6/6/2013 - Your uncle Joe is wearing a “kiss the cook” apron and standing over a flaming grill, beer in hand as he pushes blackened chicken and burnt hot dogs around with a spatula.
If this image is what the words “barbecue” and “grilling” conjure up in your mind, then you probably haven’t been to a backyard barbecue in a while. From highly competitive contests to popular television shows to constructing your own smoker, grilling has evolved into serious business.
“I think that grilling, just like other parts of cooking, with the Food Network blowing up and food becoming more important in everyday life, grilling went along with it,” said Nicole Barreira, corporate chef for T-Bones and Cactus Jack’s. “I noticed that more people are taking pride in how long they use their grill. They’ll use it in winter and say, ‘Oh, I shovelled out my grill.’”
Kevin Cornish, owner of KC’s Rib Shack in Manchester, agrees that the increased awareness of barbecue and grilling on television has helped the explosion of the hobby and the viability of barbecue restaurants like his.
“The Food Channel and Travel Channel and all the food shows really brought on a whole new wave. I feel barbecue is America’s food,” Cornish said. “I think a lot of people in New England weren’t exposed to traditional barbecue except for hamburgers and hot dogs. Back then, all I knew was burnt chicken on the grill. There was only Kraft barbecue sauce back then. Now you go into Hannaford and there’s an aisle of a million sauces.”
Cornish said that cooking in general has become more popular as a hobby, and grilling was a natural extension of that growth.
“People have become foodies a lot more than they were 15 years ago. Barbecue is something they like and are instinctively drawn to,” Cornish said. “It wasn’t long ago where humans, it’s all we were doing was cooking meat over a fire. You killed a cow and stuck it on a stick and held it over a fire. That was only 200 years ago. Cats have been house cats for thousands of years, and they still hunt in the living room. They haven’t had to hunt for a meal since the day they were born, but they’re still mousers.”
KC’s Rib Shack has been around since 1998 when Cornish left the printing business to open up his own rib joint.
“When we opened, people used to come in and snicker at pulled pork on the menu because nobody in New Hampshire knew what pulled pork even was,” Cornish said. “I had seen the barbecue wave coming across the country. You were starting to see it more in magazines and things like that. I had read that it was one of the fastest-growing trends in the restaurant industry and at the time there was only one barbecue restaurant in the area.”
Better backyard barbecuing
The first step in avoiding over-cooked fare like Uncle Joe’s burned briquettes is knowing how to use your grill.
Barreira says that, just like your oven in the kitchen, your grill needs time to heat up before you throw anything on it.
“It takes time for your grill to get up to temperature, and I don’t think people stop to think it through. People think the fire below is what does the cooking, but it’s the fire acting on the cooking grates,” Barriera said. “You want to heat it 10 to 15 minutes on high and then lower it to the temperature you want. Then you have more control over the temperature and you get those nice grill marks.”
According to Barreira, getting the grates heated to the proper temperature will also prevent the meat from sticking to them. And those black grill marks you see in the commercials or on cooking shows? Those are your friends.
She says that moving the meats around on the grill will get you the best results.
“When the grates are super hot it sears in the protein. I also see people flip a burger and put it right back where it was on the same spot. You want to move it to another set of grill grates that are nice and hot,” she said. “And season, season, season. When being applied to direct heat, a lot of the moisture sweats out and pushes off the flavor. You want to make sure you season throughout to maintain the flavor you are looking for.”
Patience is the key for Alan Lantz, who teams with Charlie Cicero on the Mighty Swine Dining competitive barbecue team.
“Low and slow. With propane, everyone cranks it up on high. You can do it right if you do it low and slow and up off the flame,” Lantz said. “Just take your time.”
Many standard propane grills now come equipped with a smoker box built onto the side. While it’s not competition-level smoking, Cicero, who is also executive chef at Buckley’s Great Steaks in Merrimack, says you can still do a decent job with that piece of equipment.
“You just have to use one flame,” Cicero said. “And don’t soak the wood chips. It’s the worst thing you can do. Then the chips have to heat up first and you get steam.”
For those who want to stick with traditional charcoal over a propane grill, there are more sophisticated versions of charcoal grills available now as well. The most popular, according to Eric Mitchell, a competitive barbecue pitmaster with the Yabba Dabba Que team out of Bedford, is the Big Green Egg.
The Big Green Egg is a versatile hybrid between grilling and smoking since it can be filled with charcoal for traditional grilling or wood chips for smoking meats over a long period of time. Once you have traditional grilling mastered, it might be time to look into the next step of smoking your meats.
Competition-level barbecue is done in a smoker, and affordable home versions are readily available at places like Home Depot. Many grills also come with smokers built right onto the side of them, and there are also bullet-shaped smokers such as the Weber Smokey Mountain, which runs from $200 to $400 depending on the model.
“The Weber Smokey Mountain, it’s a bullet and uses natural wood charcoal,” Mitchell said. “They’re handy and they don’t cost a lot of money. That’s how some people evolve. They have a bullet in the backyard and then move on to something bigger.”
For those with a do-it-yourself streak, making your own smoker is also a possibility. One of the oldest methods remains popular and that is constructing a smoker out of a 55-gallon fuel drum and using some pipes, metal grating and other parts found at most hardware stores.
“A 55-gallon drum works the same as a commercial one,” Mitchell said. “There’s a fire box on one side and an air intake, and the opposite end has a smokestack that creates a draft, and the air flows through it and the smoke goes over the meat and out the smokestack.”
Instructions for exactly what you need to do can be found in numerous places online, with various styles available to suit your needs.
“I built my own and as for building your own box smoker, really anyone can do it,” said Andrew Thistle, pitmaster at Riverside Barbecue in Nashua. “It’s a learning curve to make sure you’re not lighting your house on fire and all of that. I think it can be a fun project for a family to do.”
According to Cornish, whatever method you go with can produce quality food.
“We smoke everything here at KC’s, but I don’t feel as though there is a right and wrong way to do it. I have my way, but I change that up a lot when I cook for myself,” Cornish said. “[Celebrity chef] Myron Mixon cooks his brisket at 350 degrees and everyone else is cooking at 200 degrees for a day. He cooks his at 350 for five hours and he’s winning everything. People call me to do pig roasts and some places will cook it for six hours. I do a pig roast, it takes me 24 hours. Is what they’re doing wrong? No. It’s yielding a different product, but it’s all good. I respect anybody’s approach.”
Sauce is boss
So what do you put on those meats now that you’re ready to grill or smoke them? Just as there are debates about how to cook, opinions on what to cook with are also all over the board.
A trip down the barbecue sauce aisle at your local grocery store can be an odyssey. The varieties available are numerous, with flavors ranging from spicy to sweet and everything in between. Regional preferences from around the country dominate the grocery shelves.
“All the styles are different and all important,” Cornish said. “On the eastern part of North Carolina it’s all vinegar, sugar and salt and pepper and then you move to western North Carolina and it’s more traditional ketchup-based sauce. South Carolina is all mustard sauce. Kansas City is sticky-sweet sauce.”
Many celebrity chefs have their own brands, but there are also several New Hampshire companies producing barbecue sauce such as Afterburn Hot Sauce in Pembroke, Beasley’s BBQ Sauce out of Amherst and Manchester’s King’s BBQ Sauce.
For the competitive folks, a combination of rubs and sauces on the meats is common.
“I think you need both to compete,” Cicero said. “If you turn in just dry-rubbed ribs [at a competition], you’re all done.”
Lantz said that the flavor has to come from a rub and sauce working together.
“It’s a balance of flavor and it’s hard to get it from just [a rub or sauce alone],” he said. “You need that backbone of flavor. Some people use a couple sauces, one at the beginning and one at the end.”
Mitchell agrees that the rub-sauce combination is key, but adds that other flavor options are possible and flavoring throughout the process is important.
“Most of the meats will end up with a rub first and some people will add a rub during cooking as well,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people on big meats, partway through the cooking you might add more rub or apple juice or another fruit juice to it and then it will cook and braises in the foil. Brisket you might use beer or broth inside the foil.”
Get outside your comfort zone
While burgers, hot dogs, chicken and ribs are all staples on the grill, other options such as exotic meats and vegetables are gaining popularity.
“I made smoked tomatoes the other day and they were amazing. People aren’t used to hearing that because people aren’t always using a smoker to cook vegetables, they’re cooking pork and ribs. You can do a smoked corn on the cob or a smoked guacamole. It gives it a totally different dynamic and is still delicious and good for everyone,” Thistle said. “You can grill almost anything. Grilled pineapple is delicious. Take some zucchini strips and throw a little olive oil on them and grill them up. Those are wonderful.”
Barreira agrees and says that pretty much anything you can cook in an oven can be grilled.
“I see people staying away from starches on the grill, but you can get the little potatoes, put them in the microwave for a couple minutes to soften them and then throw them on the grill with oil and salt,” she said “You can even do pizza on the grill.”
Barreira has some tips for what to do with vegetables.
“Grilling veggies is something I do a ton of. A lot of people take a zucchini or summer squash and cut it up into little circles and then chase them around the grill and half of them fall through. I take the top and bottom off and cut it in half and throw it on the grill,” she said. “Same thing with a red or vidalia onion. Quarter it, put some salt and pepper and oil on it and throw it on. Mushrooms, I don’t slice them at all. People envision what it’s supposed to look like on the plate when they could have chopped it after grilling it. We don’t do that with our steaks, chop them up first and cook them.”
Exotic meats such as buffalo, kangaroo and wild boar also lend themselves to grilling according to Jim Kersch, owner of the Healthy Buffalo shop in Epsom and its offshoot restaurant, the Hungry Buffalo in Loudon.
“The exotic meats, you can do pretty much anything on the grill. The key thing to remember is to turn down your heat and not cook things well-done,” Kersch said. “Lean meats do not like to be cooked well-done; they will toughen up. Any of the game meats we sell, steaks, burgers, everything, it all makes for excellent grilling. If you like to smoke meats, the ribs do really well.”
Kersch said some people might be afraid to cook exotic meats on the grill because they are more expensive and the fear of ruining them is high.
“A little bit of patience can turn a novice into the hero of the day,” he said. “The [buffalo] burgers, use low heat and try to keep some moisture in the meat. Don’t press down on it. That’s the biggest mistake people make because they’re used to a greasy burger and they press the grease out. Game meat, you don’t need to do that.”
Kersch said that kangaroo is also an excellent choice for the grill. He suggests marinating kangaroo steaks for five to 10 minutes and then putting them on the grill. Smoking exotic meats is also easy to do with a little practice, Kersch said.
“You need to be a little more skilled to use charcoal or wood,” he said. “For wood smoking, my favorite is hickory with a mixture of apple. When we do the wild boar ribs at the restaurant I’ll use two-thirds hickory and a third apple. It gives you a nice heat and a nice bite from the hickory.”
Whether grilling up veggies or exotic meats, It’s all about trying new things, Thistle said.
“People need to not be scared. Just get in front of a grill and experiment. Experimentation is where some of the most beautiful food in the world has come from,” Thistle said. “There are so many ingredients you wouldn’t think would work in a certain way and until you try it, how do you know? Combine and experiment. All the hot restaurants now are fusion, combining Asian and Mexican or something like that. Find these fantastic creations.”
The ultimate step for grillers and smokers is to start competing in the official events that take place all over the country. Competition barbecue is not for the faint of heart. Strict rules must be followed and your meals have to be delivered to the judges at the allotted time or you are disqualified.
“You have a 10-minute window. Five minutes before to five minutes after, but if you are literally one second late they won’t accept it,” Cicero said. “When we won at Harvard we had 15 seconds to spare and turned in our ribs and ended up winning the contest.”
The precise timing required means that you need a detailed plan of attack from the moment you arrive. But the undertaking actually gets underway long before the competition starts.
“It starts the week before with making injections, sauces and rubs and loading the trailer. It’s a full week. And then when we get there we arrive Friday, set up and then Saturday is a grilling day. You can prep the meats at home, but everything else has to be done on-site with raw meat,” Cicero said. “We have a timeline that we follow. We do certain things in a certain order. We know when we need to get ours prepped and we have very specific roles. Alan does all the trimming, I’ll do the injections and the ribs and chicken, we work together. It’s been working really well for us. We both know what needs to get done.”
Timing the cooking of each meat category (chicken, ribs, pork and brisket) is also important.
“The butts and briskets are put on the night before and those are ready at 9 or 10 in the morning. Those don’t have to be turned in until 1, 1:30 so you can wrap them in foil and they’ll stay warm and it actually helps them quite a bit,” Mitchell said. “In the morning, your ribs get started around 6 or 7 and will cook for five hours or so, and your chicken, a lot of people leave one and a half to two hours to smoke the chicken. That’s the first thing you turn in. You have to get your system down. Chicken is first, then ribs, then pork shoulder and brisket last.”
And no matter how well you plan, there are always unexpected twists, the veterans warn.
“The biggest thing anyone needs to be aware of, and it takes practice, is knowing that something is going to get thrown at you. You won’t know where it’s going to come from and you have to learn to improvise,” Mitchell said. “It could be windy, rainy. Some people use electricity for their pits or to do other things and maybe the power goes out or the smoker goes out or is not hot enough. You have to learn to do things on the fly to still meet your schedule.”
And every team has its own story of hardship.
“We did a contest in Mass. once where it was 23 degrees at night. We did another and we were ankle deep in mud because it rained so much,” Cicero said. “You sleep outside. Most people are sleeping under EZ-ups [tents]. We sleep in reclining chairs. It seems like every time we end up under the crack and the water drips down and you end up soaked.”
“But it’s always a great weekend,” Lantz interjected.