The backyard grilling season is white-hot, as weekend warriors face fire and smoke, seasonings and sauces in a primordial ritual that slowly brings poultry and tough cuts of meat to tender and aromatic glory. Few culinary moments are as gratifying as when the home cook proudly brings platters of smoke-fragrant meats and veggies from the grill to the table, with family and friends watching in wonder.
On a broader plane, home cooks live in BBQ Nation, governed by meat councils, pitmasters and grill manufacturers. It’s the land of National Barbecue Month (each May), the World Series of Barbecue and the authoritative Kansas City Barbeque Society, which sanctions hundreds of judged competitions nationwide. It’s where 500,000 ’cue-lovers will gather in Sparks, Nev., over Labor Day weekend for the 27th annual Best In the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off.
The simple act of cooking over hot coals is so marinated in mythology, mystery and lore that it seems much harder than it really is. We must navigate cuts of meat, fuel choices, cook times, an overload of sauces, rubs and marinades, and way too many frivolous accessories, such as the motorized grill brush with built-in steam cleaner. And there seem to be as many ways to grill and smoke as there are experts and cookbooks telling us how.
All that background noise can be deafening, and compounding the racket is regionalism. In Texas, for instance, the meat of choice is brisket cooked over mesquite or pecan wood and served with tomato- or molasses-based sauces, depending on where you are in the state. The Carolinas are all about pulled pork with mustard- and vinegar-based sauces. In Memphis, you’ll find pork ribs and shoulder served with sweet tomato-based sauce. Kansas City pitmasters serve a spectrum of meats, including mutton and fish, with tomato-molasses sauce.
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In which direction do we go? California’s signature ’cue is tri-tip, a muscle cut from the bottom sirloin of the steer. Traditionally, it’s seasoned with garlic powder, salt and pepper and cooked Santa Maria-style, uncovered and fired over glowing embers of red oak and served with pink pinquito beans on the side.
But we’re approaching TMI. Let’s slow it down and focus on three essential ingredients of backyard cooking: fuel, spice rub and sauce. As for the choice of just what to cook, the only rule is “quality in, quality out.”
For wise guidance, we turned to three pitmasters.
David Hill owns the Fair Oaks-based BBQ Pro, whose slogan is “everything for the pitmaster.” He’s a member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and competes in national barbecue competitions.
We asked him about fuel. At the top of that “food chain” is additive-free lump charcoal, a.k.a. “natural hardwood charcoal,” he explained. It’s chunks of wood that have been burned into charcoal to eliminate the bitter-tasting tannins in the raw wood. Because of their irregular shapes, it takes some skill to lay down a bed of lump charcoal that gives consistent heat. As always, heat is controlled by adjusting the top and bottom vents of the cooker.
A step down in purity is “all-natural” briquettes, formed from pulverized hardwood charcoal, held together with vegetable-starch binder and molded into pillow shapes.
At the low end is America’s best-seller – mass-produced charcoal briquettes made from pulverized charcoal sourced from scrap wood and bound by petrochemicals for easy lighting and even burning. They were “invented” by Henry Ford. “The process is similar to making particle board,” Hill said.
To add smoke flavor to food, the choice is between natural wood chips or wood chunks. Don’t even think about “liquid smoke.”
“Chips smoke for five to 10 minutes and give a burst of flavor,” Hill said. “Chunks add smoke for an hour, with the secondary benefit of turning into fuel for the fire.” The technique is to add chips or chunks (one or two) to ready-to-cook coals immediately before putting the meat on the grill.
The smoke from wood chunks and chips “delivers specific wood flavors to meats,” Hill said. Stone-fruit wood such as cherry, peach and apricot will also impart color. “Cherry gives a wine-colored hue to pork roasts and ribs; apricot gives golden color to chicken.”
The nut woods – almond, pecan and hickory – “give bolder, sweeter flavors than fruit woods,” Hill said. “Hickory is the boldest of the three, and is used on larger cuts of meat such as brisket, which can take a lot of smoke flavor without being overpowered.”
We then asked chef-author Tom Douglas about seasoning rub. The James Beard Award winner operates 16 restaurants in Seattle, and markets a line of sauces and dry rubs.
“Dry rubs have replaced acidic marinades for good reason,” he said. “Marinades can overwork the meat and make the exterior mealy. You can leave on a rub for a whole day and you won’t get mealy, and it creates a nice crust.”
As for sauces, we consulted veteran cooker Ed Anhorn. He owns Sierra Smokehouse BBQ in Cameron Park, competed in national barbecue events for years, and was a judge for the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
“In the competitive world, we say sauce is used to cover up your mistakes,” Anhorn said. “If you’ve seasoned the meat with rub and do a low-and-slow cook, you really shouldn’t need sauce, except as an enhancer.
“If you douse the meat with sauce, you’re going to cover up that flavor base you’ve work so hard to attain,” he said. “Instead, give it a light glaze with a brush the last 15 minutes of cooking and let it caramelize on top of the rub, and then give it one more light application at the end. Serve sauce on the side for dipping, which makes the amount your guests use a personal choice.
“When you glaze correctly, the sauce sticks to the meat and doesn’t ooze off,” he said. “Sauce smeared all over their faces makes the cook think they enjoyed his barbecue, but you don’t want that.”
But if that happens to be the case, look for the hose in the backyard.
Six things to know about ’cue
1. Regardless of the fuel – charcoal or gas – direct flame is not your friend. Use it sparingly to sear and char meats at the start (preferably) or finish of cooking.
2. Cooking slowly over low heat is better than rushing over high heat. That’s because the moisture stays in the meat and the end result is a juicier meal.
3. When cooking chicken or larger cuts of meat, always have an instant-read thermometer on hand. You don’t want to cut into a prime rib and find it raw or overdone.
4. ’Cue isn’t real without smoke flavor. Always add some element of wood, either chips or chunks, during the cooking process.
5. Experiment and bend a few rules. The worst that can happen is you try again next weekend.
6. For the sake of correct terminology: What most of us do in our backyards on our kettles is grilling. What restaurants do on huge cast-iron smokers using indirect heat is barbecuing, which involves split logs, a whole lot of smoke, hours of time and constant attention.
Put a rub on it
Dry rubs are mixes of spices and herbs that impart flavors to pork, beef, poultry, seafood and vegetables. Some are targeted to certain meats, while others cross over to a wider range of use.
Apply them liberally and rub them all over the surface of the meat. Allow the rub to season the meat for at least two hours before cooking, though some pitmasters recommend 12 to 24 hours. They don’t replace sauce, but are meant to complement it. These six are among our favorites. – A.P.
Tom Douglas Smoky BBQ Rub is full-bodied with smoky-sweet heat, rich with brown sugar, smoked paprika and chile peppers, and tweaked with thyme, coriander, garlic and rosemary. Use on pork or beef (get it at Sur La Table in Roseville).
House of Justice Ancho Chili Rub brings salty-garlicky flavor and moderate heat to pork, beef and poultry (BBQ Pro in Fair Oaks).
Miners Mix Kansas City Style Kit’s K.C. BBQ is fiery and sweet, and the only rub we’ve found that contains fenugreek, a distinct Mideastern spice that’s become fashionable. Use it on pork, chicken and veggies (BBQ Pro).
Miners Mix Poultry Perfection is pleasingly sharp with mustard powder and garlic, accented with a sweet-semi-hot background. Specifically for chicken, turkey and duck, and heavy veggies (BBQ Pro).
Tom Douglas Rub With Love Chicken Rub has more complex flavors than Miners Mix, influenced by turmeric, cinnamon and star anise (Corti Bros. Market in Sacramento).
Though Williams-Sonoma Brown Sugar & Maple Bacon Seasoning is meant to be sprinkled over bacon, it works well on any pork. Sweet maple and cinnamon flavors dominate (Williams-Sonoma in Sacramento and Roseville).
BBQ sauce throwdown
You’ll find dozens of brands of BBQ sauces on supermarket shelves, but we wanted to taste a few that have yet to reach super-mainstream status.
We hunted and gathered from several local sources. Next, we assembled a crew of ’cue aficionados and put a dozen sauces to the taste test. Tasters dipped two meats into each sauce: pulled pork from Fahrenheit 250 and char-roasted tri-tip from Buckhorn Grill. They judged the sauces for appearance, aroma, texture and flavor, charting them with tasting notes. The best possible per-judge score for each sauce was 10, with the best possible cumulative score of 80. Out of a possible 80 points per sauce, six scored 40 or higher, for inclusion here. – Allen Pierleoni
Tom Douglas Spicy Red Chili Teriyaki Sauce, 65 points: Brown sugar, rice vinegar, pineapple juice and sesame oil meld brilliantly with chili paste, ginger, star anise and garlic. Sweet and moderately hot on the front end, followed on the back by dramatic notes of ginger and garlic, with a clean finish. Get it at Sur la Table in the Fountains center, 1198 Roseville Parkway; (916) 788-0603.
David’s Unforgettable Spicy Balsamic BBQ Sauce and Marinade, 60 points: Balsamic and red wine vinegars join molasses, onion, garlic and spices for a puckery-sweet front followed by lingering heat. Get it at Compton’s Market, 4065 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 456-2443.
Daddy Sam’s Original Just Slop It On Sawce, 58: Big molasses befriends cayenne and jalapeno peppers, tomato, mustard, onion and garlic for the thick epitome of sweet ’n’ heat. Get it at Corti Bros. Market, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 736-3800.
Ashley & Moore Classic BBQ Sauce, 52 points: Ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar, hot peppers and spices (and coffee for coloring) combine for an old school-style crowd-pleaser with oomph. Get it at BBQ Pro, 10136 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks; (916) 595-7444.
Hak’s Thai Chili-Tamarind BBQ Sauce, 48 points: The fruit from the tamarind-tree pod informs this sauce with a compelling bitter note that’s mellowed by tomato, dates, soy sauce and cane sugar, then fired with Thai chile and habanero. Get it at World Market, 2797 E. Bidwell St., Folsom; (916) 817-2500.
Craft Beer Pale Ale Western Carolina-Style BBQ Sauce, 40 points: A trio of mustards mingle with vinegar and aged cayenne pepper sauce for an acidic bite that’s slowed down with apple cider and ale, then shocked with a sweet shiver of cane sugar. Get it at Williams-Sonoma in the Galleria center, 1151 Galleria Blvd., Roseville, (916) 788-1240; and in the Pavilions center on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue, (916) 646-0189.
Roasted camp corn
Prep time: 30 minutes
Grill time: 24 minutes
Serve with additional sweet pepper sauce and Creole seasoning, if desired. Recipe from Southern Living’s “Big Book of BBQ.”
6 ears fresh yellow corn with husks
1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon sweet pepper sauce, like Pickapeppa
1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat gas grill to 400 to 500 degrees (high) or a use very hot charcoal. Remove heavy outer husks from corn; pull back (but do not remove) inner husks. Remove and discard silks, rinse corn and dry with paper towels. Set aside.
Melt 1/4 cup butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in the dried basil and next three ingredients, stirring until blended. Brush corn evenly with butter mixture. Pull husks back over corn. Grill corn, covered with grill lid, 24 minutes, making quarter turns every 6 to 7 minutes. Pull back husks before serving.
Root beer baked beans
Sweet, salty and robust, these are the baked beans you grew up polishing off at backyard barbecues. You’ll never reach for a can again. To get the most delicious flavor, we recommend using artisanal root beer made with cane sugar (not corn syrup). Recipe from Bon Appétit’s “The Grilling Book.”
4 slices applewood-smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
3 1/2 cups chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
Four 15-ounce cans cannellini beans (white kidney beans) rinsed, drained
1 1/2 cups root beer, preferably artisinal
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons mild-flavored (light) molasses
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat over to 400 degrees. Cook bacon in a large ovenproof pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels. Add onions to drippings in pot; cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic; stir for 1 minute. Add beans, root beer, vinegar, molasses, mustard, tomato paste, chili powder, salt and pepper; mix well. Stir in bacon; bring to a boil. Transfer to oven; bake uncovered until liquid thickens, about 30 minutes.
Baby back ribs
Prep time: 3 hours (includes 2 hours of resting the seasoned ribs before cooking)
Cook time: About an hour
Here’s one tried-and-true model for cooking baby back ribs. Baby backs come from the loin of the hog, while spareribs are from the belly (as is bacon). Baby backs are easier to grill, tastier and more tender than spareribs. If you insist on spareribs, ask the butcher to trim them “St. Louis-style” to get rid of the fat flap and gristle. It’s the rack of choice in professional BBQ competitions. Recipe from Allen Pierleoni.
Two racks baby backs
Your favorite rub
Cold beer (optional)
Ask the butcher for two racks of baby backs, peeled and split. This means the membranes on the backs of the 13-rib racks will be removed and the racks will be cut in half for easier handling.
Liberally – that means “a lot” – coat the meat side of the racks with a favorite spice rub, and massage it into the meat (see sidebar ). Let the ribs sit for two or so hours to allow the spices to mingle with the meat. Sometimes we let ’em sit (covered) overnight in the refrigerator, marinating in beer.
Fill a large coffee cup three-quarters full of wood chips, then pour in beer to fill. The chips will absorb the liquid, so when you add them to the hot coals they’ll smoke and not burst into flame. We favor pecan chips because the smoke flavor doesn’t dominate the meat. If you want heavier smoke, go for hickory or mesquite.
In a kettle cooker (with a cover), fire up a big mound of lump charcoal or “all-natural briquettes.” The mound should be big enough to cover the charcoal grate in an even layer after the coals are hot. When the mound begin turning white, with a bit of red and a few little flames and sparks, rake the coals into an even layer.
Close the bottom dampers 75 percent of the way to cool things down, and put on the lid. Wait 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the kettle lid. The fire should be about right. If it seems too hot, slightly close the top damper and wait another 10 minutes.
Ready? Moving quickly, drain the wood chips and toss them onto the coals. Always add the chips before the meat, as the meat can’t absorb more smoke later in the cooking process. If you add more chips later, you risk oversmoking the meat and making it bitter.
Lay the ribs bone-side down on the grill and put on the lid. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, then turn them over. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes more. Turn again and cook for another 20 minutes. During this last span of cooking, lightly brush the ribs with sauce; you’re looking for a glaze that will caramelize in the heat. Note: Never brush sauce onto raw ribs and then cook them; the heat will burn the sugar in the sauce and you’ll need to go out for dinner.
Remove the ribs to a platter. Are they done? Cut one off and look at it. It should be juicy and pinkish-whitish in color. The rub should have formed a crust – called “bark” – on the meat side of the ribs. Let the ribs rest for 10 minutes. Cut them them up and serve with sauce on the side, for dipping.