clay. The upland clay site won for virtually every reason (other than ease of construction): closer proximity to the house/kitchen, ease of access to water, a desire for long term party site in the vicinity, and uselessness of the specific location for very much else. Given that the labor is one-time but we hope to use this pit for years to come, these other factors made the clay site a clear choice.
Type of bricks
Bayless just calls for brick without specifying what kind. Our local brick supplier strongly recommended fire brick for this project, so we went with that. Pseudo-bricks made of concrete are certainly not suitable for this purpose because they won’t stand up to heat. We suspect that regular bricks would do fine (though haven’t tested it). In retrospect we we didn’t really need all of the heat-holding capacity of firebrick; more details later. Fire brick dimensions are a bit larger than those of regular bricks, so we had to modify the plan for the pit size once we had the bricks in hand (at which point the pit digging was well under way). Fire bricks are generally 9 x 4.5 x 2.5 inches, as we would have learned if we had been clever enough to consult Wikipedia first. (Apparently there are also firebrick “splits” with half the thickness; those could have been fine for the bottom, but the bricks lining the sides need to be full thickness for stability; they are stacked on their narrow edge.) In any case, the pit dimensions should be planned based on actual brick size available (as well as pan size).
Is brick really necessary? This is a question that we mulled over, since we obviously would rather not spend money if we didn’t have to. We have a book on building an earthen oven that we think could be used in principle to make a quick & dirty pit for this purpose. The plan would be to dig a pit of roughly the right size and use a clay/sand mix to line the slightly more free-form walls of the pit. We weren’t sure about the heat retention, and we know that method would not hold up to the water that the pit would be subjected to over time. Given the size of the party, the fact that a whole animal was involved in the cooking, and the (hopefully) one-time expense of the brick, we decided to play it safe and spend the money on fire brick.
One other consideration with the fire brick: it looks somewhat porous, and we don’t think we should leave it in a pit that is likely to collect water and is guaranteed to experience freeze/thaw cycles (not to mention clay shrink/swell). So, we’ve removed the bricks from the pit for the winter, and we’re storing them next to the pit under an old truck cap that we inherited with the property. We have metal panels covering the pit, and our hope is that the walls will stay in decent shape so that we can simply reline the pit with brick anytime we want to use it.
Number of bricks & dimensions of the pit
I started to dig the pit assuming standard sized bricks (not fire brick) and a pan the size that Bayless quotes (because ours came from the same manufacturer.) We modified the plan when we measured the pan and realized it was more square than we thought and when we found out fire bricks are bigger than we thought.
We used 32 bricks for the bottom of the square pit (8 bricks by 4 bricks; they’re twice as long as they are wide). The sides include three layers of 16 bricks each, set on end, so the walls have a vertical lining of 13.5″ of brick. The actual floor of the pit is lower than that to allow for a layer of sand, then the thickness of floor brick (2.5″), then the 13.5″ walls, then a few inches of slush space at the top, which is covered in a cap of sand/clay mix inspired by the earthen oven book. (Initial plan was for 4 layers of brick, but we decided that wasn’t necessary with the wider fire bricks.)
The wall dimensions were 38.5 ” x 38.5″ (external to the bricks, the size of the desired hole). On each wall, four bricks (sitting on their long narrow side) butt up against the end of a brick on one of the adjoining walls. Each layer of bricks is stacked to be offset relative to the previous layer.
Digging the pit
I spent too much time being careful to not over-dig the size of the pit. I was worried about unstable walls, but, in retrospect, I found that it was much easier to backfill behind the bricks than to shave off more of the wall a little at a time to get a brick to fit perfectly. On the other hand, the snug fit of the bricks butting up against solid walls also helped to keep them in place, particularly when we chucked oversized logs into the pit. If digging in clay, a sharp shovel is very important, along with a good file for resharpening it when it goes dull.
I dug the pit to a generous depth and spread sand on the bottom of the pit to help with leveling the lowest layer of bricks. This seemed to work well. To deal with uneven ground at the top of the pit, we used a clay/sand mix to line the top (inspired by the earth oven book, but applied hurriedly and thus not mixed very precisely). This cracked as it dried, but it did achieve the goal of preventing dirt from falling in or being kicked into the pit/pan. It also meant we didn’t need perfectly level ground. And it let us adapt the original plan of 16″ brick walls to the larger brick size–by using fewer bricks but then filling the slush space with the clay/sand mix.
Prepping the food
As Bayless describes, we set up two cookie-cooling racks on ceramic dishes, filling the space underneath with poblano peppers, onions, garlic, and sweet potatoes (all grown on-farm), then covering with water. We then layered banana leaves on the racks, arranged all the goat pieces nicely, slathered them with a roasted pepper sauce (on-farm peppers, garlic, tomatoes, onions), and covered with more leaves. We did a trial run earlier in the week to prove the concept, using just a goat leg, then did the main event with all the main pieces of a goat kid.
We deviated from the Bayless recipe a bit, brining the goat beforehand to help ensure it didn’t dry out, a method we regularly use for roasting or smoking meats. However, this made the drippings soup underneath very salty. Perhaps we’ll skip the brining next time and instead use the adobo version he calls for.
Also, we soaped the outside of the pan before using, a method we’ve found to significantly cut the amount of scorching and smoke-staining on the metal. As usual, it worked like a charm.
Building the fire
–Bayless’s urban/suburban concept of building a raging fire may not be the same as a farmer’s concept of a raging fire, at least if that farmer has spent four winters clearing cedar trees and burning considerable amounts of brush. Even when the pit was full of burning wood, it was a nice cute fire, and it didn’t need the truck loads of wood (mostly cedar milling scraps, see above) that we hauled up there to prepare for our vision of 24 hours of raging-fire burning. Unfortunately we can’t quantify how much wood we actually used, but it was far less than expected; we barely made a dent in our supply. However, for suburbanites doing this, acquiring good wood in sufficient quantities is an important consideration that Bayless doesn’t really discuss.
–Wood type matters. We used virtually all cedar (eastern red), which burns very hot. Oak, hickory, and locust likewise would burn hot; elm and walnut don’t have nearly as much heat in them. Burn time & cooking time may need to be adjusted based on the wood type.
Using the pit
–Be sure the pan is level on the coals so that broth covers the bottom of the pan and doesn’t leave a section to desiccate & burn if there is some evaporation. This wasn’t actually a problem for us, but it was nearly so in our trial run.
–After covering the pit, it is a good idea to stick around and watch for a little while to make sure there is a good seal. We ran off to do some other tasks, then came back to check on the pit about 20 minutes later and found that there was more smoke coming out than desired; the goal is to have a pretty good seal with very little smoke escaping.
–We read somewhere online that it probably wasn’t possible to overcook meat in a pit. We think it IS possible to cook too hot &/or too long. Maybe the seal is to blame, or maybe we just had too many hot coals, or maybe the fire brick was too good at retaining heat, but we think we did manage to overcook it a bit. The meat came out crispy and black along the outside (some guests liked that effect) while the vast majority was tender and juicy. Again, a farmer-fire with hot-burning cedar was probably overkill.
Timing & results
Above you see Eric preparing to remove the pan from the pit, and part of that evening’s spread (full menu here). We separated the burned crust into its own bowl, then shredded the rest of the meat into a tray for use with homemade tortillas and lots of other good farm food.
Detailed notes on the trial run and the real event
Burn time: 11 a.m. to ~3:30 p.m. (with lethargic fire because wood had been soaked that night with 1/2 inch of slow, steady rain)
Meat prep method: small roasting pan, one goat ham, mushroom broth w/ sweet potatoes and onions in bottom, ham covered in poblano salsa & wrapped with banana leaves; did not brine
Cook time: ~3:30 p.m. to ~7:30 p.m.
Result: nicely cooked goat ham, ever so slightly tough, but absolutely delicious; drippings stew superb
Burn time: Day before: 3:45 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. (covered pit with the metal panels around 9:00 after it had burned down enough to not have too many flames lapping at the metal panels) Day of: 6:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. (just had to chuck some slightly small stuff on to rekindle; last feeding of small chunks around 9:30 a.m.; last small stuff around 10 a.m.); height of pile of hot coals extended into the mid-second layer of brick at the time the pan went in
Meat prep method: brined, coated with salsa, wrapped with banana leaves, water, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic into bottom of pan
Cook time: 10:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
Result: salsa on exterior of meat somewhat scorched, interior flaky and more than ready to come off the bone; definitely a bit overdone, but nonetheless delicious, and some folks really liked the somewhat crispy bits. Stew very flavorful but too salty, probably a result of brining the goat
Things we might do differently
Several factors may have combined to cook the meat extra fast/hot, producing the crispy outside:
1) Smaller than planned goat kid. The original plan had been to butcher the kid fresh just before the event and truly roast it whole, as we always do our own meat processing on-farm in fall. However, the exceptional drought of 2012 forced us to butcher all our kids by mid-summer to reduce the stress on our pastures, so this kid was much smaller than desired and cut up into major pieces (legs, chest, etc) to fit in the freezer. This produced more surface area and smaller cuts than intended, so may have cooked faster than intended.
2) All our wood was drought-dried red cedar, which burns like a blowtorch especially after the summer of 2012. Made a real hot fire.
3) Not a great seal on the pit for the first 20 minutes (when coals hottest and flare ups potentially possible?).
4) We used fire brick, which may have been especially effective at holding heat from an already hot fire. Cedar fires in a clay-sided pit (which cooked into its own version of brick) may not need additional lining.
In the end, we’re really grateful for the Rick Bayless inspiration to try doing this. The results were delicious, we fed over 30 people with no problem, and we’re excited to try it again. lt’s hard to find such information otherwise, and he gave us enough guidance to produce a very acceptable result. With the infrastructure in place and one round of experience to our credit, I think we’ll be able to delight future party goers with some very tasty kids. If anyone else reads this and tries it themselves, we’d love to hear their experiences and feedback. If Rick ever reads this, come visit us and we’ll fire it up for you; only 7 hours by car or train from Chicago!