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Men like to barbecue. Men will cook if danger is involved.
A funny thing happens when I get to competitions: I find myself surrounded by lots of "friends" who show up at opportune times, like when I'm prepping my meat. These are people who want to watch me cook, see what I do, and figure out what techniques they can steal for their own food. I'm not ugly to them. In fact, I'm fine with their prying eyes because I know that no matter what they see me doing, they're probably not going to be able to replicate the magic themselves. That's not because I think I'm so divine-although of course I do think that-but it's because there's just no substitute for the amount of practice I've had. I've spent a lifetime growing up around barbecue, and I'm closing in on twenty years of competing on the professional barbecue circuit. So watch all you like, I say: you won't be able to do what I do unless you put in the time.
Now, that said, I do appreciate the fact that people admire my food and want to learn some of my tricks. It's flattering. And I like to help teams, especially the young ones just getting started who really want to learn, and so I figured out something I could do besides watch them all turn into eavesdropping fools. For a few years now I've been running a barbecue cooking school in my backyard barbecue pavilion, where I've set up an outdoor classroom. My students come for a weekend and learn how to do what I do in competition; they watch as I demonstrate how to cook all the major categories of barbecue meats, and they get the opportunity to work in teams and make their own. I attract a wide variety of students, from people who just want to learn how to make their barbecues better, to those who are interested in learning to cook on the circuit, to barbecue restaurant owners hoping to shoot some extra energy into their menu offerings.
I have a lot of fun teaching, and to be honest with you, I wish my students would have a little more fun. I notice a whole lot of worriation among my pupils. They stress over cooking times and temperatures. If I say "Sprinkle some rub on the brisket," they want to know exactly how much to sprinkle on; if I say "Let the chicken rest a few minutes," they want to know exactly how many minutes. I think you have to be very mindful of times and temperatures when you're cooking, and you have to set a timeline and be vigilant about sticking to it. Lord knows I'm sometimes a slave to my timelines, which I spend a lot of time devising, during competitions. But I also believe that it's just as important to use your other senses when you're cooking, too. For instance, I often go by appearance when I'm cooking: does my meat have the color on it that I want it to? Is it that just-right shade of burnished yet shiny? I want my food to look great, and getting the color I want on it lets me know when it's ready. My philosophy: It's done when it's done, and when it's done, get it off the grill.
Again, that kind of judgment comes with a lot of practice. You'll get there, but you have to start somewhere. So I figure that this is a good place to tackle your most worrisome questions about barbecue. Without further ado, here are the top questions that people ask me about how to cook barbecue-with my answers.
What is barbecue supposed to taste like?
If we're talking about championship barbecue here, the first thing you have to remember is that all barbecue contests are meat contests. And so no matter what, the essential flavor of the meat should come through. This rule is equally true for what you cook up in your own backyard. Beyond that, good barbecue should obviously be moist and tender, but it should also have layers of flavor that are balanced and that cooperate with each other in your mouth. So the first layer of this is the natural flavor of the meat you're cooking. On top of that are the flavors it picks up from the marinade and rub you apply and the sauce you finish the meat with. Finally, and just as important, is the flavor of the smoke that enters the meat. Because at the end of the day, smoke is what makes barbecue.
What is the difference between grilling and barbecuing?
The fact that there's confusion over the exact differences between grilling and barbecuing shows me that people really like to cook outside, but they sure need a little more knowledge-because anything you cook on a grill is not necessarily "barbecue." Grilling is cooking food fast and at high heat: 350 to 400F and up. Think of it this way: It's the perfect way to sear a steak, because grilling is great for meat that is already relatively tender. Barbecuing is an altogether different process: It's cooking over a low (or indirect) fire with a heat that's 350F or lower, and it involves smoking. When you barbecue, you want to not only cook the meat but also infuse and tenderize it with the smoke and the flavors coming from the wood. A little tip to remember: You can barbecue anything that you can grill, but you can't grill everything that you can barbecue. You can barbecue and grill chicken breasts, for instance, but you wouldn't want to grill a big tough cut of meat like a beef brisket.
What's the best barbecue cooker?
Let me demystify this for you: To make delicious barbecue, there is no requirement that you must have high-end equipment like I use in competitions. Barbecue came about because there was a need for people to be able to feed themselves simply and cheaply. With the right recipes and an understanding of time, temperature, and flavor, you can achieve tasty food on any type of smoker, whether store-bought or homemade. The best barbecue cooker for you is the one that you feel most comfortable using. When choosing a cooker, there are a few things to consider: price range, what size meats you'll want to cook and what quantities you'll want to use, and, most important, your level of expertise. It is easier to learn on simple equipment and then move on to more advanced types of cookers than it is to jump headfirst into top-tier smokers and try to figure it out from there.
Now, most American households own a grill or smoker. The majority of these are grills fueled by propane gas-they're by far the most popular choice. On their own, gas grills don't give off that smoky flavor we who love barbecue crave, but they can be adapted so that they do. Regular kettle grills, like the much-loved Webers, also have capability for smoking. As far as smokers go, there's an incredible range, from the charcoal "bullet" smokers to rigs like the ones that I have custom-built. There are also Asian-inspired ceramic cookers, like the Big Green Egg, which have an army of enthusiasts. To my way of thinking, your cooker is your cooker; I can help you adapt any of them to properly smoke food. The most important thing, far more important than what style of cooker you use, is the mastery of proper barbecue cooking techniques.
Can I smoke food on a gas grill?
You bet your ass you can. Most of the models of gas grills have either two or three burners that can be controlled individually. Here's what to do: Take your favorite wood chips and soak them in water overnight. Drain them, wrap them in foil, and then poke several holes in the top of the packet. Set the packet of chips aside. On a two-burner gas grill, light only one side; on a three-burner unit, light the two outside burners and leave the middle one cold. Place your packet of wood chips on the lit section (or sections). The flame will smolder the wet chips, producing smoke for your meat. To smoke on a gas grill, place your meat on the unlit section. That's it. (Don't worry about the side vents and making them closed airtight; do the best you can to shut them, but none of my smokers are airtight, either. All my methods are simple, so let's not worry so much and make them complicated, all right?)
Can I smoke on a kettle grill?
You bet your ass you can. Soak your wood chips or chunks in water overnight. Drain them. Set them aside. On a regular kettle grill, you need to bank your charcoal to one side, leaving a cold area for the meat to be placed. Put the wood chips directly on your coals. Place the lid on the kettle and control the heat with the dampers (vents). Now you're really barbecuing.
What kind of wood should I use?
I like fruit woods because they're mild in flavor, high in sap, and have fewer impurities in them. When you cook with hickory and oak, which have more impurities in them, the impurities get on the grill, and if they get on the grill, then where else are they? That's right: in your food. This doesn't happen with milder and purer fruit woods. And note that when I say "mild," I'm meaning it as a compliment: there are a lot of flavor components on my meat, from rubs to marinades to glazes, and I look to the wood to add the most important base coat of smoke and subtle flavor but not to dominate the entire piece of meat. Make sense? Good. Now, if you have any access to dry fruit woods, take advantage of it. Because I live in Georgia, I have great access to peach wood, and that's what I've used since I started competitive barbecue cooking. But if you can get your hands on apple wood, pear wood, apricot wood, grapevine wood, or cherry wood, I say have at it- any and all of these are my top choices for the best barbecue.
What are the essential items to have in your barbecue pantry?
Since I started competing in 1996, all my ingredients have been items that can be picked up at the local supermarket. I am not into fancy ingredients; I'm into things that are tried-and-true, items that I know will taste good. That said, you can buy whichever brand, from the fanciest gourmet version to the house brand at any supermarket, and if you follow my recipes and combine them the way I tell you to, your barbecue will turn out delicious. So these are the things I always have on hand:
Light brown sugar
Dark brown sugar
Light corn syrup
Distilled white vinegar
Hot sauce (I've experimented a lot and prefer the Cajun Louisiana brand, chiefly because it's thin enough to fit through the injection syringe)
Accent flavor enhancer (also known as "msg," or monosodium glutamate; if you're philosophically opposed to this, try out some of those "Cajun spice blends" in the spice department of your supermarket)
Imitation butter flavoring
Beef broth concentrate (I like Minor's brand, which is available via mail order from soupbase.com; if you can't find it, you can substitute some very strong beef stock)
Jack's Old South Vinegar Sauce (this comes from me-it's my own brand of barbecue sauce and is available at jacksoldsouth.com; if you must, substitute a favorite brand)
Jack's Old South Hickory Sauce (this is my own brand, too, so sue me)
Why do you put a pan of water in your smoker?
I get so many questions about this, and honestly I wish I didn't. What I preach about barbecue is that it's simple and easy, and so I tell folks to stop trying to make it complicated. Besides, the issue of my water pan really seems to confuse people. They just don't get why I use it. But if you insist, here's the deal: A water pan is not a requirement to cook barbecue. However, it does have a significant benefit. What it does is create a water bath system inside the smoker that helps maintain the meat's moisture content, which is found naturally in the fat, or marbling, of the meat. So the water pan doesn't so much infuse the meat with moisture as it helps maintain what's already in there. It tenderizes the meat while you're barbecuing it, and that's a good thing. If you'd like to try the method, simply fill a heavy-bottomed medium-sized pan (no bigger than a simple 13 3 9-inch lasagna pan) about halfway with water and place it in the bottom of your smoker and see how it works for you.
Why do you let meat rest after you cook it?
When I take my meat off the smoker-no matter what kind of meat-I make sure I let it rest, gently covered with some aluminum foil, either in the pan I've cooked it in or on a cutting board for at least 20 minutes and sometimes more (in each recipe I give specific rest times, don't worry). Let me tell you: if you do not let the meat rest, it is not going to be worth a damn. It has to rest after you cook it so that the flavor can come back into it. You've got to let it rest sitting right down in its own juices. It allows the flavors to concentrate, it allows the texture to solidify, and it regulates the temperature throughout the piece of meat. Never skip this step, no matter how much of a hurry you may be in to get your food on the table.
How should I start my fire?
I am a stick-burning competitor. Nothing flavors the meat like whole sticks of wood, which is what barbecue is about-the flavor of natural smoke combined with the right seasonings and sauce. That said, I do start my fire with charcoal just to get a blaze going to burn the wood. And I start the charcoal with lighter fluid under protest and scrutiny from fellow competitors. They imply that the meat will taste like the fluid. Well, that's true if you don't read the damn directions on the bottle of fluid and after applying it, let the coals burn white. In other words, all you have to do is burn the fluid off before you put your meat on. Then you've started your fire as easily as possible while still getting the benefit of cooking over real wood.
How do I get my food to look like yours?