Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (2015)

Chapter Three

Wood is king in Central Texas barbecue. We like to cook with a full-on wood fire. That is, we always like to see a flame in our smokers, convinced that this gives us the sweetest smoke. In the age of gas-fired restaurant smokers, this is not as common a thing as you might guess. But there’s an art to burning wood for barbecue.

When I was just starting out and cooking barbecue out of a trailer parked on the I-35 access road not far from the University of Texas, I didn’t have as good a sense for firewood as I do now. A significant yet overlooked factor in a restaurant’s ability to produce good barbecue is a consistent, reliable source of quality firewood. At our little trailer restaurant, I did not have this.

In those days, I’d buy my wood from here and there and scour Craigslist for people selling firewood from their yards, deer leases, ranches, and rental properties. I’d pretty much accept what they brought me. After all, I was already pulling close to twenty-hour days, cooking all of the meat and making all of the sides by hand. It was a lot of work, and it left me little time to cultivate wood sources, even though I was probably going through about a third of a cord (128 cubic feet—in other words, a lot) per week.

In retrospect, I realize that I mostly lucked out with my wood sources in those early days. I know this because, well, one time I didn’t luck out and was delivered really green wood. I’ll never forget that experience. This was about a month into our year in the trailer. Up until then, all of the logs I’d been cooking with had been relatively dry and well seasoned. But one day I got a big delivery of wood that was really green—a term used to describe wood from a tree that was recently alive—probably from a living tree that had been cut down to clear land and then sold without giving it any time to season. I just stacked it up to use later in the week.

The day I got into that wood, I had trouble getting the fire to go. All through lunch, I was completely frustrated, as I struggled to stoke the fire while simultaneously trying to cut meat for customers. I’d have to say to the person at the window, “gimme a second,” and I’d run outside to look at the fire, throw a log on, and then rush back to keep cutting meat. All day, I ended up fiddling with it, trying to get the fire to work. I was splitting the wood into smaller and smaller pieces so it would burn faster. But it was fresh, so incredibly fresh.

Up until then, I’d used only stuff that was pretty dry, and I didn’t realize how nice that was. You could throw a piece of wood on, it would catch, and you would see the temperature get hotter for about 10 minutes and then cool off when the wood was spent. The green wood didn’t want to catch at all. But as I found out at the end of that fateful day, not catching wasn’t the green wood’s only problem.

It all started around 4 p.m. the previous day, when I needed to get the briskets going. I warily watched the fire as it putzed around, haphazardly burning. I put another log on and hung out for a while, staring into and poking at the fire, trying to get a sense of its character. Finally, dead tired and having been there all friggin’ day, at 10:30 p.m. I thought to myself, Man, I’ve got to go home! It’s okay to leave it. Going to be back here in a couple of hours anyway. But another part of my mind cast a shadow of doubt on that, unsure whether it would manage to sustain itself while I was gone.

But part of doing barbecue is that you’ve got to be able to walk away. You’ve got to train yourself to know your fire and know your wood. If you just stand there, staring at the fire the whole time, you’ll go crazy. So I convinced myself that it would be okay and went home to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

In those days, I had a different process for making briskets than we do today: I’d set a fire, put the briskets on, and let them go for about six hours of smoke time, then I’d return at the crack of dawn (before it, actually) and revive the fire and finish them off. But this time, when I came back to finish them off, I found that I didn’t need to. The green wood had more than done the job for me. Too much so.

Given that it was wood that I’d had so much trouble lighting, I naïvely didn’t realize that eventually it was going to light, and that when it did, that sucker was going to burn hot and big. When I came back the next morning, I’d burned up everything. Little toasty pucks of badly burned meat—barely edible, just barely salvageable—were all that was left. And I had a line to feed, so I served them. But everyone ate for free that day—I didn’t charge a soul.

That’s the day I learned my lesson about green wood and also had drilled into me why it’s so important to know your wood and to have a good idea of what you’re going to get when you put a log on the fire. That skill clearly comes with experience, but hopefully sharing what I know will help you avoid what happened to me that day long ago.

PROPERTIES AND TYPES OF WOOD

Chefs may value their stoves and their ovens, but they aren’t an essential flavor of their dishes. How many other cuisines are there in which the heat source is a vital part of the dish?

Wood is important for two functions: providing heat and supplying smoke. The two are obviously connected but different. When you’re cooking, moments will arise when you want more heat (but not necessarily more smoke), and there will be times when you’re after extra smoke (but not necessarily more heat). Having a sense of your wood supply will allow you to approach your woodpile like a chef approaches his spice rack. Well, maybe not with that much precision, but you’ll see that an experienced pitmaster will have more control over cooking temperature and smoke absorption than a lot of people would believe.

Since we’re going to be using so much wood, I find it empowering to have some idea about its makeup. Thanks to one of my favorite books, Harold McGee’s indispensable On Food and Cooking, I know that all wood is composed mostly of three organic compounds: cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. They give the cell walls of wood its structure. Green plants are made up of cellulose, but in wood, the high percentage of lignin provides the girders that reinforce the cellulose and hemicellulose cells and gives wood its tensile strength. It also provides many of the more flavorful compounds of smoke (which is why we barbecuers care about it at all) and also burns hotter than cellulose.

Lignin content in wood varies and is pertinent to the discussion of woods for barbecue. Yet it’s good to note that solidity is not what distinguishes hardwoods from soft. That distinction has to do with how the two plants reproduce: hardwoods produce seeds with covering (for example, a fruit or a nut), while softwoods like cedar and pine release their seeds uncovered. (However, it is true that on average most hardwoods are in fact harder [denser] than most softwoods. Yet wood geeks will point out that balsa—a notably soft and flexible wood—is technically a hardwood, making the whole discussion moot.)

Smoking meat is much better when done with hardwoods. They burn slower and with less heat than softwoods, and they tend to have less resin than softwoods do (which burns into a nasty soot). Incidentally, mesquite, a hardwood, has much higher lignin content than oak, which causes it to burn hotter and faster and also have a much more pungent and distinct smoke, which some people really go for.

Along those lines, all different woods burn slightly differently and supply unique things to any smoked food. Up in the Pacific Northwest, folks use alder planks, which contribute delicate flavor to salmon. East Texas and much of the barbecue along the Eastern Seaboard rely heavily on hickory, while great swaths of Texas favor mesquite. But in this state we’ve also got pecan and various fruitwoods. The long and short of it is that most people use what’s plentiful locally.

In Central Texas, we’re lucky to have access to a lot of oak. Having played around with other woods, though, I feel lucky to be located in the middle of the Texas oak belt, since, for my style of barbecue, I feel oak is just about perfect.

Of course, there are many other hardwoods you can cook with. Each has its own contribution to make to a meat—and you should choose whatever wood is readily available where you live and that you like. Like I said, at the restaurant, all we use is oak (although the odd, unintentional log of something else might slip in occasionally). That said, I’ve had the opportunity to experience cooking with several other kinds of wood, and here are a few of my opinions on them.

Oak

How can you not love oak? The very symbol of strength and persistence, it’s meant so much to humanity during our brief existence on this planet. Great to build with, it’s created a lot of shelters and sturdy sailing vessels that for centuries got people around the planet. It produces wine barrels, furniture, and those little shellacked coasters to put your drink on, and here in Austin tremendous live oak trees with huge, undulating branches are great for kids to climb on and provide tons of shade during our long, hot summers. And, of course, we love the fires oak makes and the sweet smoke it produces.

There are some six hundred species of oak. But the one I’m most concerned with is Quercus stellata, what we call post oak. A relatively small oak, post oak is classified as a white oak and, according the USDA Forest Service, “is a medium-sized tree abundant throughout the Southeastern and South Central United States where it forms pure stands in the prairie transition area.” Central Texas could fall into that definition, as it transitions from the wetter forests of East Texas to the desert of West Texas. The Texas Native Plants Database adds that it occurs in “all areas of Texas except the High Plains and Trans-Pecos” and remarks that it’s “a shrub or tree ranging from 20 to 75 feet tall with stout limbs and a dense rounded canopy, it grows in dry, gravelly, sandy soils and rocky ridges.” Those stout limbs are classified as “very resistant to decay.” That and the fact that it doesn’t grow too big made it popular for use as fence posts, hence the name. But it also seems to me the perfect wood for cooking brisket.

Oak is one of the mildest woods. It burns beautifully—not too fast, not too slow. It gives fairly even and predictable moderate heat, meaning that I can control the fire pretty accurately. And it gives a mellow, smoky flavor whose presence is obvious yet at the same time sort of hovers in the background, letting the flavor of the meat itself take center stage.

Red oak and live oak are also commonly used, but both seem to have a stronger flavor and burn slower than post. Blackjack oak, Q. marilandica, grows in and around the groves of post oak here in Central Texas, especially toward East Texas, and is notable for the dark ring in its core. We occasionally burn a log here and there when it comes mixed in with the post oak, but I’m not a big fan. For one thing, the post oak tends to rot from the outside in. The blackjack oak tends to decay from the inside out because it is softer in the middle, which means you’re not burning pristine wood when you throw it on the fire.

Hickory

The Texas Native Plants Database recognizes many different kinds of hickory growing in Texas, most of them in East Texas, where hickory is probably the dominant wood for smoking, as it is nationwide. Hickory is a bit more powerful than oak, but I like it because it burns long and clean. The taste is strong and smoky, with a hint of sweetness. I think it’s best for heavier meats like beef, but people use it all the time for chicken and pork, which can be good too. In my experience, it burns about the same as oak.

Pecan

Actually a member of the hickory family, pecan is also plentiful throughout East and Central Texas. It doesn’t burn as hot as oak, but its gentle, sweet flavor is delicious. Nor does it burn as long as oak, so I like to use it for short cooks. Fish, chicken, and especially pork take to its mildness.

Apple, Cherry, Peach, and Other Fruitwoods

The fruitwoods are a terrific family of quality fuels. They tend to have a gentle, rounded sweetness and extremely subtle flavor impact. Because of this subtlety, these woods wouldn’t do a lot for a brisket, as it’s such a huge, bulky, and powerful piece of meat. But they can be really nice for fish, chicken, and pork, which might get overpowered by a bolder wood. I think fruitwoods are best when they’re a little greener—barely seasoned—as they deliver a denser smoke. Because of their relatively short cook time and mild flavor, fruitwoods are better for direct cooking than long smoking.

Mesquite

Mesquite is generally a strong-flavored wood. It burns hot and fast, but becomes more transparent the more it cooks. For this reason I like to use it best when it is burned down to coals, for direct grilling. Beyond that, it’s used so ubiquitously as hardwood charcoal and on steak-house grills that its heavy flavor now seems somewhat generic. If mesquite is at all green or has some sugar left in it, it’s overly aggressive for my tastes. But if it’s really dry and heavily seasoned, it doesn’t have its characteristic smell and it’s more acceptably neutral, though it still burns fast. That said, if you’re looking for some quick, smoky flavor when grilling a steak, it’s a convenient and effective wood.

SOURCING WOOD

As you know from chapter one, Craigslist has been a constant in my life. But as with any classified-ad marketplace, it’s also full of charlatans, scammers, and cheats. Some of them sell wood. Plenty of firewood is available for sale on Austin’s Craigslist site and probably where you live too. Folks are always needing to clear land or cut down old, inconvenient, and dangerous trees and then want to profit from it.

Over my years of buying wood, I was lucky enough to find Rod Moline through Craigslist. It was totally random, but since then, thanks to his knowledge, honesty, and reliability, he has become known simply as Rod, the Wood Guy around Franklin Barbecue. Supplying firewood is not his full-time job, however, but rather a weekend offshoot of his projects in clearing and organizing some of his land outside of Austin. But he’s taken it upon himself to help organize other suppliers for us, which we really appreciate. While Rod still brings us a good bit of wood, he also got us connected with Joan Barganier, who has made selling and distributing firewood her full-time job.

For unfortunate and disturbing reasons, the availability of oak right now is high. This is because of the prolonged and dangerous drought that has been drying up Texas. The drought started in 2010, and at the time of writing, it’s still going. It has been called among the five worst in the past five hundred years, according to the state climatologist. In a few short years, the desiccated soil has led to the deaths of between three hundred million and five hundred million trees across the state. And that’s left a lot of landowners with thousands of dead trees across their property.

“These dead trees present a real hazard to property owners,” Rod says. “They’re instant fuel for raging prairie fires and they become housing for all kinds of pests, from rodents to snakes to insects.”

Land needs to be cleared of dead trees quickly, only it’s not possible to clear it fast enough. There’s too much land and too many dead trees. A lot of ranchers will just drag the dead trees together and create massive bonfires to get rid of them. It was seeing such measures that led Joan to get into the business. “I just hated to see all that good wood going to waste,” she says. “It seemed foolish to just burn it when there are plenty of people out there who want firewood.” So she became entrepreneurial.

I rely on my wood suppliers not only to cut up the trees and split the logs into the sizes I can use but also to bring me good, sound wood, which requires an understanding of what I need and a sense of responsibility on the part of the supplier. They know I need high-quality logs, because part of them are going into the food.

“The drought is also influencing the quality of the wood right now,” Rod says, “because these trees are not dying a natural death. They’re already stressed when they die and vulnerable to beetle infestation and more.”

Rod and Joan bring me the best wood they have. There are variances, of course—not every log is perfect. But for the most part, I need it cut and split to my specifications: clean, not too green, not too dry or overseasoned, not powdery and dead, and certainly not rotting or waterlogged or misshapened. I want logs with energy and some life to them that have some heft and density to give me a great burst of heat and smoke.

I’m lucky to have Rod and the other sources he finds for me. A lot of bad wood guys lurk out there behind the innocuous-seeming listings of Craigslist. People are always trying to cheat you—not everybody, of course, but in my experience about 90 percent of the people who come through here selling wood are shady (no pun intended). Indeed, I still have numbers stored in my phone labeled Bad Wood Guy #1, Bad Wood Guy #2, Guy with Messed Up Oak, and so on. This is so that every now and then, when one of those numbers rings and the fellow at the other end says, “Hey, I’ve got wood for you,” I can instantly know that it’s a scammer on the line and can tell him no thanks, that we’re in good shape.

Usually, the scam involves overcharging you for the amount delivered. A cord of wood is a neatly stacked block of logs measuring 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long. It amounts to 128 cubic feet of wood. A true cord is a lot of wood but can be difficult to estimate since most people, including us, don’t buy our wood in 4-foot-long logs.

People drive up all the time claiming they have a cord of wood, yet when you look at it, you know it’s not even close. They deliberately stack it inconsistently or throw it in a big pile so that it can’t really be measured. And then they’ll try to charge you extra to stack it. They’ll fluff it up when they stack it so it looks like more than it is, or they’ll split it poorly.

My advice is be wary when people are selling “a truckload” or “a trailer full” of wood. Don’t agree to buy it over the phone before you’ve had a chance to look at it. And when you do look at it, inspect it closely. Don’t pull up only the top few logs to assess their greenness or general condition. Poke around and make sure they’re not hiding a lot of bad wood just below the surface.

Another thing to watch out for is people selling what’s known as a “face cord.” A lot of people on Craigslist will advertise a cord when it’s actually a face cord. As just noted, a full cord measures 8 by 4 by 4 feet. A face cord shares the first two dimensions but is only 16 to 18 inches deep. Don’t pay for a full cord if what you are getting is a face cord.

HOW TO BUY WOOD FROM A STORE

It’s convenient that modern supermarkets carry firewood. Or is it? Much of the wood you see in bags or boxes in the grocery aisle between charcoal and cat litter is not suitable for barbecue. One reason is that a lot of it is kiln dried, meaning that even the most pyro-challenged among us will have no trouble starting a fire with it, but the pieces will burn so fast and with so little smoke that you won’t get anywhere when you cook with them. Other times, supermarket firewood comes in a bag, so you can’t pick up a log to feel whether it’s been kiln dried or not.

To tell if a log has been kiln dried, measure by weight in your hand: if the log feels unnaturally light in your hand, then it’s going to burn like gasoline. You’re better off checking Craigslist or the classifieds for someone selling firewood that you can pick up and feel. Chances are with a little calling and driving around, you’ll find someone you like and trust who can become a regular source.

SEASONING WOOD

My perfect piece of wood to use in a smoker would come from a nice straight post oak tree that was cut down alive, split into firewood—for the size of our fireboxes, we like pieces 16 to 18 inches in length and with diameters no smaller than 3 inches and no bigger than 6 inches—and then seasoned for a year or so until the moisture content is about 20 percent. Of course, I never use my perfect piece of firewood.

That’s because I don’t have access to it. For one thing, I don’t cut down trees for barbecue, as there’s just too much dead wood already around Central Texas for me to need or want to do that. Two, being located smack in the middle of Austin and operating a young business without a big property, even if I had a lot of freshly cut wood, we don’t have room to store a year’s worth of it. At least not like the eye-catching stacks you find outside of the major places in Lockhart. Kreuz’s infinite-seeming, all-you-can-burn wood yard out back is a thing I envy greatly. That’s because it’s stack after stack—worth a trip just to marvel at, if you’ve never been to Lockhart; you’ve never been to Lockhart?—of perfectly cured wood.

Ah, maybe someday … For now, I work with a mishmash of stuff: some of it is green, some is dry, a tiny bit is blackjack oak, most is post oak. With each wood delivery, we’re never sure exactly what we’re going to get. On one hand, this is frustrating, as even I sometimes discover that a recent delivery of wood is unusably green. On the other hand, I think the diversity of wood we use has probably made us better pitmasters. We’ve had to learn how to construct better fires and how to get the most from somewhat green wood.

Green wood comes from a tree that was recently alive. Living trees are full of water, which is retained in the wood after it’s been felled or died of its own natural causes. The weight difference due to the water content in similar-size logs can been startling: up to 5 or 6 pounds in the dimensions we use.

Green wood presents many problems to the pitmaster. The high moisture content makes it inefficient and harder to burn. The demands of heating the water in wood steals some of the heat needed to properly burn the wood, and when heated, the evaporating water cools the combustible gases, making it harder to burn them successfully. The result is a heavier, dirtier smoke than can be useful in very small doses, but it’s hardly what you want to build the flavor of your meat around.

On the other hand, wood that’s too dry will burn so quickly that it may elevate the temperature of the fire beyond desirable levels and can also break down smoke into lighter, flavorless vapors that don’t do you any good.

Hence, the desirability of wood that retains about 20 percent moisture. How do you recognize such a piece? That becomes a question of feel. Locate some properly seasoned wood—that is, wood that has been left to dry out for a certain period of time to lose some of its moisture—and some green wood and compare them. The weight difference and feeling of density will be obvious. Some other clues that a piece of wood is properly seasoned is if the bark is loose or falling off; if it has noticeable cracks or splinters in the grain; and if when you tap it, the sound is deeper and more full-bodied than the short, dull thud you’d hear from a green log.

Once you’ve got what you think is a good piece of seasoned wood, I recommend you burn it alongside a green piece, either in your smoker or just in your fireplace. Take note of the difference in rate of burn, amount of smoke, and the nature of the smoke.

One of the goals of the pitmaster is to control as many variables as possible during your cooks, which is why many of you might be tempted to start with fresh-cut wood and season it yourself. But be forewarned, seasoning takes time—from months to years, depending on your conditions (temperature, humidity, and the like).

Some general tips on seasoning? Don’t start with very long logs. The path by which water works itself out of the grain of the wood is the same as the one the live tree used to transport fluids up and down its trunk and branches—by the grain of the wood. So chop them down to manageable lengths, and the wood will dry out faster. Surface area is also important, so if you leave logs in full rounds, seasoning will take longer. Best to split them into the very smallest size of wood you eventually want to use (see below). Stack the wood loosely enough to get airflow between the logs and make sure the ends of the logs are exposed to the air.

Warmer temperatures have a big impact on drying. If we get a load of green wood in the spring, I can stack it in a sunny place in the yard, and due to Central Texas heat, it can be dry enough to use in just a few weeks. But because we are in the middle of a city, we don’t have the space to do this to any reasonable degree. That stack of wood that I just spent three months drying will get used in less than a week.

If you’ve got a backyard, I recommend you start your own pile of wood, just to make sure that you’ve always got some well-seasoned logs on hand. Cover it loosely with a tarp to keep the rain off (covering it too tightly can result in trapped moisture, which can rot the wood), though occasional rains will generally just run off the wood rather than into it. If you’re in a wet place like Seattle, consider keeping the wood in a shed or in the basement. High humidity will slow the drying process.

HOW TO SPLIT WOOD

At Franklin Barbecue, we buy wood that has already been split for us. But depending on your wood source at home, you may need to do it yourself someday. And we often still have to split larger logs down into more manageable sizes. I suppose the first question to answer in this section is, why split wood in the first place? Well, for one thing, it makes it easier to fit it in our smokers and to carry and stack.

But one of the most important reasons to split wood is because, as I mentioned above, it facilitates proper drying and seasoning.

After wood is cut from a tree, moisture trapped in the wood will begin to drip away, moving parallel to the grain, or toward the cut ends of the round log. The longer the log, the farther this water has to travel, so chopping logs into shorter lengths means the water will leave the wood more quickly. Once we have chopped the logs into shorter lengths, we also split them through the diameter into smaller pieces, to expose more surface area and further speed up the drying process.

HOW MUCH WOOD DO YOU NEED?

You might wonder how much wood you should have on hand to cook a brisket. I wish I could tell you. Unfortunately, so much of barbecue is dependent on context, equipment, wood, and conditions that to give you any sort of estimate would possibly be to lead you astray. The best I can suggest is that you should have more than you think you’ll need. Having too much wood is never a problem. Running out of wood is a huge one. So make space and get a good woodpile going in your yard, garage, shed, wherever. Keep 100 to 150 logs on hand. You won’t use that many on a single cook. But if that cook goes well, there will certainly be another. And another.

This may seem like an elementary topic, but at the restaurant I make sure anyone who’s going to be tending the pits and feeding wood into the fire knows how to properly split wood. Failure to know this can result in injury, which is bad for the individual and bad for the restaurant. As I’ve explained, our wood is delivered to us already split into sizes that we can use, but sometimes one of the logs is too big and needs to be split into more manageably sized pieces.

The first thing to remember is that the process is called splitting wood for a reason. We’re not chopping it and we’re not cutting it. We’re splitting it—splintering it along its grain. That’s why we don’t use an axe, which is best for chopping, but a maul, which is best for splitting. Anyone with a barbecue and a woodpile should own a maul.

A maul is sort of the love child of a sledgehammer and an axe. On one end of the head, it’s blunt like a hammer; on the other, it’s wedge shaped like an axe though lacking a sharpened blade. A maul, which typically comes in 6-, 8-, 10-, and 12-pound weights, is also much heavier than an axe and uses that weight to splinter the wood apart as opposed to slicing it. One of the advantages of mauls is that they don’t need to be sharpened. Because of that, they’re safer than axes. You generally don’t need a particularly heavy maul to split the kinds of smaller pieces you’ll be using for barbecue. The heaviest ones are more difficult to control and will tire you out if you’ve got a lot of logs to do. So for spot work, it is best to choose a lighter maul.

The rest is pretty simple. You probably should have a chopping block, though at the restaurant we just prop logs up on the ground. We’re not splitting heavy, full rounds that much, but rather just halving splits that are too big for the size of the fire we’ve got going. Make sure you’ve got your feet spread apart enough to provide a stable anchor for your body. Always remember to focus your eyes on exactly the spot you want to hit and never take them off that spot as you raise the maul overhead and prepare to bring it down. When swinging it down, don’t swing it in a long arc, as if you were tracing the edge of a circle, but rather bring it straight down to the contact point. You don’t have to put a lot of force into it; the idea is to let gravity and the weight of the head do most of the work. Your job is to guide it and not hurt yourself. But I’ve seen people hurt themselves by being off balance and incautious, so take splitting wood seriously.