HOUBBQ News & Info

Texas barbecue feud: stick-burners versus pellets

Pitts & Spitts hybrid smoker
Pitts & Spitts hybrid smoker

Feuds — family or otherwise — are a tradition in Texas barbecue. Sauce or no sauce? Is it better to cook a brisket fat-side up or down? Do beans belong in chili? 

That last one may only be tangential to barbecue, but you get the idea. 

One of the most fierce and long-lasting feuds in Texas barbecue happens in our own backyards. Specifically, what’s the best type of smoker to use when cooking barbecue for family and friends on weekends? 

There are two camps in this debate: the stick burners and the pellet grill aficionados. This argument pits the torch-bearers of the old-school traditions with the adopters of high-tech appliances that address the reality of our busy lives. 

In one corner are the stick burners. This refers to the whole logs of wood that are burned to create the heat and smoke to cook and flavor meat. Barbecue pits that burn whole logs — known as stick burners — are completely manual and require almost constant attention during the 12-plus hours of cooking a brisket. It’s an exhausting and time-consuming way to smoke meat.

In the other corner are the pellet-fueled smokers, aka pellet grills. These are automated cookers that use pellets of compressed wood shavings as the fuel, rather than whole logs. An appliance called a hopper, which is attached to the cooking chamber, is filled with the pellets and a digital interface is programmed with the time and temperature for cooking. 

The system monitors the temperature of the meat and cooking chamber, automatically feeding more pellets into the burn pot, which is the pellet grill equivalent of a fire box. This process maintains cooking temperature with little or no intervention from the person cooking. In this case, the cook is free to visit with guests and get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next day’s big party. 

Needless to say, devotees of stick burners are not impressed by the perceived shortcuts afforded by pellet grills. More importantly, they believe the quality of the cooked meat is subpar, specifically lacking in the deep smoke flavor for which Texas barbecue is known. 

The debate takes place as more-or-less good-natured ribbing on social media groups. Memes defending stick burners feature barbs like, “You use a pellet grill? I remember my first training wheels.” 

Pellet grill fans reply with pictures of them playing with their kids and hanging out with their friends as the pellet grill smokes away in the background. 

It would seem there is no way to reconcile these two warring camps in Texas barbecue. Then, the designers at Houston’s hometown pit makers, Pitts & Spitts, who make both pellet grills and stick burners, had a lightbulb moment. 

Make one pit that is a hybrid of both techniques. 

“It started off as a crazy idea around the shop,” says Ryan Zboril, owner of Pitts & Spitts. They would spend two years developing a backyard smoker that has a pellet grill appliance on one side of the cooking chamber and a stick burner firebox on the other side.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Zboril. 

“The Hybrid” smoker offers pellet fans the ability to take advantage of the automated features of the pellet grill while also maintaining credibility by occasionally firing up the stick burning component of the pit.

Though it doesn’t completely tamp down the stick burners-versus-pellets feud, it does offer a physical manifestation of the diplomacy often needed in the highly opinionated world of Texas barbecue.