Whether your barbecue go-to is burgers ’n’ dogs or St. Louis-style pork ribs, the backyard is the place to be this summer. In anticipation, it’s time to sharpen our grill skills and take some advice from pitmaster David Hill. He’s a former award-winning competitor and judge on the national BBQ circuit, and owns BBQ Pro in Fair Oaks, a Big Green Egg dealership that stocks ’cue essentials for novice and expert cookers alike.
“Barbecue is not all about the food,” Hill reminded us. “It’s an event. What you’re doing at the time – having fun with family and friends – makes food better. Just don’t get in a hurry.”
Q: Let’s talk about heat source.
A: I prefer lump charcoal, which is (burned) natural wood and won’t flavor the meat. (Second choice is) natural briquettes, held together with vegetable starches, which is better than the petrochemicals that bond mainstream briquets.
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Q: Best way to light the charcoal?
A: Charcoal lighter fluid stays around and flavors the meat. You think you’ve burned it off, but there’s always some residual. There are more benign options, such as lighter cubes and electric fire-starters, and the always-reliable metal chimney.
Q: Texas-style spice rub or liquid marinade?
A: Both. A marinade/brine penetrates the meat and allows it to hold moisture and make meat tender. A brine can be something as simple as water with equal parts salt and sugar, and whatever additional flavorings you add. A marinade also acts as a brine, but usually has more intense flavors (teriyaki, rum, ginger) and more acid (lemon, tomato, wine), which makes them work quicker. A day or two (of soaking) is enough for meat to brine, and 30 minutes to overnight is fine for marinade. Rub goes on after the brining or marinating.
Q: Like brines and marinades, most rubs contain salt and sugar.
A: Rubs can stay on for a day or so, but be careful with the salt content, it can start to cure the meat. Many are coming out that are salt-free, allowing you to leave it on longer for deeper penetration of the herbs and spices.
Q: What’s the best time to add sauce?
A: It should be applied at the very end of cooking, just long enough for the sugar in the sauce to start to caramelize but not burn.
Q: Heat control is always an issue.
A: The hardest thing to do is maintain low temperature. Some backyard cooks often let the heat drift up to 300 degrees and more, which is not as good as a lower temperature for longer cooking because the meat won’t be as tender. Briquettes in particular tend to ramp up because of their density.
Q: How best to use smoking woods?
A: All of them emit very strong flavors in the first few minutes of adding them to the charcoal. So chips and chunks are really there for that initial contact with the raw meat, when it’s porous and will accept the smoke. Once the meat starts to sear and seal up, it gets no smoke penetration.
Q: Do certain woods go better with specific meats?
A: Matching smoking woods to meats is a tried-and-true tradition. When we think of sweet fruit woods – apple, peach, cherry, apricot – we think of them for poultry, fish and pork. The nutty woods – hickory, alder, pecan, almond – are more for beef and also pork. Having said that, there is no right or wrong. You can do apple on beef or hickory on chicken.
Q: What is the “secret” to great barbecue?
A: Time, patience and sometimes beer.