In researching this article, I interviewed my resident BBQ master (husband) to uncover some helpful guidelines for successful BBQ. After enduring a rant about how BBQ is not grilling, we got around to his top five rules:
- A wood or charcoal fire is a must: gas will not do.
- Proper and consistent temperature must be maintained.
- Array yourself with the right equipment.
- Take notes.
- Have some carnivorous friends.
Preferred hardwoods are hickory and oak, both of which are available as seasoned cord wood at the Woodshed Lumber Yard for $5-$10 for a small bag and $30-$45 for 8 cubic feet. Cherry and pecan woods are also available. Cross-cut these into 6” pieces on your table or band saw for additional manliness and fire control. Burn down to glowing red coals before even contemplating placing the meat in the smoke box: open flame will certainly result in too high of a temperature and the destruction of all your efforts.
I was instructed to tell you in no uncertain terms that BBQ is NOT grilling. BBQ is always indirect heat, low and slow. It is critical to maintain a constant temperature and this apparently requires vigilant attention and beer or whiskey, depending on the outside temperature. Weather conditions (including air temperature, wind and humidity) will affect cooking time as well as your ability to maintain a constant temperature.
The choice of actual cooking apparatus is a topic so fraught with controversy, I would not be so reckless as to take a corner. Search “best bbq smoker” for a thorough discourse on the subject.
Other things that are necessary or just handy and where to get them:
- Covered galvanized cans to dryly hold your charcoal and wood chunks. Intown Ace Hardware $22 (10 gallon).
- Chimney fire starter for guaranteed red hot coals in minutes. It’s even easier if you have a grill with a gas burner on the side. Set the chimney on the burner, fill with charcoal, light the burner and minutes later: coals. Ace $20.
- Temperature gauges: one for monitoring the temperature inside the smoke box and another for ascertaining the internal temperature of the meat. Ideally, you’ll have a gauge embedded in the smoker hood, but if not, you can get a sensor that sits inside the smoker with a cable to an external readout. Cook’s Warehouse $10-$35.
- Porcelain coated steel butcher trays are great for conveying meats and other foods from the kitchen to the BBQ and back. They are inexpensive ($7-15 each), sturdy, light weight, and the convex bottom collects juices around the edge of the tray. If using a dry rub, place the meat on the tray then apply the rub for easy clean up. Curiously, butcher trays seem to be sold only by art supply stores. Here’s a link.
- Tongs: a good pair of locking spring (aka utility) tongs can be had for $7-$25, but the pricier Rosle tongs have the added cool factor of magically locking when pointed up, and unlocking only when pointed down. Plus you can amuse yourself as your friends spend hours trying to figure out how they work. Cook’s Warehouse $30.
- Books: Cook’s Illustrated offers a comprehensive handbook ($35) complete with everything they tried that worked and didn’t with all the science behind it. Steve Raichlen’s books present an exhaustive range of recipes. “Barbeque Bible” $13, BBQ USA $15.
- Spices: It’s worth a trip to Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market to (cheaply) get every whole spice and dried herb that you will need. Your BBQ outcome will be enhanced if you toast whole spices and grind them yourself. Reserve a small coffee grinder for this purpose. Cooks Warehouse $20.
Dedicate a notebook for your BBQ Journal. Write down everything: the type and cut of meat, total weight before and after, marinating and/or rub details (ingredients, length of time), cooking temperature, cooking time, technique notes, where on the grill you placed the meat, weather conditions, the time of day you started, tasting results, texture results, what worked, what didn’t and how many beers/whiskeys you had. That may sound obsessive, but trust me, it will be highly annoying to be unable to replicate your brilliant success because you can’t remember exactly what you did to make it so.
As anyone who cooks anything knows, it doesn’t take much arm-twisting to round up a bunch of people willing to eat free food. This is a good thing because making small quantities of BBQ wastes fuel resources and is therefore environmentally unfriendly and irresponsible. Besides serving as eaters, it will be particularly helpful to the adventurous BBQ-er to have one or more friends who will latch onto an idea that is not particularly popular with one’s wife (such as whole suckling pig) and transform it into an unstoppable force with a life-energy of its own with which one’s wife must now go along.
My Two Cents on Sides
Considering that BBQ generally involves prodigious quantities of meat, I typically avoid heavy traditional sides like mac & cheese, baked beans, fries, creamed corn, etc. I want something lighter to balance and contrast with the fat in the meat—an astringent palette cleanser. For all kinds of salads, I tend toward (easy on the oil) vinaigrettes versus mayo dressings: , green salad, potato salad, . Grilled vegetables (summer squash, zucchini, red peppers, tomatoes, onions) are great dressed sparingly with a little olive oil and minced rosemary.
My Two Cents on Music
Please help me, people. As a former metal-chick, I know very little about music appropriate for a BBQ. I do have William-Sonoma’s Backyard Barbeque collection and I like it very much—I know you think it is very lame for me to have a food equipment purveyor’s pre-fab music selection, so don’t bother mentioning that. My dad only permitted old-school country & western in the house, so 30 years after totally hating that, I have the double CD Johnny Cash Man in Black, and I love local artist David Stephens and Banjolicious, especially his disc Far Cry.
NR: What is the appropriate mindset for the aspiring BBQ Master?
BBQM: Have patience. It takes time and practice.
NR: What one piece of advice would you offer?
BBQM: It can be rewarding or frustrating: you can do everything right and still have disappointing results. Don’t give up.
NR: Overall, it sounds complex and difficult to achieve perfect BBQ. Why would you invest so much time in doing something that might not pay off?
BBQM: It’s fun to play with fire. And you get to eat the results.
NR: Fire is not a toy and should not be played with by children, or unsafely by adults.
BBQM: That is so PC. But true.