The earliest known equipment used to barbecue foods in America were crude wooden racks that were used by Native Americans to smoke birds, fish, cattle, and pigs. A popular method developed during colonial times was to dig trenches and pits in the ground where logs were burned down until they were smoldering coals. Whole animals, such as pigs, were suspended above the glowing coals and roasted over the smoking embers. This form of barbecuing is still popular today for large gatherings and holidays.
Modern barbecue cookers are constructed from metal and are designed to allow heat and smoke to surround the food. Wood is place in a firebox which is usually off to one side of the cooking chamber. This configuration keeps food from being in direct contact with the fire, which is very important in true barbecue cookers. Fresh air coming into the firebox allows the fire to continue burning and heat and smoke are exhausted into the cooking chamber. A baffle between the firebox and the cooking chamber allows the heat and smoke to go downward in the cooking chamber before it is allowed to rise up and out of the chimney. This causes heat and smoke to surround the food before it has a chance to escape through the chimney.
Some barbecue cookers are constructed with the firebox below the cooking chamber. In this type of cooker, deflectors are placed between the firebox and cooking chamber so that heat and smoke are directed up and around the food. The firebox is placed enough distance below the cooking chamber so that the flames do not actually come in direct contact with the food. A water cooker uses this configuration to heat, smoke, and steam food. Smoldering wood is placed at the bottom of the cooker and a pan of liquid such as water, wine, or other flavored liquids is placed in the middle of the cooker. The food remains moist as it cooks because of the steam, but it never forms a crust like it would in a traditional barbecue cooker.
Modern cookers have air intakes so that the temperature in the cooking chamber can be regulated. The best temperature for barbecuing is from 200°F to 300°F, although for poultry, the temperature should be closer to 300°F so that harmful bacteria, that may be present on the bird, is killed within a safe period of time. A pan of water may be placed near the heat source so that the steam rising from the water prevents the food from drying out over its long cooking process. Food is often place in the area of the cooking chamber that is as far from the heat source as possible because the temperature is much more constant.
The indirect cooking method of barbecue cookers means that most food items require much more time to cook thoroughly than if they were cooked directly over the heat source. This is desirable for barbecued foods because a longer cooking time allows foods to acquire a greater degree of the smoky flavor. Foods such as barbecued ribs may be kept in the barbecue cooker after the cooking process is complete in order for the meat to acquire as much of the smoky flavor of the smoldering wood as possible, but the ribs are removed before they begin to dry out.
Meat is usually placed on devices within the barbecue that are specially designed to hold various types of meat. There are special racks for holding ribs, various types of hooks to hang cuts of meat, and other devices to stand poultry.