So I got up early this morning and put a couple pig shoulders and a pork roast on the grill. 200 F, baby! It's been on there just over 9 hours now, and coming nicely.
I love me some BBQ.
We (re)watched Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt a few weeks back, and I noticed his comments on BBQ: you can't fake it, you can't hurry it up, you can't mass-produce it. With some minor caveats he's right. Barbecue is one of the simplest foods I know how to make; but it's one of the hardest to find made right. It's baffling to me the efforts people will make to produce decent Q when the genuine article is so simple. People will hunt for specialty woods, use exotic spice combinations, and buy all manner of complicated cookers (have you priced a Pitts & Spitts?) to produce what was traditionally cooked over an open pit in the ground with whatever wood was available.
So here's how to make authentic barbecue:
- Choose a tough cut of meat, anything suitably low-grade will do. I prefer pig shoulders, but beef brisket, spare ribs, and whole poultry work well. I generally buy the cheapest pork I can find, which is usually the shoulder. The whole point of BBQ is to make something delectable from an inedibly tough cut of meat.
- Cook over charcoal. Barbecue is cooked in wood smoke: charcoal is wood that's been burned in an oxygen-deprived environment to drive off moisture, phenols, and various other impurities. You can just cook over wood, of course, but you need to burn it down. Raw wood isn't fit for cooking over. Of course you might like to throw some bits of wood into your fire to add some interesting smoke, but don't do that too much: creosote doesn't taste good.
- Keep a steady temperature. Barbecue is really all about rendering fat and tough connective tissues in the meat. If you hit the meat with a temperature that's too high you'll toughen it up, dry it out, and turn those tissues into knots. The ideal BBQ temperature is 200F, but I generally don't worry too much as long as my grill's between 190F and 250F. Temperatures spike up and down, but you want them to average in the low 200s.
- Take lots of time. Barbecue takes a lot of time to cook; enjoy the downtime. I budget between 12 and 20 hours for a BBQ session.
- Baste with mild flavours. I baste with a North Carolina-style baste made from apple cider vinegar, water, and spices. It's thin and vinegary, which offsets the high-fat pork. Sauces high in sugar or tomatoes can caramelize on the grill, so they really only should be used at the very end of the cook. I've had a lot of excellent Q that was cooked completely dry, but I like to baste a little now and then. It seems to make the "bark" a little more interesting.
- Cook to a high internal temperature. The whole point of BBQ is to cook slowly so that the meat can actually get to a higher temperature. It's a lot like braising, but without moisture. The higher temperature is what gives the Q its beautifully soft and moist texture.
Ultimately it's easier to make good BBQ properly than it is to fake it. It's not about the wine barrel staves used for fuel or the rare pomegranate juice you put into your sauce. It's about watching your temperature and taking your time.
Which isn't to say I don't want a Pitts & Spitts, or that I don't like to try varying things now and then on my grill. And honestly, I've had excellent BBQ cooked too hot on a propane grill. But when it comes down to it, BBQ is all about the simple joys.