Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Making better barbecue pt. 1

Memorial Day kicks off the summer season in the U.S., and the week after is traditionally heavily focused on grilling and grilling accessories. So I’ve decided to devote this week to barbecue and grilling related posts.

Grilling and barbecue is taken pretty seriously here – in the U.S. and in Tennessee. Regardless of the alleged Caribbean origins of barbecue, the process as we know it today spawned out of the slave culture of the Southern States both as ways to preserve meat and to render tough, cast-off cuts of meat edible.

Before I go much further, I want to get some terminology straight. While different cultures can argue the merits of definitions and etymology, this is what I mean when I say “barbecue”: meat that is cooked with indirect, low heat for a long period of time using some kind of smoke wood to impart smoke flavor. Grilling is cooking meat over a direct source of heat. I accept that there are plenty of variations of terms, but when I use either of them I am only referring to these definitions.

There are three steps to producing good barbecue: education, temperature control and practice. You need to understand the differences between the various types of grills and smokers, you need to be able to maintain steady temperatures for long periods of time and you have to practice doing it to learn the particulars of your pit. While you can read plenty of books and scour the internet boards for advice, nothing will make up for practice, and while you may buy the best pit out there, every individual cooker has its own quirks. There’s only one way to learn them.

Types of smokers

This is the Weber kettle grill. This is probably the grill most people think of when they think of a charcoal grill. It was created in 1952 and has been sold constantly since then, with little modification because it is awesome. There is no other style of grill that gives you the same kind of even heat distribution and is as versatile as this grill. While this is primarily meant for direct grilling, with some practice a Weber kettle can also be an effective smoker.

The bullet-style smoker is the one most people are probably familiar with. It features a heat source in the bottom (which can be charcoal, electric or gas), a water pan above that and usually two cooking grates above the water pan. These cookers are efficient, simple and usually very economical. The downside is that the cheaper models can be very difficult to keep constant temperatures in.

This is an offset smoker. The fire is off to the side the cooking chamber is long allowing you to either move your meat closer or further from the heat source or to use the entire cooking space for large amounts of meat (or a whole hog!). This particular offset is a cheaper, introductory model, but many professional barbecuers use variations of this design in their high-end pits. The basic concept of having a separate firebox providing the heat for a large drum is very sound. You have tons of cooking space, and you are able to monitor and make changes to your fire without disturbing your meat.

This is an electric smoker. These are becoming more common. Most look like small refrigerators and they aren’t much different. They are highly insulated and use a small electric heating source. Most have some kind of tray to feed wood chips or pellets into a tray above the heating source to make the smoke. The benefits of these types of smokers is that they provide an easy way to dial in temperatures and are well-insulated to maintain temps in just about any kind of weather condition. The downside is that their heating elements are notoriously finicky.

When you’re choosing your smoker, you have to consider which is best for you. If you want “authentic” barbecue or have aspirations to compete in barbecue events, you need to get a charcoal or wood-fueled smoker. All KCBS and MBN events require that cooks use charcoal or wood fuels only. However, if you live in an apartment, you might not be allowed to use charcoal, so electric or gas may be your only options. Since I am in the land of “authentic barbecue” and I am a certified barbecue judge and it is my preference, I’m only going to talk about charcoal/wood-fueled smokers beyond this point. Gas and electric smokers are either very easy to achieve and maintain temperatures in or offer little or no adjustments anyway.

The Brinkman smoker is, I would hazard to guess, the most common smoker in the U.S. It is either responsible for igniting people’s passions for making good barbecue or for turning them away from cooking it themselves. Known in barbecue circles as the El Cheapo Brinkman, or ECB, the Brinkman’s greatest benefit is its price. For $80 - $90 you can be up and smoking in no time. The downsides are that because they’re made to be inexpensive, they use very thin steel and cut corners in some areas of functionality. This means that it can be very difficult to reach and maintain steady temperatures on an ECB. If you live in a moderate climate and don’t have to worry too much about extreme cold, then you can probably get good results from a Brinkman year-round. Look for the upgraded models that have a separate charcoal bin where the body drum lifts off the bottom (link the one pictured).

The next kind of bullet smoker is the Weber Smoky Mountain, or Weber Bullet. Like all of their products, the WSM is very well-constructed. Functionally, the WSM works similarly to a Brinkman – the charcoal is in the bottom, there’s a water pan next and then two cooking grates. But that’s really where the similarities end. The WSM is made of a much higher-gauge steel and is porcelain coated. This means the cooker maintains temperatures longer and with fewer spikes or dips. The WSM also offers air-flow vents along the bottom and top. This allows cookers to “dial-in” temps and keep them rock-steady for hours. Weber offers 18.5-inch and 22.5-inch models. I own an 18.5-inch WSM and I consider it to be one of the best things I’ve ever purchased. I have owned ECBs and to cook for more than five hours you have to dump charcoal in it all the time. With the WSM, I fill it up, put in some lit coals and maintain cooks forever. Honestly, the first brisket I ever cooked on it – the very first cook on my WSM – took about 15 hours. I never put any extra charcoal in it. That’s how awesome this cooker is. The downside is that even though it is made of thicker steel, it is not insulated so it is affected be extremes in weather. Because of the bottom vents, wind is also an issue. But these are easily overcome with some wind breaks or insulation. I’m telling you, for the money, there is no better smoker. Go to a barbecue competition some time and count of the number of WSMs out there. Then look for other brands. While you may find more offsets, you will not find any single brand that outnumbers the WSM. The major fallback of this, as far as competition is concerned, is that the WSM isn’t big enough to do whole hog, so if you’re interested in doing MBN comps, you’ll need something bigger.

Recently, a lot of folks have gotten into a very ancient kind of outdoor cooker – the ceramic/clay cooker. Pictured here is the Big Green Egg Product line, but there are a lot of similar products. There probably isn’t a grill or smoker out there that holds and controls temperature better. The thick ceramic or clay walls hold absorb and hold heat for hours. This means that it takes very little fuel to bring the cooker to your desired temperature and keep it there. Big Green Egg fans are affectionately referred to as “Eggheads” because of the fanaticism their products engender in those who use them. There is good cause. Your fuel usage will go down tremendously. For example, a 12-to-16-hour cook on my WSM will use about half a bag of Kingsford. Folks use lump coal in these kinds of cookers and they use handfuls to get the same length of cooks I get from my WSM. Ceramic/Clay cookers are amazingly immune to temperature spikes – regardless of weather they plug along. The downside is that they’re prohibitively expensive. Eggheads would argue that you get what you pay for, and perhaps they’re right. I’ve also read a lot about these cookers cracking over time. It makes me wary. However, Bubba Keg products makes a steel cooker variation called the Big Steel Keg that is in every functional way just like a Big Green Egg, only its made from high-gauge steel and is cheaper.

The high-quality offset smoker pit is pretty much the standard for the professional barbecue pitmaster. This is a Jambo pit which is the kind used by Tuffy Stone from Cool Smoke who was featured on the TLC show BBQ Pitmasters. These pits have very large cooking areas and separate fireboxes, like I mentioned above. The thick gauge steel offers great insulation against even the most extreme weather. These pits are “stick burners.” Instead of using charcoal, they use sticks of hardwood to provide both the heat and the smoke. I have no experience with these high-end models, but when so many winning teams are using them … well, there’s gotta be a reason.

Now what?
So, you’ve chosen your smoker and are ready to cook. Congratulations! Having the right tool for the job is the most important part of process. Next is temperature control. You know that you’re going to have to cook different cuts and kinds of meats and different temps for different periods of time (a future article for sure), but the consistent factor for all cooks is that you have to maintain your temp throughout your cook.

We’ll use Boston Butt as a reference. When you mention barbecue in the U.S. the chances are people think of pulled pork. These butts take a long time to barbecue. While pork is considered done between 160-170, you won’t get the amazingly tender pullability until you hit about 200. For a 10-pound roast, this can take more than 15 hours when cooking in the 225-240 degree barbecue range. So you can see when maintaining your temps is important. Dips and spikes will cause uneven cooking.

This is where practice comes in. Regardless of which pit your purchase, you’re going to have to use it to know how well it maintains temps over long periods of time. We know from other people’s experiences that ECBs are notorious for being difficult to stabilize temperatures, cheap offsets have similar stability issues, WSMs are generally very good at maintaining temps for several hours, and ceramic cookers are some of the best out there. But you’ll never know how your smoker works until you use it.

So, spend some time figuring out which kind of cooker will work best for you. Some people give the advice that you should figure out what you need, then buy the next bigger/better model. That’s sound advice; as soon as you’ve figured out the cooker you’ve bought, you’ll want to move on to the next challenge. Factor that into your decision-making process. If you don’t know how well you’re going to like it and just want to start with an ECB, maybe you should think about shelling out a little more money and buying the better models.

In the long-run, it doesn’t matter which kind of cooker you choose. With a little practice you’ll realize that you can make much better barbecue at home than you can get in just about any restaurant and that makes the whole process worth it.


Mr. Bingley said...

Also one other minor downside to the WSM is that because of the way the lids overhang to keep the smoke in you need to have it under some type of an awning or umbrella or you get rain leaking into it.

I'm still trying to work on some type of cover for mine. My Bride isn't so keen on having it on the front porch, and when I smoke out there I have to sit with it so the neighbors don't think the house is on fire!

Cullen said...

I have an overhang on my back porch, so the problem didn't even occur to me, but it's true. Weber kettles have the same problem.

Cullen said...

Although, I should add, I willing to put up with that minor setback because of their amazing performance.

Mr. Bingley said...

I have to get rid of my WSM's cover , too, because no matter what I do the ants just think it's the grooviest place to nest. Argh.

WunderKraut said...

Man, I realy need help with temp control. What type of therm. should I get? I have always just winged it when grilling...but wanting to get into this smoking thing....need to know what temp it is and how to keep it.


Cullen said...

OK - you're using a Weber kettle, if I recall correctly. You should be able to maintain temps pretty well once you can monitor them.

You can buy a simple oven thermometer from Walmart for starts. One that goes up to 400 degrees or so. You can just insert that through the vent in the top and that'll give you a nice read on your temps. If you go to Lowes or Home Depot, you can go to the barbecue section and they should have some grill thermometers that'll go up to even higher temps.

If you want to get ahead of the ballgame, look into one of the cool remote thermometers - the Maverick ET-73 is a really cool product. You can monitor your meat temps and the temps of your cooker at the same time - remotely.

If you want real rock solid temperature control, look into getting a WSM.

WunderKraut said...

I am totally getting a soon as I can

Cullen said...

WK, Bing's had his a good bit longer than I've had mine, but we're both freaks for them. You'll find it such a joy to cook with.

I can't recommend a remote thermometer enough, either. I don't have the Maverick, but I would have bought it had I done a little research before buying my Weber therm. Think, for 50 bucks you can monitor the temps of your meat and cooker while you sit inside sippin' a brew.

If you want to waste a lot of time learning some barbecue, I can't recommend the Virtual Weber Bullet site enough.