Beckwith: Here’s the rub on good barbecue
If friends invite you over for barbecue and when you show up they have pre-pattied burgers, a stack of wrapped individual American cheese slices, some Ball Park franks, a couple packs of dollar buns and a propane grill, you should be polite and eat that food because they’re feeding you for free and hot dogs and hamburgers are delicious. However, that’s not barbecue. Proper barbecue takes hours, and if you include rub and marinating time, days.
It’s the start of ’cue season and that means lighting fires, burning things, bathing in clouds of smoke, getting sauce in places you didn’t think possible, ribs, pulled pork, cornbread, day drinking, the outdoors, smoke rings and food-induced comas.
The difference between barbecue and firing up a gas Weber grill is like the difference between your friends’ garage band that occasionally gets wedding gigs and The Black Keys. Sure, they both make music with drums and a guitar, but you don’t plan a weekend around Smokin’ Joe and Zoe’s triumphant return to the Venga Venga patio. (No offense to Joe and Zoe out there grinding like Joey Knish from “Rounders” at Atlantic City every weekend.)
You’re probably asking, “What the hell does this ass-clown columnist know about barbecue?” Well, my sister, Sarah Beckwith, a chef at the acclaimed Oak in Boulder, has said if she ever opens a barbecue restaurant she’d make me the pit master. Nepotism aside, I’d say I’m qualified to write about the art of smoking a nice piece of meat.
When deciding what to smoke, I lean toward typical barbecue fare. I prefer St. Louis ribs to babyback ribs because I’ve found it’s easier to get St. Louis ribs to fall off the bone. Pork butts and briskets require longer cook times, so be sure to pace yourself. How are you going to eat when your power nap to pass the last hour turns into a three-and-a-half-hour snooze and you dry out your ’cue? This recently happened to me, but I miraculously didn’t ruin my pork shoulder. It needed a little sauce though, and proper pulled pork doesn’t need sauce. Also, your pulled pork should never be tossed with a whole bottle of Kraft’s KC Masterpiece. That’s like the person who drenches their fries in ketchup instead of dipping them like a normal person.
Sauces and rubs should be made in-house. If I wanted Famous Dave’s to flavor my meat, I’d go there with all the other soulless patrons. I like to keep it simple. Salt, brown sugar, paprika and some heat for my rub, and OJ, barbecue sauce, Sriracha and chopped chilies in adobo sauce reduced down for my mop sauce. And don’t give me a six-pack containing squeeze bottles of six different sauces. This is barbecue, not an opportunity to show off your saucier skills. You should rub your proteins the day prior to smoking them, especially the bigger cuts. Doing so allows the flavors to get into the meat and the rub to ingrain itself as opposed to a coat of seasoning.
Ideally you’ll have an actual smoker, but a normal charcoal number using indirect heat — coals on one side, protein on the other — will work for smaller item. Think chicken thighs, wings and even ribs. Lump charcoal is the money charcoal. It burns hotter than briquettes, but briquettes are nice on a grill because they last longer and you won’t have to mess with transferring new coals from chimney to grill. Notice how I said chimney. Yes, that little invention that allows you to start your coals without soaking it in lighter fluid, which should be avoided like match-light charcoal. Maybe it’s the Missouri-influenced pyro in me, but I just like starting fires and watching them like a neanderthal.
Chunks of wood are preferable to wood chips. Chunks are nice because they act as extra charcoal, keeping heat consistent once they’re done smoking. You don’t have to soak chunks, but chips need to be because they will ignite and mess with your heat, which I keep at about 250 to 275 degrees. I prefer fruitwoods like apple or peach. Hickory and mesquite can overpower your flavor, not compliment it.
Bring your meat up to temp before tossing it on the smoker and let it ride unscathed for at least an hour before basting. Mini mops are the best for basting. A brush works, too. Turkey basters are OK if you’re sauce isn’t too thick and you don’t mind looking like a goober. During the last hour of cooking I like to finish my ribs and pork shoulders wrapped in foil with some kind of liquid accompanying it to keep the meat juicy. However, it may take a couple layers of foil to avoid a leak. And lastly, let the ’cue rest for a bit before you cut into it. You don’t want those juices escaping.
As for how to politely tell your friend that his cookout isn’t a barbecue, just ask him what he’s cooking before you go next time, because if you don’t smell like smoke from your hair to your shoes, it’s not barbecue.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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