Barbecue:  Doing It The Wrong Way

Wood Pile
The first two rules of judging any barbecue or sizing up a barbecue joint should always be:

Rule 1.   Method of cooking used.
Rule 2.   Never forget rule number one.

This is because without first determining that it is indeed barbecue,  it would seem a bit senseless to attempt to judge it on itís barbecue virtues.  Itís important to always keep in mind that virtually any food could be labeled or referred to as barbecue.  Itís up to you to decide whether or not this is indeed the case.

Having dedicated considerable time and space on this site to the correct way to cook barbecue,  we will now discuss some of the more common ways folks use to cook it the wrong way.

We think the best place to start this discussion is with lump charcoal.

As Ed Pawlowski points out in the following dissertation,  cooking with lump charcoal is not the same as cooking with hardwood burned to coals.

Real Wood for Real Barbecue
Making barbecue requires the use of real wood, not charcoal briquettes, not lump, the so called pure charcoal, and certainly not gas.  It takes real wood burned down to coals.

The largest selling fuel for outdoor cooking is charcoal briquettes.  They are popular because the burn at a steady, predictable rate.  Unfortunately, they contain just a little bit of wood.  Brands differ, but fillers are in all of them.  Today, one famous brand charcoal is manufactured from wood charcoal, anthracite coal, mineral charcoal, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone, sawdust. The ingredient list is enough to know it won't make authentic anything.  Dousing it with fuel oil to get it started just adds to the problem.

Lump charcoal is better.  In a perfect setup, the wood being converted to charcoal is burned in a low oxygen environment.  The only thing left would be pure carbon.  The process is not perfect, so it is not pure.  What has happened though, is the byproducts of combustion have been driven off.  Very little or no smoke is going to be seen or smelled when burned.  Lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes and is very good for grilling.

Burning wood is a challenge.
Burning straight wood gives off the most products of combustion, thus the most flavor to the meat. Done wrong, it will also coat the meat with some nasty residue.  Creosote is common, but do you want the burn fungus that was growing on the bark to flavor your meat?

Step back in time a hundred years or two, and go to an old fashioned North Carolina pig pickin'.  What was the object of the roast?  It was to cook a hog with the available fuel to make a meal. Smoke flavor is secondary.

Evolutionarily, we have come to like the smoke flavor and try to get some onto the meat.  Smoke curing was done to preserve meat, not necessarily to flavor it, but that is a side benefit.

Taking logs, splitting and burning to coals is the right way.  The only way.  Burning wood to coals, you don't have the low oxygen, but you have natural draft.  The wood is not burned as completely as in the charcoal making process.  Thus, you do have more smoke flavor that is going to get onto the meat.  The smoke has a couple of hundred chemical ingredients in it.  Burned to coals, the worst of the impurities are burned of and the best of the flavorings are left.

Burning to coals is usually done is a pit near the cooking pit.  Today we have steel drums that can be converted to make a burn barrel.  It is just a grate near the bottom, a hole for a shovel to reach in, and a few holes to air flow.  Fill with wood, start the fire, bang the side to get the big chunks through the grate. They get shoveled into the pit to cook the meat.

Real work, real wood, REAL barbecue.

Did you notice I did not mention gas? I sure hope so!

Ed Pawlowski

It's quite erroneous to assume that simply introducing wood into the cooking process of a piece of meat constitutes as barbecue.

The following methods may produce something that you enjoy eating, selling or entering into cook-offs.  But none of them produce classic American barbecue!
  1. Lump Charcoal

    Although it is technically hardwood coals,  lump charcoal is not going to exactly duplicate the traditional taste imparted by hardwood burned to coals.  On the bright side,  it is usually made from 100% hardwood.  We'll reluctantly label this method "The Best Way to Do It Wrong".  However,  we feel that many proponents of this fuel tend to exaggerate it's relevance when comparing it to other incorrect fuel sources.

    It seems like fairly sound logic to assume that if something isn't being done right,  then it's probably being done wrong!

  2. Lump Charcoal with added raw wood

    Adding raw wood to lump charcoal in a covered cooker of any size is going to take you completely away from any authentic or traditional taste in your meat.

    We don't care how rampantly this technique is used or how often it is recommended -- it isn't going to impart anything close to the correct taste in meat, from a traditional standpoint.

  3. Gas/Electric

    Simply put,  using gas or electricity, in any capacity, cannot be considered barbecue from a traditional standpoint because neither were available for use in our original barbecue.  But if you're going to do it wrong anyway,  why not make it easy on yourself?

  4. Gas/Electric with added raw wood

    Here we go again.  We've sailed around the fruit loop and taken something that was not right to begin with and turned it into something even more obviously wrong.  Once the smoke from raw wood is introduced,  you've imparted very obvious flaws in both taste and appearance,  from an authenticity standpoint.

  5. Live Fire

    In an enclosed set-up, this method imparts about the same incorrect flavor as the other methods using raw wood.  Uncovered,  a live fire will not impart any meaningful smoke flavor or smoke ring into meat.  Live fires would have been impractical to use for cooking pigs in early primitive set-ups for a variety of reasons,  the most notable being the increased likelihood of grease fires.

  6. Charcoal Briquettes/Liquid Smoke

    Both of these are too ridiculous to discuss on this site but are still commonly used.

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