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Fox Around the House

Back yard cooking with coal beds, pits, stone ovens -- even cauldrons

  • archaic cinder block ove zak walters.jpg

    Cinder block oven. (Zak Walters)

  • archaic cactus ramen bob hansler.jpg

    Cactus ramen. (Bob Hansler)

  • archaic cauldron sabin orr.jpg

    Cauldron cooking. (Sabin Orr.)

The general population’s primitive cooking experience is mostly limited to roasting a marshmallow over an open flame. But s’mores can also be considered a gateway to the entire genre of archaic cooking. 

Long before GE and Kenmore came along, past generations relied, and thrived, on everything from coal beds, pit cooking, stone ovens and even cauldrons.

Sure, bare bones cooking in your backyard can be time consuming, but there are two substantial benefits. It’s more cost effective—not requiring expensive cooking equipment, gas or electricity—and it’s healthier—one of the reasons for our ancestors’ fit physiques.

Spring is the perfect time to take a sabbatical from your microwave and stainless steel appliances. All you is need sufficient outdoor space, knowledge of the local laws—especially if you bring backyard butchery into the picture—and homemade heat. You’ll also have to do some homework. No one wants their house to go down in flames because they tried roasting a pig prematurely. Here are a few pointers from primitive cooking professionals to get you started.

1. Practice, Not Precision

These cooking methods are meant to be engaging throwbacks. Since you’re not using sophisticated tools, it can take a lot of practice to produce the desired results. Have a sense of humor with the mistakes and at least taste the edible errors. You never know, a failure in aesthetics can equal a flavor home run.

2. It’s the Pits but You Have to be Present

“The inspiration for your pit should stem from what you want to cook,” says Zak Walters, chef and co-owner of Salt’s Cure in Los Angeles. Keeping in mind pit cooking is for slow, low cooking—i.e. roasts, or pot dishes needing to be well done. “Position your pit far away from anything structural like a fence or a tree,” Walters adds, “And remember, cooking in a pit means cooking with an open flame so you must be present at all times.” Still, Walters insists cooking this way is not a chore but rather, an interactive good excuse to spend a few hours enjoying your yard.

3. Non-Toxic Tastes Better  

Natalie Bogwalker, the founder of Wild Abundance and an ancestral foods cooking class instructor in Asheville, N.C. emphasizes the importance of using non-toxic fire starters. When she prepares steaks outside, she cooks sans pan or grill. After the fire has died down to a glowing bed of coals she cooks the meat directly on them. “As long as you use hardwoods like hickory or oak, the coal and ash residue is entirely edible,” she insists.

4. Use Your Imagination for Ingredients

After you’ve nailed the lower hanging fruits like vegetables, chicken and flank steak, experiment with more exotic proteins. In his Las Vegas backyard, "Top Chef Masters" Season 2 runner-up Chef Rick Moonen has prepared everything from rabbit, elk, home made bacon, wood roasted goat and even Burgoo—a Kentucky style gumbo—in his new cauldron. The important thing, especially when dealing with unfamiliar ingredients, is to make sure you have reached the appropriate temperature and you cook your meat thoroughly.

5. Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Horseback Bob, a.k.a. Bob Hansler, has been cooking without pots and pans in his backyard since he was a kid preparing fish he caught with his father. He believes the more resourceful you are, the more rewarding the experience. His YouTube channel features videos on how to cook ramen in a cactus, boil eggs with rocks and bake eggs in clay. “If you know what’s in your yard and how to use it, you’re not at the mercy of conventional means,” he says. “For example, the power goes out. If you know how to use stones to make a pizza oven, you’re all set.”

Katie Jackson is a travel writer. When she’s not working, she’s chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus.