Feature

In Defense of Gassers

Can you get the same quality barbecue from a gas-fired rotisserie?

by Daniel Vaughn · June 14, 2013
defense_of_gassers

For one night last week, Franklin Barbecue was transported from Austin to New York. Texas Monthly brought Aaron Franklin and his kitchen manager, Braun Hughes, to cook a little barbecue in the pit of Hill Country Barbecue Market in Manhattan. Tickets for the event sold out in less than a day, and when the time came, the downstairs dining room at Hill Country filled up quickly with hungry patrons. Fifteen-hundred miles away, the true Austin Franklin experience was mirrored, with a line stretched around the perimeter of the Hill Country dining room, and Aaron Franklin manning the cutting block to dole out brisket, beef short ribs, pork spare ribs, and smoked sausage.

The results? The meat was fantastic. Dan Rather, the Texas-born-and-bred famous news anchor, sampled some just as his interview with Aaron wrapped up, and even he was spellbound.

New York has seen a recent influx of high quality barbecue, but a local writer for Serious Eats reported, “As valiant as some of New York’s recent barbecue efforts have been, Franklin’s blows them all out of the water.” This would all be easy enough to explain if I told you that Franklin hauled up one of a steel offset pits and trailer full of post oak, but he didn’t. These results were from the same equipment used at Hill Country daily. This includes an Ole Hickory gas-fired rotisserie smoker. Yes, a gasser.

I’ve written plenty about the uneasy feeling I get when I belly up to a barbecue counter and see a shiny gas smoker back in the kitchen. It’s not that they can’t produce good barbecue. I’ve had great barbecue out of a gas-fired pit, but their ease of use fools too many barbecue proprietors into thinking they’ve mastered smoking meats just as soon as they worked out the financing options for their shiny new smoker. They still take considerable skill to operate properly.

“It’s not the pitmaster, it’s the pit” is a saying that Amy Mills always tries to drive home whenever I mention gassers. She is a partner with her legendary father Mike Mills in 17th Street Barbecue, and they use Ole Hickories exclusively. NASCAR champ Jimmy Johnson in a Honda Accord would probably lap most of you on a racetrack even if you were driving a Ferrari, but how does the Jimmy Johnson of barbecue tune a gasser to get winning results? Let’s ask Aaron Franklin.

“You’ve got to get the temperature high enough to render the fat” is the first tip from Aaron Franklin. The temperature inside the cooking chamber of a rotisserie can vary widely from top to bottom, so keeping the target at a low-and-slow sweet spot like 225 degrees can mean the air is pretty chilly at the bottom of the smoker. His target is thirty to forty degrees higher than that. It’s also important to get an even heat.

The firebox on an Ole Hickory rotisserie (a model is pictured above) is about as wide as the entire cooking chamber. Spreading the coals and fresh wood over that entire length is key to getting an even heat and well-distributed smoke. The smoke quality can be the hardest thing to control because a hot fire is needed for good clean smoke that isn’t acrid. Hot fires require plenty of air and that’s something an Ole Hickory isn’t well equipped to allow. The fire-box is well insulated and the door is meant to remain closed. This is what allows those long unattended cook times that let pitmasters get some sleep. It’s also what causes that stale smokiness that is often present in long cooking items like briskets. Without air, the fire smolders. “Draft is the number one problem. There is no natural draft [in a gas-fired rotisserie smoker],” Franklin said.

To combat that Franklin holds the door into the firebox open to get a good fire roaring and then holds the door cracked to allow in more air. This creates a conundrum. There are small holes in the top of the cylindrical fire-box. These holes are the only path for heat and smoke to enter the smoking chamber of the rotisserie. Holding the door opens provides a path of lesser resistance for heat, so the whole cooking process becomes less efficient when good quality smoke is the goal.

Franklin did admit that during his cook, the smoker door was shut tight and left unattended for almost eight hours. “We got some sleep and that was nice.” He also admitted that he felt a tinge of jealousy of pitmasters with a regular sleep schedule, but for the ideal results (other than using his own smoker), he suggests leaving the door cracked to allow for air movement. This in turn requires bolstering the fire several times overnight and eliminates one of the major reasons that these set-it-and-forget-it rotisseries are so popular.

About that gas. Franklin uses the gas flame to start a fresh wood fire. Once that task is complete there is a switch to turn off the gas, and he does. From there it’s all about adding wood when required to keep the temperature up and keeping the door cracked to let the air in.

I played devil’s advocate and asked him why not just make the switch? Without hesitating, he replied, “It’s about integrity.” I pressed. Is that the only reason? He had a few others. Besides the smoke quality issue there’s a lack of an air current in the cooking chamber of a rotisserie. In an offset steel smoker the air current from the firebox to the exhaust is pretty strong. This bathes the meat in smoke and also dries out the surface a bit. It’s the drying that creates a great crust. “All those meat drippings keep that crust from forming too. It alters the flavor and makes it beefier,” Franklin added. That air movement is also what helps create the smoke-ring, and his New York briskets barely had a pink line to show for the many hours of cook time. It also can’t be ignored that Aaron Franklin is a fire fiend. He likes to tinker with the wood—the mix of seasoned and dry, the way it’s stacked inside his fireboxes in Austin. Rotisseries take away that ability. Their fire-box is meant to be left alone.

So what’s the verdict? I enjoyed the Aaron Franklin’s brisket in New York immensely. I could also tell it wasn’t as smoky and that the crust was soggy. The flavor was great, but I new I was getting a lesser version of the original. Most of the diners didn’t know any different, but why would they? It was still better barbecue than you can find elsewhere in Manhattan. If a gas-fired rotisserie allows Aaron Franklin to cook briskets when he’s sixty versus not cooking at all, then I say go for it. For now I’d prefer to enjoy Franklin’s brisket in Austin—the original version— while we still have it.

Comments

  • Nick A. Zukin

    No offense to Aaron, but I wonder whether he has enough experience with gas or electric smokers to make fully informed statements. eg, most of the Southern Prides that I know of have convection fans that circulate both the heat and the smoke quite well. (Also, all the wood-only smokers I’ve used have a range in heat depending on location within the smoker relative to the vent, the firebox, and height.)

    Also, he claims that it’s a hot fire that keeps the meat from becoming acrid — what I usually refer to as sooty. In my testing and experience, that’s not it. I think it suggests a prejudice towards how Central Texans do BBQ, with full-flame. But I’ve seen many different ways that food is smoked and still comes out delicious and not-acrid. One of the most significant was at Honey 1 BBQ in Chicago, the best BBQ I’ve had there. The guy used the standard aquarium smoker which has a plexiglass top where the meat is held and then a firebox below. Every time the wood would flame up, he would spray it out so it would smoulder instead. You’re certainly aware of BBQ joints that burn down their wood to coals as well. My experience and testing shows that it’s lack of airflow that makes the biggest difference to sootiness. You’ve probably seen guys, especially with barrel smokers, that close down the flue thinking that this will give them the smokiness they want. Sometimes they’ll do that to “smoke” it, then wrap it or whatever and finish it without smoke after an hour or two. This, I’ve found, often creates that acrid flavor in meat. And intuitively this makes sense. The same particulates that create soot in the flue or on the walls of the smoker are in that smoke and if they have nowhere to go, they’ll settle on the meat. What a flame and hot smoke does make a difference for, though, is smoke ring. You’re not going to get a smoke ring in most electric smokers and only in gassers if you try. But it makes no difference to the flavor.

    Having just eaten at Hill Country last week, it was not the smokiness of the BBQ that I found lacking or problematic. It was the dryness from extensive use of heat lamps, combined with a lack of attention to texture, and, more than anything, a salty crust that was so harsh on several items it hurt my throat.

    Finally, Daniel, I’m a bit skeptical about your ability to tell the difference, a) because having someone use a tool new to them is no kind of basis for comparison, and b) because Franklin wraps their BBQ which itself is going to make it soggy. I asked for untrimmed brisket (which, annoyingly, ended up being a shock and ordeal for them to go get a fresh brisket) and it had a lot of caramely bark. Was it comparable to a place like Black’s or Kreuz? No. But it was comparable to other good BBQ joints that use all wood.

    At this point, you’re really making pains to say something is true because you want it to be true more than because it is true, I think. I understand the nostalgia and the aesthetic, but even you and Aaron, who are both obviously quite prejudiced, are having to stretch the bounds of rationality to separate the two in substantive ways.

    • Daniel Vaughn

      Nick – In your rush to criticize you brought in your own preconceived notions about what you thought I might have written while possibly failing to actually read the whole thing. You were sufficiently long-winded which I’ve come to expect, but I’ll be brief. This was a look at how one person who usually uses an offset pit instead used a different piece of equipment that is often maligned and came out with very good barbecue. Aaron discussed the active parts of the cooking process that he used with this Ole Hickory smoker to get significantly different results than Hill Country with the exact same smoker. You’re right that I pointed out minor differences in Franklin’s Austin BBQ vs. the NYC event, but they are minor. It would have been much easier to write that it wasn’t even close. Now breath into a paper bag and re-read the article.

  • raeckart

    Am interested to hear Daniel’s response to Nick. Have never heard someone call out Franklin & Vaughn this directly. I’ve only eaten Aaron’s BBQ in Austin, so I’m familiar with it, as I am with Daniel’s body of work. Some clarification of this misunderstanding is in order.

    • Daniel Vaughn

      Nick has long been a defender of gassers and likes to argue with anyone who would suggest that they are inferior (really, he just likes to argue with anyone about anything). I’m sure when he opened this article he just assumed I would write that Franklin’s gasser BBQ was bad, but maybe he’ll read the whole article next time around.

      • raeckart

        I took your original article exactly as you redressed it to Nick in your comment to his essay. It appeared Aaron got the most out of Hill Country’s set-up, and that was the story.

        Nick’s claims that Aaron is inexperienced, and Daniel’s unable to judge BBQ were only superseded by Nick’s dubious claim that they don’t know how good brisket is cut at Franklin’s in Austin. I’m closing the door on Nick’s claims.

  • Drew Brown

    Daniel – assuming he didn’t bring along post oak, and that none was available in NY – what kind of wood did he burn? And could you notice a difference in the final product? I’m in CA. with no access to post oak, and curious what the best Franklin-esque alternative would be.

  • Nick A. Zukin
  • Pappa Charlies BBQ

    I’ve mentioned multiple times via my Twitter account that there are many teams using OH’s and SP’s on the comp trail and they do just fine. Gas to get it started, then they turn it off. I like my product off my offset better, but if I needed to cook for the masses and i was only using gas to start, I’d get a rotissere. Corkscrew BBQ which is also on the “list” uses one but its not insulated like the OH’s or SP’s.

  • lariokie

    Sadly these comment threads tend toward cat fighting and ego boosterism. I personally think the article is pretty accurate given that I have both wood rigs and gas rigs (and an electric temp controled Little Red Smokehouse from Mequite Texas). The LR Smokehouse is my least favorite because it has a monster convection fan that could double as a turbo fan for a jet engine which, combined with the dry heat of the electric heating element produces more jerky than juicy. It is OK for big fattty chunks like full-fat commodity briskets and large pork butts, but it will turn a rack of ribs into a piano keyboard in no time at all.
    My wood rigs do a fine job but they require tending, of course. However, I have a Southern Pride gasser and the more I use it the more I like it–and the product of its process. Between the rotary racks and the small efficient convection fan, and the well designed fire box it produces as good a rack of spares as any other BBQ tool l have used. It also imparts a particularly savory flavor that I cannot get from my wood rigs. Call me crazy, but that unique background flavor (that must be from the gas) is both distinct and tasty. So I would say that Daniel has done a pretty darn good job of finding the pros and cons. Personally, after more than 20 years of smoking professionally and for the fun of it I am not too interested in the “winner takes all” philosophy of BBQ. I find some pretty good qualities in each piece of equipment and each technique. And I get a little skeptical of the “experts” who tell me it has to be one way or the highway. Not so.

  • Joe Lee

    I will say this……….we have a couple local chain “bbq” restaurants around here and they both use Southern Pride. I’ve never been impressed with the flavor, tenderness or texture of their meat. I DID visit a BBQ joint in Tennessee awhile back and their meat was PERFECT……….they used J&R Oyler pits. The difference is significant.

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