There’s a lot of talk in the community about Rubs, Injections, Meat cuts etc. These are all very important parts of the overall Barbecue process, however, today we will be focusing on what (in my humble opinion) is the most important part – Fire Management. I’ve picked up some key bits of knowledge on my smoking journey which I would like to share below.
Why is this so important?
I remember when I first fired up my little Kamado smoker, there was white smoke everywhere. ‘Great’ I thought in my innocent ways, ‘Smoke is good’. Fast forward to eating that first cut of meat and the acrid smoke taste still haunts me to this day. The truth is, without good fire management, you don’t have good Barbecue. Especially when it comes to cooking on something like my OKJ Highland Offset stick burner. Now, this subject won’t be of that much interest to those using Gas or pellet smokers, but for those who want to learn to tame the flame, it’s essential.
The first thing that always gets talked about when considering fire management, is wood choice. This will play an inherent role in flavouring your meat. A lot of wood choices are made dependent on region and which type of wood is in abundance. That actually therefore tailors the style of barbecue from that area. As an example of, this Franklin Barbecue cook almost entirely on Post Oak – this is due to its abundance within the Central Texas Region. Head over to Kansas City and you’ll find yourself primarily eating from a Hickory fuelled pit.
The truth is, if you’re using a hardwood, such as Oak, Hickory or Mesquite, there’s going to be a stronger, bolder flavour profile. If you use a fruit wood such as Apple, Cherry or Maple, then you’ll impart a sweeter taste to your cook. There’s a lot of information on this online, and is worth reading up on and trying different types for different cooks you undertake.
You should also take into account the moisture content of a piece of wood. A lot of places tout ‘Kiln Dried’ as a winner, however, this brings the moisture content so low that, sure, you’ll have a great fast combustion, but you’ll also have a spike in heat, then a sharp drop again – not very level or efficient. Instead I’ve found looking for moisture content between 15% and 20% seems to work well. You can get a nice fast combustion, but also a longer, more even burn. This can be tested easily by either using any moisture meter on the market, or, feeling the weight of the split, and giving it a tap – if it is light and sounds hollow, it should be pretty dry.
It is worth remembering though, that the type of fire you burn, is always more important than the type of wood you choose.
Starting up a Stick Burner
A charcoal chimney is really helpful to getting things going.
Now, I’m focusing on a stick burner here as this is what I have used, and continue to have experience in. I am sure there are all different techniques for different smokers, in fact dependent on the size of stick burner these techniques can be different too. I’m basing this around my OKJ Highland, a 55 Gallon backyard smoker.
The best way I have found to get the smoker going, is to get a charcoal chimney going with good quality lumpwood – normally I would use a tumbleweed lighter as well so as not to impart any lighter fluid type tastes to the burn. I’ll drop about ¾ of this into my firebox, then immediately add a split or 2 of Oak (or whatever wood I’m using, Oak is my preferred).
While these are catching, I’ll top my charcoal chimney back up, then, once the logs have caught and the chimney is ready to go again, I’ll dump these in to. Now this isn’t gospel to say the least, but it is what works for me!
This will help to bring the smoker up to temp, while giving a good coal bed at the same time. Following on from this you have a strong enough coal bed to run for hours and hours on just your desired wood splits.
Maintaining your fire
When it comes to maintaining a fire, and temperature, there are a couple of schools of thought. The first is to use the dampeners on both your stack, and your firebox. By controlling the airflow in this manner, you are essentially increasing and decreasing the ferocity of your fire, and doing the same to the temperature. The second school of thought is to have everything open and to maintain your fire with only the fuel you are adding. I am 100% behind the second method, and below is why…
Clean smoke V Dirty smoke
Believe it or not, there is clean smoke in this picture!
When you are constantly closing off dampers/doors to your fire, you’re effectively choking it off. As you do so, the end result will be dirty smoke. This happens because of the chemical reactions that are taking place both when your wood is catching, and burning.
In short, the more oxygen there is to a fire, the smaller the gas molecules will be, and that will result in the fabled ‘thin blue’ or ‘clean’ smoke. If you have white billowing smoke and all your dampers closed, you have a problem.
I feel the best approach to this is to keep the airflow constant by having all dampers consistently open, maybe partially closing the firebox door, but still allowing enough room for good airflow. This then means you will consistently have a good strong flame.
You can then add more log splits as appropriate to keep the temperature up. As you start to learn your smoker, and the way it will react when temperature is about to drop, you will start to know what signs to look for, and when to add more fuel to keep a consistent fire. This will mean you have a great tasting smoky meat, rather than the taste of creosote…
So we’ve talked a lot here about the methodology of maintaining a fire for a great barbecue, there’s a few last points I’d like to make.
The first is, make sure you give yourself enough time, and have patience. Good fire management doesn’t happen straight away, and bringing things up to temp/settling into the temperature you need takes a little while. I like to give myself roughly an hour from lighting my smoker, to adding my meat.
Secondly, keep your coalbed in check, make sure to maintain a hot coalbed that means your wood will catch almost immediately when you add it to your firebox. The last thing you want is smouldering wood that creates bad smoke. A final point to make on that, is pre-warm your wood. I find that either placing some wood away from the fire, in the firebox. Or on top of the firebox itself, helps to dry it a bit further, and prepare it to catch as soon as I add this to the coalbed.
Well, I hope that is of some use! As I say, there are a lot of techniques out there and mine is in no way definitive, but it works for me, and if it helps even one person, then I’m glad I wrote this.
Thanks for reading, keep the smoke rolling and see you next week.