Though few positive side effects resulted from the coronavirus pandemic that descended on the globe in early 2020, one of the most significant may be the nationwide and worldwide rekindling of people’s desire to spend time outdoors. Though initially a product of necessity—leisure activities or socializing with others, in many parts of the country, required one to be outside—this shift, for many, quickly blossomed into a revitalized love affair with all things outside.
The outdoor recreation industry went nuts. Like, record-breaking nuts. If you tried buying a fishing rod, tent, bike, kayak, or even a trampoline last year, you got a taste of the demand spike. But it wasn’t just rec. Anything that facilitated more time outdoors instantly became a hard- or impossible-to-find item.
Grills, fire pits, outdoor ovens, and the like were no exception, for plenty of good reasons. They enable and enhance time spent outdoors. They extend the seasons (or sometimes just the evening), facilitate outdoor cooking, and so on. Even in a world not turned upside down, time spent outside with friends and family, gathered around a roaring fire or hovering over what’s cooking on the grill is undeniably time well spent. But pandemic-spiked 2020, for all its warts and blemishes, reminded most of us of just how well spent that time is.
And so here’s to another year of outdoor gatherings—and to fueling them with some of our favorite fire pits, outdoor ovens, and more.
Best Smokeless Tech: Solo Stove Bonfire
The Solo Stove Bonfire is one of a handful of fire pits on the market that feature “smokeless” technology. In truth, smoke-less should really be called less-smoke, but that doesn’t make the technology any less important. If you’ve spent even an evening or two around one of the cheap, ubiquitous, big-box store goblet fire pits; a campfire; or what have you, you know what it’s like to wake up the next morning feeling like you sucked down three packs of Marlboro Reds the night before—especially on those evenings when the wind seems to shift every time you adjust your position around the pit, insuring that the fire’s smoke plume heads straight for your face. But if you’re standing around a Solo Stove, which dramatically reduces smoke output, you’ll be able to breathe a lot easier.
Wait, What IS Smoke?
Smoke is the product of incomplete combustion (complete combustion produces only water vapor and carbon dioxide). When a fire’s combustion isn’t efficient enough to burn its fuel completely, tiny, unburnt particles—mostly ash, soot, tar, and oils—will be left over. Those tiny particles combine to form what we call smoke.
Smokeless technology is one of those things that sounds like a bullshit gimmick, but it’s not. The Solo Stove’s construction allows it to produce more effective combustion, resulting in less smoke. The secret is in its double-walled design, which introduces a 360-degree stream of heated oxygen at the top of the main chamber, creating a secondary burn that eliminates (or significantly reduces) the tiny, unburnt particles that smoke is composed of. Thanks to the bonfire's size and the thin but still-sturdy gauge of stainless steel the pit is constructed of, the smokeless tech on the Solo kicks in fast and works very well. You'll breathe easy as you marvel at the streams of heated oxygen igniting as smoke-annihilating secondary combustion kicks in.
The Solo Stove’s virtues don’t start and end with its smokeless technology, though. Its construction allows it to be lightweight, making it extremely portable. At roughly 20 pounds, you can pick it up with one hand and toss it in the back of your car and bring it along to a friend’s backyard or on your next camping trip. That stainless-steel design also gives the Solo a sleek, clean look.
Best Combination of Form & Function: Stahl Firepit
The design of the Stahl Firepit is every bit as innovative as its smokeless counterparts, albeit in very different ways. With the exception of one small insert that forms part of the pit’s base, the Stahl Firepit’s entire construction consists of four sheets of A36 hot-rolled steel that are precision cut using laser-induced jets of superheated plasma. “Assembling” the Stahl Firepit simply means sliding the four sheets together. The result is a fire pit that can handle a boatload of wood and roaring fires but that also happens to feature an elegant, minimalist, eye-catching design. Who knew a metal pit for safely containing burning wood could be a conversation piece and a stylish addition to your backyard?
But, even though the Stahl Firepit is likely the pit you’d be most pleased to have as a permanent addition to your backyard landscape, it doesn’t have to be. That’s because the Stahl’s clever, easy-to-assemble design means that it’s also effortless to disassemble. One person can break it down completely in about 10 seconds. This makes the Stahl Firepit ideal for urban backyards which offer limited space or other users that need or want to be able to conveniently stow the pit away when it’s not in use. Given that the pit breaks down to a stack of steel that is little more than a few inches thick, it also makes the Stahl Firepit arguably as portable as the Solo Stove. Mind you, each sheet of the Stahl pit weighs about as much as the entire Solo, so don’t try to carry them all at once. But, we’ve slipped the Stahl pit’s sheets into the back of an SUV or the trunk of a car, stacked coolers and luggage on top, and headed out to the beach or on car camping excursions.
There’s more. Add in Stahl’s Grill Plate and you can enjoy one of the uncelebrated virtues of backyard fire—cooking over hardwood flame (more on that to come).
Best Overall: Breeo X Series 24 Firepit
The Breeo X Series, which hails from our home state of Pennsylvania, also features a smokeless design (in fact, Breeo is proud to point out that they originated this smokeless design)—injecting the same full-circle stream of pre-heated oxygen to generate secondary combustion and a cleaner burn. Given that it’s the largest pit we tested and is made of thicker steel, the smokeless tech on the Breeo takes a bit longer to kick in (all smokeless pits, even the smaller ones, require a small wait while you heat the walls of the combustion chamber in order to generate that stream of combustion-fueling air). Once it does, however, the Breeo can burn bigger fires than you likely need it to while allowing you to breathe easy both around the fire and the next day.
Unlike the Solo, which is constructed solely out of a lighter-gauge stainless steel, the Breeo is a marriage of heavy-duty stainless and COR-TEN steel, and the final product Breeo creates out of the marriage of these two materials is a bullet and bomb-proof design that feels like it’s (over)built to last a generation. The legs and searing rim on the pit are constructed of 304 stainless steel, while the main fire chamber of the X Series is built completely of COR-TEN (note: Breeo does offer the X Series in an all-stainless design, if that's your preference). COR-TEN, otherwise known as "weathering steel," was developed in the 1930s by U.S. steel as an alloy designed to resist weathering by forming a coating of dark brown oxidation over the metal, which prevents deeper penetration and eliminates the need for maintenance of any kind. Over time, blue-grey COR-TEN oxides and forms a beautiful rust-colored, rustic patina that actually protects the steel from further breakdown. If COR-TEN is good enough for skyscrapers, bridges, and multi-story art sculptures the world over, chances are it's good enough for your backyard fire pit.
The large size and the heavy-duty steel construction also means that the X Series burns hot and throws a serious amount of heat. Even on days when snow fell, the temperatures dipped into the teens, and the wind kicked up, we were able to spend time around the X Series in relative comfort thanks to the generous warmth it outputs. Of course, most of your time spent around the X Series won’t be huddled in goose down coats and mittens trying to ward off chattering teeth. It will be relaxing or entertaining on those chilly spring, autumn and even summer nights (in those parts of the country blessed, unlike Pennsylvania, not to have sweltering July and August nights that are barely discernible from their days) where the warmth of a fire pit makes an otherwise nice evening picture-perfect. And it’s on those nights (or days) where the Breeo really shines, thanks to its versatility and the fact that it excels at virtually everything it does. In addition to being smokeless (less-smoke) and allowing you to build big, warming fires, the X Series is also a serious cooking apparatus.
An extra $100 or so gets you an X Series with a sear plate. Breeo says the rim of the X Series can reach temperatures of over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit—and they’re right, we confirmed with an infrared temperature gun. Those temperatures are more than you’ll need to get an ideal sear on most foods, but the possibility is there. Searing meats, fish, and especially vegetables like peppers and onions on the X Series' sear plate is convenient and works well, and you can control the temperature of the plate by distributing your hardwood coals in the pit's main chamber.
As mentioned above, cooking over a real hardwood fire—as opposed to over propane, charcoal briquettes or even hardwood charcoal—is something that only recently seems to be getting the attention it deserves. The flavors that hardwood cooking imparts to beef and pork, poultry, seafood and even vegetables are wonderful, and you can experiment with various hardwoods to produce different flavors and surprisingly different final products. One of the main reasons that hardwood cooking doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves may be that cooking over a real hardwood fire has largely been sort of DIY/roll-your-own enterprise undertaken by only the most hardcore (read: nerdy) grilling aficionados, cooking over homemade or preposterously expensive commercial setups. In other words, it takes work and dedication. But the Breeo X Series makes hardwood cooking stupid-easy, thanks to the Breeo Outpost—a grilling grate accessory built to integrate with the X Series fire pit but which also doubles as a portable grill for use over campfires.
The all-stainless steel Breeo Outpost (pictured above) features a circular grilling surface mounted on a post that allows you to quickly and easily adjust the height of the grilling surface by almost 24 inches, even while cooking. It also swivels out of the way to allow you to add wood to the fire pit without removing the grate, or to flip or pull food from the grill without getting your hands scorched by the fire. With the addition of the Outpost, the Breeo becomes a surprisingly convenient, effective, but more importantly a serious cooking tool—one that’s responsible for the Weber kettle grill gathering dust in the corner of the yard.
If that’s not enough versatility for you, when you’re not using the X Series, you can toss on its sleek, stainless steel lid, and you’ve got yourself a first-rate backyard coffee table.
Update: Need to go larger? Breeo recently released the latest X Series model, the 30" Breeo X Series 30.
Best at Creating a New Obsession: Stadler Outdoor Oven
No, the diminutive Stadler Outdoor Oven isn’t going to keep you and your friends warm on a cold winter day. But it just might birth a new obsession—one that virtually everyone you know is going to be glad you’ve succumbed to.
The Stadler Oven arrived in one surprisingly small (albeit heavy) cardboard box a mere 2 months ago. Since that time, no less than 60 pizzas have come out of its wood-fired chamber. If that sounds like a lot of pizza for people with full-time jobs to churn out of a small backyard oven, that’s because it is. But since that first near-perfect pizza with its lightly crisped, slightly-charred crust emerged from the Stadler Oven eight weeks ago, we’ve devoted every possible minute to making more of them.
The Stadler Oven has a few things in common with several of the fire pits we’ve been talking about. Like the Breeo, it’s made of heavy-duty Corten steel. And, like the Stahl Fire Pit, it’s assembled by sliding laser-cut steel sheets together. Given its more complex structure, there’s quite a bit more to assembling the Stadler than the Stahl, but it’s still a tool-free construction and assembly process.
The Stadler’s design is elegant and simple. A steel-shielded baking chamber constructed of two cordierite baking stones sits atop a well-ventilated firebox. Despite the whole oven being a mere 33 inches high and the firebox being a surprisingly compact 9 x 15 inches (roughly), the Stadler Oven is capable of generating extremely high baking temperatures—an absolute essential for cooking high-quality, real pizza. Stadler says its oven is capable of achieving temperatures of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and it most certainly can (and honestly, even higher, though you won’t need them).
Start a small fire with good kindling, feed split-to-size hardwood into the Stadler’s fire box, and within 20 minutes you’ll be hitting baking temperatures of 750-900 degrees. Keeping the Stadler’s baking chamber pizza-hot and churning out pies for hours on end requires little more than adding a piece or two of split hardwood every 10 minutes or so. A bit of advice: given the small firebox, you’ll want to stick to hardwoods that have high fuel values (like birch, beech, or oak) and, even more importantly, to woods that are adequately seasoned or, even better, kiln-dried.
The learning curve—on the entire process, from assembling and running the oven, to making your own dough and sauce, to perfecting your cooking process and pizza recipes—is remarkably gentle and one that anyone with a modicum of cooking skills or grill-working skills should feel confident tackling. Chances are, before long, you’ll be obsessed too, finding yourself pondering the merits of different types of flours, buying cookbooks from pizza “masters” like Joe Beddia and Chris Bianco, and getting more than a few texts from friends asking when the next pizza-making session is. Oh, and don’t think the Stadler is limited to making pizzas, we’ve churned out killer pita bread, laffah, sourdough, and more.
Editor's note: The Stadler Outdoor Oven is made and ships from The Netherlands. But don't let that dissuade you from making the leap. We took delivery of the Stadler oven a mere 4 days after the order was placed, though Stadler says typical shipping times to the U.S. range from 5 to 12 days.
Each one of the pits and ovens we've spent the last year or so "testing" is right for someone. That's a fact that repeatedly stood out throughout the afternoons and evenings spent stoking and tending fires, lugging fire pits to beaches and campsites, cooking everything from wood-fired steaks to hardwood-grilled oysters to pizzas to pita bread, and so on. Which one is right for you depends, well, on you. If your primary concerns are portability and smokelessness, you'll want to go with the Solo Stove. If you want that smokeless tech, but also want something that's seriously overbuilt, and is a legitimate and remarkably versatile hardwood cooking platform, then the Breeo X Series is your huckleberry. Looking to class up your backyard with a sleek, wood-swallowing pit that can do cooking duty and that you can break down for storage or for taking on the road? Go for the Stahl Firepit. And if you want to make pizza—lots and lots of pizza—then the Stadler Oven will soon be your new favorite tool.
You really can't go wrong. If you absolutely must, you can debate the merits of your decision. Just do it outside, with friends.