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Guide to Cooking with a Fire Pit: Tips and Considerations

A person is holding the handle of a grilling basket, cooking sausages over a low fire and smoldering hot coals.

Do you love to grill in your backyard? What about sitting around a fire pit? A backyard fire pit is a great gathering spot in the summer, transforming the average yard into an adventurous, social outdoor space.

But you can use your fire pit for so much more than just roasting marshmallows and poking the logs. Cooking with a fire pit is surprisingly easy—especially if you like to grill. A firepit adds a smokiness to food that’s hard to get from propane. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to use. Use an in-ground or a portable fire pit for campfire cooking. 

It's essential to follow all safety guidelines when you grill. As long as you’re careful, you can maximize your summer enjoyment. Here’s how to start cooking with a fire pit in your backyard today!

Can You Grill on a Fire Pit?

A fire pit is shown with a black cast iron tripod and chain attached to the top. The fire pit is burning in an open area with greenery and trees in the background.

You can definitely grill on any wood-burning fire pit. If you use a propane fire pit, you may not be able to get enough heat or reach the proper temperatures on your cooking surface to cook your food completely. Gas fire pits are usually cooler burning and not suitable for cooking meals, but most patio-top or "portable fire pit" style fire pits are perfect for outdoor cooking.

Cooking with a fire pit is a great choice for camping or traveling. It's fun for backyard use and a terrific way to bring everyone together. Kids love cooking around a firepit, and most adults enjoy the delicious smokey flavors that come from cooking over an open flame. Cooking with high temperatures helps you get that delectable char on the outside while maintaining the juicy flavors on the inside of your food. 

If you’re wondering how to grill on a fire pit, you need just a few outdoor cooking supplies. The first item is an adjustable cooking grate or grill rack for fire pit use. These racks are built especially for backyard-type grilling. Most are easy to handle and small enough to carry and transport. Grill grates offer the easiest way to cook over the fire. 

You could also try cooking with a tripod or using a heavy-duty skillet pan or Dutch oven to ensure you get the right temperature and timing. You can also use other tools, including camp forks and sandwich cookers, to help you cook a variety of fire pit-friendly foods.

Choosing a Grill Rack: What Do I Need to Turn My Fire Pit into a Grill?

Like most outdoor jobs, successful backyard cooking starts with the right tools. The main accessory you will need for cooking with a fire pit is a grill grate and/or a tripod, depending on your fire pit style. Some fire pits come with built-in grill racks. The best fire pits for grilling are good-quality pits built for heavier-duty use. 

It’s simple to find a grill rack for firepit use. Look for racks that are made specifically for backyard or camping firepits. These racks typically go over the top of the fire, resting on the edges of the fire pit structure. Racks or screens are the easiest and most affordable backyard grilling option, but they only work for brick and stone fire pits with raised and level sides to support the grate.

For in-ground fire pits, a tripod is helpful. A tripod is a three-legged grilling accessory that holds a pot or a rack above the fire so it doesn’t burn or scorch the bottom of your food. A tripod suspends the cooking grate above flames at adjustable heights, which is convenient for open-fire cooking. There are also frames that rely on stakes you stab into the dirt—these are portable for camping but won’t work well in paved fire pit areas like a deck, porch, or patio.

You will also want appropriate cookware to use with a fire pit cooking. If you’re planning to grill, a grilling basket is helpful—you can contain all the food in the basket, the food cooks evenly, and you can easily turn it without losing any smaller bits in the fire.

Some pots and pans work well for cooking in a fire pit. Look for camping Dutch ovens and cast-iron cookware, which maintain an even temperature without fire damage. A cast iron skillet is a good idea for outdoor cooks. Household pots and pans are often not made to cook over a fire because the handles can melt or burn. Stainless steel pans and accessories may discolor on an outdoor cooktop but won't burn. However, other indoor pots and pans may not withstand the high heat of an outdoor fire pit.

In addition to cookware and long-handled tools, you may want other cooking accessories, such as an instant-read digital thermometer. It's especially important that you cook meat at the right temperature to keep it safe and avoid food born illness. Be sure to keep meats and raw food separate from cooked food, using different cooking accessories to handle ingredients during their stages of cooking. 

What Kind of Fuel is Needed for Cooking in a Fire Pit?

A closeup image of black and grey charcoal embers burning under a bright red-orange flame.

When you’re ready to cook in your fire pit, you need fuel for the fire. Most cooking fires work well with both charcoal and wood. It’s important to note that when you’re cooking, it’s best to use natural fuel for your fire, as it can change the taste of the food.

Charcoal is best burned in large, bowl-shaped fire pits with vents in the bottom to add airflow to the sides. Wood provides a smokier flavor that some cooks prefer. The type of wood or charcoal you use can also impart a different flavor profile.

It’s best not to use lighter fluid in a fire pit. If you’re using charcoal, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Use a charcoal chimney to help you start the charcoal and to get even heat distribution.

Look for clean hardwoods like oak, cedar, and cherry for firewood. The best wood for grilling is dry, dense, and slow to burn. Choose natural, untreated woods to ensure the smoke is safe for food. Avoid burning any other debris in your backyard fire pit.

Medium-sized wooden logs are stacked in formation near a rock-surrounded fire pit, which is smoldering in the background.

Whether you choose firewood or charcoal for cooking in your fire pit, the key is to make a hot, evenly distributed fire before you put on the food. Most people—even those without much experience—can make a basic fire in most fire pits. However, learning how to ignite the wood quickly with large coals for even heat distribution may take a little more practice.

Arrange thick dry sticks in a pyramid or "teepee" style. The vertical sticks will eventually collapse by arranging the sticks this way, making a thick pile of coals for even heat. Within 20 minutes, the wood will collapse enough to arrange the coals, and you can begin cooking within 30-45 minutes.

If you decide to use charcoal in your fire pit, it may take less time to get started. Most fire pits are ready to cook on charcoal within 20-30 minutes of preparation.

What to Cook on a Fire Pit Grill

Colorful kabob skewers are shown cooking atop a grill. Dark grill marks on the meat and vegetables include yellow squash, red pepper, green zucchini, and purple onion.

So, the big question is, what to cook on a fire pit grill? Once you’ve assembled tools, arranged the grill rack, and started the fire, what do you want to grill up for dinner?

The heat of a fire is hotter and more direct than a small grill. Getting the balance perfect can take a little time and practice. It’s easy to burn those first few foods as you get used to adjusting your distance and cooking times based on the fire heat. So it's best to start with simple foods. You may want aluminum foil on hand as a general rule—to help create a barrier between the fire and the food and cover items as needed.

Some of the foods that are easiest to cook on a fire pit are corn on the cob, potatoes, lean cuts of meat like chicken and pork, and shish kabobs on metal skewers. A grill basket may make the job a little easier, but having a nice set of heat-resistant grilling tools with extra-long handles is also helpful.

Remember that you won't be able to get as close to the grate, grill, or rack when cooking over a fire pit as you would with a standard grill. Use longer tools to keep from burning yourself (or dropping your perfectly cooked food into the fire).

Cooking Tips and Tricks for a Fire Pit Grill

A newspaper roll is shown burning in a smoky fire. Orange flames are creating a great deal of smoke.

There are several tips and tricks for using your backyard fire pit and grill. It's essential always to prioritize safety. If you have any sort of fire pit—even if you aren't planning on cooking on it—be sure to have a fire extinguisher nearby. You may also want to keep a bucket of water nearby and move dry wood and other flammables far away from the side of the fire pit. 

Remember that hot embers and hot ashes are still a danger long after extinguishing the fire. Wait to dump the coals or clean out the fire pit until it's stopped giving off heat. A great option is to clean out the fire pit and cooking grill the next day once it's had time to cool off. 

Check your neighborhood safety guidelines and rules around grilling and backyard fires. If you live in a smaller neighborhood or a city, there may be regulations about the size and type of fire. Areas with very dry weather may also have fire restrictions, so be sure to check first to avoid a citation.

Some outdoor grillers make these common mistakes:

  • Building a roof over the fire pit. A roof can create a fire risk and concentrate the smoke. If you need shelter, try a free-standing hood instead, but generally, keep the fire pit out in the open.

  • Using wood features near the fire pit. Be sure that you only use metal to withstand fire and weather-related hazards. Metal is longer lasting and safer for backyard fires.

  • Burning trash and unsafe materials. If you’re cooking, don’t burn colorful or glossy boxes, magazines, newsprint, or old furniture. Lumber from DIY projects is often treated and unsafe for cooking food. It’s also important to never burn plastic, cans, or bottles in the fire pit. Any foreign materials can create heavy metals in the ash, spreading residue to your food.

Picking the Right Firepit for Grilling

Two Adirondack chairs are shown at dusk near a large grey above-ground fire pit. There is a fire burning in the pit with a pleasant orange flame.

Most fire pits are ideal for grilling and cooking, but you need the appropriate tripod or framed grate. Free-standing brick or stone-edged fire pits are the easiest to grill on because the flat, level sides support many types of grates.

​The best fire pit is a useful tool that you use frequently. Look for an affordable fire pit. Choose a fire pit size that fits your needs but isn't too big for your space. Your local Do It Best will have many options for outdoor fire pits. 

The other general rule about outdoor cooking is to always use the right fuel—wood or charcoal, for the best grilling experience. Be sure to take safety precautions like keeping an extinguisher nearby, just in case, and helping kids maintain a safe distance.

With the right fire pit features, your backyard will become a great mealtime destination. Outdoor cooking is the perfect way to enjoy nature and socialize. Gather the marshmallows and grill up some kebabs for a wonderful summer grilling experience!

While do-it-yourself projects can be fun and fulfilling, there is always a potential for personal injury or property damage. We strongly suggest that any project beyond your abilities be left to licensed professionals such as electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. Any action you take upon the information on this website is strictly at your own risk, and we assume no responsibility or liability for the contents of this article.


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