There are a multitude of variables for the barbecue cook to contemplate and decide upon…all of which can radically affect the taste of the finished product:
Pit: The original pits were trenches in the ground, filled with live coals, and topped with either a rotisserie or a grate. A southern style pit is an above-ground structure, traditionally made out of brick or native stone, with suspended, expanded-wire racks, heavy steel horizontal doors that are on a counter-balanced weight pulley system, a chimney with flue damping controls of some sort, and a vented firebox on the opposite end of the stack, generally lower down so that the heat and smoke are drawn up through the pit and across the meats. The backyard steel version is made from a barrel or a tank, with an attached firebox on one end, and a chimney on the other. Doors cut into the barrel or tank provide access to the grates.
Trailer: This is the modern, portable version of the pit, crafted from steel (usually a discarded heavy-gauge tank of some sort), with a firebox jutting out of one end (again, lower than the smoker), and often a vertical smoking chamber on the opposite end, with a chimney exiting from the top of that. The center section is where the meats rest on suspended racks of expanded wire. Trailers are the method used by most competitive ‘cuers, and the rigs can be very elaborate: pressurized hot water systems for cleanup, attached rooms with prep stations, forced air fans for convection systems to recirculate smoke, motorized rotisseries, power generators and refrigeration, etc.
Southern Pride Style Cookers: Many old time and newer restaurants are converting to these cookers simply because of convenience and ease of operation: it’s basically a stainless insulated box with double doors for access on one end, an internal shelving system that works like a rotisserie, thermostats that enable you to set the desired temperature for long periods of time, either gas or electric heat, and a smoking chamber where small chunks of wood are inserted and kept smoldering by a heating element; the smoke is mostly sealed-in and recirculated within the cooker. It doesn’t require constant care or tending, stays at the temperature you want it to, and allows you to use much less wood per batch. It might surprise you to know which of the famous BBQ restaurants now use this style of cooker. It ain’t traditional, it looks sterile as hell, but it is authentically cooking the low, slow, smoky way.