The Elements of Barbecue: Is Gas Barbecue Really Barbecue?

Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt; Image: Vicky Wasik

Last week, we took a look at the different types of pits used by some of America's most celebrated barbecue cooks. Though they may differ greatly in design, those pits have one thing in common: they are fueled solely by burning wood. That puts those pitmasters in a small minority, for most barbecue restaurants these days employ hybrid cookers that use gas or electricity to provide consistent heat while burning a small amount of wood to flavor the meat with smoke.

Barbecue fans are divided on the subject of these modern cookers. Some have no issue with them, maintaining that as long as you're slow-cooking the meat and flavoring it with smoke, it doesn't really matter what provides the heat. Purists, though, decry the decline of all-wood pit cooking, claiming that the end result just isn't the same.

Automatic barbecue cookers first gained widespread use in the 1970s, and the barbecue cooks who adopted them were often trading flavor for convenience and safety. Early models were essentially gas or electric powered ovens with a thermostat to control the temperature and either a small smoke box or a metal plate on which hickory or oak chips were burned to create a little smoke. But the design of those cookers has evolved considerably over the years, and plenty of restaurants have earned legions of loyal fans with barbecue cooked in hybrid gas-and-wood pits.

Kansas City-style burnt ends. Joshua Bousel

Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, Missouri is one of them, and in a city crowded with great barbecue joints, it is consistently recognized as being at the front of the pack. Zagat has declared the restaurant "Kansas City's Best Barbecue" every year since 2004, and Anthony Bourdain named it "One of Thirteen Places to Eat Before You Die."

At Oklahoma Joe's, the cooking is a team effort. "We don't even have a job position called a pitmaster," says Doug Worgul, the director of marketing for the restaurant. "It really is a crew. From very early in the morning to quite late into the evening, we've got multiple guys working on all of our smokers."

Since they opened, Oklahoma Joe's has been cooking on Old Hickory pits, though they are now moving to Southern Prides as they retire the older cookers. "It's basically a gas assist," Worgul says. "The gas acts as a way of keeping the temperature constant, but our primary fuel is white Missouri Oak."

Worgul is quick to point out that, even though a thermostat regulates the heat, they're burning full-sized logs in their cookers. "The firebox is huge," he says. "The firebox itself is almost as big as the cooking chambers of some offset smokers. The door to the firebox is about the size of a door to the washing machine."

For Oklahoma Joe's, the combination of gas and wood is necessary for their high-volume operation. "We smoke literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat every year," Worgul notes. "We need something that is always consistent. Our brand is built on consistency and quality."

A gas-assisted smoker. Christine Tsai

Down in Charleston, South Carolina, Aaron Siegel of Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ has earned his share of accolades, too. Esquire declared Home Team to have the "most life changing ribs" in the country, and Southern Living put them at the top of their list of "Best Rib-Sticking Joints" in the South.

Siegel is particularly qualified to weigh in on the subject of hybrid vs. all-wood pits, since he uses both. When he opened his first restaurant in 2007, Siegel and his team did all their cooking on a big Southern Pride hybrid smoker. Later, he added two Lang barbecue smokers made of black plate steel, one an 84-inch model and the other a 108-inch. Both are heated solely by wood, which burns in an offset firebox, and have a reverse flow damper system that allows the cook to control the amount of smoke that passes over the meat.

At Home Team they now cook their ribs, half chickens, and chicken wings on the wood-fired Langs out behind the restaurant, but for pulled pork, which is made from Boston butts cooked 16 hours, Siegel sticks with the Southern Pride in the kitchen, which has a convection system to circulate air and a rotisserie that automatically turns the meat while it cooks.

"I have really not found a better way to cook butts," Siegel says. "The convection, the rotisserie—it's the way we like to cook butts low and slow."

For their brisket, Home Team actually uses both types of pit. "They get six hours in the Lang," Siegel says. "Then ten in the Southern Pride." Doing so, he's found, gives him the best of both worlds. "You get better flavor from the smoker than the Southern Pride," Siegel says, "But I don't have to have anyone here all night long."

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The famed smoked meat at Montreal's Schwartz's is also cooked with only gas. Aaron Arizpe

That's certainly a compromise I can understand. I've spent a good bit of time over the past few years visiting the pit houses of traditional wood-burning cooks, and just this Memorial Day weekend I stayed up all night helping a friend cook two whole hogs Rodney Scott-style over hardwood coals in a makeshift cinderblock pit. It's a long, physically-demanding process that leaves you with an aching back and red, stinging eyes at the end of a 16 hour cook.

I can't fault any businessperson who decides to go with a hybrid smoker, and I've eaten some really great barbecue cooked on Old Hickories and Southern Prides. The more I've talked to barbecue cooks who use hybrids, the more I've grown to appreciate the amount of experimentation and attention to detail it took for them to master their recipes and techniques.

In the end, though, my passion remains strongest for those classic old-school joints that still cook over all wood. There's a romantic stubbornness in their sticking to the old traditional ways, and, to my palate at least, there's still no way to get to the pinnacle of barbecue flavor without cooking directly over wood.

But I'll happily keep sampling the best stuff from all the hybrid-cooking barbecue joints just to make sure I'm not mistaken.