Grilling Good Eats
by Mike Thayer
When you hear somebody say they’re going to fire up the BBQ and put some burgers on, chuckle.
Doing up some burgers is grilling, not BBQ. Grilling is hot fire, searing meats, quick cooking tasty morsels over direct heat like, you guessed it, burgers! Hot dogs, kabobs, pork chops, chicken breasts and steaks are all excellent fare for grilling.
Real BBQ isn’t about burgers or hot dogs, BBQ is about a method of cooking - low and slow - it’s about infusing smoky flavor into meats over a long period of time. Usually done in a smoker (not to be confused with a typical grill) or a pit, larger cuts of meat like beef brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, whole chickens or turkey are barbequed for hours at a time using indirect heat, they‘re not close to the fire. Sausages are great done BBQ style as well. I’m sure you’ve had what’s been called a BBQ burger, but it probably wasn’t prepared in a smoker or over a pit, BBQ style. Your burger was prepared on a grill or even a frying pan and BBQ sauce was slapped on it. Traditional BBQ preparation involves indirect heat, dry rubs, mops and yes, that most popular accompaniment for a variety of meats - BBQ sauce!
BBQ can be intimidating to the new or occasional holder of tongs, because in addition to knowing about the typically larger cuts of meat, how long to smoke the meat, you have to learn about the types of wood, the dry rubs and perhaps the best part, the sauces! The thing to take from this chapter is, you don’t need a fancy smoker to smoke meats or make great BBQ. Believe it or not, your charcoal grill will work just fine. What gives barbequed meats their base flavor is the wood, that BBQ smoke. Some folks like to use charcoal, but most prefer to use wood and they tend to stick to one or two types. I‘ve covered woods in Chapter 1, but the more common types of wood used in BBQ are mesquite, hickory, oak, cherry and apple. Each have distinct flavor profiles and like fine wines getting paired up with certain foods, BBQ masters have paired their preferred woods to their secret ingredient dry rubs and sauces.
Dry rubs can be simple or complex, but basically, they’re a mixture of spices that are literally rubbed on the meat before putting it on the grill. Not sprinkled on, rubbed on. They add another layer of flavor to that brisket, whole chicken or St. Louis style ribs. There are all kinds of dry rubs available out there at your local grocery store. If you’re just starting to experiment with rubs, I recommend purchasing a few at the store and find a favorite. One of my go to off-the-shelf rubs is Cookies Flavor Enhancer. It’s a great all purpose seasoning, does justice on a variety of meats and heck, it’s even good mixed with a little mayonnaise for a bologna sandwich. And when in doubt, simple is good. There’s nothing at all wrong with simply rubbing your brisket or ribs with good old fashioned salt and pepper, especially if you’re just getting into BBQ and want to taste a new cut of meat or the flavor of that wood you’ve never cooked with before. You’ll really get to know your food this way and what cuts of meat you prefer, what kinds of wood deliver a flavor to your liking.
It’s true, the most popular thing to add to the plethora of meats cooked outdoors is BBQ sauce. If you had guessed ketchup, believe it or not, you would be wrong.
The person who invented BBQ sauce is unknown, but whoever he was, he was a genius! References to the sauce started appearing in 17th century English and French literature about the formation of the American colonies. The rest is history and boy has BBQ sauce been kicked up a notch with all kinds of flavors and varieties created over the last 400+ years!
A traditional flavoring for pork, beef and chicken, sauce can range from watery to thick, from being heavy on the vinegar to being loaded with spice. Heck, there’s even mustard and mayonnaise based BBQ sauces. It’s a regional thing, there’s Carolina BBQ; Tennessee whiskey BBQ; Texas BBQ; and the favorite of yours truly, Kansas City BBQ.
Kansas City BBQ Style: This is a thick, rich tomato based sauce that’s got some spice but is heavier on the sweet. Tomato, brown sugar and vinegar are the base ingredients. It really doesn’t penetrate the meat and is more like a frosting than a marinade. It glazes real nice though when put on the meat about 10 minutes before pulling off the grill, a beautiful finish. This is the most popular style of BBQ sauce in the U.S. and what you see the most of in the bottled varieties on the grocery store shelf. Be careful with the store bought stuff though! The high sugar content of the ‘ready’ varieties tend to burn real quick so keep an eye on your dinner.
Texas BBQ Style: This has more kick than Kansas City style. It has less tomato, less sugar and a lot more spice such as cumin, black pepper, chili pepper and even chili powder. Meat drippings and hot sauce - Tabasco - are always part of this style and fresh veggies like green bell pepper and onion are often added.
East Carolina Mop: This simple but tasty sauce was pioneered by the African slaves of Scottish settlers in the region. It’s a straight forward combination of hot pepper flakes, ground black pepper and vinegar. The reason it’s called a mop is because this thin concoction is literally mopped - basted - on the meat throughout the cooking process, the flavor really penetrates! With little if any sugar and no tomato in this style, East Carolina Mop is a sharp contrast to other sauces.
Western Carolina Dip: From the hilly areas of North Carolina, most American sauces can trace their roots to this one. The recipe usually consists of a base of black pepper blended with tomato paste or tomato sauce, or ketchup, with vinegar added to balance it out. Like the East Carolina Mop, this is a thin sauce that is mopped on the meat throughout the cooking process.
South Carolina Mustard Style: This is a whole new BBQ sauce experience. Early German settlers developed this one and while good on chicken, it’s tailor made for pork. A little thicker than its Carolina cousin sauces, a simple recipe consists of mustard, vinegar, spices and a little sugar. It’s fantastic on a pulled pork sandwich topped with coleslaw!
Tennessee Whiskey Style: Made famous by the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Barbecue Invitational, this method of flavoring meats is also referred to as ‘Memphis Style’ has become so popular it now deserves its own category. This combination of vinegar, whiskey, molasses, spices, and Worcestershire sauce gives BBQ a whole new flavor profile.
There are all kinds of variations and morphing of styles out there, have fun and play around with it all. And BBQ sauce isn’t just for pork, beef or chicken anymore! Try the West Carolina dip on grilled chicken or fish. Put some Tennessee Whiskey Style on a pizza instead of traditional tomato sauce. If lamb isn’t your favorite, try it again with the East Carolina Mop. And here’s a personal side dish favorite, toss some grilled cauliflower florets, baby carrots, baby portabella mushrooms and bacon bits together with some Kansas City style sauce. Delicious!
Now that we’ve covered the rubs and basic sauces, let’s talk about the featured meats. The great thing about BBQ is that you can make a less expensive cut of meat taste great, those tougher, less valuable cuts benefit from the low and slow method of BBQ style preparation. Beef briskets and tri-tips, ribs and shoulders (either pork or beef), all fit into the less expensive, ’tougher cut’ meat category and need low and slow cooking in order to get tender. Oh, and when you hear ‘pork butt‘, it’s really pork shoulder, it’s not meat that comes from the behind. Chicken and turkey, although less expensive meats compared to melt-in-your-mouth rib-eye steak and filet mignon, aren’t in the ‘tough meat’ category but still taste great in a BBQ preparation. They just don’t need to be in the smoker or pit as long as say, a brisket. And like the sauces, what kind of meats get that BBQ attention are a bit regional. In Tennessee and North Carolina, it’s all about pork ribs and pulled pork sandwiches. In South Carolina the signature BBQ is pork butt or ham. In Texas, it’s about beef, namely brisket. In Kansas City, a meat packing hub, every kind of meat is featured. And then there’s the great debate about what kind of ribs are the best, St. Louis style ribs vs. baby back. Don’t get me wrong, you can get other meats with great BBQ flavor just about anywhere, but know that certain regions are best known for particular meats and preparations, particularly in the south. That’s a good tidbit of information to know when you’re looking for a new BBQ recipe to try. It’s not like Oregon is known for its unique style of BBQ and if you see a ‘great BBQ recipe from Chicago‘ online, it‘s probably a knock off from the south.
You don’t need a smoker or a pit to do BBQ, you can do low and slow on your grill. This isn’t something you can really do well on a gas grill, as they’re truly designed for fast cooking over direct heat and then there’s the biggest drawback of gas grills…. Propane does not deliver any flavor! And running out of gas in the middle of a four-hour job would not only be a bummer, but cost prohibitive. Forget the gas, this is a job for a charcoal grill setup and some wood chips!
Going low and slow is easy. For this style of cooking, you’re going to use what’s called the “Snake Method” for the coals. Ideally suited for a Weber kettle or circular grill set-up, what you want to do is put a semi-circle of briquettes about four briquettes deep and four briquettes high around the inside edge of the grill. Do NOT connect the starting and finish points (head and tail), we‘re building a snake, not a circle. You can also do this with square or rectangular grills, just line the outside walls with your briquettes and remember - DO NOT connect the head and the tail. After making your ‘snake’ put about 15 briquettes in your charcoal chimney and light. When you see that orange glow, add them to one end of the snake. This is also a great time to add wood chunks, dropping them in spots along your ‘snake’ lined coals. Put on your cooking grate and place your meats in the center of the grill, there shouldn‘t be any coals underneath it. There you go, indirect heat and the grill’s lid is going to do the work for you. Put the lid on and keep it on, only take it off to turn your brisket or whatever you decided to BBQ about half way through the recommended cooking time for example. Don’t lift the lid to check it after just 30 minutes, don’t lift the lid just to get a better whiff of what’s cooking, you’ll release all the low and slow heat the lid has built up to put that great smokiness into the meat.
Remember the wood chip tip from Chapter 1: Do NOT soak your wood chips in water! You want clean smoke flavoring your food. White smoke is a BITTER smoke, which means food with a bitter taste. Personally, I think wood chips are a waste of money, I buy wood chunks. They have a much longer burn time and deliver a better smoke flavor than chips.
I’ll tease you with a couple BBQ recipes here, but you’ll find many more to your liking in the meat chapters.
Mike’s ‘Quick Whiskey BBQ Sauce’
This is really more of a convenient cheat rather than a bona fide recipe, but it’s time saving, easy to put together and rather tasty!
- One cup of KC Masterpiece BBQ sauce (or whatever brand might be your favorite)
- ¼ cup of water
- One tablespoon of dried, minced onion
- 2 shots of your favorite whiskey/bourbon (reserve a 3rd shot for yourself)
- 5 generous shakes of Louisiana Hot Sauce
- One tab of butter
In a medium sauce pan over low heat, melt your butter. Let it coat the bottom of the pan and once it’s coated, add all remaining ingredients and just let it all simmer to marry all that flavor for about 15-20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. This is a great sauce to use just before plating.
Here’s that veggie recipe mentioned earlier in the chapter:
Mike’s Sauced Grilled Veggies
- Equal parts of cauliflower florets, baby carrots and baby portabella mushrooms
- Tablespoon of olive oil
- Pre-cooked bacon pieces (leftover from breakfast works great)
- ¼ cup Kansas City style BBQ Sauce (warmed over indirect heat with the bacon bits)
In a small bowl, drizzle the veggies with the olive oil, toss lightly. Using a veggie tray over the coals, grill the cauliflower, carrots and mushrooms until the cauliflower and carrots are tender crisp and just start to caramelize. Toss in a serving bowl with the bacon pieces and the BBQ sauce. Salt and pepper to taste. Delicious!