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HomeSurvivalFood and Cooking

Steam Pit Cooking - a Tasty Experience

By Mark Tollefson

Many of the primitive skills we learn have unfortunately been taken out of the main stream of our environments. Cooking and eating however, are two things that we do constantly and have an intimate relationship with already. So cooking primitively is a natural "shoe in" to give us the confidence we need to bridge the gap between our modern fast paced lifestyles and a slower more earth based lifestyle.

Sitting down to a meal that you have cooked in the earth has an amazing feel to it. It is like we are instantly connected to our ancestors by a common link. The food almost always tastes wonderful, seasoned with the herbs or spices we add to the food, as well as the flavour the steam adds to our cooked feast.

To succeed at pit cooking we need some basic raw materials:

  1. A hole in the ground
  2. Fibrous plant material
  3. Rocks
  4. A fire
  5. Food!!!

First, we need to dig a hole in the ground. The hole only needs to be big enough to cook the amount of food you have to eat. A hole to cook food for two people needs only to be about 12 inches across and two feet deep. Save the dirt that you have taken out of the hole, as you will need it to close up your pit.

Second, gather yourself a whole bunch of fibrous plant material. This can be grasses or seaweed or whatever you have available. Whatever you decide to use, it must be fibrous. The best is green plant material, but you can use dried grasses as well. Just be sure to soak them in water for an hour before you put them in the pit. If you use succulent plant material, such as leaves, the plants will wilt down to the point where your food will be on the heat source and may char it badly. For a steam pit for two people, gather a double armload of grass.

Third, we need rocks. The best kind of rocks are dense lava rocks or basalt. Open or porous rocks such as granite or schist explode under the great heat of the fire, while sedimentary types, such as slate or shale, burst open along seams. If in doubt, choose rocks that are heavy for their size and of smooth texture.

Fourth, we need to build a fire to heat our rocks. We can either build the fire in the pit and heat the rocks that way, or we can build the fire beside the pit and heat the rocks there. I prefer to heat my rocks in a fire outside the pit, and then place them in the pit after they are red hot.

Build your basic tepee fire structure, and then place the rocks around the tepee. For a steam pit for two, heat 10 rocks that are about 6 to 10 inches across. Once you have placed your rocks around the tepee, put a layer of brush over your rocks. Then place wrist size pieces around your structure until the rocks are completely covered by wood. This is important, as any areas of those rocks that are not covered by wood you can see are not getting hot. Also, if any of those rocks explode while they are heating, the wood around the rocks will help keep shards from exploding out of the fire and injuring someone.

Let your rocks cook for at least an hour and a half. At this time, they should be glowing hot. Now it's time to set the pit!! Place half your rocks in the bottom of the pit. Don't worry about getting coals in with the rocks, they will work fine too. Once you have them in the pit, put a layer of fibrous material in the pit. This layer should be 8 to 12 inches thick. Now place your food on the fibrous material you have put into the pit. Cover the food with another layer of grasses 8 to 12 inches thick. Then on top of this grass, place the rest of your rocks and coals.

Cover your pit with a layer of bark slabs or wood slats, or a large piece of rock. What you are trying to accomplish here is to create a barrier between your pit and the dirt you are going to cover it with. That way, when you dig up your food, it will be less likely to have dirt all over it.

Now for the last and most important step. Cover your pit completely with dirt. You should see NO steam or smoke escaping from around the edges of your pit. If any air gets in at this stage, your food will burn. This cooking technique works under the principle that you are eliminating oxygen from the pit. Combustion needs air to happen, so if your pit is sealed, and no air is getting in, your food cannot burn. It will keep cooking, but it will never burn.

As far as how long to cook your food, a good rule of thumb is to cook your food for 15 minutes per pound. So if you have a total of 5 pounds of food, let your pit cook for an hour and 15 minutes. I like to err on the side of caution, because if I have meat in my steam pit, I don't want it rare. Cooking your food for the above suggested time should cook your food well done. After you have tried this technique a few times, play around with your times to get your food to just where you like it. Remember, if you dig up your pit, and your food is not cooked, you may need more hot rocks to reset it and let your food finish cooking.

You can cook almost anything in a steam pit. I have successfully cooked sweet potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash, yams, beets, beet greens, whole chickens, pot roasts, lobsters, salmon, ducks, red snapper, mackerels, and cornish game hens. They all cooked well in a steam pit and were delicious.

Have fun with this cooking technique, and don't be afraid to experiment. Remember, your imagination is your best friend. Think up something wild and try it.

Best of luck to you.

From True Tracks, Summer 2000, published by the Tracker School.
There's more articles from True Tracks on the Tracker Trail website.