The Pits: A Primer (Part 1)
Barbecue fans make a big deal about the different styles of sauces, rubs, and cuts of meat that are used in various regions of the South, and rightfully so, for the great regional variety is one of the most appealing things about our barbecue traditions. As I've been traveling around the South sampling this diversity of styles, one thing that has struck me in particular is how the pits on which the meat is cooked differ greatly from one region to the next. And the design of the pit has a big effect on the flavor of the meat that ends up on the plate . . . or in the basket or on the brown butcher paper.
Here's part 1 of our two-part survey of the most common pit styles used in various parts of the South.
Open Pits Open pits are the oldest and most traditional form of cooking barbecue short of digging an actual pit in the ground. Though becoming less common with each passing decade, this style of pit can still be found in restaurants in the central and eastern parts of North and South Carolina as well as in some of the older whole hog joints in West Tennessee.
A typical open pit is rectangular with thick brick or cinderblock walls with either iron bars or steel grating inside to hold the meat, and many are large enough to hold two whole hogs. The pits are open at the top, though they are usually loosely covered by sheet metal or large pieces of cardboard during most of the cooking to hold in the heat.
A key aspect of open pit cooking is that the wood is burned down to coals outside of the pit—generally in a separate brick fireplace or in a so-called "burn barrel" fashioned from metal piping or 55 gallon drums. The glowing coals are carried to the pit with a shovel and spread beneath the cooking meat. Some pits have an opening in the side for adding the coals while others (like the pits at Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC) are even simpler: cooks simply add coals from the top, scattering them by the shovelful between the meat and the side of the pit so they fall to the ground below.
The terms "smoker" and "pit" are often used interchangeably when talking about barbecue, but they really shouldn't be. The glowing embers used to fire open pits give off only a small amount of smoke, so open pit barbecue doesn't have the big smoky punch that you get from cookers that burn wood directly inside. In addition, the meat on open pits cooks via direct heat from the coals below, which gives the meat a crisp, well-browned outer layer (what North Carolinians call "outside brown") while the inner meat stays moist and tender.
A few of the old-time Central Texas barbecue joints, like Kreuz Market and Smitty's Market in Lockhart, use pits that are similar in design to those of whole hog cooks in the Carolinas and Tennessee, but there's a key difference. The Texas pits are not fired with glowing coals but rather have fireboxes on one end where split post oak logs blaze continually, the draft of the pit drawing in the smoke so that the meat is cooked by indirect heat while being bathed in a heavy layer of smoke—a sort of combination between an open pit and an offset smoker.
Closed Brick Pits
As the popularity of barbecue restaurants grew after World War II, owners began upgrading their operations to use large closed pits. These are essentially enormous brick fireplaces with racks to hold the meat and a chimney to vent the smoke from the top. Large metal doors in the front can be opened to access the meat and closed tightly for the rest of the cooking time. At some joints, a firebox in the back of the pit has a door opening to the exterior of the restaurant, which allows split hickory or oak logs to be added and ashes removed. More common in the Piedmont of North Carolina are pits with a fire door in the front, through which the cooks shovel coals that, as in open-pit cooking, are burned down from logs in separate fireplaces.
Closed pits tend to cook more efficiently and evenly than open ones, but in most cases the meat is still cooking directly over the coals so that the grease and juices drip down onto the embers below and their flavor rises back up with the smoke and steam. It's that kiss of extra flavor from direct heat cooking, Piedmont North Carolina partisans insist, that give their barbecue its unique character.
Closed Metal Pits
The final variety of direct heat cookers are closed metal pits. Similar in concept to brick pits, these are fabricated solely from metal and can be fired either with charcoal or wood-rendered to coals. Closed metal pits are built right into the kitchen in some restaurants, but more often they can be found either in a separate cookhouse or right out in the parking lot. The key, though, is that coals are spread underneath the cooking meat to provide direct heat, not burned in a firebox on the side. That latter method is offset smoking, and we'll head west and take a look at those styles of pits in the next installment.