“Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes”.
John Shelton Reed
I have always loved outdoor cooking. My interest in this started as a boy. I spent most of my youth in the outdoors, hunting, fishing and camping. Cooking over fire was a joyful segment of these activities.
At first I was just thrilled with the novelty of preparing my own food over an open flame. Soon my buddies and I were stocking our backpacks with more than just fishing gear, but with salt, pepper, a little flour, and even perhaps a lemon, to add a little taste to the trout or catfish we would catch.
Later as a middle-aged male, the backyard grill became a focal point for me. Unfortunately I suspect that, like most people, I have been grilling badly for many years.
I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
In my 40s I became interested in Southern barbecue. Proceeding in exactly the wrong way , I went down to my local Home Depot, and for the princely sum of about $140 purchased my first barbecue pit.
This was a serious looking contraption known to barbecue aficionados as an “offset smoker.” This inexpensive cooker was meant to mimic much more extensive barbecue pits which are much better engineered. Unfortunately, $140 doesn’t buy very much value. At that price range, the pits are ill-designed. This results in uneven temperature distribution and poor temperature control. I had occasional good results, but I really didn’t know and I was doing. My ribs, chicken, and pulled pork were very inconsistent. Meat is expensive, and I hate to waste anything.
About 2 years ago, I landed upon a website that has changed everything I knew about barbecue, transforming my outdoor cooking, from a random act, at best, to a more disciplined, deliberate, and consistent pursuit. I can’t say for sure whether in the big picture I have become a competent pitmaster, but the food now comes off the barbecue, looking, feeling, and tasting as it is supposed to. People seem to like my output now. Rarely do we have any leftovers.
Armed with some knowledge, I’ve also made the investment in a piece of the equipment that has made a whole process a lot easier. I want in this piece, to introduce you to the resources that I think it is fair to say, transformed my outdoor cooking.
The first resource is a website called Amazing Ribs. Although there are many barbecue resources on the web, I think it is acknowledged that Amazing Ribs is the most encyclopedic of them all. It is run by a team of pitmasters led by Craig aka “Meathead” Goldwyn. This former food and wine writer, some years ago turned his attention to the manly art of barbecue and smoke. As the principal author of the site, Mr. Goldywn has been apparently very busy.
There is a vast amount of information here. There are equipment reviews, barbecue techniques; recipes for both smoked/barbecued meat, and the wonderful side dishes that accompany them. There is a huge amount of information on the various cuts of meats in “Zen”articles he titles for instance: “The Zen of Beef”. There are graduate level dissertations on wood, charcoal, wood pellets, and other barbecue fuels, as well as guides to the various cooking accessories. The site is written with attention to the science of cooking, as well as food safety, reminiscent of “Cooks Illustrated” magazine. “Meathead” debunks a lot of myths, such as the superiority of so-called” beer can” chicken and misconceptions about “resting” meat. But he does so with actual science and measurements to prove his point of view.
An important theme throughout the site, is the importance of cooking to appropriate temperatures using accurate digital thermometers to assure that: #1 that the food is safely sterilized, and #2 that is cooked to the appropriate degree of “doneness” for optimal flavor and texture. To top it all off, Meathead writes prose that is eminently readable and generally irreverent. There is even a collection of barbecue-themed music available within the pages.
Using what I have learned, I am able. I think, to turn out a more flavorful, consistent product, whether it is pork ribs, poultry, pork shoulder, or the Holy Grail of barbecue: Texas-style beef brisket. I have learned that pretty much if you follow Meathead’s instructions, things tend to come out pretty well. I also discovered through the website that my beloved Weber kettle grill is actually a much better smoker than the cheap offset pit I was using.
An interesting story: Grateful as I was to the site for the info I had received, I recently joined Amazing ribs premium “Pitmasters” club, which offers information and online seminars. I had trouble logging in for the first time, and emailed the site several times for assistance. When I received no reply, I emailed a somewhat stronger request.
I was at work at the hospital when I received a call from one of the assistants in my clinic. She told me she had recieved an unusual call from someone called “Meathead” who left the message that” everything would be taken care of”. The assistant thought this sounded sinister and worried for my safety. There was a phone number which I called and had a very pleasant conversation with the guy I had come to know from his writing. Turns out he tracked me down through Google. That’s impressive.
Using information from the Amazing Ribs site, I purchased last summer, an inexpensive” box store” vertical gas smoker. I used it quite successfully for 7 or 8 months, but longed for a more sophisticated barbecue pit. One of the problems with cooking “low and slow”, is that most barbecue pits require almost constant attention to maintain the appropriate cooking temperatures needed. Many of Meathead’s recipes include in their ingredients a case of beer and a lawn chair, preparing you for the need to be nearby for what may be up to a 14 hour cook.
Now I’m not really good at being inactive for that period of time (though the beer sounds good). So, I began to research one of the newest developments in the industry, the “pellet smoker”. These barbecue “pits” use hardwood pellets as fuel, but most importantly, come with electronics which allow you to set a temperature, and then walk away, much like your kitchen range.
After considering a number of devices, I settled on a company in Georgia called Rec Tec. They make a unique pellet grill that offers very advanced temperature controller, a huge pellet hopper, very high-grade stainless steel parts, and a very strong warranty, all at a very competitive price.
The Rec Tec as it turns out works very well. Load the 40 pound hopper with pellets, set a temperature, fill it with food, and go do something else. For most meats, I use a remote type thermometer that allows me to monitor temperatures from afar, even from my smart phone (with an IP camera set up).
This is incredibly liberating. It allows you to do the big cooks a lot more often. For instance, I can now start a pork shoulder in the early evening, and allow it to cook overnight while I sleep, at the prescribed temperature of 225°. It won’t be until the next day until it reaches an internal temperature of roughly 200° when it essentially turns into pig jelly and is ready to be shredded into” pulled” pork. Though the Rec Tec can allso do grilling (as opposed to barbecue which is actually roasting), I find my Weber is superior for steaks and hamburgers
What is unique about Rec Tec is their commitment to customer service. When you purchase your grill either factory direct or through Amazon, you receive a pack of materials that includes the business cards of a variety company personnel including the owner, Ray Carnes, who may be seen on the company’s, YouTube videos. The business cards include cell phone numbers, which you are free to utilize any time, weekdays, weekends, etc. I have done this on occasion, and they are only too happy to talk to you.
As they are essentially wood fired convection ovens, pellet grills are useful for foods other than meat. I particularly like pizza which requires a smoky flavor much like that obtained from a wood fired pizza oven. There are ample examples of surprising dishes that can be prepared on pellet smokers to be found both on Rec Tec website, and at Amazing Ribs.
This is a fun hobby. At some point I may steel up the nerve to enter a local or regional competition, but for now I’m still honing my techniques. And I do love good barbecue.
Amazing Ribs has a name for it: Porknography