The Elements of Barbecue: Why Wood Matters

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Whether they cook with 100% wood or on hybrid cookers that heat with gas and use wood for smoke, America's barbecue masters agree on one point: wood matters. Without it, there's no smoke, and without smoke you have just oven-roasted meat.

When it comes choosing their wood, barbecue cooks take into account the way that it burns and the flavors that it gives to meat. But there's a more practical factor at play, too. Backyard grillers can pick up a bag of applewood or mesquite chips at the hardware store and create whatever flavor profile they choose. When it comes to cooking barbecue on a large scale, though, you need a whole lot of wood, so geography plays a determining role in what kind you can use.

"The wood barbecue houses use around the country is usually what's prevalent in the area," says Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Alabama. "For us, hickory is very, very prevalent, especially around north Alabama, and it's not used as much for anything else." And, that's a good thing, because they burn between two and half and three cords of it a week.

The case is the same down in Birmingham. "We use hickory wood," says Nick Pihakis of Jim 'N Nicks Bar-B-Q, a Birmingham-based chain that now has more than 30 locations across the South. "In Alabama it's pretty abundant. We like the flavor profile. It gives it a sweeter flavor than oak."

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

In the eastern part of the Carolinas, the sweet notes of hickory aren't nearly as common. When asked what they use to fire the pits at the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, Samuel Jones says, "Primarily oak. It's pretty much easy to get. We will use hickory if we can get it, but we don't get a whole lot of it here, five percent or less."

The story is the same two hundred miles south at Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina. "We use more oak and pecan than we do hickory," Rodney Scott says. "We don't find a ton of hickory in this area."

Even when it's available, not all barbecue cooks are fans of hickory. "Our primary fuel is Missouri white oak," says Doug Worgul of Kansas City's Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que. "We get it from the Ozarks and other parts of the state.

"There are a couple of reasons we use Missouri white oak," he adds. "The primary reason is that it's got a nice midrange smoke. Hickory is great, but it can be a little bitter and a bit sharp, and also it's inconsistent. Missouri white oak is extraordinarily consistent."

Pulled pork from Big Bob Gibson. Josh Bousel

Down in Central Texas, pitmasters favor a variety of white oak known as post oak. "It's not as dense as most other oaks," says John Lewis of Austin's La Barbecue. "It's a real fast growing tree, with a real straight grain in it and not as gnarly as other oaks. Post oak is still hardwood but it's not quite as smoky as red oak or live oak. Also, that's what grows around here like crazy."

That's one of the intriguing things about how experienced cooks approach their wood. The flavor of smoke is essential to barbecue, but you can have too much of a good thing. Whether it's the open pit whole hog of Eastern North Carolina or the tender, slow-cooked brisket of Texas, pitmasters are going for a light amount of smoke, not so much that it overwhelms the flavor of the meat. The choice of wood is key to that.

The way it burns is an important factor, too. Chip Stamey, the third-generation pitmaster at Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro, North Carolina, prefers to use 100% hickory, which he finds perfectly suited for their method of cooking. "In our process," Chip Stamey says, "we're essentially making embers or coals—making our own charcoal is really what we're doing. You need something with a high calorie count, as the scientists might say."

No matter what type of tree is used, maintaining a reliable supply is the key. "The secret to a barbecue concern," says Chip Stamey, "is who you get the wood from, not your sauce recipe or anything else." For many years, the restaurant got its wood from a local factory that made axe handles and dowels and would sell them as many loads of hickory as they needed. After the factory closed, Stamey had to scramble to find a new supplier. He won't reveal the identity beyond saying that's its located in Davidson County. "They bring it in a tandem dump truck," he says. "And we get four of those a week."

Spicy sausage from Jim N' Nick's. Josh Bousel

In Hemingway, South Carolina, Rodney Scott and his crew take a more hands-on approach, literally. People in the area know that if they have a tree down in their yard, they can call up Scott's and they'll come by with chainsaws and a truck and take it off their hands. When a pair of ice storms struck the Carolinas earlier this year, tens of thousands of residents lost power and trees were down all over the area. "It's one of the bittersweet things about how we get wood, " Scott says. "For us it was a plus because we had so much wood to get."

Before they use that wood in their pits, though, it has to be properly dried. Most cooks let their wood air dry for anywhere between six months and a year, since the moisture in green wood creates excess smoke and prevents it from burning as hot.

"All wood deliveries are stacked separately," says Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson. "We keep a large enough stock so we can rotate using the wood according to cut date. Our woodcutters know our system and work with us on this rotation."

For cooks like Chris Lilly, the wood is the starting point for everything, an essential ingredient that shapes the overall barbecue style. "That's what it comes down to," he says. "You work your recipes and style of cooking around the type of wood you can get."