It is common for people to speak carelessly about food, but the canon of Barbecue is particularly beset by wicked heresies.
- Next time you cook a hamburger or chicken drumstick over an open flame in your back garden, please do not call it barbecue. That is grilling.
- Second, if you are eating bona fide barbecue and the flesh has a shallow red tinge to it, do not cringe and be mistaken that the food is undercooked. Rather, what you see is the ‘smoke ring’ which comes from the meat being lovingly nestled over smokey embers for many hours.
- Third, ribs should have some chew to them. They should NOT be fall-off-the-bone soft. If they are, then that’s a sign that they have been boiled. And of all barbecue heresies, this is the most venal.
The point is that people often take barbecue’s name in vain, and they mustn’t. I feel strongly about this because real barbecue – the long, slow cooking of meat over indirect heat with smoke – is America’s great gift to world gastronomy. It was born here and no one does it better. It deserves your respect.
I intended to write something lengthy on the subject, but soon realized I was punching above my weight. Barbecue is a rich, geographically diverse tradition. It is rife with regional dogma. To even attempt an authoritative survey would mean packing the wife and kid into an Winnebago for three months and traversing a great swathe of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and most of Texas. And that’s at a minimum. (I hear aggrieved cries of “What about Georgia / Alabama / Kentucky / Illinois / Oklahoma / Hawaii?”, each of which rightfully claims its place in barbecue’s topography.)
Sadly my lifestyle and personal finances do not allow me to embark on such a great journey, so this will be a cursory mention of this nation’s great indigenous cuisine. Cursory, but reverential. There is so much to love and admire.
To begin with, it is a cuisine which prizes the B-list parts of the animal. It cherishes the brisket of beef over the filet; the shoulder of pork over the loin; the chicken thigh over the breast; and it renders these humble cuts transcendent. Such an approach is the hallmark of a culinary tradition borne out of austerity, and those are the traditions which I like the most for they tend to possess more than average ingenuity and integrity. (If I had to choose between eating good peasant food for the rest of my days or Michelin starred meals served in those miniature copper saucepans, I wouldn’t hesitate to opt for the former.)
Moreover, Barbecue is an inarguably democratic means of cooking. The financial barriers to entry are low: spend $150 and you’ll be operational with the basics to create miracles. (Specifically: a basic Weber kettle grill, some charcoal & some woodchips. That’s about it.)
Oh, and to snooty followers of the modern Slow Food movement, I have a message: “Barbecue Got There First.” Barbecue has been beating you to the punch since about the time of the Civil War. It is the apotheosis of Slow Food: local, affordable, and very tasty. Why, I wonder, has it been largely ignored by the acolytes of Alice Walters and devotees of Farmers’ Markets. Probably because such folk are affluent, concentrated on the coasts and drive Swedish cars. In other words people who have no natural inclination towards a tradition which hails from the South, has its roots in poverty, and is at its best when served in Styrofoam containers out of scary looking roadside shacks.
So, if you have never barbecued, how do you do it? Here is the most basic of primers:
1) The Rub. This is a blend of salt, spices and sugar which coats the meat prior to cooking and ripens in the low smokey heat to create barbecue’s wondrous character. Rubs are easy to make, fun to experiment with, and everyone thinks theirs is the best. Here’s mine: 1 tablespoon salt*, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1 tablespoon hot paprika, 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons Colman’s English mustard powder, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon celery salt. Mix it up well, and sprinkle it liberally on the ribs, brisket, pork shoulder or chicken which is destined for the smoker.
(* About the salt. Normally I denounce overpriced, exotic variations of commoditized basics such as salt. But in my own experiments, using a posh salt has a material (though by no means essential) effect. By ‘good’, I mean varietals like Fleur du Sel, Malden Sea Salt, or Sel Gris. Regular Kosher salt is more than adequate. As is the most ordinary of table salts.)
2) The Smoker. You can spend many hundreds of dollars on a smoker. But a simple Weber kettle grill (the one which adorns the yards of millions of American homes) does a great job. The essential thing is to cook the meat with low, indirect heat, i.e. not directly over the charcoal. Just make sure you bank the coals to either side, put a pan of water in the middle under the meat, keep the temp low (around 250º F / 120º C, checking with cheap oven thermometer ), and don’t open the lid too often.
3) Wood Chips. Opinions abound around what type of wood (hickory, peach, apple etc) produces the best results. I’ve tried a bunch and they all work well. Buy whatever type of wood chips happen to be available where you shop.
4) The Mop Sauce. This is what you apply to the meat during cooking to keep it moist and enrich the flavor. I like to melt some butter into sweet, flavorful liquids like apple juice or Coca Cola, add some bourbon, and periodically spray the mixture over the meat while it cooks.
5) Timing. At 25oº F, ribs will take a good 4 to 5 hours. A shoulder of pork or brisket of beef will take some hours longer, and is effectively an overnight endeavour. You can accelerate the process by increasing the temp to 325º F / 160º C, but the lower and longer, the better. Do your research, plan ahead, and do your best not to rush anything.
6) Barbecue Sauce. There are as many recipes for barbecue sauce as there are stars in the sky. Of course it is rewarding to make one’s own, but the ones you can buy in bottles are usually excellent. My only advice here is use the sauce sparingly during cooking. I like to brush my ribs lightly with sauce at the end of the process for a quick sear over direct heat to finish them off and get some caramelization to them. Then after serving let your guests add as much or as little sauce as they require.
7) Further Reading. Barbecue is not difficult or complicated, but because cooking times so are long and its temperatures so unusually low, I would nonetheless recommend some preparatory reading prior to your first foray. Steve Reichlen’s Barbecue Bible is justifiably popular and highly accessible.
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