It would be an understatement to say barbecue lovers have different views of the world.
Nevertheless, they do have a thing or two in common. Barbecue will keep your cardiologist on his toes, but it’s also a yummy comfort for a broken heart.
And most agree that you can’t drive a mile in the South without passing at least one barbecue joint and at least one church.
When asked what makes good barbecue, everyone I interviewed used two words: “low” and “slow,” the very techniques that distinguish barbecuing from grilling.
Whether you grilled or barbecued has to do with time and temperature, not sauces or seasonings. In grilling, meats are cooked for a short time at high temperature over direct heat, but to create real home barbecue this Fourth of July, be ready to spend a long time in the smoke.
Now, let’s start talking about the regional differences.
No matter where you’ve lived in this country, you’ve probably slathered on rubs or marinades or injected seasonings into fish, fowl or meat.
If you’re from the barbecue belt – from North Carolina west to Memphis, Tenn., and south to Louisiana, including Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, barbecue is about the whole hog. Backyard barbecue folks cook it all, except for the hair and the eyeballs, some say.
If you’re from Texas, it’s about the beef.
And if you’re from Kansas City, which some consider the buckle of the barbecue belt, it’s all in the sauce.
“Anything we grew, we used,” said Mississippi native and New Orleans-trained chef Chris Martin, referring to pigs, game and an abundance of vegetables. “The sky is the limit.”
Martin and his wife, Sherrie Martin, also a trained chef, own T’s Smokehouse & Grill, which specializes in Southern food, not just barbecue, he said.
Barbecue is about creating that true smoke flavor, which typically happens with low, well-controlled, indirect heat and cooking times from 10 to 12 hours.
Martin grew up eight miles from the Arkansas border, watching poor folks salvage what some consider waste but often are the tastiest parts. To make something delectable from lesser cuts of meat such as brisket, shoulder and ribs, they and others from around the South developed the slow, smoked cooking style known as barbecue.
Good barbecue is the result of good cooking techniques, including a balance of seasonings and smoking woods, he said.
“It’s all in the prep ... It’s about building flavors,” he said.
Whether you sauce or not is up to you, but the sauce does not make the barbecue. That fall-off-the-bone tenderness can only be achieved by using low, indirect heat and dry rubs applied before meat goes into the smoker, Martin said.
Dan Howell, vice president and co-owner of Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, agreed.
“We rely on smoke to flavor the meat. We’re not relying on barbecue sauce to carry it. The sauce is secondary,” Howell said.
Serious Texas is a Durango barbecue success story that was born in a part-time food trailer and has grown into a five-store franchise in little more than 10 years. Because its founders are from beef country, beef reigns supreme, but pulled pork, chicken and sausage also are on the menu.
Howell also gives credit to the rub, a combination of seasonings that flavor the meat and the smoke, which breaks down the collagen fibers and tenderize the meat.
“Every dry rub starts out with the trinity – sugar, salt and pepper,” he said. “The sugar counteracts the acidity, the salt is the flavor enhancer, and why would you not use pepper?”
Paprika, chili powder and other seasonings reflect the preferences of the cook, but more important and challenging is to control the indirect heat. Cooking technology has removed the guesswork and heavy lifting, enabling barbecue restaurants to provide a reliably good product day after day.
Commercial barbecue smokers like those used at T’s Smokehouse & Grill and Serious Texas Barbecue have digitally controlled heat enclosures in which the air is constantly circulating within a fire box.
“I can set this and forget it,” Chris Martin said, gesturing toward the wheeled cooker with rotating shelves stationed at the rear of T’s Smokehouse & Grill.
“A pork shoulder might look done in six to eight hours, but it’s going to be tough as nails. Slow, moist heat with the fat cap tenderizing that shoulder will break it down so it falls to pieces in 10 to 12 hours,” Martin said.
In Texas, authentic barbecue joints aren’t open daily, Howell said.
“They’re with that fire the entire time,” referring to cooks tending old- fashioned barbecue brick and stone smokers that require constant attention.
“That’s why the best barbecue places in Texas are open maybe twice a week. Nobody can work that hard tending the pit,” Howell said.
For that reason, while many home cooks have mastered the grill, true backyard barbecue is harder to come by.
“For people who take barbecue seriously, the ones who take the time and effort to cook low and slow and invest in some pricey equipment, it’s frustrating to hear the term barbecue used to describe everything from grilled food to oven roasting,” said Durango backyard barbecue aficionado Bob Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer uses barrel-cylinder, offset-design home barbecue equipment to cook meats with indirect heat at 225 F or lower. He’s owned commercial equipment, too, but barbecue is an art not a science, honed by trial and error.
Pfeiffer uses a variety of hard woods, including pecan, apple and mesquite, to impart smoky flavor. His recommended reference manuals for novice cooks are the Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue and BBQ USA by Steven Raichlen.
Howell said oak remains the most popular wood for smoking, while mesquite is more challenging because of its acidity.
“Pecan and apple make meat taste totally different,” he said.
When preparing wood for the barbecue, Martin cautions against soaking the logs, which can create overly dense, strong smoke that can be “overwhelming and too heavy on the front end,” he said.
“The food may differ from region to region, but the method is basically the same,” Pfeiffer said.
Howell agrees. “When I think of American food, I think of a melding of influences and cultures. That’s what barbecue is,” he said.