Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (2015)
• Chapter Four
It’s hardly glamorous, but the tool I probably use the most at the restaurant is not a carving knife or a boning knife or a fancy digital thermometer. The tool you’ll find most often in my hands when doing a cooking shift is a shovel. At all times, there’s one shovel propped outside the firebox of each of our six cookers. It’s an essential tool. I don’t like the heavy shovels that last forever; I like the light ones you can throw around real easy. That’s because, let’s face it, I’m using it nearly constantly, and the heavier the shovel, the harder it is on the old body.
Shovels are our high-precision, state-of-the-art tools for tending our fires—the implements we use to constantly groom and tune our fires to optimally produce the smoke we want. The fire and smoke are what set barbecue apart from other forms of cooking. And cooking solely on wood fires is what sets great barbecue apart from the bad or the merely good.
Managing a fire is the most important aspect of the pitmaster’s job. It’s the crucial factor that determines the success or failure of your endeavor (not to mention hours and hours of time and hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of meat). We pitmasters are more thermal engineers than we are cooks. Igniting, coaxing, cajoling, molding, suppressing, and enabling fire is the essence of our work. You hardly need to be a scientist to be good at this, but it does help to have some of the characteristics of a good scientist: observational acuity, and an analytical sensibility. But you also need some of the qualities of an outdoorsman: experience, patience, calm, an ability to listen and intuit. And, of course, some of a chef’s talents come in handy: an understanding of how meats absorb heat and smoke to gain flavor and color.
But ultimately it all comes down to the fire. Anyone can light a fire and burn wood and cook meat. But doing it well, on demand, over and over again in whatever conditions are present—this is what truly able pitmasters do. It’s fine to know how to burn a fire, but knowing why it’s working or not and being able to sense what’s going on inside the firebox are what makes the process all the more successful and repeatable. As the authors of Modernist Cuisine (another of my favorite books) write, “creating and controlling smoke may be a lost art these days … a return to first principles can help recover that primeval understanding of why and when wood smolders and burns. You need that knowledge to create quality smoke. And if you also understand some of the basic chemistry of smoke, you gain control over its effect on flavor and appearance.”
HOW WOOD BURNS
But before you get that sought-after smoke, you need fire. And in order to get a fire, you need fuel. In general, barbecue, as practiced today, can use many forms of fuel. Gas, electricity, and charcoal are popular in most modern barbecue restaurants because they run with timers and computers and are more convenient and efficient. But in my mind there is no substitute for good, old-fashioned wood.
The negatives of using wood? Well, it’s hard to control. Getting and sustaining the temperature needed to properly smoke a brisket is not easy and requires technique, experience, and stamina. Once you’ve managed to achieve the optimal temperature, level of smoke, and airflow, keeping it there for the 12 or so hours needed to cook a brisket is another challenge completely. The positives of using wood lie almost entirely in the quality of the smoke it produces, which imparts beautifully complex and savory flavor to the meat, something not really replicable with any other method. But to get the wood to produce that really fine smoke, you need a high-quality fire.
So you probably remember from elementary school the model of the fire triangle, which illustrates the three elements that a fire requires: heat, fuel, and oxygen. Fire, as we know it, with crackling flames and a homey warm glow, is basically the molecular unraveling of wood caused by heat in the presence of oxygen. Once it gets going, a chain reaction forms that sustains the release of heat through combustion. But when wood burns, several things are going on simultaneously.
When a heat source is applied to wood, the first thing that happens is drying. Even wood we consider really dry still has about 20 percent moisture. Drying happens as the wood’s surface temperature approaches 212°F and water contained inside starts to boil and evaporate. Evaporation also creates a cooling effect, which is why it’s so hard to burn green (wet) wood. But once that liquid has largely disappeared, the wood heats much more rapidly.
When wood is heated enough so that all of its moisture has evaporated and it is effectively dried, the heat turns its attention to the structure of the wood itself. At 500°F to 600°F, the heat starts dissolving the bonds between the molecules of cellulose and hemicellulose cells. This releases water vapor, then organic gases (the beginning of smoke).
Finally, as the temperature continues to rise, combustion occurs. The dancing blue, orange, yellow, or red flame you can see (what many of us commonly think of as “fire”) is actually the ignition of oxygen and the gases (smoke) released by the wood, a process known as secondary combustion. (Primary combustion, in case you’re curious, is the name we give to the direct burning of the solid material—so, the smoldering embers of the wood itself.) As these gases depart, the wood is being reduced to solid fuel—charcoal and, ultimately, ash. Along this journey, at various temperatures, different compounds—among them carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), and about a hundred others—are released and create the complex mixture we call smoke.
So if wood plus heat yields smoke plus charcoal, you can suddenly see why I’m not so keen on cooking over just charcoal. When you do that, you get plenty of heat, sure, but since the charcoal is already in its elemental state, you don’t get smoke (which is a by-product of the process of converting heat, wood, and oxygen into charcoal). With only charcoal in an offset cooker, what you’re basically creating is an oven—great for roasts but not for smoked brisket. Any healthy fire in your smoker needs to have a good bed of coals (glowing embers from the already-burnt wood—that is to say, primary combustion), which supplies heat and helps burn any new wood you add to the chamber, and live fire (secondary combustion), which releases the smoke.
To create the kind of smoke you want, you must keep the fire within an optimal range of combustion temperatures, which is done by regulating both the release of heat and the release of smoke. You are able to manage the fire because you have control over all three components of the fire triangle—heat, fuel, and oxygen—though the tools available are rustic. You can manipulate oxygen with the firebox door and/or a smokestack damper (if you have one). Fuel and heat are controlled by the choice of logs put on the fire and management of the coal bed that you’ve created from burning logs (as well as airflow).
What’s important to remember is that not all fires are created equal and that the manner in which your wood burns is just as important as the fact that it’s simply burning. Next, I will address some of the key factors in starting and maintaining the kind of fire that will give you the heat and smoke to cook successfully.
THE REALITIES OF YOUR BACKYARD SMOKER
If you’re working with a little backyard one-brisket smoker like I started on, you probably won’t have room in your firebox to build the necessary-size wood structure completely out of logs. If your heart is set on starting your fire just with wood, then I suggest cutting your logs into even smaller pieces (perhaps 9 to 12 inches long and 4 to 6 inches wide, or whatever fits comfortably inside your firebox) and stacking them in a miniature structure with tinder and kindling.
But to be honest, it can be frustrating to start a roaring fire in such a small space with so few logs. So I propose a little cheat: use a “chimney” charcoal starter (one of those metal cylinders with an attached handle and a charcoal grate inside) to get fifteen to twenty charcoal briquettes rip-roaring hot and then dump them into the firebox. You will have created a quick and easy coal bed to give you the temperatures needed to get wood burning. Just lay your logs down on the bed of charcoal, then you can get the honest-to-goodness, smoke-producing wood fire going. Keep adding wood, as needed, to get your cook chamber up to the desired temperature. (For more on that, see Growing the Fire and Getting Good Smoke.)
HOW TO BUILD A FIRE
At the restaurant, our smokers are fired up pretty much all of the time, so we have plenty of glowing beds of hot coals that we can shovel into a smoker that’s been taken out of service briefly (for cleaning, modification, or the like). That’s the easy way to start a fire: we just shovel in a glowing-hot base of coals and throw a few logs on top of that. But starting one from scratch isn’t so hard either. When lighting up a cold smoker, I want the fire to start quickly and vigorously, because when cooking something that will take hours and hours, there’s never any time to waste.
First, start with well-seasoned dry wood that’s going to catch quickly. I choose slim, straight pieces of wood that are noticeably light and dry and split them into skinny pieces like kindling. As with so many aspects of handling a smoker, the primary concern is airflow. Inside the firebox, I build a little crosshatched structure with them, almost as if I were building a cabin with Lincoln Logs. I start with two wedge-shaped larger pieces on either side to create a base, and then I put three smaller pieces, about 2 inches in diameter, on top of the those, and then one more layer of three small pieces or three logs, spaced about 2 inches apart and positioned crosswise in the firebox. Next, I place two logs perpendicular to the first two logs, creating a square. Then I stack one more layer of two logs directly over and parallel to the first ones I laid down. In the structure, the curved shape of my preferred firebox comes into play. Because the logs on the base stretch across the arc of the circle, they allow airflow underneath them too. (If I were forced to work with a flat firebox, I would do the same.)
Now you need some tinder and possibly kindling. For tinder (dry, flammable things to help get a fire going), I usually employ a used piece of butcher paper in which we had wrapped a brisket. It’s saturated with fat and grease and goes up like a torch. If I don’t have a brisket wrapping, I’ll take butcher paper (newspaper will work too) and coat it with vegetable oil. The point is that I’ve only ever put organic substances in my firebox—no lighter fluid or any other chemical. Splinter a few thin, dry slivers off of a dry log for kindling (larger pieces of tinder to catch from the paper and continue to grow the fire). Now simply crumple up the butcher paper and place it in the middle of your little structure. Place the kindling inside the structure atop the tinder and give it a light.
MY BASIC PHILOSOPHY OF FIRES
My general philosophy of fires may sound a little hippie-dippie or like some sort of flaky cop-out. But it’s really not. It works. It’s simple, but I find myself having to remind my cooks of this all the time: Let wood burn at its natural pace. You don’t want to force it do something that it doesn’t naturally want to do. You don’t need to pump air into it, you don’t need to choke it off, you don’t need anything but the wood, heat, and air that nature provides you. Your job as a pitmaster is to find the size and shape of the fire you need to sustain your temperatures with good smoke and then do your best to keep it there. This usually doesn’t require anything more than adding wood in the right manner and making sure that there’s plenty of air.
There have been few moments during the last five or six years when I have not smelled like smoke. Even if I’m away from the restaurant for a day or two and have taken multiple showers, that smoky smell can still creep up. The scent of burning wood has been with me so long and so pervasively that I can’t even really smell it anymore.
That ability of smoke to coat and penetrate almost anything, and then to persist there for a while, is almost magical. Magical too is smoke’s value to us as an ancient tool for preserving food (besides its drying qualities, it imparts antimicrobials and antioxidants to meat that prevent spoilage; this method has been used for thousands of years) and its ability to make things taste good. How can something without a form have such a powerful impact on everything it comes into contact with? That question has long fascinated me. And although people love the taste of smoked foods, few who aren’t avid barbecuers give much thought to the fact that not all smoke is created equal. You can have good smoke, bad smoke, and too much smoke. This point should be obvious, of course, since whenever you see dark, nasty smoke billowing from something that shouldn’t be burning, such as a building or a tire, you are reminded that there are lots of kinds of smoke that you don’t want anywhere near your mouth. Much of the craft of barbecue depends on making sure that only good smoke in the correct amount comes in contact with the meat. So what is good smoke?
TROUBLESHOOTING FOR TRICKY CONDITIONS
Weather can present two big challenges to getting a good fire going: cold and wet. The solution to the latter is to start with well-seasoned wood. If it is raining outside, and thus extremely humid, logs that are especially dry can be helpful in getting a fire started. Windy conditions can likewise cause problems. If you can move your cooker, shield the firebox door from the predominant wind and keep it mostly shut while you get the fire going. Once you get it going, you can anchor it with a couple of big logs, which will bring up the heat and get you started on creating that big, deep coal bed that will ensure a good fire.
Well, just like everything else in barbecue, it’s simple and complicated. Smoke itself is a complicated thing, containing, as Modernist Cuisine handily explains, all three states of matter: solid particles of soot and droplets of liquid suspended in a vapor of air and chemicals. Two of these three forms are visible, the book says, with soot turning smoke dark gray and black, and droplets of tars, oils, water, and other condensates appearing as a gentle blue. Those parts are important, but it’s the other part that concerns me even more. “The components of smoke that are in the vapor state, on the other hand,” the book notes, “cannot be seen at all—yet it’s the vapor that does all the heavy lifting of smoking. Contrary to what you might have heard, the invisible gases in smoke contain nearly all the compounds that color, preserve, and flavor smoked food. Although they’re typically just 10% of the volume of smoke, these gases do more than 90% of the work.”
The particles of smoke—solids and liquids—that might attach themselves to the surface of the food can contribute some flavor and texture to the meat’s exterior. But it’s the gaseous elements of smoke that actually penetrate into the interior of the meat itself, giving it the deep, rich flavor that you want to be integrated into every bite.
Getting your fire to the state in which it’s producing good smoke most of the time is one of the most crucial aspects of barbecuing with wood. But because we lack the technical instruments and clinical environments that the scientists who analyze the components of smoke use to do their research, we’ve got to rely on our eyes and nose to determine when our fire is a good one.
Good Smoke/Bad Smoke
People who don’t pay close attention or who don’t eat smoked foods very often might not notice the distinction between good and bad smoke. They are probably hardwired, as we all are, to respond positively to the generic flavor of smoke—that little caveman or cavewoman in all of us that over hundreds of thousands of years associates the smell and flavor of wood smoke with sustenance, home, and well-being.
But if you’re attuned to it, you can easily tell the difference between meat that has absorbed good smoke and meat that has absorbed bad smoke. And once you get it, there’s no going back.
Something with bad smoke might taste good the instant you put it in your mouth, but then you’ll notice that there is an acrid taste to it that verges on a bitter aftertaste. You may notice a sneaky, biting acidity that jangles on your tongue and that the smoke sits more on the exterior of the meat than inside it. There’s no sweetness. Once you get past your initial inherent programming to feel pleasure from smoked meat, you find a caustic, corrosive harshness. And it lingers bitingly in your mouth long after you’ve finished it.
Good smoke is the opposite. It’s lighter and finer. Whereas the bad smoke has an ashy monotone, good smoke offers complexity. The impact is powerful yet strangely delicate at the same time. There’s an ineffable sweetness and a level of finesse that penetrates every bite. That’s good smoke.
Getting good flavors out of smoke depends on two things: the wood being burned and the temperature at which it’s created. It’s very easy to cook meat with bad smoke. In fact, that’s what most people do. Not only at home but also at restaurants all over. We get chefs coming through all the time on research trips for the barbecue place they plan to open in their own cities. They want to know our methods, our ingredients, our recipes. And, for the most part, we share that stuff.
What they don’t know is that the secret they were looking for by coming to Franklin Barbecue was right there in front of them and wasn’t a secret at all. It’s all about good smoke. But good smoke requires real wood fires, and real wood fires require space and a level of mindfulness and commitment.
We’ve already talked about the compounds and flavors of different woods that give slightly different flavors in different smokes. But the difference in character between the smoke that comes from apple versus pecan versus hickory is minuscule compared to the differences between good and bad smoke. So let’s concentrate on that.
At the most basic level, good smoke has to do with the efficiency of your fire—the more efficient it is, and the more complete its combustion, the better the quality of your smoke. But what do I mean by “complete” combustion? Here’s where things get a bit technical again. Complete combustion happens when there is enough oxygen present to convert all of the fuel (specifically, those hydrocarbons I mentioned earlier) into just two by-products: carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). For our purposes, complete combustion is more of a theoretical aspiration. For one thing, it is impossible to achieve complete combustion outside of a laboratory setting, because there is never enough oxygen present in the air to convert the fuel completely. But this is actually good news for us pitmasters, since in complete combustion, there isn’t any smoke at all—just water vapor and carbon dioxide gas. So really, our goal is to get something close to complete combustion, so that our smoke is clean with few by-products, but not all the way there.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you have very incomplete combustion, then you’ll end up with tons of unwanted by-products in your smoke, such as creosote and impure carbon in the form of soot. Soot in your brisket—not so tasty.
So now the question is, how do we control the level of combustion? The short answer is we need to control the temperature, which in turn is affected by the amount of fuel, the moisture content of the fuel, and the amount of oxygen.
Remember, moisture content directly affects the temperature of the fire. Greener, wetter wood will cool a fire, resulting in lower temperatures and incomplete combustion. That’s why the burning of wet wood issues nasty smoke. A fire composed primarily of well-seasoned wood is of prime importance.
Likewise, insufficient oxygen to the fire causes incomplete combustion, which results in that thick, dark smoke. When this is happening, some of the more noxious components in wood are being formed or released without being burned off or broken down into smaller, less offensive particles. You will note that you don’t need to have flames to have this kind of poor combustion. Some of the nastiest smoke comes from wood that’s smoldering—burning without flame. This is a sign of low oxygen levels (since, as you’ll recall, secondary combustion—those dancing flames—is a result of oxygen igniting gases released from the wood).
As you increase the airflow to the fire, though, it becomes happier and perkier. When the fire starts to burn more efficiently, more heat is produced. With the rise in temperature, production of the more off-putting compounds wanes and the more desirable gases start to emerge. At these temperatures, the hemicellulose and cellulose are breaking down, releasing compounds (carbonyls, phenols, cresols, vanillin, and many more) that start to flavor and color the meat. As the temperature continues to rise, the lignin starts to break down and even more flavorful by-products are released, including the ones that produce flavors of vanilla, peat smoke, caramel, nuts, and spice—the complex mixture of flavors and aromas that we know as good smoke. A hot fire likewise incinerates many of the nasty volatile compounds that were being released at lower temperatures. Books like Modernist Cuisine and McGee’s On Food and Cooking agree that, to get the sweetest smoke, the best temperature for your fire is between 570°F and 750°F. Above that, the wood is releasing only the lightest and most subtle elements of the smoke, with the heavier particles being incinerated. Good flavor can come in this stage too, but with less impact. Truth told, I don’t measure the temperature of the fire itself. I’m more concerned with the temperature of the smoke chamber at the level where the meat sits. Having active flame at all times is important, though. The temperatures at which burning wood instigates visible flames are also the temperatures at which desirable smoke is issued. Another indication is the color of the smoke itself.
It takes some work and practice to produce and maintain a fire that undergoes near-complete combustion. But it’s really important to do so, because if you’re subjecting a piece of meat to hours and hours of smoke exposure, you want it to be the good stuff. This is why, in my opinion, classic Central Texas–style barbecue is so good. The whole art is predicated on making a fire with near-complete combustion and generating hours and hours of the pure, sweet good smoke. The gas and electric smokers that so many restaurants use these days don’t rely on wood to create their heat. Rather, the wood is there only to supply smoke, and it’s often smoldering or choked off. Obviously this is not a strategy based around good fires, and thus these cookers and any others that inhibit airflow end up producing a lesser, more acrid smoke, which is why I don’t care for them. We’ve seen these kinds of cookers take over mainstream barbecue, especially as enthusiasm for it has bloomed in major metropolitan areas where it’s not as easy (for practical and legal reasons) to burn so much wood. But in recent years, it’s also been heartening to see a small trend back to the original, purist form that I practice.
The Color of Smoke
I love to watch smokestacks—not only to see the energy with which the smoke is pumping out the stack but also to gauge the color of the smoke. Simply observing what kind of smoke is coming out of your stack can tell you a lot about the kind of fire you’ve got and how the meat’s cooking.
You’ll note that a fresh fire will produce a range of different qualities of smoke as it gets going. At first, the smoke will be thick and gray for a while. Then it becomes white, as the growing combustion reaction craves more oxygen and heat. After a little more time, the fire will hit a groove, and you’ll notice that the smoke turns a thin, light gray with even a bluish tint. Then it might even be so faint that it’s clear, only noticeable by the rippling in the air. It’s kind of like getting up in the morning: you start off dense, slow, and foggy, and as you wake up, you become clearheaded and quick.
The color of smoke is determined by the size of the particles that compose it, and the size of the particles appear to be directly related to the fullness of combustion. So the more incomplete the combustion, the bigger the size of the particles. Large particles actually absorb light and appear black to gray. Slightly smaller ones look white. And even smaller ones reflect only the blue wavelengths of the spectrum and create blue smoke. You can witness blue smoke erupting from such other places as the tailpipe of a motorcycle, but when it comes from a barbecue chimney, it’s a thing of beauty, considered the most desirable of smoke phases and the key indicator that your fire is burning properly. Then again, sometimes the smoke that issues from my stacks has no color at all, just clear ripples in the air. This is that step beyond blue—that light, clean, delicate smoke. Given our long cook times, I’m happy to have a certain amount of that to go along with the various other smokes that are perpetually hitting the meat.
GROWING THE FIRE AND GETTING GOOD SMOKE
While all of this technical talk about smoke and fire is interesting, actually accomplishing it isn’t as hard as it sounds. As I said before, once you introduce fire to wood, it’s just a matter of the fire finding its own rhythm and burning the way it wants to burn. For beginners, the best thing you can do at your early stages of barbecue is watch your fires and become familiar with the way they go.
Burn Seasoned Wood
You can eventually get good smoke with green wood, but you’ll have to go through a lot of dirtier smoke to get there. The best smoke comes from well-seasoned dry wood that will burn vigorously and fairly quickly. You go through more wood this way (and have to keep a watchful eye on the smoker), but the results are worth it.
Heat That Cooker Up
Cold surfaces keep the temperature of the fire down, which results in dirtier smoke. So once you get your fire going, give your cooker time to absorb the heat thoroughly throughout the firebox and the cook chamber. I build a new fire in a cold smoker and let it go for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before I throw any meat on. You want everything to be solidly in its proper temperature zone before you upset the conditions by adding a mass of cold meat.
Don’t Rush the Fire
Remember, always let the fire burn at its natural pace. And that means letting it find its groove. I’ve seen the analogy of a truck used for a smoker. The firebox is the engine for a big heavy truck. If you stomp on the gas and get it revved up, it will gradually accrue more and more speed and force. You do it too quickly and suddenly you find yourself barreling down the road at breakneck pace, which forces you to crush the brake to slow down or stop. The result is a very unsmooth ride and a great waste of energy. The same thing goes for a fire. Instead of piling on wood and building a huge, raging fire that you then have to choke back, I prefer to gradually grow a fire to ease into where you want it to be. It may take a little longer, but it’s ultimately a much more graceful and sustainable ride.
Have a Strong Coal Bed
Once the fire gets going and has broken down a few logs into a nice bed of glowing embers, you’ve got your foundation. This goes part and parcel with warming up your smoker properly, but developing that foundation of coals is key to holding a stable temperature, which is a key to a successful cook. Having a nice, deep bed of coals will also allow new logs to start combusting quickly, minimizing the release of bad smoke.
Preheat the Wood
This is a technique that I use in cold weather. In warm weather, there’s no need. But cold wood—and especially cold, green wood—can take a while to get going and might pump out volumes of dirty smoke before it really takes off. You can reduce this time by warming the wood before you add it to the fire. Once you have that primary fire started, before you’ve added your meat to the smoker, just stack a few pieces of wood on top of the firebox and let them hang out there for a while warming up their little toesies before they jump in. Then, when the meat’s on and you need to add more wood, the logs will be ready to combust much more rapidly.
Cook with the Fire Door Open
To say “cook with the fire door open” is like saying “look both ways before crossing the street”—almost a cliché and such a basic truism that it almost doesn’t need to be said. Then again, lots of pedestrians are hit by cars every year, and lots of firebox doors are left closed. If the conditions are good, there’s no reason not to allow the maximum airflow your fire needs. Adjust its temperature by the amount of fuel you put in it, but let that fuel burn as cleanly as possible. A healthy fire will gulp that air up and turn it into thorough combustion and the kind of smoke you want on your meat. Of course, there are times when you might want to close that door a little bit, however. For instance, in rain, cold, or really windy weather, the elements might affect your fire in a negative way.
Many people think that if your fire has gotten too big and hot, closing the fire door is a way to suppress it, at the cost of producing some dirtier smoke. It would have to be DEFCON 1 (“Nuclear war is imminent”) for me to consider closing the door. Sure, sometimes you get too much of a rager, with dangerously spiking temperatures. But in those instances it’s much better to just open up the cook chamber doors and let the heat out quickly and completely (or shovel some coal towards the back of the cooker, or both) than to slowly choke down the fire.
TUNING THE FIRE
Now that your fire is built, your coal bed is full and self-sustaining, your smoker has warmed to the right temperature, and wispy blue smoke is swirling from the stack, you’re ready to put the meat on. We’ll talk more about the meat in chapter five. But once you’ve put it on, you’re not going to do much with it for a long time. What you will be doing is constantly checking your temperatures and maintaining the fire. The most important pieces of equipment during this stage are your handy shovel, a thermometer to follow the temperatures in the cooker, and an ice chest full of cold beer.
Yes, this part is the long slog of barbecue, but it’s also the time to pull up a lawn chair, pop a beer, chat with friends, or, if you’re alone (as I often am on long cooks), simply reflect on life. You’ll learn to keep a near-constant eye on the fire, smokestack, and cooker temperature gauges. Generally, just looking at one of those will give you an indication of what’s going on. And periodically, you’ll get up to throw a log on or adjust the fire.
The goal at this stage is consistency. You want to keep your temperatures within the zone in which you’ve decided to cook (see chapter six for more on that). Inevitably they will rise and fall a bit, but get too far off course, and you can either damage your meat or you’ll find that it’s taking hours longer than you planned, which can be a problem if you have people waiting to eat.
It’s also important to remember that you have more control than you think. Even a chef in a modern kitchen will see a lag in time between when he or she turns up the dial in an oven versus when the food actually sees that heat. You will see that happen in a good smoker much more quickly. Smokers look clunky, heavy, and dull, but a well-built one will respond quickly to your adjustments. When I rummage through the woodpile looking for a piece that might give me another 10 degrees of heat and then I throw that small, dry piece on the fire, it might catch instantly. And when it does, thanks to that good airflow, that heat that the wood has just created will be whisked into the cook chamber within seconds. Because of that, I do feel I have the ability to control the temperature in the cook chamber almost in increments of degrees. (It’s just holding them there that’s the challenge.)
Skill at this part of managing a cook comes largely from experience. You have to know your wood, your smoker, and the weather conditions. Below I’m going to offer some of my techniques for managing the fire, but the best advice is to develop your own methods depending on your equipment.
CHOOSING WOOD AND MAINTAINING THE FIRE
Wood choice depends on what you want at any given time. And my favored techniques tend to change and evolve over time. Lately, I’ve preferred to use smaller pieces of wood. These offer more precision, more consistency, and a tighter control of the fire. Using smaller pieces means that I have to put more individual pieces in the firebox, of course, but I avoid the problem of really big spikes. The choir of smaller voices keeps a steady chatter going, maintaining the desired temperature, instead of the up-and-down, up-and-down bellowing that comes from larger pieces. The trade-off is that it’s higher-maintenance cooking, which means you’ll have to keep up with the fire more frequently instead of just setting a large piece of wood and walking away.
FIRE AS CHESS
Your fire is always evolving. So while it’s good to take stock of it at any given moment, you also have to look at where it’s heading. Think of it like a game of chess. Your opponent is inconsistent temperatures. Your pieces are your logs and your shovel. The board is the fire itself. You study the board, think about where you want to get, consider what the opposition is likely to do, and then plot your moves.
Here’s an example: The temperature gauge may show that the cooker’s humming along at a nice 275°F. But you see that the main log that’s been burning is about to break down. It needs to be replaced. But if you put another big one in there, you’re going to lose heat and smoke as the log heats up and starts to burn. So instead of that one, you might opt to put in two smaller ones. Or you might decide to use a small piece that’s going to catch quickly and give a bump of heat, then follow that immediately with a larger, denser piece that’s going to anchor the fire for another 30 minutes.
Here’s another situation: I might stoke the fire a little bit with the shovel because I need about 5 degrees of temperature, but I don’t want to put a new piece on because I’m about to open up the smoke chamber to flip the ribs, and I don’t want to inhale a bunch of smoke. So I’m creating clean heat (poking at the embers, stimulating primary combustion) instead of smoky heat.
Of course, there are an infinite number of scenarios, and your plans and plays will be evolving constantly.
The key is to be both analytical and prepared for where your fire is heading. There are many different paths to get to the same end. But it’s good to have the flexibility that’s offered by a decent-size wood supply. Having a number of logs of various shapes, sizes, densities, and dryness gives you a lot of options for keeping your fire on track.
THE MAGICAL SHOVEL
An arsenal of different wood sizes is helpful, but even easier is just altering the structure of the fire itself. For this, never forget your trusty shovel. It’s the number one way to keep air flowing over and into the fire. Use the shovel to slide logs or coals forward toward the cooker if you need more heat, or to pull them back toward the door if you want to slow down the fire by letting heat escape through the backside. When I put a new log on, I’ll often use the edge of the head of the shovel to carve out a little channel in the coal bed, creating a pathway for the air under the log so that it lights faster. On a cold day, I’ll spread coals toward the back to preheat the air hitting the fire.
USING GREEN WOOD
It’s been well documented that I use a fair bit of green wood when I cook. For the record: that’s because of necessity, not design. If I had a big lot stacked high with perfectly seasoned wood, I’d use that all of the time. But instead I have to take what I can get, which sometimes includes a delivery of green wood. So here’s how I use it.
Greener wood offers heavier smoke. And I cook with so much light smoke that every now and then I want to get a dose of some of the denser, low-temperature smoke that comes from green wood.
However, for the most part this is not the smoke I’m after. Thus, the most common way I’d use green wood is for heat, not for smoke. If I had a stack of really green wood, and I needed to step away from the cooker to run some errands, I’d consider using it after I’d wrapped the meats, at which point the briskets continue cooking without absorbing tons of smoke flavor. At that stage I might put on the green wood and close the firebox door a bit. It would smolder but provide enough temperature to keep the meats cooking, and the wrapping would prevent them from taking on the smoke.
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Good smoke is an indispensable element of great-tasting barbecue. In this chapter, I presented some key techniques and the thinking behind them, but there’s really no substitute for just getting in there with your own fires. Remember to be mindful at all times—of your wood, of the fire, of the airflow—and you should come out fine.