- Start off in North Carolina, the home of slow-smoked pork and tangy vinegar sauce. Other highlights include chicken quarters with church sauce, barbecue potatoes, collard chowder, and pork belly hash.
- Travel the Lowcountry, where seafood meets barbecue. Go all out with frogmore stew, pickled shrimp, and fire-roasted oysters, or sample unique recipes like funeral grits, likker pudding, and James Island shrimp pie.
- Then take a trip to Memphis and the Delta, a longtime barbecue hub known for dry-rubbed ribs. Other standouts might surprise you! Learn the secrets behind Delta tamales, Merigold tomatoes, okra fries with comeback sauce, and country style duck.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
So you want to cook barbecue? While you can cook barbecue on a grill, barbecuing is not the same as firing up the grill to cook hot dogs and hamburgers. Cooking barbecue is something that takes time; it's all about low temperature and a slow pace to develop those sought-after smoky flavors.
As you learn the basics of barbecuing, not everything will turn out perfectly. Because large cuts of meat take a long time to smoke properly, my advice is to start out small. Smoke some wings (page 86) or chicken quarters (page 47). Then try some ribs (page 124). Only once you get the feel for your grill should you try larger cuts of meat, such as pork butt (page 42).
What you choose to smoke with is a personal choice. You can smoke with a regular backyard grill, a pellet smoker, or even a huge reverse-airflow smoker — the kind you see at competitions. While there's a reason the big, expensive smokers are popular for the obsessed, you don't need one to smoke meat at home. In fact, I started out in my backyard, smoking on a little charcoal grill you could find at any chain hardware store. I smoked anything I could get my hands on month after month and eventually jumped to a 12-foot (3.5 m) reverse-airflow monster. (I named her Jezebel.) That's a big jump, but I knew I was obsessed!
I'm not here to sell you on what type of grill or smoker is best. Everyone's needs are different. Instead, in this chapter I will do my best to explain what I've learned over the years in the hope it will help you on your own barbecue journey.
FIRE, FUEL, AND FRIENDS
You don't need a ton of equipment to get started in barbecue, but you will need to make a few important decisions as you get going. First, you'll need a grill or smoker, the source of your fire. Then you'll need to figure out your fuel — a.k.a. choosing your wood. Last but not least, you have got to find yourself a few good friends willing to embark on the barbecue journey with you. Once you get into smoking large cuts of meat, which can take at least eight hours or more, you'll be glad to have company.
The first thing you'll need, and the most expensive, is a grill or smoker to harness your fire. As I've already mentioned, there is nothing wrong with starting small. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of the main choices, as well as what to look for:
The basic setup: For a starter setup you can't go wrong with a Weber Kettle grill. It's a great all-around tool that you can use to grill burgers or smoke a whole Boston butt. They can be found at most large hardware store chains.
The middle road: Once you get into smoking and you want to elevate your barbecue game, a pellet smoker, such as a Traeger grill, is a nice next step. Cooking with a pellet smoker means you don't have to worry about finding and curing wood (discussed on page 17). They also eliminate the strain of constantly adding wood to an existing fire as most models have a hopper to constantly feed your smoker with pellets.
The high end: When you talk about true stick burner pits, you don't need to look any further than Lang brand smokers. They offer several different models, from the 36-inch (91 cm) series, which is perfect for your backyard patio, to the 108-inch (274 cm) series, which can be found behind some of the South's finest barbecue restaurants.
When trying to decide on a smoker, you need to take several factors into account. The first thing is budget. It can be tough to pull together a few thousand dollars for a high-end smoker — and to be honest, I wouldn't recommend it if you're just starting out. Make sure you love cooking barbecue — like you-want-to-cook-for-competitions love it — before you drop that kind of money. Start out small and work your way up!
Ask yourself how much you're going to use the grill or smoker. Think about what you're going to be cooking and whom you are going to be cooking for. If you are just going to be cooking for your family, you shouldn't need a huge cooking surface. If you plan on throwing a party or hosting a tailgate every weekend, you will need a big cooking surface (and possibly a pull-behind smoker on a trailer!).
The most important thing to keep in mind is quality. Whatever grill you buy needs to be well-built. Move the smoker around, open the lid, and check the metal to see how thick it is. As a rule of thumb, if it feels well-built and is heavy, it will be a good smoker. On the other hand, thin metal won't hold heat very well, which means you will constantly be adding wood to your fire to keep the temperature in the correct range. Likewise, if the lid isn't heavy and well-built, smoke will pour out of the seams. Finally, it's worth checking the dampers to see if they will slide easily. As metal heats, it expands, which will only make sticky dampers harder to adjust.
Okay, you've got your grill or smoker sorted out. The next thing you need to decide is what type of fuel you want to use. I recommend using lump charcoal to start any fire, whether it's for a longer 10-hour cook or just grilling out a pork loin. Charcoal is just to get the fire started, though. To smoke meat, you'll rely on wood.
No matter what type of wood you choose, make sure you're buying cured wood. Smoking with green wood (fresh wood that has just been cut) is notoriously hard due to the amount of moisture in it. On the other hand, you don't want to use wood that is too dry. Anything that has been kiln dried, such as the bags of wood you often find at the hardware store, is great wood for grilling a steak or pork chops. However, you'll want to stay away from this type of wood when you're smoking. In fact, most bagged woods are kiln dried, which means they will burn too quickly. (You can soak them, but it's extremely difficult to get just the right amount of moisture in them without waterlogging them and putting out your fire.) Cured wood is the way to go.
When it comes to wood size, you'll have a few options. The purest form of cooking barbecue would, of course, start with split pieces of wood. This can be a bit problematic if you are cooking on a small backyard grill that won't hold an 18-inch (46 cm) piece of wood. If you have access to a table saw, you can cut the wood into smaller pieces that will fit in your grill. Another option is wood pellets, which are made from compacted sawdust and come in a wide variety of flavors. They make it easy to work with different flavor profiles. They also tend to burn both hotter and more slowly than whole pieces of wood.
As for the type of wood, at my restaurant we mostly use white oak, with a mix of some red oak depending on what's available. Oak is a wood that is pretty easy to come by, and I also like the mellow smoke flavor it gives meat. However, depending on where you live and what is available, you'll need to play around with different woods. In most parts of the country you can find common woods such as hickory, cherry, and apple that have been cured and are ready to go.
Note: The best place to find wood is often right in your own backyard or the yard of a friend or neighbor. Almost everyone loves a hand with brush cleanup, and you may walk away with some nice pieces of oak! Just make sure you aren't stuck chopping pine or another wood not suitable for smoking. Once you've got your wood, find a nice dry place or a shed and let it dry out. In about a month you will have cured wood that is ready to cook with.
A lot of people overlook this last essential ingredient, but it's one of the things that make barbecue a special hobby: You absolutely need to find a few good friends to barbecue with you! Now what you're looking for here is a couple of folks as crazy as you, willing to stay up all night smoking meat. (Ideally, they'll be great storytellers as well.) While you might think you can go it alone, take it from someone who has sat up a lot of nights cooking by myself — it's just not as fun. At best, it might be enjoyable for a few hours ... but at some point toward dawn, you'll end up talking to yourself. Over the years, my barbecue buddies have become some of my best friends. The stories we have shared created a bond that can only be formed around a fire, cooking all night.
OTHER USEFUL ITEMS
After you have the big three covered, the first item I recommend buying is a notebook. As I started getting serious about smoking, I started taking notes. I would record things like how long I cooked the meat, what type(s) of wood I used, if there were any issues, even what the weather was like (yes, I have barbecued in a snowstorm ... at the beach none the less). Then, most importantly, what was the result? Tasting notes are every bit as crucial as cooking notes.
Another item I recommend is a digital instant-read thermometer. Accurate temperatures are crucial when cooking barbecue. Even after years of practice, when I think I could barbecue in my sleep, I still use one every day. Especially when you start out, though, without a reliable thermometer, how will you know if your chicken is done or way past done, or if the Boston butt stalled?
You'll find a good pair of heavy-duty gloves are useful from start to finish. From the very beginning as you get the charcoal started, you'll be generating a good amount of heat, so don't wait to put on your gloves. And opt for longer gloves that cover your forearms. Trust me: When you pull that first Boston butt off the grill and pig grease runs down your forearm, you will regret not buying the longer gloves (though I say it's okay to proudly display minor barbecue burns at work on Monday if you'd like). Also, if you do get burned, try covering the burn in yellow mustard. Seriously! It works.
A small pan for water will prove useful when smoking (see page 22). You can use a disposable foil pan or a small restaurant pan, if you have room. If you don't have much room, a metal coffee can will work!
HOW TO SET UP A GRILL FOR SMOKING
There are a few things you'll need to juggle on just about any grill: your fuel source (coal and wood), your meat, and a water pan. Let's run through them in that order.
Most grills have a way for you to put your fuel source on one side and periodically add extra fuel to your existing fire. On some grills, this can be done by leaving a grate out on one side of the grill. Alternatively, on other grills, such as kettle-style grills, you can flip part of the grate open to add more fuel. When smoking, you want your fuel source to be as far away from your meat as possible. You should also try to place the meat on the area of the grill where the smoke will be exiting. In short, you want to make sure you get as much of the flow of smoke over the surface of the meat as you possibly can. (Another advantage to having your fuel source at the opposite end from the meat is that it will allow you to add more wood and charcoal throughout the cooking process without moving the meat.)
If this is sounding abstract, think of the opposite scenario, which you don't want: If you place a whole Boston butt over a live flame, not only will it cook too fast, but once the grease gets flowing, it will drip right on the fire, causing flare-ups. Burned is never the flavor profile you are going for!
When it comes to placing the meat, there are a few considerations. If you're smoking only one type of meat, this is the simplest setup because you need to consider only one type of food. Once you have a few smoking sessions under your belt, there's nothing wrong with smoking more than one type of meat at a time, or even mixing in some grilling with your smoking. The trick is to figure out about how long it takes to cook each thing and where you will need to place it at different times during the cook. Hot and fast things like burgers and flank steak will need to be cooked directly over the fire, whereas other items like ribs and Boston butts need to be cooked away from the fire. Careful planning is needed because you'll need to limit the amount of time your grill lid is open to minimize losing temperature in your grill.
Now that you've got your plan for where to place the fuel and the meat, you're almost done. However, there's one last thing you will need to plan for before you're ready to dump your coals and start smoking: a water pan. The water pan serves two purposes. The main reason to use a water pan is to help with humidity. During the cooking process, the air in your smoker will naturally become dry. Evaporation from the water pan will create humidity, which will keep the meat from drying out during a long smoke. Second, placing a small water pan under what you are cooking will help with cleanup after you cook because it will catch excess grease or seasoning that may fall off during the cooking process.
Note: Some people get creative with the water pan. For example, I've tried adding apple juice to the pan when cooking ribs. When the sweet apple juice evaporates, you will get an added layer of sugar on your ribs.
Now that we have the grill setup planned, let's go ahead and get a fire going. Don't get me wrong, building a fire from twigs is fun — but it's also very time-consuming. Using charcoal and a chimney starter is quicker, foolproof, and reliable. Here's how to do it:
1. Crumple up newspaper or junk mail and stuff it underneath the chimney. Make sure you don't overfill it; if you do, you will not get any air into your fire and it won't burn properly.
2. Fill the charcoal to the top of the chimney. There's no need to fill the chimney to the point where it is overflowing; you will add wood during the cooking process. The charcoal is just to get the fire going.
3. Light the newspaper in the bottom of the chimney, making sure you have adequate airflow to the charcoal. As the flames begin to overtake the charcoal, you will begin to hear some pops and see sparks.
4. Let the charcoal burn down until it is mostly bright red. The flame at the top of the chimney will sometimes resemble a jet engine.
At this point your chimney is ready, but it's going to be very hot. Using heavy-duty gloves, slowly pour the charcoal into the correct spot on your grill. From here, you'll need an understanding of the elements of a good fire and how to control it. It's time to add some wood. Start with your smallest piece or two, ensuring that you don't overcrowd your fire. What you want is a good fire that slowly builds. Once your first pieces of wood begin to burn, start adding more pieces until you have a large enough fire for your grill (see the photo on page 27 for a sense of fire size). When you have a good fire established, close the lid or door.
As you add the wood, there are other considerations to keep in mind. No matter how long your wood has cured or dried, there will still be a bit of moisture in it. How much moisture is in the wood will affect the amount of time it takes to get the wood up to a consistent fire that's burning well. Higher moisture in the wood will also cool down your fire because it will take a longer amount of time to cook the moisture out of the wood. Don't get frustrated with a "bad" fire or a slow-starting fire. You'll find all fires are different. Sometimes you'll get one that will burn perfectly, then the next one will be all over the place — even when the wood is from the same pile.
Besides wood moisture, the other main variable is the air. To get a good, consistent fire going, you have to find the perfect balance of air. You want to encourage the fire to grow, but you don't want it roaring in no time. The amount of airflow in your grill is controlled with dampers, either on the side or on the top.
Keep in mind that all grills and smokers are different. Some have great insulation, while some have poor insulation; some have an offset firebox, while others don't. You will have to learn your own personal sweet spot through your first few sessions. Once you find it, you won't forget it! I can tell you that on my smoker, Jezebel, the smoke stack damper needs to be 80 percent open, the left side firebox vent needs to be 50 percent open, the back needs to be closed, and the right side vent needs to be barely open. Just like my anniversary, it's engraved into my memory!
COOKING AND MAINTAINING THE FIRE
Now that your fire is going, it's almost time to get the meat in place (make sure to add the water pan as well if you haven't done so already). The fire you built should be good for about the first hour, but you shouldn't add the meat immediately. You'll have to wait for the right kind of smoke.
Learning how to read smoke is a skill, but it's a fun one to learn. Staring at smoke billowing from a fire that you made with your own hands is as primal as it gets, and most barbecue lovers find it magical. However, the smoke also provides valuable information. By watching your smoke carefully, you can get a sense of what's going on with your fire without opening the grill to check it.
Smoke will go through three distinct stages. The first stage is a heavy, thick smoke. Usually at the beginning of the cook, this smoke will be so thick it's hard to see through. I recommend waiting out this smoke and letting the fire calm down a bit before putting any meat on. Even if the meat is not directly over the fire, it will still be too hot, and you risk developing undesirable flavors. The second stage, when the smoke is not as thick, is what you're waiting for. The best way I can describe this smoke is to think of the way smoke rolls out of the chimney of a house. It's consistent, but not flowing fast. When your smoke is at this stage, your fire has the perfect balance of air. Now it's time to get the meat on the grill or smoker.
Once your meat is on the grill, you can let the fire burn until the smoke tells you it's starting to dwindle. During this last stage, as the fire dies down, the smoke will decrease, and if you leave for a few minutes and come back, you might not even see any smoke at all. Yet you can still feel the heat coming out of your grill. When this happens, it's time to add more wood to get the fire going again and producing smoke.
Note: Reading smoke is great, but you should also monitor a thermometer once you have meat smoking. It will tell you the internal temperature of the smoker, and you'll need to keep a close eye on that temperature to make sure you're not cooking your meat too fast or too slow. If your fire is too cool, you can let some additional air in; if it's too hot, you can restrict the airflow to starve it a bit. This adjustment is straightforward and easy to master in a smoking session or two.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Southern Smoke"
Copyright © 2019 Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc..
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 BARBECUE BASICS, 13,
2 NORTH CAROLINA Pork, Vinegar and Collards, 41,
3 THE LOW COUNTRY Shrimp, Rice, and Okra, 83,
4 MEMPHIS AND THE DELTA Ribs, Catfish, and Tamales, 123,
5 THE SOUTHERN BAKERY Flour, Cornmeal, and Butter, 167,
SOUTHERN SUPPER MENUS, 198,
THE SOUTHERN PANTRY, 200,
A FEW BOOKS, 202,
THANK YOU, 203,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, 205,