If food is great then barbecue is fantastic. Many view the art of slow cooking meats with smoke as something reserved for professional pitmasters and find getting started intimidating. Truth be told it is not as hard as it looks and you will produce some of the tastiest food you have ever cooked. With a little bit of advice and practice barbecuing is a lot of fun and very rewarding.
Let the learning begin.
1. Barbecuing versus Grilling
Many people assume if you are cooking outside you call it barbecue. Wrong! Barbecue is low and slow heat, typically 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Grilling is direct and hot, typically 300 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Grilling you measure in minutes. Barbecuing you measure in hours.
2. The Smoker
There are a variety of choices at different price points when it comes to smokers. If you want you can start with a standard old school Weber Kettle Grill putting charcoal on one side and meat on the other. With that basic setup you can make authentic barbecue for friends and family, but temperature control and capacity are challenges. With the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker 22.5-Inch Smoker you can smoke 12 racks of ribs at once and have more temperature control. The large Smokey runs about $325 on Amazon. The The Big Green Eggis a great grill, smoker and oven all in one. While a Green Egg offers great capacity, control, fuel efficiency and versatility the price range is $800 to $1300. While I wrote this post my best friend, Victor Grigorieff (aka Lothar), and I were barbecuing 25 pounds of meat using a Weber Smokey Mountain (photo in this post is our savory creations in progress).
Not accessories. Tools! Save accessories for a post about shoes, bags and belts. We are working with tools here people. Proper tools are a very important part of the process. They make barbecuing more fun, easier and provide fantastic gift ideas for your next birthday.
Here is a short list from Victor of 12 essential barbecue tools.
- Clear zip lock bags (1 gallon and 2 gallon)
- Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen Instant Read Thermometer(a must have!)
- Steven Raichlen Best of Barbecue Insulated Food Gloves, Pair
(saves your skin in a number of ways)
- Plastic Spray Bottle – 22 oz (for mopping)
- 12-oz. Squeeze Bottles(cut half the top off)
- Weber 21-Inch T-Grill Brush (because it lasts forever)
This gives you your heat. It all comes down to standard charcoal versus lump briquets. Charcoal is consistent and predictable but does not burn as long or burn as Lump. Lump briquets are a mix and match of little pieces and logs and burns hot for a long time. Best mix is 50/50 of each which gives predictable heat as well as higher heat over time. Kingsford is an excellent brand to start with for both types.
The primary purpose of wood is to provide smoke which adds flavor. The type of wood used comes down to personal preference although there is avid debate about which woods to use with certain meats. Best advice is to experiment with different woods and find what you like. Good woods to start with are cherry and apple. Both are mild, cheap and easy to find.
The rub is probably the most important part of barbecue. A dry rub is where you pat your meat dry and cover every inch of meat with a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar and spices/seasonings. A common commercial rub costs about $4.00 for five ounces which is enough for about two racks of pork ribs. The good thing about commercial rubs is that you can easily experiment with different brands and discover what you like. The problem is that they are expensive and you do not have control over the taste. Homemade rubs are cheaper to make and you have control of the ingredients. A good homemade rub can be made in sizable quantities and stored it for up to a year. If it lasts over a year you are not barbecuing enough. Here is a recipe Victor has crafted over time starting using Steven Raichlen’s Memphis Rub recipe as a base.
Lothar’s Memphis Rub:
1 cup paprika
6 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons salt 2 tablespoons celery salt
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon chipotle powder
2 teaspoons chili de arbol powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons dry mustard
3 tablespoons ground cumin
Add all ingredients into a bowl and mix using a fork to ensure any clumps of brown sugar and mustard are broken up. This is enough for A LOT of meat. You will use it all in one day only if you plan to cook for an entire high school football team. Store unused rub in a zip lock bag. Discard any rub (or sauce) that has touched raw meat.
Smoking is better for tougher cuts of meat with higher fat content such as pork shoulder (also called pork butt), brisket, ribs, uncooked sausage and chicken thighs. You can also cook whole chicken, whole turkey, drumsticks, chicken wings and salmon. Typically these cuts of meat are much cheaper than those you would grill, salmon being the exception. There is no rule dictating what you choose. That honor is reserved for the taste buds of your home’s pitmaster.
The lower and the slower the temperature, the better with barbecue. As mentioned previously, 200 to 250 Fahrenheit is the ideal range with 200 to 225 degrees being perfect if you have the time to let it cook. For entertaining it is crucial to know your cook time based on your choice of meats and target temperature. There is a huge difference between ribs at 200 degrees (4 1/2 hours) and 250 degrees (3 hours).
With barbecue, the more time the better. Professional pitmasters will cook a brisket for 10-12 hours. Few people will devote 12 hours but you can get fine results in less time with practice.
If you have a water smoker the water will really help you in three ways. First it acts as an insulator between your meat and the fire. Second, the steam adds moisture to the meat. Third, the water pan catches your grease keeping it away from the fire, and it easy to clean. The Weber Smokey Mountain is a water smoker. The Big Green Egg is not. Again it comes down to personal preference.
Mopping is basting with a lighter liquid than a barbecue sauce. The merits of mopping is often debated in the barbecue community . The basic rule is with higher temperatures at 250 degrees or above mopping becomes necessary. If you use a water smoker like the Weber Smokey or a Big Green Egg you do not need to mop and it becomes a matter of taste. Those using electric grills/ovens should never mop as it is dangerous. If you are using an electric oven you are not barbecuing. Just sayin’!
Victor uses 50/50 apple cider and Makers Mark Kentucky Bourbon for his mop. I brand this as Lothar’s BBQ Mop! My father likes this recipe but adds that some of the Makers Mark needs to go on ice for the pitmaster and friends. Good times!
This is your opportunity to explore. We are not talking about Heinz barbecue sauce sold nationwide. Try different regional sauces. Go to a store with a solid selection, buy a few and find your favorite flavor.
This information should get you started in the right direction and motivate you to make a trip to your local meat counter to introduce yourself and make friends with your local butcher. A fantastic smoking book is Smoke & Spice by Cheryl and Bill Jamison. A complete tour of grilling, barbecuing and smoking is The Barbecue! Bible by Steven Raichlen. Barbecuing can seem intimidating at first but you learn all good things in life from trying. So get our there and get smoking!
Please post any questions you have for us as we are here to help. We also welcome any of your barbecue tips and tricks!