Throwing steak on a hot grill — that’s called grilling. Hot dogs on an open fire — that’s a cookout. Barbecue, as many Texans, Kansas Citians, and pretty much anyone residing south of the Mason-Dixon Line will attest, is outdoor cooking at its finest. Unlike those other outdoor meat events, barbecue requires a bit of finesse, a lot of time and the soul of an artist.
Jim, a first-name-only barbecue guy who caters dozens of private events around Spokane, built his first BBQ pit trailer 20 years ago and spent the next 10 years learning how to use it. He recommends that beginners invest in an inexpensive Weber kettle-style grill because they are “easy to get going.” Get going by placing meat on one side and charcoal on the other. Light the charcoal using a funnel of lit newspaper but no lighter fluid, so as not to contaminate the meat with unwanted flavor. You’ll want flavor to come from the smoke and the spiced rub you’ve massaged into the meat prior to setting it on the grill. So you’ll need a smoke box ($20 and up) or a smoker cup ($4 and up). You can find them at Kitchen Engine (621 W. Mallon Ave.) in Spokane, where you’ll also find rubs, wood chips and a slew of thermometers. You’ll need that too. Then monitor the grill’s temperature using a thermometer, but don’t lift the lid! Dip the thermometer through the vent hole, maintaining a temperature of 250 degrees for several hours. Spray water on the wood chips to maintain a good level of smoke. Slow cooking barbecue techniques, says Jim, “can transform a cheap cut into a thing of beauty.”
Country-style ribs are one of the best cuts for an amateur. These pork shoulders also come boneless and are very tender and flavorful. A dry rub made of salt, pepper, a bit of sugar and white pepper and cayenne (if you like some heat) is all the prep the meat needs. Place it in your Weber kettle and it should be done in 3½ hours. Of all the cuts in all the world, brisket is the most difficult to barbecue. It’s thick. It takes a long time, and a high level of skill to keep the smoke at the right levels and the temperature sustainably low. Pull this off, and no one can ever tell you that the summer of 2013 was wasted.
There are Texans who don’t rely on any condiments at all. They use a simple dry rub — salt and pepper — and smoke the meat. In St. Louis, barbecue isn’t barbecue without a thick, sweet sauce with a bit of spice. In the Carolinas, pit masters prefer vinegar-based sauces and mustards for seasoning. There really is no space here to address these controversial differences. Yes, barbecue is not without controversy. Sidestep the issue and make your own. Buy a bottle of barbecue sauce. Place it on a table next to a six-pack, a bottle of vinegar, some cayenne pepper and a bowl of sugar. Thin the sauce with beer. Start adding ingredients and taste the results. Repeat until perfection is achieved (or the six-pack is gone).
There’s pretty much nothing you can do if you burn the meat. You’ll just have to buy more and start again. You have all summer to get this right. Most other problems, like oversmoking the meat, which can lead to a bitter and harsh taste, can be disguised by barbecue sauces. Or you can always distract your guests’ palates by loading them up on Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
Judges on the professional circuit will taste right through the pathetic ruse of just throwing some more sweet brown sauce on your bitter, oversmoked brisket. Certified judges search for a melding of five enhancers: marinades, mops, rubs, sauce and smoke. All five ingredients are meant to enhance the meat’s natural flavor, but none can overpower another or intrude upon the flavor of the meat itself. This is the art of barbecue: the combination of factors to achieve the perfect balance of smoke, sweet, salt, spice and meat. That artistry deserves respect.