All About Built-in Barbecue Pits
Nothing beats the summery pleasure of a juicy burger seared to perfection over an old school charcoal fire
Before gas grills and outdoor kitchens, America fell in love with that symbol of suburbia, the backyard brick barbecue. As outdoor entertaining became a hallmark of the good life in the post-war 1950s, the open-air grill stood center stage, presided over by Dad, who ruled the flaming briquettes.
We think it's time to give these nostalgic cookers a second look.
While you could buy a simple portable kettle grill to heed the call of the charcoal, there's something alluring about a built-in masonry grill. These structures not only accent the patio, providing a focal point and creating a gathering spot, but also are ideal for feeding a crowd because they typically have more grilling space than your standard-size rollaway. Plus, they're durable and weather resistant, don't need to be stored, and have a warmer feel than outdoor kitchens glinting with stainless-steel surfaces.
Building a simple barbecue pit is a relatively easy job and likely to cost less than a fancy new gas grill. With the right tools, materials, and a little skill, you can put together a basic brick barbecue in a weekend.
So whether you build your own or hire a pro, think about firing up one of these backyard barbecues this summer and standing, Tom Collins in hand, admiring the glow and taking a moment away from your packed schedule to appreciate your family, your friends, and your life.
Shown: The Brown family gathers around their vintage 1950s brick barbecue, in Birmingham, Alabama.
Firebox: The inner wall of the barbecue may be lined with fire brick—called refractory brick and made of fire clay—for added heat retention.
Grill grate: Choose rustproof, porcelain-coated cast iron or stainless steel. Can be supported by angle irons or brick ledges.
Base: A 3- to 4-inch-thick pad of fiber-reinforced concrete over a 3- to 4-inch base of tamped crushed stone provides stability.
Solid-brick walls: These are finished on top with header and stretcher borders.
Charcoal/ash pan: A solid-metal sheet holds fuel and simplifies ash removal. Space it 7 to 15 inches below the cooking surface.
The higher back and side walls on this barbecue, designed and built by Brookwood Landscape and Stonework, reduce the risk of flying sparks. Thinner, elongated inside walls ease side access to the grates during cooking.
How much will it cost? A simple three-sided 24"W by 24"D by 30"H brick grill on a 4-inch concrete pad will run about $500 for DIY materials. Prices go up from there, depending on materials and style.
DIY or hire a pro? If you've got basic bricklaying skills, a strong back, and some good buddies, go for it (blackknightdirect.co.uk offers kits that include plans and grates from $175, shipping included). You may want to hire a pro for complicated masonry.
Where to put it? Determine which way the prevailing winds blow, and site the barbecue so that the smoke will blow away from the cook and the dining area. If in doubt, stake small flags in the lawn and observe.
Maintenance? Brush hot grill grates to prevent food and bacterial buildup. When they've cooled down, spray with vegetable oil to prevent rusting. Dispose of cold ash after each use to cut down on excess smoke and unpleasant flavors.
Concrete block is the least expensive option; the 4-inch-thick blocks shown here allow for a smaller footprint. Costs can rise significantly with the addition of a natural-stone or cast-stone veneer. If using the latter, be sure it's rated for outdoor use. Lining the firebox with fire brick mortared with refractory cement will help increase heat retention.
Brick is a good choice because it's handsome, it retains heat well, and, as a fire-hardened material, it doesn't readily break down when exposed to the elements. Look for "facing bricks," which are both a structural and a finish material; the ones shown here have recesses that hold mortar. Achieving uniform courses may require above-average DIY skill.
Quarried stone, such as the "rounds" shown here, is the most "natural" choice and, like brick, is good at retaining heat. Expect to spend considerable time selecting, shaping, and fitting stones together. Plan to have extra material on hand; how much depends on the type of stone. Ask your stone yard to determine the overage you'll need.
• Check local codes regarding open flames, especially in areas prone to brush fires.
• The barbecue must be located in an open area at least 10 feet from buildings, combustible overhead surfaces, and brush.
• Before disposing of ash, allow coals to burn out completely and wait 48 hours.
• Wrap cold ashes in heavy-duty aluminum foil and place in a noncombustible container.
Shown: As Lucy and Ethel proved back in the day, building a backyard barbecue pit takes planning—and some skill!
Argentine-style "gaucho grills" feature a recessed firebox with a heavy-duty grate that has a cranking mechanism to raise and lower it over hot coals, regulating the heat. These products can be pricey; consider having one made by a metalworker, starting around $700.
This cylindrical smoker—made from a brick-clad concrete drainpipe—is fueled by a fire pit that becomes a campfire-style grill with the addition of a grate (grategrates.com offers custom ones, starting at about $170).
Want to build a "wow" outdoor feature? Start with a precast fireplace kit, line it with fire brick, and clad it with stone veneer (fogazzo.com has kits, starting at $2,000). Then turn it into a cooking hearth by adding angle irons to hold a grill grate.
Fast-lighting briquettes are convenient, but we prefer these chemical-free options for fueling up:
Natural briquettes: Their lower burn rate provides the most control over heat while cooking, and a higher carbon content makes briquettes an easy grilling fuel to light.
Stubb's Natural Bar-B-Q Charcoal Briquets, about $8 for a 15-pound bag; available at home centers
1. Tongs: Select extra-long ones for safety. GrillPro 20-inch Professional Extra Long, about $15; ebay.com
2. Instant-read meat thermometer: We chose this one for its longer probe, which helps keep hands far from flames. Chef's Drawer, about $11; amazon.com
3. Grill brush: A removable scrubby pad makes quick work of cleaning gunk from grates. Tool Wizard Grill Brush Scrubber, about $13; toolwizard.com
4. Spatula: A serrated stainless-steel edge helps release burgers from the grill for a clean flip. OXO Good Grips BBQ Turner, $11; oxo.com
5. Mitt: Look for one that can withstand at least 475°F. Pit Mitt Barbecue Grill Glove, about $20; chefs.com
The easiest way by far to light charcoal is with a metal chimney starter. Fill the space under the wire rack at the bottom with wadded-up newspaper and the metal cylinder at the top with briquettes. Light from below. When the briquettes are lightly covered with white ash, pour onto lower grate.
An Instagram-worthy burger starts with ideal cooking temps. Burgers need medium-high direct heat to get a charred crust and medium doneness, while buns should be toasted in a cooler, indirect zone of the grill. Here are two methods for assessing the heat.
Hand Test: Hold your outstretched palm an inch or two above the upper grill grate. The length of time you can stand the heat tells how hot the grill is.
PREP TIME: 15 mins.
GRILLING TIME: 10–12 mins.
Inspired by one of our earliest highways, made famous in song and film, this is a classic-take-with-a-twist on America's favorite food.
⅓ cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp. ketchup
1 bsp. sweet
1 Tbsp. finely chopped shallot
1½ lbs. ground chuck (80 percent lean)
¾ tsp. garlic powder
¾ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 slices American cheese
4 hamburger buns, split
4 leaves Boston lettuce
1 ripe beefsteak tomato, about 6 oz., cut crosswise into 4 slices
1. Combine the sauce ingredients.
2. Mix the patty ingredients and gently form four patties of equal size, each about inch to 1 inch thick. With your thumb or the back of a spoon, make a shallow indentation about 1 inch wide in the center of the patties to prevent them from forming a dome as they cook. Refrigerate the patties until ready to grill.
3. Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium-high heat.
4. Grill the patties for 10 to 12 minutes over direct medium-high heat until cooked to medium doneness, turning once. During the last 30 seconds to 1 minute of grilling time, place a slice of cheese on each patty to melt, and toast the buns, cut-side down, over direct heat.
5. Build each burger on a bun with sauce, a lettuce leaf, a tomato slice, and a patty. Serve warm.