Proper pit and bbq fire maintenance is the key to good BBQ. A poorly made fire will result in you “fighting” your grill the entire cooking process in an attempt to maintain temperatures, or, even worse, having bitter, black meat. While we all think of BBQ as “smoking,” great plumes of smoke emanating from your grill are generally a bad thing as it means you are over-smoking your meat or struggling with a fire that isn’t combusting properly.
More smoke is not a good thing
.One of the biggest mistakes new BBQ-ers make is to think that “more smoke is better,” and unfortunately they try to achieve that by adding too much wood to the fire. Most people enjoy smoke flavor as a complement, not the main flavor. If you are the Pitmaster, you need to realize that when you have your head in the smoker tending meat, you will lose the ability to taste smokiness, but your guests sure won’t.
When you are building a fire, you must take into account the smoker. Some pits are made to be run on a charcoal base, some are meant to be run on wood (“stickburners” in the BBQ world.) Generally speaking, I am a believer in using charcoal, whether for grilling or smoking. When I am smoking an item, in order to use the smoke flavor as a nuance rather than a forward palate note, I keep a base of charcoal burning and add wood chunks to achieve my flavor. Not to irk the “stick burner” crowd, but I also believe I have a lot more control over my temperature by utilizing a bed of more consistently burning charcoal rather than an all-wood fire. Unless you very tightly control an all wood fire, you will be prone to large temperature fluctuations. Charcoal, along with being a more steadily burning product, also allows me to tend my fire less. Even in grills made to be run on wood such as the famous “Jambo” cookers, the addition of a charcoal basket will allow for a bed of charcoal to use as your base fire.
However you run your pit, a “clean” fire is imperative. When you go to a BBQ competition, you will see lots of different smokers. One thing you may note is less smoke than expected coming out of the smokestacks on a lot of the cookers. Water cookers, such as Backwoods smokers look “smokier” as they are also mixing steam in with the exhaust. This is because competitive barbecuers generally know how to run a clean fire. By this, I mean that the fire will be large enough to provide their desired temperature and will be burning clean and hot without a lot of smoldering. To achieve this, the main components are good fuel and proper air intake and exhaust. Choking down either the intake or exhaust excessively will result in more smoldering, which can yield a variety of problems. First, you can start to get into “see-sawing” your temperatures. This is where the fire doesn’t get enough oxygen to burn properly and your temp drops, and then you open the intake and the smoldering coals burst into flame and overshoot your desired temps. You can fight that battle all day until you gain control of the pit. The other issue with insufficient air flow is a smoldering file can impart a bitter or off flavor to your meat.
I’ll talk about different charcoals and woods later. Until then, go out and fire up the grill- practice makes perfect!