Chef Mike shares his long-hoarded meat-cooking secrets
It’s late August, and the air around Chattanooga hangs thick with the smell of a thousand failed barbecues. Weekend warriors mourn the dry ribs, overcooked brisket and bland pork shoulders lost on their watch while cries of sorrow and grief punctuate the summer heat. Children can be heard sobbing and whispering, “Why, Daddy? Why?” as they stare blankly at the charred remains of a beloved Southern culinary institution—the backyard barbecue.
Traditional Southern barbecue is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own popularity. The broad realization that slow-cooked, smoky meats are one of God’s great gifts to man has brought on a nearly inescapable onslaught of barbecue information.
Trendy food-porn-packed websites assault your brain with disastrously bad advice, and celebrity chefs are popping up all over television with “barbeque tips” that are nothing more than semi-useless, self-promoting sound bites. This deluge of information has led to an outbreak of barbecue catastrophes and confusion over how to attain perfect barbecue in your own backyard.
But good news is on the horizon for weary cooks seeking barbecue perfection. After years of painstaking and meticulous research into the finer points of the barbecue arts, researchers from The Pulse’s Barbecue Division of Culinary Affairs have worked tirelessly to bring you only the best, and most useful tips for creating the perfect barbecue.
Pick your meat carefully
Find a quality butcher shop and introduce yourself to the butcher. Although butcher shops are getting as scarce as hen’s teeth, it is worth seeking out a good one that you can trust. If you are going to take one or two days of your life to watch over hulking slabs of meat, it only makes sense that they should be the best hulking slabs you can find.
Not all meat is created equal, so don’t just grab the first slab that catches your eye from across the room. Linger over the meat and find the one that really stiffens your spatula. Look at the evenness of the cut. If one end is thinner, it may overcook. Also, look for cuts with really nice marbling. Marbling is that pattern of white flecks and streaks of fat within the lean sections of meat that melts as the meat cooks, infusing it with flavor and juiciness.
Local barbecue renaissance man and Owl’s Nest competitive barbecue team champion, Steve Ray, says his favorite cut to barbecue is brisket. “I like it because it’s the most challenging and probably the poorest quality piece of meat you can cook and make taste good.” he says. “It starts out tougher than a street gang and when I’m done it’s as tender as a mother’s love.”
Fuel for the fire
Some people believe there is a controversy surrounding how to fuel the fire for your barbecue. Those people are confused, perhaps from an overdose of propane vapors. The taste of barbecue is the taste of smoke and fire—a taste that cannot be properly achieved with anything other than the sweet-smelling fumes of slow smoldering hardwood. For the most basic rig, all you need is some good quality lump charcoal and a cool device called a chimney starter. Lump charcoal is the closest thing you can get to burning hardwood itself, so the smoke it produces is reminiscent of a summer campfire.
A chimney starter is a big tube with a wire rack inside. Simply place some newspaper under the chimney, some unlit charcoal on the rack, and ignite. These are inexpensive ($15-$25) and will eliminate the temptation to use lighter fluid or insta-light briquettes. Unless you are Colonel Kilgore and want your barbecue to come with a hint of napalm in the morning, you really want to stay away from lighter fluid and anything “match light.”
Salt and salt again
Don’t be stingy when salting meat that is going to be cooked low and slow like barbecue...as long as you’re using coarse kosher salt. Table salt is too fine grained, which just makes the meat salty, and it contains anti-caking agents that prevent it from creating that beautiful crust we all know and love. Coarse salt, on the other hand, won’t melt like table salt and doesn’t have the same anti-caking properties, so it forms that delicious crust that makes your eyes roll to the back of your head in pure barbecue ecstasy. If you do go heavy on the coarse salt, keep that in mind when applying any other spices or rubs that contain added salt.
Go drink a beer, mow the grass...and leave the meat alone
Once you get that gorgeous, seasoned meat on the grill, close the lid and walk away. Like a bride preparing for the walk down the aisle, your meat needs hours of undisturbed time alone to emerge as the eye-watering beauty you always hoped it would be. Seriously, resist the urge to check in on it. Just leave it alone and let it cook.
It’s not a bad idea, especially for the less-experienced cook, to use a meat thermometer you can monitor without opening the grill. You can pick one up for less than $20 and they are 100 percent worth it. Insert the probe right into the thickest part of the meat, not touching any fat, bone, or the grill. Also, remember that the meat will continue to cook after it is taken off the grill, so pull it off the heat when it’s about 10 degrees below your target temperature.
Naked is good
A great piece of meat is a thing of beauty whose flavors should never be obscured. It should not be camouflaged by crimson- or mustard-hued sauces, which are far too often simply a cover for the sins of the cook or the inadequacies of a cheap, flavorless cut of meat. I am certainly not advocating for eliminating sauce altogether, but one of the great modern crimes against barbecue is the misuse of sauce. Barbecue sauce should highlight the natural flavors of the meat and the smokiness you’ve spent hours imparting, not hide it under a coating of sugar or vinegar.
Barbecue bon vivant and one of Chattanooga’s best-known connoisseurs of flame-kissed meats, Jim Brewer, knows the value of a good sauce when used appropriately. “A good sauce is the perfect complement to a really great piece of meat, but it has to be brushed on at the end,” Jim says. “A sweet sauce can get gummy or burn, so apply it last, giving the sauce just long enough to heat and get a little caramelization without burning.”
While I love a good sauce, my personal favorite is a simple “board dressing” that amplifies the flavor of the meat, rather than adding other potentially competing flavors to the mix. For a simple board dressing, chop a handful of fresh herbs, drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil onto the chopped herbs and mix them together. Lay the hot, grilled meat right onto the herb mixture so that as you carve, the cut meat gets covered with the herbs and oil, which is being further flavored by the meat’s own juices. What could be better than a sauce made from the meat’s own juices?
Waiting is the hardest part of backyard ritual
Patience may be a virtue when cooking barbecue, but it’s nearly a superpower when it comes time to eat. Once you’ve waited hours (or even days) to dig into a carefully prepared brisket or slab of ribs, it may seem like a cruel joke to ask that you wait another five to ten minutes before cutting into your long-awaited prize. But this is exactly what you need to do. Letting barbecue, or any meat, “rest” before cutting into it is the final step on your stairway to barbecue heaven.
If you cut into a piece of meat immediately after it comes off the heat, moisture floods out, taking with it some of the wonderful juices and flavors you’ve been working so hard to achieve. Letting meat rest allows moisture to regroup and remain bound to the meat’s proteins instead of leaking out and forming a pool of sadness in the bottom of your plate. For large cuts of meat, like brisket or pork shoulder, resting will minimize that loss and make for a more juicy end result. Don’t worry, though, a 5-10 minute rest won’t eliminate all juice runoff, so you’ll still have plenty for that oh-so-tasty board dressing.
It’s easy to overcomplicate barbecue. But it’s even easier to stick to the basics and reap the rewards of perfect barbecue right in your own backyard. Start with these basics and learn how to work with meat, fire and smoke, then build on that with all of the extras. Armed with this powerful arsenal of barbecue knowledge, you can avoid becoming another failed barbecue statistic, and instead kick back with a nice cold beverage and a plate of perfect barbecue to cap off another gorgeous Chattanooga summer.