Mastering the flames
The term pitmaster gets tossed around a lot (sorry!), but a better phrase for a barbecue master might be firefighter. The real name of the game is controlling your heat source.
“Fire is a living entity. It eats and it breathes, it can breed and spread. It’s very unpredictable" says Mueller. "If it doesn’t have oxygen and fuel, it doesn’t live. Clearly the wood is the fuel source, but what we control is how much air flow gets to the system, which allows for combustion. That’s the fire consuming the wood.
“The byproduct of that is the hot stream of air. You’re creating a high pressure system, just like heated air in a hot air balloon. The molecules are moving faster, further apart, and expand. They do the same thing in a fire box. You want to keep that door largely closed. The more it’s closed, the more it pushes air through the system.”
Mueller goes on to describe the Venturi effect and aerodynamics and the physics of chamber shape and a lot of other barbecue science, but the Cliff Notes version is that you should look at the color of your smoke. Dark smoke means you’ll need to open the airflow. Eventually you’ll understand how exhaust affects what’s happening in the chamber, but in the meantime, just make sure you keep that smoke clear.
Be patient, but ready, like… an astronaut
“You’re gonna have to get control on your desire to look inside the pit every 20 minutes,” says Mueller. “Distract yourself, go do something else. Set a timer to remind yourself to feed the fire, but leave everything else alone.”
That said, once in the red zone, vigilance is crucial. “You’re putting 12 hours of time in for a 20 minute window that you can’t miss. It’s like NASA missing their trajectory. If you’re a quarter of a degree off, you skip off the atmosphere and head out into the solar system.”
Got it? Good. Now go forth and smoke. And then do it a few more times… chances are, you did it wrong. And that's OK. Eventually, it'll smell (and taste) like victory.