Cooking in Compost: Gross or Handy?

Your backyard compost pile produces enough heat to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner…eventually. Are you brave enough to cook food in garbage like these folks did?

This egg took 22 hours to cook in a 195-degree spot of a compost heap. Image: Jim French

You could be using your backyard compost pile for more than just garden fertilizer. That heap of table scraps, grass clippings, rotting fruit, and fallen leaves could be the oven that cooks Sunday dinner (if you start on Friday). Who needs an outdoor kitchen?

Steaming compost piles are nature’s crock pots; they slow-cook food with heat generated by decomposing organic matter. Once a compost pile gets cooking, temperatures can reach 150 to 180 degrees F, hot enough to cook a roast to medium rare.

All you need to become a compost cook is a few cubic yards of decaying matter and time on your hands: An egg takes at least 24 hours to “hard boil” in compost.

If the idea of cooking in a garbage pile turns your stomach (double-wrapping is the key), you can harness the methane gas that compost piles produce to fuel your boring old range.

As-good-as-mom’s chocolate cake

A class of home-schooled kids in Jamaica Plain, Mass., transformed a 20-foot compost pile into a giant Easy-Bake Oven and cooked a chocolate cake.

After performing some calculations on a Sunday afternoon, the kids buried their cake batter about 2 feet deep into a local arboretum’s pile. The next evening, they retrieved dessert—a perfect lava cake, crusty around the edges and molten in the middle.

Thanksgiving feast

Malcolm Beck, a Texas organic farmer and author of The Secret Life Of Compost, cooked a Thanksgiving turkey in an 8-foot-high compost pile with a core temperature of 160 to 180 degrees. The secret of Beck’s super-hot pile? A spray of water and molasses, and sometimes waste beer from a local brewery.

Beck lowered a double-wrapped turkey into his shredded brush-sawdust-manure compost pile. About 18 hours later, he pulled out a tender, juicy Thanksgiving dinner.

Although the USDA recommends cooking poultry at temperatures no lower than 325 degrees, diehard composters say properly wrapped, low-pathogen local poultry can be slow-cooked safely at much lower temperatures.

Sorry stew

Urban composter Christopher Pepe failed to cook a rice stew in his puny one-third-cubic-yard compost pile. After 24 hours in the pit, the rice was still chewy.

Pepe, however, has high hopes for his new composting system: a full cubic yard of composting material, force-aerated to burn at 145 degrees. He plans to start his compost-cooking career with a baked potato, and then work up to poached eggs in a shell.

Cheese surprise!

Composter Jim McClarin buried two gallons of souring milk into his steaming compost pile, hoping to make yogurt. The next day, he pulled out cheese curd instead.

Through the years, McClarin prepared slow-cooked eggs, roast beef, and even duck a l’orange in his “organic oven.”  But not every compost-cooking recipe was a success: Pinto beans never progressed past the crunchy stage.

French cooking with methane gas

Jean Pain helped rural families become energy self-sufficient when he piped enough methane gas from a 20-foot compost pile to heat his home in Provence, France, cook his food, and run his car.

When Pain’s pile of scrub bush and water cooled off, he fertilized his gardens with the newly formed compost.

Desert dining with methane

Researchers from Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies mixed 25 kilograms of sheep manure with shower grey water to produce enough methane gas to fuel nearly three hours of cooking. 

Not only does this manure slurry create cheap fuel for desert families, it also fertilizes the soil and reduces greenhouse emissions that result from cooking over wood fires.

What would you cook in compost? Leave your comment below.