Cooking a whole chicken over a fire pit presents several obstacles to finishing with an evenly cooked chicken. The whole chicken’s shape, and the heat patterns of a fire pit, often cause the legs and thighs to cook faster than the breast meat, leaving them dried out. The most sure-fire way to mitigate this is to “spatchcock”–or as it is more commonly known, butterfly–the chicken. Spatchcocking flattens the chicken out for even cooking.

Things You'll Need

Spatchcocking the Chicken

To spatchcock the chicken, turn it over so that the backbone is facing you. With the kitchen shears cut along the backbone separating the ribs from the backbone on one side. Repeat on the other side of the backbone, remove the backbone and discard.

Turn the chicken over, and with the ball of your hand press firmly on the sternum of the chicken until it snaps. Then force the breasts down with your hands until the chicken is as flat as possible. Trim any excess fat or skin with kitchen shears.

Secure the wings by flipping the ends inward. Use a bamboo skewer to pierce through the leg, thigh and into the breasts to keep them secure during cooking.

Rub the chicken liberally with poultry seasoning.

Preparing the Fire Pit

You fire pit should be clear of any dry brush or structures that flames might ignite. With stone or bricks, build a ring about six inches high and 24 inches around. Leave several gaps in the ring to facilitate air flow. The grill grate that you use for your cooking surface can be from a traditional barbecue, or ones specifically for fire pits can be purchased from camping and cookware stores.

Prepare your coals. Fill a chimney starter with you charcoal or briquettes. Insert a piece of newspaper in the chamber below and light. Allow fire to catch for 10 minutes until charcoal glows or in the case of briquettes until they begin to ash over. Briquettes will typically not fully ash over until they are placed in the fire pit.

Spread coals evenly throughout fire pit. The fire’s temperature at grate level should be about 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Verify this with either a thermometer or with a hand test. Place hand one inch over grill. If you can keep it there for only a second or two that is approximately 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Modify the airflow or coals to achieve the proper temperature.

Cooking the Chicken

Lightly oil the grill grates with a paper towel lightly covered in vegetable oil. Place chicken on the grill with the interior side facing down.

Rotate the chicken every 30 minutes one quarter turn. Do this four times and then flip over the chicken and rotate one quarter turn every 10 minutes. With the thermometer, check the temperature at the center of the breast being careful not to contact any bone. The chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit or until juices run clear.

Remove chicken from grill and let rest for 20 minutes to allow juices to settle. Quarter, halve or slice the chicken to preference and serve.


  • Unless you have a reliable native source of dry mesquite or hickory wood, it’s not recommended to cook this recipe over a traditional campfire. Many types of downed wood in forests may not be completely dry and will add acidic, bitter and unwanted tastes to the chicken over the long cooking time.

  • The best cooking material to use would be natural hardwood lump charcoal with some mesquite, hickory or apple wood chunks mixed in. Hardwood lump charcoal can be found at many hardware stores in or in the home and garden section of many stores. It will add a natural smoky flavor to the chicken. Most people use charcoal briquettes for cooking but natural lump hardwood has several advantages. It burns hotter, does not require toxic starters in order to ignite and can be reused if extinguished properly.

References and Resources

SF Gate
Apple Smoked Turkey