My name is Dan Colmerauer – aka “Big Dan.” You may know me from my booklet on how to modify a “backyard” offset smoker to make it perform better. The majority of my articles will deal with what goes into building proper fire in your smoker and related topics – but I will diverge from that from time to time. By the way, I will accept questions and comments via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com – I try to reply to any and all e-mails but I do not use my computer on weekends and sometimes it may take a day or two before I have time to reply so please be patient.
I am a backyard cooker only — I don’t do catering or cook-offs, etc. I have, however, been barbequing in one form or another for almost 35 years. Originally from Buffalo, New York I was often seen barbequing and grilling even in middle of the biggest snow storms. I now live in Phoenix, Arizona where some days in the summer I swear all you need to do is put the meat in your smoker and wheel the smoker out into the sun. I have a Hondo offset smoker, a Weber Smoky Mountain, a Weber “kettle” grill, and a barrel smoker and I use them all.
Knowing how to build and maintain a fire is the most important part of barbequing. You can have the greatest recipe in the world – buy the best quality meat you can find – yet if you can’t build and maintain a long, steady fire, your final product will suffer.
Today, I’d like to discuss fuel. There are three basic fuels for barbeque: wood, lump charcoal and briquettes.
Typical briquettes are made from powdered charcoal mixed with binders and fillers such as coal dust. Their biggest advantage is an easily controlled, steady fire with very little temperature fluctuation. Their biggest drawback is the large volume of ash produced when burning briquettes. In an offset style smoker the ash will actually build up and snuff out your fire in about 4 hours – not enough time to barbeque much of anything. Plus, there are too many additives that can alter the flavor of the final product for my taste. But, they are inexpensive, readily available, easy to use and certainly can turn out a fairly decent final product.
There are briquettes available (but very hard to find) that are made out of 100% hardwood charcoal and all natural binders. No additives – no strange fillers – just pure 100% hardwood charcoal. I have used Rancher 100% hardwood briquettes and Royal Oak 100% hardwood briquettes and was pleasantly surprised – both at the flavor and the performance. While producing much more ash than lump charcoal, I was still able to maintain a steady 220 for over six hours. And the flavor was a huge improvement over regular briquettes. In an upright “water smoker” such at the Weber Smoky Mountain these are probably the best fuel you can use. I ran mine for over 22 hours with the Rancher briquettes without refueling and still had briquettes left in the smoker to burn. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find either Rancher or Royal Oak 100% hardwood briquettes in over a year.
Natural lump charcoal (sometimes called “charwood”) is my fuel of choice. Lump charcoal is made by burning hardwood in the absence of oxygen. The process burns off all the impurities (creosote, etc.) leaving a final product that is free of all the bad stuff that can ruin the flavor of the meat. It burns hotter than briquettes and a quality lump charcoal will leave very little ash – which means you will achieve a long, steady burning fire which will impart a wonderful “woodsy” flavor to the meat with a nice touch of smoke. There are a large number of brands of lump available – some not much better than briquettes and others darned near the “holy grail” of barbeque fuel. Hopefully, you will have a good brand available in your area.
The ability to use wood as a fuel is seen by many as the hallmark of the true pitmaster. I don’t necessarily agree.
The single most important factor in whether you can successfully use only wood as your fuel source is your smoker. The typical backyard smoker is simply too small to use wood as fuel unless you burn it down to coals first. In fact, many commercial pitmasters (especially in the barbeque belt) will burn the wood down to coals first no matter what type of smoker they have. The reason for this is simple – you want to burn off the impurities before exposing the meat to the smoke.
So — I tried this once. I used over $50 worth of wood – spent six straight hours burning wood and shoveling coals and the ribs came out tasting exactly like they did with lump charcoal. Some Internet research revealed what has since become my mantra: a glowing lump of hardwood charcoal is IDENTICAL to a glowing coal/ember burned down from logs. The only difference is how it got there.
Interestingly enough – at the more recent bbq cook-offs I’ve attended (I do love to eat good ‘que) I’ve noticed that most of the competitors were using lump charcoal in even the biggest of smokers because —- a glowing lump of hardwood charcoal is IDENTICAL to a glowing coal/ember burned down from logs.
Now, what about wood chunks or chips for added smoke flavor. They work, but you have to be very careful because there is a very fine line between a little extra smoke flavor and over-smoked, creosote-coated meat. Cross that line and you’ve ruined a nice hunk of meat (unless, of course, you like the flavor of creosote). This is more of a problem in the offset smokers than with the uprights. The man in Phoenix who sells cooking wood to all the local restaurants taught me a neat trick if you like to use chunks or chips for a stronger smoke flavor. Simply take a piece of heavy duty foil and gently place it on top of the meat – don’t “tent” it and don’t “wrap” it – just gently lay it on top. The foil will catch most of the bad stuff before it settles on the meat leaving the meat exposed to the remaining flavorful part of the smoke.
Next time I’ll discuss exactly how to build a fire using the Minion method for a long, steady fire.
Keep on cookin’!