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Do you know barbecue? Barbecue is a term that is often thrown around and can mean different things. The main distinction is whether it’s a noun or a verb. As a verb, it can mean just about anything that is cooked on a grill, gas-powered or charcoal. Burgers on a grill, kebabs, steak, chicken wings, fish, asparagus, even pineapple. But if you say that you are going to eat barbecue, if that verb “to barbecue” becomes a noun then, for Americans at least, this can only mean one thing.
Low-and-slow charcoal and wood-smoked meats. The kind that are smoked for up to eighteen hours, over woods like hickory, apple, mesquite, or cherry, smothered in dry rub (a mixture of spices, often including chili, pepper, paprika, sugar, celery salt, cumin and much more), and perhaps (but only perhaps) topped with a sticky, smoky, spicy, sweet barbecue sauce with a base of molasses (if you’re in the Kansas City area) or vinegar (around North Carolina).
It’s southern food, but you’ll find incredible versions of it in the American Midwest and in Texas. Each region has its specialty. Texas is known for beef, and the most famous cut of beef is brisket, the breast of the cow, the toughest, stringiest, chewiest piece you can find. That is, until you smoked the hell out of it for eighteen hours, after which its shell is blackened, but the meat falls apart, flaking like rare salmon, with a taste that’s… well… the stuff of dreams.
A matter of time
Having lived for many years in Europe, American smoked barbecue is the food that I miss most and find least often. You can get good barbecue. But the great stuff? Almost never on this side of the Atlantic. The difference is in the time - I’m tempted to say the laziness of the chef.
Great barbecue must be smoked with love and patience. You can get a barbecue-y flavor by smoking meat for two hours and finishing it on the grill, using heavy doses of barbecue sauce and even a dash of “liquid smoke,” a product that injects smokiness (it is a potion made of a smoked soy sauce, among other ingredients) without the meat having necessarily been exposed to, you know, smoke.
But the “bark” of great barbecue, the flesh infused with flavor throughout, the falling-off-the-hone texture, are signs of the real deal. Slowly smoked meat, suspended off-set from the heat source, enriched by the smoke from wood chips infusing and softening it for as much as 18 hours.
3 Main American Barbecue Categories
For those unfamiliar with American-style barbecue, there here are three categories you might try.
Texas Brisket: The king of American barbecue categories, the least-desired piece of a cow transforms into smoky, buttery unctuousness when smoked over woodchips for, say, 18 hours. The outside “bark” is blackened and crisp, the inside melty and… I’m getting hungry just writing this.
Carolina Pulled Pork: Cook a hunk of fatty meat long enough and it falls apart. Cover said meat in a dry rub of mixed spices, tear it apart with forks, douse it in sauce (vinegar-based, since this is the Carolinas) and stick it in a sandwich.
Kansas City Ribs: Legend has it that Henry Perry, circa 1900, first served slow-smoked meat in Kansas City, and the approach he used launched one of the great barbecue centers of the world. What distinguishes KC barbecue from others is the use of a sauce that contains tomato and molasses (as opposed to Carolina sauces, which are vinegar-based, and Texas barbecue, where you can get sauce, but the focus is on the dry rub and, it’s said, the best barbecue doesn’t “need” the addition of sauce.) A rack of smoked ribs, varnished with sauce, is about as good as it gets.
But I think my favorite is burnt ends. These are chunks of smoked brisket that are coated in barbecue sauce and re-smoked, tucked back into the heat to get another crunchy, caramelized layer of amazingness.
Essential Barbecue Tools
Think about grilling, and you’ll likely picture a kettle grill: round with coals on the bottom, a grate above and a top to cover it. We’re not going to focus on gas grills. Though these are fine, purists will say that a burger or steak cooked with gas never tastes as good as one made with charcoal, and I’d tend to agree. You also will not be able to smoke as well with a gas grill, so we’ll set those aside for now.
The trend these days is for kamado-style ovens, that can be used as convection ovens, smokers, grills, heck even pizza ovens. Kamado refers to a charcoal of wood-fueled stove in Japanese, but it is more specifically a “place for the cauldron,” as in the spot where heat is produced over which you suspend your cooking vessel. A portable clay kamado, mushikamado, was spotted by Americans after World War Two and adopted and adapted. As with an Indian Tandoori oven, the egg shape helps distribute heat, but the real key is that the oven is made of ceramic, which retains heat beautifully, for hours on a modest portion of charcoal.
This is an oven, not strictly a grill or a smoker, but it can be used as any of the above, and is therefore wonderfully versatile. It is also the most ancient form of portable oven, with examples likewise made of clay, found in archaeological excavations in India, Japan, even in Africa and South America. The consistent theme is the oblong shape and ceramic walls.
There is no manlier way to cook than to use a giant knife to dismember slabs of beasts and drop them only pillars of flame and pillows of smoke. Barbecue is manly food (though beloved of all ages and genders): grill and smoke, rub and sauce. Whatever your budget, there’s an option out there. And if you’re unfamiliar with the wonders of true American smoked barbecue, perhaps one of the only truly American cooking styles, then now is the time for your baptism by blue smoke.