Over the years, people have cooked barbecue in pretty much anything you can imagine and a few things that you can’t. Food Network personality, Alton Brown has cooked a type of barbecue in a cardboard box using a hotplate and a pan of wood chips. He has also used a large flower pot as a cooking vessel. I think that the point he is trying to make is that you don’t need fancy, expensive equipment to cook barbecue.
If you read my previous article on barbecue, you know my basic definition of what barbecue is:
Barbecue is the slow cooking of tougher cuts of meat using a relatively low heat for a long period of time in the presence of real wood smoke. This is just a basic definition and many experts disagree on many of the finer points of barbecue. Even the word itself can be used in many different ways.
1. It can describe a social gathering of friends where outdoor cooking takes place.
2. It can describe the food product produced.
3. It can describe the apparatus used to cook the food.
4. It can be a verb that refers to the cooking process.
5. It can be an adjective used to designate a tool or a supplement used with the food product.
Therefore I could write the following sentence and it would be grammatically correct:
Please come to my barbecue on Sunday where I will barbecue some barbecue in my barbecue pit, pick it up using my barbecue tongs and coat it with barbecue sauce using my barbecue brush.
Traditionalists feel that the only “true” barbecue is that which is cooked over an open fire. Equipment for this style ranges from a hole dug in the ground for the fire and something to hold the meat above it, to fire pits made from stone or bricks. What they have in common is that the meat is not enclosed during cooking. This is a labor intensive form of cooking and it requires constant attention to control the fire and to adjust for varying weather conditions. For this method, logs are usually pre-burned down to glowing coals before they are shoveled into the pit for the cooking. This method requires the coming together of many different skills and is not usually recommended for beginners. When done by a master, it produces excellent results.
Most barbecue cooks use enclosed pits for their cooking. There are far too many individual designs and variations to describe here, but there are several that are commonly used by the home BBQ cook. (Some purists even reject the use of the initials BBQ insisting that the full word be spelled out. I am not one of them)
Many start their journey using a grill that they already have. I did my first BBQ using a gas grill with dual burners. I lit one side and put wood chunks wrapped in foil on the lava rocks. The foil was to keep the ashes out of the grill and to force the wood to smolder by cutting off most of the oxygen. I put the meat on the cool side over a drip pan, closed the lid, and adjusted the heat to the desired cooking range. You can also use a charcoal heated grill such as the Weber Kettle in a similar manner, building the fire on one side and cooking on the cool side.
There are small ovens heated by electricity or gas with a smoker box to put wood chunks in for
smoke flavor. These are probably the easiest to use as they operate like your kitchen oven with the addition of smoke. All of these methods will produce basic BBQ that is better than what you can get at sports bars and similar restaurants. I should note that electric and gas heated pits are not allowed in competitions, so you probably should avoid them if you are thinking about competing.
Most BBQ pit masters use a mixture of charcoal to provide the heat and wood chunks for the smoke flavor. There are two major types of charcoal; briquettes and lump charcoal. Briquettes are the most popular form of charcoal and are available almost everywhere. Charcoal briquettes were invented by Henry Ford. The following history is from the Kingsford website.
History of the charcoal briquette
Around 1915, Henry Ford was using a large amount of wood to manufacture automobiles. Ford operated a sawmill in the forests around Iron Mountain, Michigan to make the wooden parts, so there were piles of wood scraps. Ford learned of a process, which had been developed and patented by Orin F. Stafford, which involved chipping wood into small pieces, converting them into charcoal, grinding the charcoal into powder, adding a binder and compressing the mix into the now-familiar, pillow-shaped briquettes. By 1921, a charcoal-making plant was in full operation.
E. G. Kingsford, a lumberman who owned one of Ford’s earliest automobile sales agencies and was distantly related, briefly served as manager of the briquette operation. A company town was built nearby and named Kingsford. In 1951, an investment group bought the plant, renamed the business the Kingsford Chemical Company, and took over operations. Its successor, The Kingsford Products Company, was acquired by The Clorox Company of Oakland, California, in 1973.
The advantages of briquettes are their availability and consistency. The disadvantages are that they contain coal dust which is not very healthy to cook with and does not add a very good flavor. The fillers don’t burn and just create more ash to discard. A friend wrote to Kingsford and asked for an ingredient list for briquettes and he got this answer. I am also showing his comments.
Today, KINGSFORD charcoal is manufactured from wood charcoal, anthracite coal, mineral charcoal, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone, sawdust, and borax. The wood and other high-carbon materials are heated in special ovens with little or no air. This process removes water, nitrogen and other elements, leaving almost pure carbon. The briquettes do not contain petroleum or any petroleum by-products.
1. Wood charcoal – That’s what you thought you were buying. Then these nice folks throw in all this other stuff for free!!
2. Anthracite coal – Gives you black lung disease should you decided to take up snorting the stuff.
3. Mineral charcoal – They don’t know what it is either but this was a good way to get rid of it.
4. Starch – Makes sure there are no wrinkles in the charcoal pillows.
5. Sodium nitrate – Found in the back of a pickup truck outside of rib joints that boil their meat first. Must be there for that nice slow burn you need for things like Federal buildings.
6. Limestone – Should you decide to sprinkle it on your lawn instead of cook with it.
7. Sawdust – Just like wood…only smaller.
8. Borax – For washing your mule team.
The other main type of charcoal used is lump. This is made from pieces of hardwood trees that are too small or irregular shaped to make into lumber and scrap pieces of hardwood left over from furniture or flooring manufacture. They are turned into lump charcoal in a retort the same way as the char is made for briquettes except they are left in chunks. This type of charcoal is a little more difficult to find, but the big box stores have begun to carry it so it is becoming more readably available. It has the advantage of being made from only wood with no binders or fillers and burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes. Most of the better cooks I know use lump or burn only wood and don’t use charcoal.
In recent years a new type of fuel has been created made from hardwood sawdust that is compressed into wood pellets. No fillers or binders are used so they are pure wood. The pellets look like rabbit food and are basically the same as those used in home heating stoves except that they are made specifically for cooking. There are two major differences between heating and cooking fuel pellets. The heating pellets can be any random mix of hardwoods since heat output is the only concern. Cooking fuel pellets are one pure hardwood or a specific blend so it makes a consistent smoke flavor profile.
The other major difference is that the machines that press heating pellets are lubricated with
petroleum lubricants and some of these get into the pellets. This is not a problem for heating as the oil simply burns along with the wood, but oil smoke is not healthy or tasty on food. The machines that press cooking fuel pellets are lubricated with a food safe lubricant. The pellets require a specially designed burner to be used. I will describe it later in this article.
A very common design used for home BBQ, and sometimes for competition cooking, is the vertical water smoker, sometimes called a bullet smoker or an R2-D2 smoker due to its similar appearance as the Star Wars character.
It is a vertical cylinder that has a dome on the top and the bottom. A fire is built in the bottom. A pan full of water is placed in the middle which acts to stabilize the
temperature and prevent large temperature swings, and the meat goes on a rack over the water pan. There are several different manufacturers with variations in the exact design, but the two most used are the Brinkman and the Weber Smokey Mountain, usually referred to simply as a WSM.
The Brinkman is a lower priced unit, is made from lighter gage steel, and does not have very good
controls to adjust air flow through the unit. This makes it harder to use. The WSM is the gold standard for vertical water smokers. I know many pit masters that bought one to start with and stayed with it. It is well constructed and has good controls to adjust air to and from the fire.
They make 18.5 and 22 inch diameter models of the WSM. The 18.5 has been around for years and the 22 came out last year. I have seen cooks in a competition do all of their cooking on a couple of WSMs, and know several competition cooks that still use their WSM when they cook for their family. It is the perfect size for an average family, is relatively easy to hold a steady temperature with and is fuel efficient.
A respected member of a BBQ group that I belong to has written a very good book that would be good for any beginning barbecue cook, but it includes very detailed instructions on the WSM. It is called Low and Slow and was written by Gary Wiviott. I highly recommend this book.
Ceramic cookers look similar but are more of an egg shape, in fact the largest seller in this style is called the Big Green Egg. The other major brand is the Kamado. They don’t use a water pan, but the large mass of ceramic tends to hold the heat constant. They are even more fuel efficient than the WSM. They also have the advantage of being able to be used for high temperature grilling as well as BBQ by building a different type of fire inside.
The BGE’s major disadvantages are that it is heavy and hard to move and the ceramic can be broken. If properly cared for, they can last indefinitely as there is nothing to wear out, except the replaceable lid seal and nothing to rust. Despite the difficulty in transporting them, I see a lot of BGEs used in competitions, due to their cooking characteristics.
Offset cookers consist of two horizontal cylinders, one large and one small, usually connected together end to end. Some use a rectangular fire box and some add a vertical cooking chamber in addition to the large cylinder. The fire is built in the smaller chamber and the smoke and heat passes through to the larger chamber where the meat is cooked.
They range in size from small patio size units to very large ones that are built on trailer frames so they can be towed around. If additional heat deflectors are not positioned correctly throughout the cooking chamber, they tend to be much hotter at the end with the firebox. Some cooks prefer the different heat zones and use them for the various stages of cooking or for cooking different meats simultaneously.
Others add the “tuning plates” to even out the heat throughout. They can burn a mix of charcoal and wood or straight wood. Some are equipped with an auxiliary gas burner in the fire box that is intended to start the wood on fire and then be turned off, but some cooks use it in cooking. This would be against the rules in a competition.
Offsets are the most distinctive looking of all the pits and virtually shout authentic BBQ. They require a fairly large amount of fuel to heat up, but due to the large mass of steel in their chambers, they tend to hold temperature well. They have to be refueled often and the large ones are expensive to buy. They require a medium to large amount of skill to use effectively. I know one person who caters BBQ parties and he cooks on a smaller box style cooker, but tows his offset to the event for its visual effect.
This brings me to a large group of cookers that I will call box style cookers. They are the workhorses of many BBQ restaurants and intermediate to advanced home and competition cooks. They don’t have the style of an offset and often are described as looking like a refrigerator.
There are many different styles and configurations for this style of cooker. Some have a separate fire box below the cooking chamber and some use one chamber with the fire in the bottom. Some use a water pan and others don’t. Some have ducts to direct the heat and smoke into specific areas of the pit and some duct it to the top so the heat and smoke come from above.
They are usually fueled with a mix of charcoal and wood chunks. Many have double walls with insulation between them. This design is compact and has a lot of cooking area relative to the floor space it takes. They are fuel efficient and hold temperatures well.
In the early 1990s, Traeger Industries, located in Oregon, patented the use of wood pellets in cooking devices. They began making pellet burning grills and are still one of the largest makers of them. Other companies began to manufacturer pellet fired cooking devices but due to the patent that Traeger holds, they are obligated to pay Traeger a royalty for each unit sold.
In 1998 ‘Fast’ Eddie Maurin, who was a multiple grand champion winner on the BBQ competition circuit designed and built a custom cooker in the box style using a burner assembly built by Traeger. It utilized an insulated double wall construction and burned only food grade wood fuel pellets. He began to use this cooker in competitions and became overwhelmed by other competitors wanting him to build them one. In 2002, he teamed up with Cookshack Industries in Oklahoma and they began building the Fast Eddie’s by Cookshack or FEC pellet cooker.
The FEC-100 is used by many on the BBQ competition circuit as well as some restaurants and home cooks. They also manufacturer larger models designed for restaurant use. At first, they bought burners and controls from Traeger, but they wanted UL certification and the Traeger auger system did not meet their specifications so Cookshack designed its own pellet feed system and continued to use the Traeger controller. This controller was designed for Traeger’s own grills which are not insulated and it was not the best in the insulated FEC, so Cookshack spent over two years designing and testing its own microprocessor control system which they currently use. They also made a retrofit kit for owners of the older system.
This is the cooker that I currently own and I love it. It is very easy to use and produces excellent, consistent results. With its insulation and all stainless construction, I use it year round digging a path through the snow in the winter. They are not cheap, so you have to be pretty serious about barbecue to buy one, but they cost about the same as other quality units in the same size range.
Custom pit builders can build almost any pit you can dream up. David Klose of Texas is one of the top custom pit builders in the world and he has made pits from such varied items as an old phone booth and a baby carriage. He built one shaped like a commercial airliner for an airline company to use at a picnic. His pits are pricey, but are built to be passed down to future generations.
Finally, if you have decent metalworking skills, you can build your own pit. There are plans available online for several home built pits inculding ones for turning a 55 gallon drum into a pit and for converting an old horizontal propane tank into an offset pit. If you go this route, get a drum that has not been used for toxic chemicals for obvious reasons. If you use an old propane tank, make sure that it has been thoroughly aired out is free from explosive gasses prior to cutting into it. Most local fire departments have devices to test for explosive gasses. Just promise to bring them some fresh made BBQ and they will probably be glad to check the tank for you.
All well designed pits have certain things in common regardless of their style. They have a good system to control the fire to create clean smoke, which is pale blue to invisible in color. If the smoke is dark gray or black, you are depositing creosote on your food and ruining its flavor. Controlling your fire is the number one skill that a pit master needs to develop. Second, a good design allows the smoke and heat to freely flow through the cooking chamber past the meat, and not hang around and get stale. You want the smoke to caress the meat, not hold it down and choke it.
These are the two must haves. Other things like easy cleaning, wheels for moving the pit, temperature controllers, etc. are all nice features to have, but are not absolutely necessary. Join an online barbecue community. Most of what I know about barbecue was learned by reading and listening to more experienced cooks on the Smoke Ring Barbecue List which is on Google Groups. They have members that range from beginners to advanced competition and restaurant cooks. It is like an online family and though I have only met a few members in person, I feel like I have many friends all over the US and a few around the world.
An old axiom for barbecue cooks is: “It is not the pit; it is the pit master.” This is very true, but having good equipment can make your job much easier.
I am going to close with a Biblical quote that a friend on the Smoke Ring found and uses as a tagline on his posts.
“Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire…” Exodus 12:9 Sounds like BBQ to me!