Cooking with wood is different from cooking with other heat sources in that it imparts flavor in addition to providing heat. There’s a reason why the most frequent question we get while we’re cooking here at Pit Fiend Barbecue is, “what kind of wood are you using?” Cooking with different woods can impart different flavors on the meat, and some woods have a stronger, more pungent smoke flavor. Hickory is probably the dominant wood for smoking nationwide, as the taste is strong and smoky with a hint of sweetness. It is usually best with heavier meats like beef brisket, but it is also often used to cook chicken and pork. Pecan is a member of the hickory family, but it has a gentle and sweet flavor much milder than hickory. Pecan goes especially well with pork, but not so well with beef brisket, limiting its application. Mesquite is a strong-flavored wood that burns hot and fast. For that reason, Mesquite is not well-suited for the long hours of smoke we impart in our meats. It is too pungent, and the fires are not as consistent. Mesquite is best used for some quick, smoky flavor when you’re cooking a steak or a burger. The wood we use almost exclusively is a white oak called Gambel oak.
Quercus gambelii is Colorado’s “most abundant and widespread oak” according to the Colorado Native Plant Society. Gambel oak is similar to post oak in how it burns and the flavor it imparts, which is less smoky and pungent than hickory, but more so than pecan. It provides a great source of heat, while providing enough smoke to penetrate large cuts like beef brisket. The smoke from Gambel oak is also mild enough to not overpower the smaller cuts like pork spare ribs or chicken. While some may prefer a strong smoky flavor on their meat, we prefer a more subtle smoky flavor that makes its presence known, but lets the meat take center stage.
Once you’ve chosen which wood to use, the next step is choosing the proper log to add to your fire. “Managing a fire is the most important aspect of the pitmaster’s job,” according to Aaron Franklin. “It’s the crucial factor that determines the success and failure of your endeavor.” One of the drawbacks of all-wood, live-fire cooking is that it is difficult to control. The factors we consider in choosing a log are size and density. Two logs of the same length and diameter may have different weights due to density. That may determine which we will add to our fire depending on if we need a quick spike in temperature, or a slow rise in temperature with a bit more smoke. Sometimes we may want more smoke than temperature, or vice versa. It all depends on the context of what has transpired during the cook.
The basis of a great fire is the ember bed. If our fire has been low and most of the heat is coming from embers, we may choose to add a large log that smolders a bit at the beginning, but really catches fire and provides ample heat for a longer time than a smaller log. Because part of cooking barbecue is being able to walk away from your fire, knowing which piece of wood to add to your fire is like going to a spice rack and knowing how much of a particular spice to add. Producing consistent fires and consistent results in a variety of weather conditions and temperatures is the biggest challenge we face in preparing our food at Pit Fiend Barbecue. It requires experience, technique and patience. But with enough practice, we believe anyone can craft stellar barbecue regardless of geography, climate or elevation.