With wood-only cooking, the variables are enormous. The wood’s moisture content can vary, which affects the cooking time. Availability can be iffy, due to tree diseases and other factors, and the costs keep rising. The cooker’s insulation can make it challenging to maintain a steady fire.
Daunting? Yes. But not insurmountable. John Snedden is proof of that.
The owner of Washington’s four Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company restaurants has been cooking over an all-wood fire since he opened his first outlet in Glover Park more than 20 years ago.
“I think it was from the experiences of eating in other jurisdictions and being able to differentiate between the augmented and the all-wood experiences,” says Snedden, who sampled barbecue in Texas and throughout the South in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The all-wood experience, you just couldn’t beat it. It was always more unique and more flavorful.”
Snedden, who uses red oak and hickory, says that all-wood cooking is a constant challenge. He cites safety — “we’re dealing with a live fire” — along with labor-intensiveness and ever-rising wood costs. So, why not install an oven? “We ask ourselves that, and it’s very simple,” he says. “At the end of the day, if we do it right, it’s a superior product.”
To help reduce risk, Snedden developed a written protocol about temperature and fire control for all employees. His pit masters are trained to focus attention on the pit and its temperature so that, especially during busy periods when employees can get distracted, the smoker is carefully monitored. Every day, his crew cleans the interior of the smoker and the ventilation filters. And Snedden has strengthened the closing mechanisms of the pit doors so oxygen can quickly be tamped down and the fire rapidly cooled if it begins to get too hot.
While Snedden had been pretty much a lone wolf for the past couple of decades, others have recently joined him in his approach. In August, Reggie Seifu opened Epiphany Open Pit Beef and Subs in Petworth, which cooks over glowing hickory logs in a built-in brick pit.
“A lot of places, they use chunks [of wood] and an oven,” says Seifu, whose pitmen cook Baltimore-style pit beef, slow-smoked brisket and pork ribs. “But I wanted the real deal. No one wants an imitation. You want a Rolex,” not a knock-off.
The newest addition to the area’s artisan barbecue joints is CarnBBQ, which opened this month in Baltimore’s Hollins Market. The bricks-and-mortar outlet is an expansion of the three Carnivore BBQ trucks that troll the District.
“I knew I had to go the next step beyond food trucks in Washington, D.C.,” says owner and pit master Stephen Adelson, who uses hickory he chops himself. “There’s something about loading that wood box. There’s beauty in those coals. The other [ovens] don’t quite get you there. I’m getting a smoke ring now. That’s a real smoke ring. The aroma. The flavor. You just don’t go through as much communion with the other processes.”
Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.