What is Pit Beef? A Guide to the Smoky, Savory Baltimore Specialty

Pit beef is a thinly sliced, smoked roast beef sandwich that originated in Baltimore, Maryland. It emerged in the 1970s and became popular in the 1980s, developing into a beloved regional specialty. But what exactly is pit beef and how did it become so iconic in Charm City?

A Brief History of Pit Beef

While the exact origins are debated, pit beef traces back to stands along Pulaski Highway on Baltimore’s east side. The affordable sandwiches were likely created by workers in the shipyard and steel mills who didn’t have time for a proper lunch break.

Pit beef combined elements of German and Jewish cuisine, two cultures that influenced Baltimore’s food scene. Toppings like horseradish sauce and Kaiser rolls reflect these backgrounds.

By the 1980s, pit beef stands expanded beyond blue-collar neighborhoods as the sandwiches gained mainstream popularity. Today, pit beef is considered one of Baltimore’s signature dishes.

How Pit Beef Is Made

While variations exist, traditional pit beef follows a straightforward process:

  • Meat selection – Top or bottom round roasts are used for their flavor and leanness.

  • Seasoning – A dry rub of spices like salt, pepper, paprika and onion powder is applied.

  • Grilling – The beef is grilled over hot charcoal, reaching 400-500°F. This sears the outside and keeps the interior rare.

  • Slicing – Once cooked, the roast is thinly sliced across the grain. The slices may get a final sear.

  • Assembly – Meat is piled high on a Kaiser roll. Customize with desired toppings like horseradish sauce, onions, and tiger sauce (horseradish + mayo).

Maintaining high heat and slicing the meat thinly are keys for getting the ideal pit beef texture.

What Makes Pit Beef Different?

There are a few qualities that distinguish pit beef from other barbecue styles:

  • Smoky yet rare – The meat gets a mild charcoal smoke flavor on the outside but stays very rare on the inside. This keeps it juicy and tender.

  • Leaner cut – Top round or bottom round roasts offer more flavor than tenderloin but less fat than ribs or brisket.

  • Thin slices – Cutting across the grain into thin slices makes pit beef easier to bite and pile high.

  • Minimal sauce – The meat itself takes center stage rather than lots of sauce. Toppings enhance but don’t overwhelm the flavor.

  • Quick cooking – Unlike brisket or pulled pork cooked low and slow, pit beef cooks hot and fast. This allows for quick orders.

The combination creates a sandwich that is smoky, salty, and beefy with a hint of char. The thin slices mean more surface area for flavor and tenderness in every bite.

Traditional Pit Beef Toppings

While pit beef needs little adornment, certain toppings take the sandwiches to the next level:

  • Horseradish sauce – The spicy, creamy condiment adds a tangy kick. Tiger sauce mixes horseradish with mayonnaise for a milder option.

  • Raw white onions – Sliced raw onions provide crunchy contrast and sharp, pungent notes.

  • Kaiser rolls – These rolls hold up well to juicy meat and won’t get soggy. The bread’s density balances the tender beef.

  • BBQ sauce – Tomato-based sauces like Kansas City or Memphis style complement the sweet, savory beef.

  • Mayonnaise – Adds a rich, creamy element that works nicely with smoky meat.

  • Hot sauce – A few dashes of something like Tabasco or Cholula heats things up.

How To Build the Perfect Pit Beef Sandwich

While toppings are up to you, here is one approach for constructing a mouthwatering pit beef sandwich:

  • Bottom bun – Spread the bottom bun with mayo or tiger sauce to create a barrier against sogginess.

  • Meat – Pile on thin slices of pit beef just off the grill. Go for at least 1/3 pound, up to a full half pound.

  • Onions – Top the meat with chilled raw onion slices. Their crisp texture and sharp flavor balance the hot, tender beef.

  • Sauce – Drizzle the onions with horseradish sauce or BBQ sauce so it trickles down through the layers.

  • Top bun – Crown the sandwich with the top bun and serve right away. The first bite highlights all the components together.

Best Practices for Making Pit Beef at Home

With some preparation, you can recreate classic pit beef at home:

  • Outdoor grill – Cook over high direct heat, around 450-500°F. Hardwood charcoal or wood chunks add nice smoke. Clean the grates well first.

  • Oven broiler – For indoor cooking, use the oven broiler on high heat. Place meat on a wire rack over a foil-lined pan to catch drippings.

  • Lean roast – Choose a well-trimmed top round or bottom round roast for the best texture and flavor.

  • Quick cooking – Cook large roasts for only 12-15 minutes per pound. Smaller roasts may only need 8-10 minutes per pound. Check temperature frequently.

  • Let rest – Before slicing, let the meat rest 5-10 minutes so juices redistribute.

  • Thin slicing – Use an electric knife or very sharp chef’s knife to cut paper-thin slices across the grain.

  • Quick sear – For extra flavor, quickly sear the sliced meat in a hot pan or right on the grill grates.

Regional Variations to Try

While Baltimore style is the OG, pit beef preparations vary around the country:

  • DMV – The DC, Maryland, and Virginia area has several offshoots of classic Baltimore pit beef. Onions and tiger sauce are still standard.

  • Connecticut – Connecticut is known for steamship-style sandwiches layered with thin, tender roast beef. Pit beef shares similarities.

  • California – In Los Angeles, Philippe’s serves French dip sandwiches of roasted beef with pan juices for dipping. The concept of dunking thin beef slices has crossover.

  • Texas – Texas smokehouses put their stamp on pit beef with slow-smoked brisket and extra barbecue sauce in place of plain roast beef.

  • Midwest – Roast beef sandwiches are popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Using pit beef seasoning and cooking methods could give it a spin.

Key Takeaways About Pit Beef

  • Pit beef consists of smoked, roasted top or bottom round, sliced thinly and piled onto a Kaiser roll.

  • It was likely created by blue-collar workers in Baltimore needing a quick, portable lunch.

  • The meat is smoked over hot charcoal to create a crust yet remains rare inside.

  • Simple toppings like horseradish sauce, raw onions, and tiger sauce enhance the flavor.

  • Pit beef combines elements of German, Jewish, and barbecue cuisine.

  • Correct slicing technique and high heat are vital for getting the right texture.

  • While origination in Baltimore, pit beef has spread to other regions with variations.

So if you find yourself in Charm City, be sure to grab a messy, meaty pit beef sandwich! Just don’t wear your Sunday best.

Guy Fieri Eats Pit Beef in Baltimore | Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives | Food Network


Why is it called pit beef?

It’s All in The Name No one knows for sure, but Maryland residents speculate that it has to do with the dish itself! To achieve the signature flavor, the top round roast must be cooked over an open charcoal flame. Today’s chefs have steered away from cooking their meat over an open pit, but the name remains today!

What is the difference between pit beef and brisket?

For starters, pit beef is grilled, not smoked, so it lacks the heavy hickory or mesquite flavor characteristic of Texas- or Kansas City-style barbecue. It is also ideally served rare, which would be unthinkable for a Texas-style brisket.

What kind of meat is deep pit?

The large sides of beef, commonly wrapped in wet burlap to keep them from charring too heavily (and to soak in more smoke flavor), would then be lowered into the smoldering pits.

How do you pit roast meat?

Pit roasting is cooking meat in a large, level hole dug in the earth. A hardwood fire is built in the pit, requiring wood equal to about 2 1/2 times the volume of the pit. The hardwood is allowed to burn until the wood reduces and the pit is half filled with burning coals. This can require 4 to 6 hours burning time.

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