“Hey George, what’s the secret to great barbecue?”
I get that all the time. Quite frankly, it would be easier to answer, “What’s the secret to life?” At least, with that query, I could dodge the answer with some philosophical razzle-dazzle. But barbecue is an exact science and no place for side-stepping the answer. So, here’s my take on pursuing perfect barbecue.
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of cooks: the free-form, adventurous experimenter or the obsessive, compulsive recipe rule follower. For the most part, I fall into that first category of hit-and-miss trailblazers that approach cooking like a culinary explorer. I just find it more fun that way, and occasionally I will stumble onto something exciting, maybe even uniquely new. But, I will admit that when it comes to barbecue, my OCD kicks into gear, and I never deviate from my rigid recipe ritual.
I will also admit that when it comes to cooking on a charcoal pit, I’m no expert. Hey, I’m from Louisiana, and we are not exactly known for our legendary barbecue heritage. Just like most of you, I am a weekend warrior on the grill and watch in awe when I see champion competition pitmasters locked in a smoky showdown on cable TV. Yes, comparatively speaking, I am an amateur and an occasional barbecue cook without access to a professional smoking rig and expensive, specialized cooking gear at the ready. But, I will tell you that I consistently cook stellar barbecue with my creatively adapted and rigidly adopted approach.
It’s called my 7 Rules of Barbecue. This method is based on seven action steps to success, and it works on most any low-and-slow barbecue (ribs, brisket, pork butt, turkey, chicken and even whole hog). If you apply these steps in proper sequence, you are guaranteed to succeed.
In order of sequence, my 7 Rules of Barbecue are: Select, Soak, Season, Smoke, Spritz, Sauce and Seal.
Sourcing and selecting the right meat can make all the difference. You don’t think the winners of the Memphis in May cook-off just drop into their neighborhood Piggly Wiggly and grab a basket full of pork. No, they are selective, and you should be too. Now, I am not talking about growing your own pastured, heritage breed pigs, but I do mean making friends with a butcher. Listen up: when it comes to barbecue, a butcher is your best friend. Instead of those shrink-wrapped, pre-seasoned meat in the supermarket reach-in case, have your butcher trim down a meaty rack of fat-laced ribs, and you are already halfway to championship quality.
This is all about the advance preparation of your meat and takes time and the right combination of ingredients. Brining, marinating, and injecting are the three main methods, and the ingredients can vary depending on what your taste objectives are. Develop your own brine recipe with an extra dose of flavor to your meat. And plan this step out so that you have at least an overnight timeline.
Ah, there’s the rub. Adding flavor at this beginning stage is crucial to the outcome. Dry seasoning rubs come in a range of ingredients that will match your flavor strategy. Sweet to salty, spicy to herb-infused, seek out a commercial blend or better yet, make your own. Rub it early and rub it in. Be sure to massage it into the meat to penetrate the cracks and crevices that hold flavor. Some like to rub it on thick, some prefer to sprinkle lightly and let the flavor of the meat dominate–it’s your choice.
Fire and wood produce smoke. And smoke produces amazing taste when it comes to low and slow barbecue. Certainly, a standard charcoal fire with properly soaked wood chunks or chips is the basic method, but these days it can also mean an electric smoker, a gas grill, a big green egg, or even the newfangled pellet smokers that have gained acceptance on the competition barbecue circuit. The key to this step is two-fold: control your heat–low (about 275ºF) and indirect–and choose your flavor (oak, mesquite, pecan, hickory, and peach are just the beginning).
Basting and spraying moisture regularly during the cooking time is crucial for two reasons: to prevent the meat from drying out and to add flavor. Apple juice is often used, but these days I’ve been exploring more exotic mixes: bold dark beer, papaya or blood orange juice, diluted bourbon or a flavored sloe gin, or even a basting of sweet tea. Any liquid with the flavor profile you seek will keep the meat moist during cooking. Apply it often.
It goes without saying that you must either find the perfect bottled sauce or a made-from-scratch version (my preference) to crown your regally roasted feast. But adding that sauce too early in the process is the cardinal mistake of most weekend dabblers in the smoky art of barbecue. Years ago, I was guilty of glopping on a thick blanket of sugary sauce at the halfway point that inevitably became a burned and blackened embarrassment. And admit it, you’ve done it, too. But, my mantra these days is glaze and amaze: to patiently wait for the last moment to brush your masterpiece with a lacquered finish.
The one crucial difference between amateurs and pros is in failing to seal the deal. Cook meat over heat for too long and you lose crucial moisture resulting in a dried out, overdone failure. So, after a long, slow smoke, wrap it up to allow that piece of meat to continue cooking and become your fork-tender pièce de résistance. Most home cooks wrap in aluminum foil, and many competition cooks use unwaxed butcher paper; either way, be sure to lock in the flavor and the moisture.
So there you have it: my seven essential steps to barbecue success. Now, I will admit that there are lots of varying pathways within these steps and to take a wrong turn could result in a dead end, but isn’t that the fun of cooking. I’ve found that there is no substitute for experimentation, so fire up your imagination and your pit this weekend. Take a cue from me and follow these steps to find out just how good your barbecue can be.
- 1 gallon water
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup bourbon
- 1 cup sugarcane syrup
- ½ cup Creole mustard
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 4 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon. cayenne
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 quart sweet tea
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 cups tomato sauce
- ½ cup sugarcane molasses
- 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup dark Louisiana coffee with chicory
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 racks (about 6 pounds) baby back ribs, trimmed
- In a large pot over medium-high heat, add the water, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil and continue cooking until the salt and sugar dissolves, about 10 minutes. Let cool. Add the remaining ingredients and refrigerate until ready to use.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix all spice ingredients together and place in an airtight jar.
- Add the ingredients to a plastic spray bottle container and shake until mixed. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
- In a medium saucepan, add all ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and let cook until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Let cool and store in a Mason jar or an airtight container. Keep refrigerated for up to 2 months.
- Unpackage the ribs, rinse and pat dry. With a sharp knife, remove any excess fat and the tough membrane around the ribs.
- Brine the ribs by adding the brining liquid to a large container. Submerge the ribs in the brine and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
- Remove the ribs from the brine and pat dry. Coat with the seasoning rub and massage into the meat. Move to a platter and let come to room temperature.
- Preheat your gas grill by turning on the burners on one side of the grill only. Clean the grill on the other side where the ribs will cook. Place an oven thermometer on the grill and cover.
- In a disposable aluminum foil pie pan, fill with presoaked wood chips.
- On the cold side of the grill, add the ribs meat-side down. On the hot side of the grill, place the aluminum foil pan containing the wood on the grill grates directly over the burners. Reduce the burners to medium. Check the thermometer and adjust the gas burners to bring to and maintain a temperature of 275ºF. Close the grill and let cook, watching to see that smoke is ventilating from the closed grill as it cooks.
- After 30 minutes, open the cover, check the inside temperature and replenish the wood. Turn the meat over and spray with the Sweet Tea Spritz; cover the grill, cooking for a second half hour of smoking.
- After 1 hour, the smoke will have done its job. Open the cover and remove the wood pan. Again, check to see that the temperature is maintained at 275ºF. Lay the ribs on a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and spray them once again with the spritz. Tightly wrap the ribs and continue cooking for another hour.
- Open the grill and unwrap the meat. With a knife, remove one of the ribs to check for doneness. Well-cooked ribs should not “fall-off-the-bone,” but instead should tug away from the bone and still have enough texture to bite into. There should also be a crimson colored smoke ring around the meat. If the meat is not sufficiently cooked to tenderness, then rewrap in foil and cook longer checking for doneness each half hour.
- Once the ribs are tender, brush on the bbq sauce with a generous coating on both sides. Place the ribs (in the aluminum foil uncovered) back on the grill, close the grill and let cook just until the sauce warms through and the glaze sets, about 10 to 15 minutes. (Note: control your heat and be sure not to let the sauce burn.)
- Remove the ribs to a cutting board, cover with foil and let rest for 10 minutes. For serving, slice the ribs along each bone and pile onto a platter with more of the bbq sauce on the side.
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