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Barbecue 103: Wood, Smoke and Fire

Barbecue Pit
by John Raven

When you are ready to do some real barbecuing, the first thing you need to do is find yourself a good pit. A pit is the thing you cook barbecue in or on. Not many folks go to the trouble of digging an actual pit in the ground to prepare their barbecue, but that's where the name comes from. Most likely you will want your barbecue prepared on a factory-made pit.

Finding the Right Barbecue Pit

Factory-made barbecue pits come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. You will just have to decide which is best for you. It will take some research. There are showrooms in many major cities, particularly in the South and Southwest. You can find manufacturers' addresses in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet.

Don't buy a pit that is too large for you. It will just eat up your good wood or charcoal heating up all that real estate. A pit with a grill surface about two feet by four feet will cook nearly anything you can afford. If you are going into the barbecue business, that's a whole other story that we don't need to go into right now.

Make sure your pit is made of sturdy material. The best ones will be constructed of metal near a quarter inch thick. Two basic styles are made: Those with a firebox and those without. A firebox is a container for your fire that is attached to the main smoke chamber. Without a firebox, you will have your fire directly under your food in most cases.

Choosing a pit with a firebox has its advantages. First of all, you can build your fire from scratch in the firebox and not have to shovel hot coals around for cooking. The firebox should have a way to regulate the draft, that is, the amount of air entering the firebox. A damper between the firebox and the smoke chamber allows you to regulate the heat and even cut off the smoke and heat when tending to things on the grill. A smokestack or chimney will be located on the end of the smoke chamber farthest from the firebox. In the pits without a firebox, you will locate your coals on the end of the pit away from the smokestack (if your grill has a smokestack). This allows the smoke and heat to fill the whole chamber.

The Right Wood for Your Barbecue Pit

You will use real wood in your "real" barbecue pit. The type of wood you use is very important. You will want a hardwood that contains lots of BTUs per pound. The most popular barbecue woods are hickory, oak, mesquite and fruit woods such as apple, pear, pecan and, in the Northwest, alder. Hickory, oak and mesquite woods are quite potent. They put a lot of smoke flavor into your barbecue. The fruit woods are milder.

In all cases, you should not use oily woods such as pine or cedar and definitely not old packing crates or bed slats. All these will coat your meat and your pit with black, evil-tasting deposits. Take my word for it, and don't experiment with these.

Hickory, oak and mesquite are probably best for beef, pork and wild game where you want a lot of smoke flavor. The fruit woods are best for delicate cuts like chicken and fish. A word of warning: Despite its recent rise in popularity, mesquite can produce an oily taste if it's overdone. Keep the smoke to a minimum when using mesquite.

Now that we have a new pit and wood, let's get started. First thing you want to do is build a big, hot fire in the pit and let it "burn-in" real good. This will serve to remove any deposits left from the manufacturing process and sort of let the metal get used to heat. Consult with your manufacturer as to its recommendations.

Pit Barbecue: The Process

Barbecuing is as simple as you want to make it. Just start the fire and, when the pit comes up to heat, add the meat or other stuff that you want cooked. A built-in pit thermometer is a real asset to any barbecuer. Before good thermometers became generally available for pits, the pitmaster could tell by touch how the temperature of his pit was running. It's a learned skill. Don't try it until you learn enough about your pit to guarantee your skin will not stick to the metal when you touch it.

You will quickly learn how to regulate the temperature of your pit. You'll also be introduced to the options of "cold smoking" and "hot smoking". Sounds real mysterious, don't it? Don't fret; you will learn quick enough. It helps to have a good friend who has already mastered barbecue basics. You can learn from him or her.

A smart thing to do is get a good book on the subject of barbecuing. The absolute best book on the art of barbecuing is Smoky Hale's Great American Barbeque Instruction Book. Smoky is a good ol' boy from McComb, Mississippi, who lives for barbecue even if he can't spell it. The original book is out of print, but Smoky will have a new revised version out soon. Look Smoky up on the Internet for ordering information. The Kansas City Barbecue Society has dozens of barbecue books for sale. Check with them also.

All barbecuing is basically the same. Season the food and cook it. Seasoning comes in all descriptions. It can be as simple as salt and pepper, or you can go into the exotic rubs and bastes and marinades. There's a place for all of this.

Barbecuing is best done at a temperature lower than the boiling point of water. In theory, this keeps the juices from cooking out of your meat. Higher temperatures tend to boil away the juices and dry out the meat. The drying can be compensated for with a mop sauce during the cooking process. A good mop sauce will enhance anything you are barbecuing. Earlier, we gave you a basic mop sauce recipe. Your finishing sauce comes at the end of your cooking time. You will remember the finishing sauce is the flavored sauce you apply last and use for dipping.

The larger cuts of meat lend themselves particularly well to barbecuing. The Texas favorite is beef brisket. A brisket can range anywhere from five to twenty pounds. A five pounder can be barbecued in four or five hours, and the larger sizes will take overnight. When you learn the ways of your pit, you can load the firebox, put the meat on and go have a six- or eight-hour nap without having to worry about the meat.

Raven's Articles:
Some of the best Texas brisket ever made came out of the pit of Cuzin Homer Page in Temple, Texas. Cuz had a pit with a smoke chamber of round metal two feet wide and eight feet long. The firebox was two foot square. Homer would stoke the firebox about three in the afternoon, and put his briskets on the pit. He would cold smoke the briskets until about closing time, say 8:00 p.m., when he would restoke the firebox, set the damper and leave for the night. Next morning about nine o'clock he had delicious brisket, falling apart tender. He used no seasonings or mops, just good Texas oak wood for cooking and flavor.

Barbecue Seasonings

Now let's talk a little about seasoning for your meat: A lot of good barbecuers start with a dry rub for the meat. That is, dry seasonings applied directly to the meat before it's put on the pit. Chef Paul Kirk from Kansas City conducts barbecue schools all over the United States. Paul has his students concoct their own recipe for rub. They all start with a cup of sugar and a cup of salt. Other things are added. If you want to give it a try, you might include garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, cayenne pepper (go easy here), and any dried herbs you favor such as rosemary or thyme. Most rub recipes include paprika for color.

Here would be a good place to talk about the mysterious "smoke ring" found on barbecue. When you cut a slice of brisket, you will notice that there is a layer of nearly red color near the cooking surface. Actually, the layer goes from dark brown on the outside to dark red to pink as it goes toward the center of the meat. The color is caused by chemical changes in the meat from exposure to the smoke. Many people have the mistaken idea that a really thick smoke ring is necessary for good barbecue. Not true and not false. It's just a matter of how long and how extensive the exposure to smoke was. There are chemicals on the market that will produce an artificial smoke ring for those who can't get a decent real one. We won't tell you what these chemicals are. Just don't get preoccupied with the smoke ring.

Now that you have all the tools necessary to produce mouth-watering barbecue, get out and do it.

TexasCooking.com contains a wealth of information about barbecue, grilling, briskets and other traditional Texas foods. Read John Raven's continuously updated section Traditional Texas Food for a complete listing of his articles.
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