First, let's define real barbecue. Barbecue does not mean cooking burgers on the grill, or inviting people over to a party to grill those burgers, or the actual device used for cooking them. If you are cooking steaks or hamburgers directly over a 400-500 degree charcoal or gas fire, you are not barbecuing; you are grilling or charbroiling. While this method has its merits, namely speed, it pales in comparison to barbecuing.
Barbecuing means to cook meat at a low temperature by means of real wood fire. For most barbecue enthusiasts, this means to cook meat over an indirect fire source at 200 to 250 degrees while using hard wood to provide smoke. Some claim you must keep the temperature below the boiling point of water, but the top competition barbecue champions usually shoot for about 225 degrees.
Barbecuing holds several advantages over grilling. Perhaps the most important advantage pertains to health. Grilling meat directly over hot coals produces carcinogenic nitrosamines and heterocyclic amines (actually caused when any animal protein is exposed to high temperatures, such as frying or broiling). When fat from these meats drip onto the coals, the resulting smoke produced carries polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also carcinogenic. When you barbecue at temperatures below 250 degrees with the coals located away from the meat, none of these harmful chemicals come into play. Additionally, the meats that are most frequently barbecued are lower in fat and much of the fat melts away during the cooking process.
Barbecuing allows you to buy cheaper cuts of meat. The longer cooking times tenderizes these tougher meats, making them succulent. You can barbecue better cuts of meat, but it's a waste of money.
Barbecuing techniques can be learned rather easily, but mastering the art can be a challenge. I am going to tell you how you can get started on the road to becoming the next Q-artisan.
The first investment you will need to make is a barbecue cooker. I have tasted excellent barbecue cooked on a $20 grill, and I have seen $5,000 machinery cook lousy barbecue. The cooking device isn't the most important factor, but it can make your cookout easier if you have the right equipment. Regardless of which type of cooker you buy, make sure you have a real thermometer that measures the temperature of the cooking surface. If your unit has a gauge with descriptive words like "warm" or "ideal", these are worthless. Take it out and buy a real thermometer, or purchase an airtight instant read thermometer.
Let's start with some excellent portable choices, the types you can take to the stadium parking lot even if you drive a two-door hatchback. I own three portable barbecue smoker/grills. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For simple cooking and re-heating, I use a Weber Smokey Joe Tuck and Carry Grill (photo right). I don't barbecue on this grill. As you will see later, I use it for re-heating and glazing at the stadium (or the park). I carry this in its original box, as it fits easily in my trunk.
New Braunfels makes a couple of excellent portable smoker grills. I own their Pecos smoker. Charbroil bought them out a few years ago, so I don't know if you will be able to find the Pecos.
The smoker that I highly recommend is the Weber Smoky Mountain Cooker, aka The Weber Bullet. This one is a little larger than the other two, about three and a half feet tall and just under two feet wide. For under $200, this grill will allow you to make near competition-grade barbecue with less hassle. WSMs have been used by hundreds of contest winners across the country. Technically speaking, this is a water smoker that keeps meat moist and temperatures around the boiling point of water. The barbecue sticklers do not believe water smoking is authentic barbecue, but if it tastes about the same, who cares what they think? I know several experts who use much less than called for or no water in these machines, sometimes substituting broth or wine mixed with spices. I recommend using the water pan until you become expert enough to know what you are doing and can discernibly taste the subtle difference.
For the backyard barbecuer, the Weber Bullet is quite good as well. However, the size greatly limits the volume of food you can cook. Here's where bigger smokers come into the equation. There are several good full-size smokers, running anywhere from $150 to $3,000. Regardless of which unit you buy, look for one constructed with heavy gauge steel and with an offset firebox.
The Brinkman Smoke 'N Pit Professional can be purchased for $150, and even less if you can find it at a year-end clearance (I bought one for $99 six years ago). Many competitors use this smoker in barbecue competitions.
Pitt's and Spitt's make excellent smokers in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. Popular among Texans and Texas-style barbecuers, many first place prizes have gone to competitors using Pitt's and Spitt's smokers. The 18" x 30" retails for about $1,250, and it will last for years if properly maintained.
When you are ready to invest in the very best and pay top dollar, you can do no better than a Klose BBQ Pit. Klose pits retail for about $1,250 to $1,500. They have no equal in the barbecue game.
In the past 10 years, a company called, The Big Green Egg has begun selling close replicas of the Japanese Kamado grill. I have no first-hand experience with this type of grill, but I have heard they make excellent small smokers that cook quicker than the regular smokers, as they barbecue at higher temperatures without drying out the meat.
You can go overboard with cooking tools, but there are a few essential ones needed. For smaller cookers, a rib rack is an excellent space-saver. Rib racks allow you to stand a slab of ribs up rather than placing them flat.
Fireplace tongs come in handy when trying to add either charcoal or wood chunks to an existing fire. They also allow you to move the coals around and stoke a dying fire.
A charcoal chimney starter is the best way to ignite charcoal, especially at a tailgate cookout. You simply add charcoal in the top and place a few pieces of crumpled newspaper in the bottom and light.
A cotton-basting mop is the best way to apply liquid material to your meat. The liquid is called a "mop" because for years it has been applied with one. Never use a mop that has been used to clean a floor. You can find quality cooking mops in stores specializing in barbecue.
A basting brush is used to apply finishing sauce (bbq sauce) to the meat. The brush is better when using thicker, tomato-based sauces.
For picking up and moving meats in the cooking chamber, the best utensil is a spring-loaded barbecue tong. I use a spring-loaded tong together with either a large fork or a spatula, depending on the meat being cooked.
To make cleaning up easier, I use a metal drip pan under the meat. Not only does it save time, it prolongs the life of my cookers. If you are using a Weber Smoky Mountain, the meat will drip into a water pan.
When cooking away from home, I take along a couple of Coleman Coolers. One cooler keeps food cold, while the other one is used to keep foods warm. You can heat a couple of bricks in advance and wrap them in foil and then in towels to provide warmth for a cooler.
A good pair of rubber gloves can make your cookout easier. I own gloves that are FDA-approved for handling food. Use them to handle hot meat without burning your hands. They also allow you to lift the cooking grates to add coals if you have a small portable cooker with no other way to do so.
An instant read meat thermometer will help you know when your meat is done.
What type of cooking fuel should you use? That is a topic for debate. Some barbecue experts disdain anything but real wood. Others use lump charcoal with wood chunks or pellets, and others rely on good ole charcoal mixed with wood. Recently, some propane gas smokers have appeared that come rather close to competition grade. Again purists get mad when you come up with something novel; some of them might be getting even madder when they lose a trophy to one of the gassers.
Electric smokers do not approach top level, and should only be used if you have no other option. One advantage of having an electric smoker is that you can set your meat in one for an entire day and forget about it while you go to work.
You should begin by trying all natural lump hardwood charcoal mixed with wood chunks. Lump charcoal can be purchased at hardware stores and some supermarkets. Regular charcoal contains anthracite, a type of coal, and limestone to make the charcoal turn to a gray ash. These can impart a bitter, sooty taste into your meat. Lump charcoal is pure hardwood. It can be added to your fire without being burned down to ash, making it easier to maintain the correct temperature. Lump charcoal imparts no taste whatsoever to meat.
There are several types of wood that can be used in barbecue. Here is a list of the most frequently used woods:
Hickory--This is the king of barbecue woods. It is the most widely used, especially in the South and at restaurants across the country. Hickory has its advantages, especially when cooking pork, but I don't use it when I barbecue, as it is too strong for my liking.
Oak--Oak is the queen of barbecue woods. Red Oak is better for ribs and tri-tip, while white oak is better for everything else. Several of the top barbecue joints in Texas prefer oak to any other wood.
Pecan--Pecan supplies a subtle, light flavor similar to hickory, but not as strong. It does wonders with poultry. For beginners, this is the best wood to use if you are only going to use one type.
Alder--Alder is the wood of choice in the Pacific Northwest where salmon is the number one choice of barbecuers. Alder supplies a sweet smoke that masks fish odor. It is also good on pork and poultry.
Maple--Maple is popular in the Northeast and in New England. Maple supplies a gentle, sweet taste to meat.
Apple and Pear--Both of these fruitwoods produce mild, fruity smoke, sometimes imparting extra sweetness into the meat. Try smoking a turkey with apple and/or pear wood, and you may change your way of cooking on Thanksgiving.
Cherry--I know competition experts who use cherry exclusively, but I have little first-hand experience with it. I have found cherry to impart a bitter taste.
Mesquite--Some Texans use mesquite religiously, but it burns at a much higher temperature than other woods, and the smoke produces a strong flavor. Mesquite is better for charbroiling.
For most of my barbecuing, I use a combination of oak, apple, and pecan.
There are woods you should never use. Some make the meat taste bad, while others could harm or even kill you. Never use soft woods from evergreen trees. Oleander trees are potentially fatally toxic. Never use wood from construction sites. Lumber is frequently treated with chemicals. Either buy wood packaged for barbecuing or purchase the correct wood from a reputable dealer. If you know something about trees, you can prune it from the source or gather the fallen limbs. It is best to use wood that has been seasoned for at least six months for best results. As a personal preference, I remove the bark from the wood if I obtain it straight from the source. Many experts believe the bark can impart bitter taste to meat.
In most domestic barbecue contests, there are five categories to be judged. These are beef brisket, chicken, pork ribs, pork butt, and anything other than those four. Among the most popular anything other thans are lamb, salmon, bison, and ostrich.
Pork is the most popular meat used in barbecue. Pork butt, frequently called "Mr. Brown," is one of the easiest cuts of meat to learn how to barbecue well. In the rib category, you have spare ribs and back ribs. Spare ribs (photo at right) are the better option for smoking. When buying spare ribs, look for slabs that weigh just under three pounds, called "Three and Down." If you have a competent butcher, ask him for "St. Louis Cut" spare ribs (photo). He or she should be able to supply you with the correct size.
Beef is my specialty. I am a brisket expert, as I have twenty-five years experience cooking them. Brisket is the hardest meat to barbecue well, but when it is done correctly, there is nothing better in the barbecue world. If you can make friends with a good butcher, he/she will supply you with better brisket than what you can purchase in a supermarket case. There are three major parts of a brisket--the deckle, the wider flat end, and the narrower nose (or point) end. For beginners, start with the flat end and nose end of the brisket, and buy one in the five to eight pound range. The deckle is difficult to master, extremely fatty, and not worth the extra cooking time for most people. For many, the best part of eating brisket is the burnt ends. After the brisket is done, the nose is chopped into pieces and smoked again.
Beef shoulder is another acceptable meat for barbecuing. Some barbecue enthusiasts actually prefer shoulder to brisket. In California, tri-tip is fast becoming a popular cut for barbecue. In Texas, beef ribs are popular, but they are overly fatty and tough. It takes a perfectionist to make them edible and palatable.
Poultry is an excellent barbecue choice for those who do not eat red meat. Whole chickens, turkey breasts, and turkey legs make excellent choices. Cut-up pieces can be barbecued, but they tend to dry out quickly if the temperature rises over 300 degrees for more than a few minutes.
Barbecuing lamb is very popular in certain parts of the country. In Owensboro, Kentucky, mutton is the meat of choice. Lamb is leaner and milder tasting than older mutton; it is the better option.
Prepping the Meat
Okay, you have your smoker. You have your fuel and cooking wood. You have selected what types of meat you want to cook. How do you flavor the meat? Here is where the experts begin to separate themselves from the rest of the field. With the right seasoning, a competition-grade barbecuer can take simple ground beef and make it taste better than the most expensive cut of meat cooked by anyone else.
Prior to placing the meat on the cooker, there are multiple seasoning options. Many people use a marinade or paste to tenderize and season their meat. Others use a rub (dry seasonings rubbed on the meat). Many of the top competition-grade barbecuers use a slather or shmear prior to applying seasonings. Doctored mustard is the top slather or shmear choice. Using a rub and slather further reduces the development of harmful compounds getting into the meat.
When barbecuing meat for long periods of time, several kinds tend to begin to dry out. That's where a mop comes in handy. A mop is a liquid, with or without seasoning, used to keep meat moist during long cooking periods. Not to be confused with barbecue sauce, mops do not burn when applied to meat that will continue to cook for hours. Mops can be as simple as plain apple juice, lemonade, pop, or beer. One champion cook uses apple cider exclusively as his mop.
Barbecue sauces are known as finishing sauces in the barbecue world. These sauces usually contain tomatoes in some form and something sweet. They will blacken when exposed to heat for more than 30 to 45 minutes, so they are applied at the end of the cooking process. Many barbecue enthusiasts do not use a finishing sauce; this is called the "dry method." Memphis is famous for dry ribs, while Texans prefer dry brisket.
The Cooking Process
Once you have your meat seasoned and ready to cook, you must get the temperature of your cooking chamber to the correct level. This is different for every cooker in every climate. What works on a hot summer day in Dallas will not work on a rainy cool day in Seattle. You must use trial and error to obtain the optimum cooking temperature in your cooker.
As a general rule of thumb, if I am using charcoal and wood, I use a charcoal chimney to start the process. I fill it up with lump charcoal and light it with newspaper. About 15 to 20 minutes later, the charcoal is ready to use. After placing charcoal in the firebox about 15 pieces at a time, I add a few pieces of wood. It is important not to overdo the wood, as too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. After my thermometer reads 250 degrees and maintains that reading, I place the meat in the cooking chamber (fat-side up) and close the door. If you have a chimney vent, it should be open as wide as it goes. Your air intake should also be open all the way. Having to close either damper will cause the meat to take on a sooty taste. Temperature should be totally controlled by the amount of fuel. Keep a log of every barbecue event. It will help you figure out just how much fuel it takes to get to the right temperature and keep it there.
With my smokers, I can cook for one to two hours and stay between 200 and 250 degrees without adding lump charcoal or wood. Many people have reported the ability to keep a Weber Smoky Mountain between 200 and 250 degrees for four hours or more without adding charcoal!
If you are using wood only, quartered logs are excellent. Light this fire just as you would ignite one in the fireplace. When the logs burn down to coals, you are ready to cook. Replenishing logs requires another source to burn the wood down to coals before adding to the fire. If you don't wait until your logs have burned to coals, you will over smoke the meat. Contrary to what most people think, when barbecuing, less smoke is better. The best barbecuers only have small wisps of white smoke crossing paths with their meat. Thick dark smoke will deposit bitter creosote on your food.
When Is it Done?
If you are correctly barbecuing at 200 to 250 degrees, it is close to impossible to overcook meat. Some brisket champions have cooked their brisket for 24 to 36 hours. Here is a rule of thumb for each of the frequently barbecued meats.
Brisket: A six to 12-pound brisket will take anywhere from 12 to 20 hours to reach 185 degrees.
Boston Pork Butt: Figure about 1 1/2 hours per pound to reach 195 degrees for pulled pork.
Spare Ribs: 3-pound and less slabs take 5 to 7 hours to become tender and pull away from the bone.
Chicken: For whole chicken, 3 to 5 hours will bring it to 170 degrees. For chicken breasts, 2 to 3 hours should be sufficient.
Besides bringing the meat to a safe internal temperature, it is equally important to cook the meat long enough to make it tender.
How To Prepare Barbecue At A Tailgate
So, your interest in preparing barbecue has been piqued, but you cannot arrive at the stadium eight hours in advance. How do you pull it off? Easy. Barbecue freezes well. Simply cook a large amount of barbecue at home and freeze it in individual-sized portions. Have the meat defrosted for game day and use a portable grill to reheat the meat at 200-250 degrees. This would be the best time to glaze with a finishing sauce (assuming you didn't do so when it was cooked at home). You can still grill some other foods, such as corn or potatoes. Your tailgate will become the most popular at the stadium.
If you have a large cooker, you can cook enough meat for an entire season of home games in one outing.
A Sample Recipe
Let's prepare a simple, delicious barbecued breast of chicken. This doesn't take as long as other meats, and it can be done well with just a little effort.
Here is a former favorite poultry marinade from my past. I now rely more on rubs and mops, but this marinade is a good place to start.
This recipe makes almost 4 cups.
2 cups olive oil
1-cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup orange juice
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp. Frank's Red Hot Pepper Sauce
4 cloves garlic, crushed and finely minced
2 tsp. onion powder
1/4 cup fresh herbs of your choice: I chose from among basil, oregano, rosemary, parsley, thyme, sage, and tarragon
Marinate chicken breast in this liquid for 2 to 4 hours. Make more marinade if you are cooking more chicken.
Chicken does not need a great deal of smoke. One to two hours of light smoke are sufficient. Bring your cooker up to the required temperature (200-250 degrees). If you are using wood chunks for smoke, one large chunk should be enough for the first 30-45 minutes, and one small chunk may be added at that time for the next 30 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the marinade and place in the appropriate spot on your cooker. Do not discard the marinade. Bring it to a boil in a pot to kill any bacteria and reserve as the mop.
Cook the chicken for one hour without peeking at the meat (unless the temperature drops prematurely). After one hour, replenish any coals needed to keep the temperature in the correct zone; repeat every 30 minutes. When you check the coals, begin basting with the mop and baste every 30 minutes. After 2 1/2 hours, insert an instant read thermometer in the breasts. 170 degrees means it is done. If you like, you can glaze with a finishing sauce.
Here is a simple, yet better than store-bought sauce in the Kansas City style. It can serve as the base sauce when you begin to experiment with your own signature sauce.
Melt 1/4 cup butter or margarine in a sauce pan, add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then simmer:
3-cups ketchup (the better the ketchup, the better the finished product).
1-cup raw honey
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp. Frank's Red Hot Pepper Sauce
Juice of quartered lemon
1 small onion, minced
2 tsp. garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste