Texas Monthly’s Daniel Vaughn, whom I hold responsible for the pandemic-like spread of smoked brisket into previously-pure barbecue regions like the Carolinas, recently posted this picture on Instagram.
It pains me to admit it, but, as photos go, it’s really not that bad. And all that wood in the firebox got me thinking about one of the most heated debates swirling around right now in the barbecue world: to cook “real barbecue,” do you have to use all wood in your pit?
I have no desire to wade into that swamp, for barbecue cooks can get quite passionate when arguing the virtues of all-wood pits versus gas-assist cookers like those made by Southern Pride and Old Hickory. But, fundamentally, I think everyone’s arguing over the wrong thing.
The real difference, I am convinced, is not how the pit is heated but whether it uses indirect heat and lots of wood smoke or direct heat and minimal smoke. (I’m ignoring here those places that cook “barbecue” in gas or electric ovens with no smoke at all, for they’re just roasting meat.)
The whole wood vs. gas debate dates back to the 1960s and 1970s. Amid ever-increasing competition from low-margin fast food chains, barbecue restaurateurs were getting relentlessly squeezed from all sides on costs—food costs, labor costs, and especially fuel costs, for hardwood was growing more expensive with each passing year. (“Used to be that we wouldn’t give out our recipes,” Chip Stamey of Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro told one interviewer, “but now we’re more secretive about our wood.”)
Many operators saw no choice but to switch to a new fuel source. Some retrofitted their old pits with long pipes and gas burners that put small eternal flames where the glowing embers once lay. Others purchased commercial cookers that had electric coils or gas burners for heat and, perhaps, a small metal plate or similar apparatus where a few wood chips would smolder. Such pits produced oven-roasted pork with barely a hint of smoke.
But things are very different today, for commercial cookers have improved to the point where they truly can be called “gas-assist” pits, equipped with propane burners as well as fireboxes that burn actual hardwood logs. Cooks can use just gas if they want, but they can also burn almost all wood, using the gas for just an occasional regulating burst of heat.
Conceptually, these pits function very similarly to the wood-burning offset smokers like those made by Lang BBQ Smokers or the big custom pits fabricated by barbecue stars like Aaron Franklin of Austin’s Franklin BBQ. (We surveyed those types of pits on the Daily South last summer.) All of them burn actual logs—sometimes split, but often (especially in the larger gas-assist models) whole logs, bark and all—in a firebox adjacent to the cooking chamber. The pit’s draft pulls the smoke from that burning wood across the meat while it cooks.
The key is that the heat is indirect—off to the side in the firebox—while the cooking chamber is very smoky. That point was driven home recently in Houston when Russell Roegels gave me a tour of the pit room at Roegels Barbecue Co. He’s got two big smokers, each the size of a mini-van. The newer one is a big Bewley with multiple cooking compartments. The second, interestingly enough, is an old Southern Pride from which Roegels removed the gas burners, replacing them with an all-wood firebox. With both pits, when you open the doors, big puffy clouds of heavenly post oak smoke come rolling out, and you have to peer through a dense haze to make out the brisket and ribs and chickens bathing within.
That’s a very different mode of cooking than the direct heat technique used in the old-school joints in the Carolinas and Tennessee. (We surveyed those states’ styles of open and closed pits last summer, too.) While the pit design may vary greatly from one restaurant to the next, the key element is that the wood is burned far away from the pit. Split logs are loaded into special chimneys or so-called “burn barrels,” where they are set ablaze and reduced down to glowing coals. They are then carried by the shovelful over to the pit, where they are scattered directly beneath the meat as it cooks on grates above.
In such an arrangement, most of the thick, dense smoke from the burning wood never comes close to the pit, and the embers radiate heat directly up to the meat’s surface as it cooks. As a result, the finished barbecue tends to be much less smoky on the tongue, yet it has a distinctive rich, elemental flavor that you can’t get cooking over any other heat source.
A few years back, I asked Rodney Scott, proprietor of the famed Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, about the difference direct-heat cooking makes. “I have this theory,” he told me, “That when the juices of the hog fall into the wood it creates a whole new thing. They steam up the flavor of smoke back into the meat.”
Scientifically speaking, I have no idea whether this is true, but I can testify that the results are delicious.
I’m not saying that either of these approaches (indirect vs. direct heat) is superior to the other. They’re just different, resulting in a different style of barbecue, a different nuance of flavor in the meat. It’s one of the key reasons that traditional Carolina-style open pit barbecue is so very different from what they serve in the meat markets in Central Texas.
But we can still argue the merits of all-wood vs. gas-assist pits if you like—and of charcoal-fired pits, too, which we haven’t even touched on here. It wouldn’t be real barbecue without a little friendly debate.