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The World’s Best Smoker, the Karubecue, Makes the World’s Best BBQ

At 2,400 pages, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking isn’t everybody’s idea of a leisurely read. But for the food-obsessed—and I count myself among them–the six-volume, $625 cookbook by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold is a trove of treasures. In the tome, Myhrvold says there’s more to producing great barbecue than just keeping the temperature of your pit below 250 degrees for a long time.

“The role of fire in smoking is to burn at approximately 750F and produce gases from pyrolysis that flavor the meat,” he writes. “Higher and lower temperatures can be used but do not produce the same taste.” The smoke produced at lower temperatures, near the 225F sweet spot of the low-and-slow school of ‘cue, tends to be loaded with heavy molecules that impart a bitter, acrid taste to meats.

At high temperatures, the smoke is light and sweet, and those big molecules have been burned off. But how to do you get the very hot smoke to the party without also bringing the heat? Myhrvold offers a solution called Karubecue smoker. I didn’t have to look far for its inventor, Bill Karau. He lives in a Dallas suburb. And, like Myhrvold and me, he’s a barbecue nut.

Bill Karua (foto Ralph Lauer)

“It’s almost impossible for a home cook to make great barbecue with an offset smoker — the one with the firebox on one end and the cooking chamber on the other,” says Karau, an engineer who has extensively studied the science of smoke and fire in an effort to produce better ‘cue. Karau’s patented Karubecue is a nearly foolproof smoker that can turn a novice pitmaster into an expert. It’s a project he’s worked on since 2004, when he realized, after sampling a lot of commercial barbecue, that there has to be a better way.

“The problem with the typical offset smoker is that you have to build a hot enough fire to produce good quality smoke, but that usually generates way too much heat. Most cooks throttle down the heat by closing off the intake vents. That reduces the fire by restricting the oxygen flow, but that’s the opposite of what you should be doing.

“You need a very hot fire to produce good-quality smoke,” explains Karau, echoing Myhrvold’s text. “If you open your grill and see dark, billowing smoke, then that’s bad-quality smoke. It’s full of heavy molecules that carry bitter flavors and leave a black crust on the meat.” What you want, says Karau, is the barely visible, blue-tinted smoke that results from a very hot fire.

How, then, does the Karubecue generate good, sweet smoke without also bringing the heat? Karau tweaked a traditional offset smoker, using a fan to draw the smoke from an external firebox back through the hot coals of the fire, then into the sealed smoking chamber. By sucking the smoke back through the hot coals, he burns off all the bitter-tasting smoke molecules, leaving just the light, sweet notes for cooking.

He regulates the heat of the cook box by programming a thermostat to control how much of the hot smoke he channels into the box. The principle is essentially the same as smoking a pipe, where hot smoke is drawn down through the hot pipe bowl.

Admittedly, Karau is a thinking man’s cook. His website includes a detailed breakdown and a treatise on the smoke ring.
But the proof is in the meat: The pork shoulder and ribs were not stained with the dark bark of an oxygen-starved smoke. Instead, they were beautifully browned, moist and tender. The ribs were perfect, a rich mahagony color but not a trace of sooty taste.


Bill Karau builds each of the smokers, called the B-30, in his Southlake garage, one at a time. He also has custom-built a larger unit, the X-400, to test his methods on a large scale for possible commercial use. A custom Karubecue will cost you about $1,300. Karau hopes to outsource the fabrication — and get back his garage — which will lower the cost to below $900. www.karubecue.com. A version of this story first appeared in 360 West Magazine.

2 Comments

  1. Gary Chuck says:

    I have had the Karubecue for over a year now and it has lived up to every thing that Bill said that it would do. All you have to do is set the temperature and add wood to the fire box. It also cooks faster than a regular smoker because of the convection fan that circulates the heat in the cookbox.
    I also like the portability and the toughness of the 18guage stainless steal used to build this thing.
    Only drawback is that it can’t be used without electricity as the two fans run off AC current. This is no big deal for me as I have gone to different parks and found AC. Just have to pre-plan your trip.
    I am totally satisfied with this Karubecue and no I am not getting paid to say this.

  2. Hugh Keepers says:

    I would like to purchase one of your units and talk to you in person. I live in Dallas and could visit you some weekend.

    Hugh

    214-562-2124

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