Thursday, February 23, 2012

The wood versus gas BBQ debate rages on: "extramsg" responds to his critics

We were introduced to blogger and Portland, Oregon, deli owner extramsg last week when he responded to Gary Jacobson's post The wood versus gas BBQ debate continues as we analyze a Southern Pride recipe.

His take on the piece? "Ah, bullshit."

You can read his initial comment under the original blog post to get the gist of his argument. Basically, he says that he can cook BBQ every bit as smokey as the best wood-fired Texas BBQ joints on his gas-burning Southern Pride oven.

To that, I say: "Ah, bullshit."

When extramsg sent a lengthly followup comment last night, we felt it deserved a separate post to further the lively wood vs. gas debate.

It's an emotional issue to say the least, but please read his comments with an open mind and let us know what you think. (Note: The Daniel that extramsg refers to is Daniel Vaughn, aka the BBQ Snob, who writes the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog. Daniel also weighed in on the wood vs. gas debate.)

extramsg writes:

Pastrami and BBQ brisket are different, for sure, but I have made BBQ brisket many times in both an electric Cookshack and a Southern Pride (and by more traditional methods). eg, we do a BBQ day twice a year (4th of July and Labor Day) at K&Z where we serve about 400 covers of Q along with our usual deli stuff.

I personally own a Cookshack. But before K&Z opened full-time in its current location, we spent two years making it in a barrel smoker with a firebox. Once a week was deli, once a week was BBQ. So I'm very aware of the differences in the products they produce. (And it's probably worth noting that I'm a KCBS certified judge and have judged events, have eaten at many of the major BBQ joints in the country, have written articles surveying BBQ in the NW, etc.)

The question I have for all of you, though, is whether you've done the same? Daniel, have you ever tested it? I know a couple people there in Dallas that would probably be happy to lend you their Cookshacks for the testing. Do the same rub, meat, wood, and temp and blind taste the difference?

Personally, I find the most difficult issue for some of the electrics to be a good bark, since some max at 250 degrees and are so small the humidity is very high inside. However, I've had no problem getting really nice barks on pork butts. And the Southern Pride we have has convection fans and can go hotter than 250, making bark easy enough to produce.

But the issue here was smoke. Truth is it's VERY easy to make BBQ smoky in an electric or gas that uses chunks or split wood. Why don't more places do it Texas where smokiness is such a traditional component? I have no clue. Why do so many places have shitty sides, chewy ribs, and undercooked or dry meats? None of that is a matter of the equipment either.

Daniel, you had the pastrami and the stuff I made was a hell of a lot smokier than what I got at Lockhart a couple days later. And that smoke flavor had to compete with the cure flavor. (Normally I'd make it less smoky but I was using pecan, which I hadn't used before, and so used extra thinking it might be like a fruit wood rather than the oak I usually use.)

I think it would be worthwhile to stop echoing some know-it-all's professed expertise on some BBQ forum or blog, passing it down like oral history that's more myth than science. No more unearned snobbery based on faulty logic about all-wood vs wood-electric vs wood-gas.

6 comments:

  1. For a busy deli operation, using a CookShack to produce smoked meats to compliment your deli business does seem entirely reasonable and even preferable. It doesn't sound like you are holding your deli out as selling authentic slow smoked pit BBQ with cords of wood on display and common signage using words like "wood pit BBQ" or "slow smoked pit BBQ". You probably stand out from your peers by offering fresh smoked "deli" meats. After all you are a deli, not a BBQ joint. However if the sales volume of briskets (pastrami or bbq briskets) were no more than 10+/- per day a stick-burner could be best for the reasons you mentioned as well as for quality, authenticity and the documented natural processes from being wood smoked & better cooking control.

    After eating BBQ over the last 40 years off of wood pits, gas pits, pellet pits and electric pits, surely I've tried it all. That includes smokeless BBQ cooked in electric ovens disguised with rubs, marinates, sauces, MSG and liquid smoke. For the last 30-plus years I have been cooking briskets, pork ribs, pork butts and shoulders on stick burners in my backyard. I do not own an electric, pellet or gasser but have a cousin that does. Like you admit, it is undisputed bark is crucial to the flavor of good authentic smoked BBQ, and is a real challenge on gas, electric and even charcoal pits.

    Competition BBQ cooks are extremely talented experts in their cooking & craft. The teams that do not use stick burners, that use FEC's, MAC's and similar, will tell you they use pellet cookers because they are "set it and forget it", "so they can sleep," and "it's what will win with the judges" - NOT because pellet cookers produce better quality BBQ. Being a KCBS judge you are fully aware of the many competition BBQ products, techniques & processes. "One-bite BBQ" with thick rubs, marinates, sauces and glazes to impress the judges is a totally different world than neighborhood BBQ joints. Most of the BBQ competition cooks I know of don't eat their competition BBQ, it's "turn in meat", right? They just feed it to the KCBS judges! And there are still more top comp teams using stick burners that pellet cookers.

    Have you ever taste tested BBQ on a gasser vs wood burner stripped down of all rubs, marinates, sauces and chemicals? A great experiment for you someday.

    Come on, you are way over simplifying the issue. It isn't just "if meat is smokey." It's about natural smoked flavors, textures, richness and processes that occur from slow cooking briskets and ribs over wood fires, not gas flames with 8 ounces of added wood or pellets. Refer to Daniel Vaughn's http://www.fullcustomgospelbbq.com excellent BBQ glossary defining Crust, Roast-Beefy, Meat Caramel and Sugar Cookie. It's just not easy to produce these processes and results on a gasser or pellet cooker. You know the reason for a BBQ joint to use a gasser, it's just makes their life easier by not having to tend the wood fires all night, saves on cost of wood, saves on training employees and boosts production. Gassers are surely not used because they make better BBQ.

    Ditto on echoing know-it-all one sided expertise. Your opinion on gassed BBQ is noted. But it's just sharing the facts, techniques and processes of legendary Texas BBQ joints and their pit-masters. You've been to Central Texas, right? It's just downright wrong for chain BBQ joints to imply they are making slow smoked pit BBQ cooked in wood pits displaying cords of cooking wood at their entrance, when they are using a gas oven!

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  2. I think the point that's getting a bit lost here is that -- at least in Texas -- barbecue is about more than the end product. Perhaps extramsg is able to churn product out of his gas cooker that's as good as what comes out of a wood-burning pit, but that's not necessarily the point.

    It's clear from the reverence and devotion that goes into barbecue in Texas (and beyond) that it's more than just food, it's a culture. IMO using gas cookers runs counter to that culture not because of the choice of fuel, but because it represents an attempt at a shortcut, if not in time, in effort.

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  3. I'll be sure to stop in and "taste" the difference. The only BBQ in Portland worth is weight is Podnah's, and I believe he uses a Klose pit. The rest is meh. And I try every bbq place I come upon, all over the Northwest.
    After touring Texas, Southern Pride cookers are half the cooker an Oyler is. You can taste the difference. If you want true wood fire BBQ and must have a large industrial pit, buy an Oyler.
    Oh, and I too am a KCBS judge, and a PNWBA judge, and have been named Grand Champion in competition, so I "know" bbq as much as competitive bbq is like restaurant bbq. Which it isn't.

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  4. Marshall mentioned that some Texas BBQ joints market their products as all wood, when they aren't. I agree that restaurants should be honest in how they market what they make. But how one markets their product wasn't the issue. The original issue was merely smokiness. If smokiness is the issue, it's easy enough to test, and I have, many times.

    Before opening the full-time restaurant, I hadn't used anything but barrel smokers, Smokey Mountains, and the like. I read comments from all-wood partisans on sites like this one and various BBQ forums talking about off-flavors in electrics and gas smokers and believed them. In fact, I was much like many of the people who responded in that post, looking down my nose at electric and gas smokers based on little more than hearsay and nostalgia. I was worried we'd lose our trademark smokiness on our product if we switched and it was only the issues with being able to smoke meat inside our kitchen that made us consider other options. We assumed that more wood would equal more smoke. But then I was able to borrow a Cookshack and quickly learned that what I had been reading and what I had assumed was wrong. The smokiness produced in the Cookshack was every bit as pronounced as that in the barrel smoker and the smokiness resulting from the Southern Pride was every bit as good at that in the Cookshack.

    Marshall asked, "Have you ever taste tested BBQ on a gasser vs wood burner stripped down of all rubs, marinates, sauces and chemicals? A great experiment for you someday."

    Yes. When I do brisket, I don't use a flavored rub, just salt and pepper. I don't eat brisket with sauce unless it sucks.

    Here are pics from the second brisket I ever made in a Cookshack. This was about 11 hours at 225 using oak. The brisket was rubbed with only salt and pepper. I had noted that while this felt tender to the touch, it was a little undercooked. You can see that in the fat being too opaque in the second photo: http://bit.ly/lNastV http://bit.ly/ipI3d5

    After this, I started cooking brisket in the Cookshack at 225 for about 8 hours or so and then turned it up to 250 to get a heavier bark. But even the bark pictured above is not any less significant than the ones pictured in Vaughn's photos from Central Texas BBQ joints, including places like Kreuz, Luling City Market, and Snow's (http://bit.ly/mseHre). Only Black's appears to have a heavier crust. Black's was my personal favorite for brisket on trips to Central Texas and my pictures also show a very nice bark (http://bit.ly/mo6hPq).

    Here is a pork shoulder that I did in the same Cookshack around the same time as the brisket pictured above: http://bit.ly/k1q9ST http://bit.ly/k8MW4N
    You can see it has a much heavier bark, partially due to having some sugar in the rub, but also partially due to being cooked at a higher temperature. It's worth noting that the Cookshack, in my experience, was worse at producing a bark than the Southern Pride. On Pastrami, you don't normally want to heavy a bark and early on, we had problems producing too much bark on our pastrami.

    Now, if you want to argue that all-wood is traditional, has historical/cultural significance, or has aesthetic value, I will not protest. But that's not the argument that was made. There was one explicit claim -- that electric/gas smokers produce less smoky BBQ -- and another implicit claim -- that BBQ made in an electric/gas smoker produces a worse product. The first is clearly false in my experience. The second is more difficult to prove because it depends on the equipment and pitmaster, but I believe that gas/electric smokers can more easily produce BBQ, even Texas-style BBQ, every bit as good as ANY BBQ from an all-wood pit.

    Further, I think that the haughty attitude displayed on this site is based on hearsay and prejudice, not on experience, testing, or real knowledge.

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  5. For a busy deli operation, using a CookShack to produce smoked meats to compliment your deli business does seem entirely reasonable and even preferable. It doesn't sound like you are holding your deli out as selling authentic slow smoked pit bbq with cords of wood on display and common signage using words like "wood pit BBQ" or "slow smoked pit bbq". You probably stand out from your peers by offering fresh smoked "deli" meats. After all you are a deli, not a bbq joint. However if the sales volume of briskets (pastrami or bbq briskets) were no more than 10+/- per day a stickburner could be best for the reasons you mentioned as well as for quality, authenticity, natural processes from being wood smoked & better cooking control.

    Ater eating bbq over the last 40 years off of wood pits, gas pits, pellet pits and electric pits, surely I've tried it all, including smokeless bbq cooked in electric ovens disguised with rubs, marinates, sauces, msg, and liquid smoke. For the last 30+ years I have been cooking briskets, pork ribs, pork butts and shoulders on stick burners in my backyard. I do not own an electric, pellet or gasser but have a cousin that does. Like you say, bark is undisputedly crucial to the flavor of good authentic smoked BBQ, and is a real challenge on gas, electric and even charcoal pits. Competition BBQ cooks are extremely talented in their craft, but the teams that use FEC's, MAC's and similar, will tell you they use pellet cookers because they are "set it and forget it", "so they can sleep", "it's what will win with the judges" - NOT because pellet cookers produce better BBQ. Being a KCBS judge you are fully aware of the many competition BBQ products and techniques & processes, "one bite BBQ to impress the judges" are a totally different world than neighborhood BBQ joints. Most of the BBQ competition cooks I know don't eat their competition BBQ, they just feed it to the KCBS judges! And there are still more top comp teams using stick burners that pellet cookers.

    Have you ever taste tested BBQ on a gasser vs wood burner stripped down of all rubs, marinates, sauces and chemicals? A great experiment for you someday. Hopefully the heat exchanger isn't old, rusted and cracked, blowing raw gas for flavoring!

    Come on, you are way over simplifying the issue. It isn't just "if meat is smokey". It's about natural smoked flavors, textures, richness and processes that occur from slow cooking briskets and ribs over wood fires, not gas flames with 8 ounces of added wood or pellets. Refer to Daniel Vaughn's http://www.fullcustomgospelbbq.com/ excellent BBQ glossary defining Crust, Roast-Beefy, Meat Caramel and Sugar Cookie. It's just not easy to produce these processes and results on a gasser or pellet cooker. You know the reason for a BBQ joint to use a gasser, it's just makes their life easier by not having to tend the wood fires all night, saves on cost of wood, saves on training employees and boosts production. Gassers are surely not used because they make better BBQ.

    Ditto on echoing know-it-all one sided expertise. Your opinion on gassed BBQ is noted. But it's just sharing the facts, techniques and processes of legendary Texas BBQ joints and their pit-masters. You've been to Central Texas, right? It's just downright wrong for chain BBQ joints to imply they are making slow smoked pit BBQ cooked in wood pits displaying cords of cooking wood at their entrance, when they are using a gas oven!

    ReplyDelete
  6. There is a notable difference between bbq cooked on a all wood FIRE with logs and splits vs wood that has been smoldered like in a ole hickory or southern pride. I say this because I'm one if the winningest competition bbq cooks in texas. I have eaten at all the big joints. Some are good and some are bad.

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