In Defense of Gassers
Can you get the same quality barbecue from a gas-fired rotisserie?
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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.
This story and more barbecue news, reviews, and interviews can be found at www.tmbbq.com.