What is your favorite item to BBQ?
My real passion is for traditional low and slow BBQ so I would have to say that pork is my favorite. Pork provides a variety of options from spare or baby back ribs, to whole pork shoulder and even the hams which make for excellent BBQ. It can also be served in a variety of ways including sliced, diced, chopped and of course pulled. Pork is a standard meat in competition BBQ events sanctioned by the two largest competitive BBQ organizations in the United States. Pork ribs and pork shoulder (or butt) are two of the four categories in a Kansas City BBQ Society contest, while a Memphis BBQ Network contest is exclusively a pork competition and includes whole hog as one of the categories which is regarded by many as the ultimate challenge for a BBQ pit master.
Dry rub vs. sauce? Give us the lowdown.
I’m afraid I will have to be controversial and say both. In certain parts of the U.S. BBQ purists will insist on only dry rub on their smoked meats to create a great bark with no need for any sauce. However, in other parts of the country particularly in Kansas City and the Carolina’s a good sauce is an essential component of BBQ. That said though the sauce profile will also vary by region from primarily tomato and molasses based in the Midwest to more mustard and vinegar based sauces in the Southeastern parts of the country.
For me a dry rub is an essential part of the initial preparation of the meat which should be applied well before the product is taken to the smoker to allow the flavors to be absorbed by the meat. There are multiple recipes for rubs and on the BBQ competition circuit many pit masters protect their complex special rub ingredients and formulas as highly guarded secrets. For me the key to a good rub is one that it will provide both savory and sweet elements, and should also include a touch of heat to give a little kick after that first bite while always being careful not to make it too spicy for your BBQ guests.
A great BBQ sauce is something I like to apply later in the smoking process. The key is to use the sauce to complement the meat, not to overpower the meat. As we like to say in competition BBQ it is a meat contest and not a sauce contest. A tangy BBQ sauce applied at the last stage of the cooking process can provide an appealing glaze to the product and really enhance that important first bite. Likewise a sauce mixed with meats which have been pulled or chopped after removing from the BBQ pit can really compliment the smoky flavor and help maintain the moist texture of the meat.
Do particular sauce styles work better with different meats?
In my opinion, I don’t really believe so. There are so many varieties and styles of BBQ sauces, especially with so many now commercially available, that it is difficult to say certain meats work better with specific sauces. We have certainly come a long way from the days of only having an apple sauce with a pork roast!
As a competition BBQ judge I’ve been fortunate to travel across the U.S. and try a wide variety of sauce styles which has allowed me to experience just how much these vary by region, but I wouldn’t say one style works far better than another for a specific category of meat. As I noted above the key is ensuring the sauce compliments the meat and does not overpower the product. Too sweet a sauce can dominate the meat’s flavor, too bitter or acidic a sauce can spoil a wonderfully tender piece of smoked meat, while too spicy a sauce can leave you not even knowing what meat you are eating! By far the most important thing is when you are preparing your own BBQ or just using an off the shelf sauce that it enhances the flavor profile of the product you are serving be it chicken, pork, beef or any other smoked food and still allows the smokiness that you’ve worked so hard to create to remain very apparent in each bite.
Which is the best wood chip to smoke meat with? How many options are there?
With the recent growth in BBQ supplies in many of the large chain hardware and DIY stores there is now a huge range of smoking options available. Wood chips are a great and relatively cheap option to add flavor and enhance the smokiness to your home BBQ. Wood chips can even be used in a foil tray or foil pouch on your gas grill to provide a smoky profile to your meats, but for me as a BBQ pit enthusiast rather than a gas grill man the wood chips would be placed directly on the hot charcoal. The traditional approach is to soak the wood chips in water in advance of placing them onto the hot coals. This helps the wood chips smoke longer and avoids them just burning up which can create a rather bitter smoky taste. However, you do not want them too wet as you then risk reducing the temperature of the fire when low and slow BBQ necessitates that you carefully maintain a constant heat level. I also like to use larger wood chunks which are also readily available at retail stores. These obviously burn for longer so allow for more time for the smoke to penetrate the meat while at the same time require less pit maintenance to ensure no heat reduction during those long BBQ cookouts.
There are multiple types of wood chips and wood lumps available depending on the flavor profile you are aiming for and likewise how smoky you want the product to taste. Hickory is probably the most common hardwood used for low and slow BBQ and provides a rich and full bodied smoke flavor. Oak will also provide a strong smoke flavor. My personal preference is to use woods which add a sweeter smoke and generally are associated with the fruit woods, in particular cherry and apple wood, as I find the sweet fragrance of both really complements the meat and is not too overpowering. However, there are many varieties of wood available to try and this is all part of the enjoyment of barbecuing, continually playing with flavor profiles and creating lots of appetizing smoke aromas.
Do you have any special BBQ tips and tricks?
These are certainly not special tricks, but two key aspects in low and slow BBQ are maintaining a consistent temperature and ensuring that you retain adequate moisture in your meat to avoid it drying out.
Maintaining a consistent temperature over a long slow cook is essential to a successful outcome and ensuring that all those hours invested result in a product which is ready when you want to serve it. Grilling is generally done using the direct heat method where the meat sits directly above the heat source which allows a much quicker cook time given the higher temperature. However, low and slow BBQ is most often done using the indirect heat method where the the heat source is off to the side of the cooking surface holding the meat. You will often see this method clearly on the more traditional style barbeque pits with the firebox offset to the side of the cooker. This indirect heat effect can easily be created on a traditional barbeque by stacking the coals to one side with the meat on the other. This method allows the heat and smoke to circulate, while not directly cooking the meat which can cause the meat to burn or cook unevenly over such a long period. In this method the temperature of the pit is kept at a much lower level than grilling and is controlled using the side dampers to allow extra air flow to increase temperature while closing them achieves the opposite. Maintaining the temperature does take careful monitoring, although managing the fire can certainly be considered part of the barbecuing fun. A real key is resisting the temptation to take a peek at the meat during the cooking process. Try hard to resist…..every time you open the smoker you not only lose smoke, but you lose heat which makes the challenge of ensuring a constant temperature all the more difficult.
Another thing to consider is using a water pan, even something just as simple as a foil tray with water inside the smoker. A standard process for the larger meats is to use an injection prior to the cook to get flavor and juiciness deep into the meat which also assists in keeping moisture in the product. Using a water pan provides an additional source of moisture and creates humidity through the long cooking process to further help avoid the meat drying out. Many pit masters believe that achieve the best results the meat will only require exposure to the smoke during the initial hours of the cook so as not to over smoke the product. Removing the meat after a specific period and wrapping it in foil before returning to the pit is a common method to ensure the moisture from the meats own juices can be retained through the remainder of the cooking process.
Can you share a recipe for our members to try this Labor Day weekend?
While there are now a multitude of BBQ recipe books available, when I cook at home for friends and neighbors I often prefer to stick with the relatively straightforward low and slow staple of pork ribs which always seem to go down extremely well.
I generally prepare St Louis style pork ribs where both the brisket bone and skirt meat have been removed from the rib. Often these will come already prepared in this style from the local butcher or grocery store. The most important preparation rule for ribs is to ensure you first remove the membrane. This is the semi-transparent film attached to the bone side of the ribs which will not allow rub or sauce to penetrate that side of the meat. Prior to cooking you want to liberally apply a rub to both sides of the rib. There are many commercially available rubs now, some produced by the big name BBQ restaurants or competition teams, so I often just like to rely on proven winners. However, this is another area where you can experiment with the flavor profile, although nearly all rub recipes will include sugar, garlic, onion, chili powder, paprika, black and white pepper plus a good dash of cayenne pepper for that wee heat kick. Of course you also can choose to use a different rub on each rack of ribs to really vary your guest’s choice. Once rubbed and patted down I like to leave the ribs lightly covered in a foil tray in the fridge for 30-60 minutes to allow the rub to be absorbed by the meat.
If you are using a charcoal smoker this should be preheated to 250ºF. The rib slabs should be put in the smoker meat side up over indirect heat for approximately 2.5 hours. It is vital that you look to try and maintain the pit temperature at 250ºF throughout the cook, using fresh charcoal or wood to retain the heat level and introduce more smoke. Following this initial part of the cook, the ribs should be removed from the smoker then lightly wrapped in foil meat side down. While wrapping I like to drizzle both sides of the ribs in butter, honey and brown sugar to help create that BBQ sweetness (hey, no-one said that BBQ was supposed to be healthy!). The primary objective in low and slow BBQ is layering flavor from the savory and spicy to the sweet to create that unique BBQ bite. Finally I add a dash of apple juice to help retain moisture into the foil before wrapping. The wrapped ribs are then placed back on the smoker for another 1.5 hours. They are then removed again, carefully unwrapped, and meat side up brushed with BBQ sauce for which I’ll most often use one of the great sauces which are commercially available. I will also mix the sauce with a splash of honey and sprinkle the ribs with some of the original rub. These are then returned to the smoker, meat side up, for at least another 15 to 30 minutes until the sauce caramelizes and to achieve internal temperature of 180ºF-185ºF in the meat of the ribs. A simple way to also check for the correct tenderness is to use a toothpick which should go in and out of the meat easily or if you pick up the rack of ribs with a set of tongs they show some bend and flexibility. What you want to avoid is over cooking the ribs where the meat just falls off the bones……despite what the big chain restaurants like to tell you!
Remove from the heat, allow the meat to rest for a few minutes, then slice and enjoy!
Any last BBQ thoughts?
Maybe just the two most important things in BBQ....always remember food safety when working with raw meats and always make sure have fun when barbecuing!
While Labor Day is generally considered the end of summer, it's no reason to put away the BBQ. In fact one of the best times of the year for BBQ and grilling is just about upon us as we begin football season and get those pre game tailgates started. It really doesn't get much better than football and BBQ. And of course it's never too early to start thinking about the smoked turkey for Thanksgiving!