Pit cooking is probably the oldest method of live-fire cooking. But today the term can mean very different things depending on where you live.
In Argentina, pit cooking is known as asado. Large cuts of meats (even whole lambs or pigs) are roasted on T-shaped spits placed upright in a circle around a blazing campfire. I’ve observed such campfires in ranch settings and in restaurants in downtown Buenos Aires. The heat is direct, but not directly under the meat, nor is it as hot as grilling over a grate. With a moderate flame, a side of beef or a whole goat cooks in 4 to 6 hours.
Barbecue buffs in the Carolinas, Texas, and the Midwest call their cookers "pits," although most are brick constructions that stand above ground some are portable trailer-mounted cookers fashioned from fuel tanks. In these areas in the old days, barbecue was no doubt smoke-cooked over shallow pits in the ground.
True pit cooking takes place in a hole in the ground. You’ve experienced it if you’ve ever been to a traditional New England clambake or to a Hawaiian luau. Pit cooking is popular in Mexico, where famous pit-cooked dishes include barbacoa (pit-cooked goat or lamb wrapped in cactus or avocado leaves) and pebil (pit-cooked pork wrapped in banana leaves).
In this type of pit cooking, a large hole is dug in the ground, then lined with stones and firewood. The fire is ignited and allowed to burn down to glowing coals. Then the food-usually a large cut of meat, like a whole pig or goat-is wrapped in a flame-retardant material, such as banana leaves or seaweed, and placed in the pit, which is covered with dirt, sand, more seaweed, or a tarpaulin. The food cooks underground for 12 to 24 hours. When dug out, it is incredibly flavorful and fall-off-the-bone tender.
But is it barbecue?
True, we’re talking about an indirect cooking method, and the wood embers impart at least a trace of smoke flavor. But it’s also true that the low, wet heat that does the cooking is actually more akin to steaming or roasting.
Like so much in the realm of live-fire cooking, whether pit cooking is or isn’t barbecue is a matter of debate.
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