Pot Luck

Prepping Your Pit for the Summer

Summer won't officially begin this year until June 21. But this is Houston, after all, which means we're currently enjoying our two weeks of spring before summer launches its full-on assault around, say, the beginning of April.

And the official launch of summer for me each year is when my dad hauls out his smoker from the garage and begins his annual cleaning ritual.

"It's like breaking your lawnmower back out each year," laughed Berry Madden from Pitts and Spitts over the phone earlier this week. Pitts and Spitts, based in Houston, is known nationwide for its famously hand-crafted smokers -- which start at $1,695 -- and barbecue accessories. Most recently, one of these creations was featured on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired in January.

I turned to my father and Madden for tips on prepping the pit for the summer months ahead. After all, it's never too soon to start smoking a pork butt or a slab of ribs.

My father takes an all-day approach, starting with cleaning off any accumulated exterior rust with a Black & Decker drill outfitted with a special steel wool attachment. Madden advises using a pressure washer to spray your smoker down, "getting out all the dirt and old grease first." My father is more old-fashioned, using a scraper tool to gingerly clean out the interior and catching the debris with some old newspaper at the bottom of the smoker.

After it's cleaned out, "take a can of Pam or any old cooking oil," Madden says, "and rub it down inside to re-season it." And perhaps his tastiest bit of advice for the day? Bacon.

"Smoke a pound of bacon for an hour to two hours," he says. The smoke and grease will perfectly re-season your pit and get it in top shape once again. You'll smell like smoked pork all day long, but that's just your reward for a hard day's work.

Don't own a pit yourself? Now's the time to invest in one -- properly cared for, it will last you for years.

Madden said that more and more Pitts and Spitts customers have been moving away from natural gas and propane grills to smokers.

In Texas, we call that growing up.

"Most people jump right in," he said about their first smoker purchase. "But we can put gas in [the smokers] or charcoal pans, so that people have options." We're here for the smoke, of course. And for those just getting into smoking, Madden recommends different woods based on what you're cooking up that day.

"Mesquite is very good for steaks," he explained. "But any kind of fruit wood -- pecan, apple, pear -- is the best for barbecue. Oak is good to keep the heat up, but fruit woods add the best flavor."

One of the most popular accessories this year is already apparent: a remote control thermometer. "You place it in the pit, or you can place it directly in the meat," said Madden. "As soon as it hits that right temperature, an alarm goes off."

"You can watch the football game inside the house while you smoke," he added. I imagine my dad cringing, as he opts instead to baby his pit, sitting outside all day long with a portable TV at his side. But it's easy to see the benefits of the remote thermometer regardless.

For those opting to really step up their barbecue game, however, Madden recommends Pitts and Spitts' newest creation: the pig cooker. "It's an insulated box that holds a whole hog," Madden said. They've cooked an 80-pound pig in it before, but he says that it can accommodate up to 150 pounds.

Bacon-seasoning your barbecue pit? Pig cookers? For a state that loves its beef, Texas barbecue always seems to come back around to pork. Not that I'm complaining.

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Katharine Shilcutt