At some point in our civilization, people determined that meat and fire went together. Cooking became a way to preserve meat, add flavor and improve tenderness characteristics. At some point, the smoke from the fire was discovered to make its own special contribution to this process. Over time, methods have been developed to combine the meat with the fire to cook it. This began the never-ending search for the best device or process to cook/smoke meat.

From a barbecue perspective, we hear the term “pit” used to describe the equipment used for cooking. We even use “pitmaster” rather than “restaurateur” or “chef” for those who cook barbecue for a living.

“Pit” probably arose from the process of digging holes or trenches in the ground to build a fire in and then placing the meat on some sort of grate to hold the meat above the fire or even wrapping the meat in something like burlap and burying the meat on top of the coals to let it cook for many hours before uncovering to eat.

“Barbecoa de cabeza” where beef heads are prepared this way for tacos and Hawaiian-style luaus where whole pigs are cooked are two examples of such preparation. Eventually, people started building brick, concrete block, or metal structures above the ground with some lid or cover to simplify the process where the fire would be built in the bottom and the meat would be placed on grates above to allow the “low and slow” process we associate with preparing barbecue. Restaurants advertising “pit barbecue” often cook this way to signify more of the old style of preparation, and “pit” has become a generic term to describe a wide array of cooking equipment used by professionals and backyard enthusiasts.

Modified by design

There is something about barbecue that brings out the creative craftsman and entrepreneurship in everyone. Old barrels, large pipe cutoffs, and decommissioned propane tanks can find new life as barbecue pits. Many of the barbecue restaurants we visit have some form of offset smoker. These are often a large (250, 500 or 1,000 gallon) propane tank laid out vertically with doors cut out and mounted along the top, a fire box added to one end to hold burning wood to create heat and smoke, and a chimney placed at the opposite end to allow a draw. This type of device is often called a “stick burner” because it uses whole or split logs of oak, hickory, mesquite, pecan or whatever is popular or available as the source of heat and smoke.

There is much debate over how large the firebox needs to be and the proper placement and diameter of the chimney to allow the best performance of the smoker. There are versions of this called a “reverse flow” where the firebox and chimney are located on the same end of the smoker with a series of baffles and plates located inside the smoker forcing the heat and smoke to travel greater distances to ensure better heat and smoke distribution.

Our “Pit Design and Maintenance” panels at Barbecue Summer Camp and Camp Brisket spend a considerable amount of time answering questions concerning what is the “best” pit to own and how to get the maximum benefit of each one. Our panelists often include those who are manufacturing the latest, high-demand, custom-built pits with waiting times from order to finish frequently exceeding a year.

Some of the barbecue restaurants use a rotisserie-style cooker where products are loaded on racks that rotate through the oven ensuring more uniform cooking and the opportunity for drippings to continually baste those products below them. Many of these ovens have fireboxes located outside of the main cooking chambers where wood can be added to provide the proper heat for temperature and smoke for flavor. The rotisserie style of cooking has been made quite popular with chicken and many supermarkets and membership clubs have in-house rotisserie cookers preparing chickens for the take-home market. Rotisserie kits are available for many types of grills and smokers and are frequently used for cooking whole chickens. However, special rotisserie attachments have rotating trays that are great for smoking racks of ribs.

pellets for barbecueSource: ©KNOWLESGALLERY - STOCK.ADOBE.COM

The consumer cook

The consumer market for barbecue smokers has skyrocketed. Smaller versions of offset smokers are commonplace and in some parts of the country are sold at supermarkets or the large travel centers.

Weber has several versions of the Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker designed to use charcoal as fuel with the addition of wood chunks or mini-logs for the smoke flavor. Kamado-style grills, such as the Big Green Egg and Kamado Joe, have thick, insulated ceramic walls to help retain heat. These grills are extremely versatile. Kamado grills allow indirect heat cooking for low and slow smoking of chicken, ribs and roasts, as well as direct heat cooking for hot and fast cooking of steaks, burgers, and pizzas. The ceramic kamado grills are expensive, especially if you add accessories, but they also last longer than many other types of grills.

One of the more recent additions to the barbecue equipment market is the pellet smoker. Traeger led the way in this market and today other companies are competing in this space. These devices use compressed wood pellets that are loaded into a hopper where a thermostat-regulated auger feeds them to a fire box where the pellets burn to produce heat and smoke. This is the ultimate “set it and forget it” cooker. It even has Wi-Fi options that allow the ease of control and monitoring remotely. A review of webpages associated with pellet smokers shows different models designed for every budget and provides recipes and tips from some leading professional/celebrity barbecue influencers.

A trip to any hardware or home improvement center reveals the vast availability of not only the variety of grills/smokers, but also the number of accessories needed to make everyone’s adventure into backyard barbecuing a dream come true. In addition, the various fuels and a wide variety of sauces and seasonings also give the consumer ideas of how best to prepare the products.

There are lots of decisions to be made about equipment and accessories. Then, all that is needed is that special cut of meat that is ready to be magically transformed through the equipment so that everyone enjoys the fruits of the “pitmaster.”