During the 15 years that I lived in Center City, Philadelphia, most of my activities involved taking advantage of the near-by surroundings. I took a lot of walks to different sections of town to enjoy the shops and general vibe of the city, enjoyed the restaurant scene in my immediate area frequently, and was a regular Philadelphia Orchestra concertgoer. When my wife and I moved out to the suburbs in the late summer of 2012, I felt the need to take up a new hobby in addition to my usual time spent researching vacation itineraries and future meals online. It was probably inevitable that the hobby would be centered on food.
I had enjoyed eating, reading and watching shows about barbecue for years, but all of the buildings in which I lived during my time in the heart of the city forbid the use of grills or smokers. I’m not sure if this was because of a city regulation, something to do with insurance, or a general desire to avoid any mishaps. But moving to a detached home with a back patio opened up new possibilities for me.
While my main interest was in making barbecue – meaning meat that is smoked, not just grilled – I learned the usual way – online research – that barbecue can be made on a charcoal grill. Actually, it can also be made on gas grills, but that felt too much like cheating to me. A charcoal grill seemed like a good route for a novice who wanted to put a little more effort into the process than would be required with a more easily controllable gas grill. I lucked into finding a Weber 26-inch charcoal kettle grill at a greatly reduced price in our local Home Depot during that first Fall. Their need to free up shelf space for the seasonal change was my good fortune. The 18 and 22 inch models of Weber’s charcoal grills are more common, but having a larger cooking surface would be better for using indirect heat and, of course, fitting more meat on the grill.
You can learn just about anything on Youtube. And I spent some hours during the winter and early spring of 2013 watching tutorials on how to smoke meat on Weber kettle grills in preparation for my first season of making barbecue. The set up requires layering charcoal on one side of the grill’s lower grate with a foil pan partially filled with water on the other side, underneath the portion of the cooking grate that will hold the meat. The cooking is done with indirect heat, enabling the low-and-slow process that hopefully leads to quality barbecue. The water pan gives off steam to prevent the meat from drying out and also catches the grease drippings to make for easier cleanup. I would start the process by pre-burning a few briquettes or pieces of lump charcoal (I recommend the latter) and dumping them onto one end of my charcoal pile, the aim being for the rest of the pile to slowly burn from end to end. That both makes it easier to keep the grill temperature low and enables your charcoal to last longer. The heat is controlled by adjusting two vents on the grill as needed throughout the cooking process.
A chunk or two of wood – I generally used hickory and applewood at first – should be thrown on to the burning charcoal pile about the same time the meat is placed on the grill. There is disagreement on whether the wood chunks should be pre-soaked in water and for how long. It partially depends on your source of wood and how it was dried. I soaked it in those early days. Now, I get wood from a very good supplier who recommends not doing so.
The first couple years that I cooked barbecue, I stuck to the basics of traditional Southern barbecue: brisket, ribs, and pork butt. The butt is actually a portion of a pork shoulder. It’s the most popular cut for making pulled pork. I always rubbed the meat with a spice mix – and still do – either the night before or at least a few hours prior to throwing it on the grill. I mixed my own rubs using basic seasonings found in most homes: salt, pepper, brown sugar for pork, garlic powder, chili powder, maybe a little cumin, and whatever else struck my fancy. One of the things that surprised me was that basic yellow mustard is often rubbed on meat before applying the spice rub. The mustard acts as a binder to glue the seasoning to the meat, but it burns off during the cook without leaving a mustardy flavor. For brisket, I also would inject the meat with a mix of beef broth and Worcestershire sauce. There are injectors that look like giant medical needles sold at stores and websites that cater to barbecue enthusiasts. Brisket tends to be tougher than pork butt to keep from drying out, although it partially depends on how much you want to spend on your brisket. If you break the bank on wagyu or a high-end USDA Prime brisket, injecting it would be less important.
One gadget I felt I needed to have was a remote thermometer that would enable me to monitor both the meat and cooking surface temperature without having to stand at the grill all day. The real work of the process involved running outside every time my remote monitor indicated that the cooking surface temperature had gotten either too high or too low to adjust the vents. This could happen an average of several times per hour – if I was lucky. Making barbecue is not a fast business. It requires a lot of patience and can get frustrating. A whole brisket or a nice-sized pork butt can take anywhere from around 10-24 hours to get to the desired final temperature. There were several times when I drank enough Coke Zero to keep me up all night to monitor the progress of a brisket or butt. I generally only smoked those cuts when I didn’t have to work for a few days afterward. Catching up on rest was a priority during that period.
It is common, especially with brisket, for the meat temperature to chug along at a nice pace for the first few hours, leading the pit-master (that’s barbecue talk for the person cooking the meat) to get optimistic that the process won’t take as long as expected. Then the dreaded stall sets in. At some point, the meat temperature stops rising and won’t budge for what seems like an eternity. There is a temptation to do something drastic – like giving a boost to the grill temperature – after this goes on for a while. It’s important not to give into that temptation and stick with the plan. That plan generally includes wrapping the meat in foil or butcher paper at some point during the cooking process for brisket and ribs; again, to avoid a dry finished product. The wrap creates a steaming effect. A decent pork butt has enough fat for a wrap to often not be necessary.
With ribs, after they’ve steamed for an hour or two inside the foil wrap, they are generally finished by removing the foil and placing the ribs back on the grill surface. It’s common to add a coating of sauce to achieve a final glaze during the last 15-30 minutes before they are finished. As with the spice rub, I usually made my own barbecue sauce in those early days. The base was two parts ketchup to one-part each of apple juice and cider vinegar. Then I’d mix in brown sugar and various seasonings: salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder; again, whatever struck my fancy.
Anticipation always builds as the meat temperature climbs toward the final goal. With brisket and pork butt, that is generally in the neighborhood of 200 degrees (Fahrenheit). When the process is finally over, it’s important not to rush into carving and serving the meat. It needs to rest for a while. Barbecue mavens often do this by wrapping the meat in several layers of foil, then wrapping that inside a towel and leaving it inside of a closed cooler for up to several hours. It can remain in there even longer if your meat is finished much earlier than you intend to serve it.
I have to admit that carving meat is not one of my strengths. Brisket is supposed to be sliced against the grain. But it’s not always easy to see which way it goes, so I’ve screwed that up more than once. Pork butt is easier. You just pull out the one large bone and start shredding it apart. Mixing in sauce before serving or putting it on the table for everyone to add their own is a matter of taste with butt. Sauce should always be offered on the side with brisket, unless you screw it up so badly that you need the sauce to mask how bad it is. I’ve never done that, thankfully. But I’ve read stories.
After three seasons of making barbecue on a charcoal grill, I moved on to a Weber charcoal smoker, which did make the process at least a little easier in terms of being able to keep the cooking surface temperature more steady. I’ll get into cooking meat on a smoker in a future post. I’ll also write about my experiences dry-aging a rib roast and turning a brisket into a corned beef at some point. I guess you can say my suburban-life hobby became Meat.