by JJ Proville
For a restaurant that doesn’t specialize in barbecue, serving quality low-and-slow-style meats is a challenge. Barbecuing is all about cooking a hunk of meat over wood at a low temperature for an extended period of time; doing this well requires the right equipment and know-how, as well as experience built from repeated trial and error, preferably on a daily basis. Ask a purist – i.e. any pitmaster worth their rub – about whether you can cut corners and still have it be real barbecue, and the obvious answer would be a big no.
Despite all the fuss, summer is here, and cooking over fire is an activity deeply rooted in the tradition of Independence Day and hot, hazy weather. Customers will demand good barbecue from chefs and the potential profit margin – if you are producing enough product – can be quite attractive (not to mention that barbecuing is an incredibly fun and rewarding activity for any cook).
So what can a chef who doesn’t chain smoke whole hogs do to serve good barbecue in their restaurant? We rounded up the pitmasters at NYC’s Big Apple BBQ and pressed the question. For one thing, a chef needs to have a solid grasp on the fundamentals: using the right wood for the right meat, composing a good rub and a good sauce, and using the right kind of fuel. The last thing is to figure out where and in what exactly to barbecue. We discovered there are a number of solutions to smoking – even without outdoor access.
Pitmaster Ed Wilson of Wilson’s BBQ – Fairfield, CT
Which woods do you use? “I like to use shagbark hickory for the bigger cuts of meat like brisket or pork shoulder. A lot of people use oak, but I feel it imparts too much of a smoky taste. For smaller cuts I like to use a milder fruit wood like apple. Seafood is so delicate that anything other than a mild wood would be overpowering.”
Philosophy on Rubs: “The central theme of a rub is equal parts sugar, salt and pepper – now, you can make right and left turns off of that.”
Philosophy on Sauces: “It’s gotta be fresh, fresh, fresh. We make our sauce from scratch on-site, which most people don’t do. It’s hard to do fresh, but to me it’s worth it.”
Preferred Fuel: “I strictly use hardwood lump charcoal.”
Ed’s Tips for Chefs Serving Barbecue: “A chef should get a smoker underneath their hood if they want to do real barbecue. In preparing for service, get it all done right before your service. There’s no deterioration of the product when you hold it for 3 hours.”
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Pitmaster Pete Daversa of Hill Country – New York, NY
Which woods do you use? “I like to use Texas post oak for everything. It’s not too heavy and it’s not too light.”
Philosophy on Rubs: “Our philosophy is to keep it simple. We use salt, pepper, and cayenne. The point is to let the natural flavors of the beef or pork shine through. Personally, I’m a huge fan of chili powders and sugars.”
Philosophy on Sauces: “The only sauce we use is for chicken. (We do have a sauce at the restaurant and it’s called If You Gotta Have It.)”
Preferred Fuel: “We barbecue over gas assisted with some post oak. The temperatures inside the smoker are maintained using gas.”
Pete’s Barbecue Tips: “If you can’t use wood, cook your meat in an oven and keep it low and slow, like at 225°F, for as long as it takes. I’m not a fan of liquid smoke but if there’s no other way, that’s one alternative. Preparation wise, we stagger everything to make sure everything is cooked fresh the same day, and we never use old barbecue from the day before. We load the smoker with brisket twice a day and the other meats four times a day. Our maximum holding time for meat is about 2 hours.”
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Pitmaster Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson BBQ – Decatur, AL
Which woods do you use? “Most pitmasters use regional woods – everything in Alabama starts with hickory. For beef, I’ll usually use hickory and sometimes I’ll switch to post oak. For poultry I like to mix some fruit woods in with the hickory, whether apple, apricot or peach, because they highlight the depth of the hickory flavor. Pork is about hickory any way you cut it. For whole hog and big cuts like shoulder it’ll be all hickory, and when it comes to baby back ribs I like to add cherry. For salmon I like something very light and delicate, like alder.” (Chris’s favorite type of hickory is pignut.)
Tip: A lot of beginners will make the mistake of trying to cook with nothing but wood – but this can lead to oversmoke and bitterness. Start with charcoal and add wood to that.
Philosophy on Rubs: “First I’ll get my mind to what exactly I am putting it on. (I think the all-purpose rub is a little misleading). My philosophy is this: first I’ll mix my salts and sugars and do a taste test. At this stage, I’ll take into consideration how long I’m cooking, because of the caramelization that will develop on the meat. Then, I’ll add different types of heat. Once I get my heat regulated, I move towards something that gives it color and will bring all the flavors together, like paprika or chili powder. Then I go to my personal signature spices. From there on it depends on your own ideas.”
Sauce Tips: “If you’ve got a sweet sauce, only add it at the very end during the last 10-15 minutes of cooking (so the sugars don’t burn). If you’ve got a vinegar sauce or another sauce that isn’t too sweet you can baste your meat with it as it cooks. Slathering your meat with mustard will make the dry rub adhere and provide an even color to your meat without affecting the flavor profile.”
Preferred Fuel: Kingsford charcoal briquettes. “If I pre-load them in my cookers in a ring shape, I can get up to 15 hours of heat. I don’t pile the new briquettes on top, as it will smother the lit ones.”
Chris’s Tip For Serving Barbecue: “Leave your large cuts (chickens included) whole after cooking and slice, chop, or pull as close to service as you can.”
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Pitmaster Mike “The Legend” Mills of 17th Street Bar and Grill – Murphysboro, IL
Which woods do you use? “I like to use wood as a flavoring – not as a heat source. For beef, I like using post oak with some wild cherry. I think you can use any type of smoke to stand up to the boldness of the beef. For the rest, I don’t like smoke to be an overbearing element. For poultry, pork and seafood I use fruit woods like apple or cherry or pecan.”
Mike’s Favorite Rub: You can’t talk to Mike Mills without talking about his Magic Dust. It took him over a year to develop.
Philosophy on Sauces: “I personally like a thinner sauce. It’s got to have three dimensions: sweetness, vinegar, and a slight amount of heat. When you’re making a sauce, you’ve got to please the public. You need to realize there’s a difference between what’s right for your palate and what your customer base is going to like. I’ve listened to my customers over the years, and can tell you: the older your clientele, the less heat they can take.”
Preferred Fuel: All natural, hardwood lump charcoal. Use the charcoal for heat and wood for the flavor.
Mike’s Tips for Chefs Without a Smoker: Talking to Mike yielded an excellent solution for chefs that want to make barbecue and smoking a permanent part of their menu. It’s called The Ultra Que. According to Mike: “This pit can do everything that a regular pit can do. It’ll cook wood or charcoal while being gas assisted, but you can do wood by itself or gas by itself. It will fit through any 3 foot door, is 29 inches wide, and can slide perfectly under any restaurant’s standard-size exhaust hood. Capacity-wise, the Ultra Que will accommodate 20 racks of ribs or 16-18 pork butts. It can also double as a holding oven. You’ll also be the only one on your block with it because it’s only been on the market 3 months.”
* Note: The asking price of the Ultra Que is about $3500, so plan on having smoked goods on your menu for a long time. The Ultra Que is available through Ole Hickory Pits at www.olehickorypits.com or 1-800-223-9667.
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Other Barbecuing Solutions:
You can purchase an inexpensive mobile smoker through mainstream hardware stores for less than $200. A good example is the Char-Griller Super Pro, which can fit about a dozen pork shoulders or 15 racks of ribs. These can easily fit on a sidewalk, patio, or terrace.
Water smokers are available for around $60. These don’t require a lot of space, and you could easily fit a couple on a terrace or small patio. Keep in mind that while the pan of water inside ensures a high moisture level during cooking, these smokers usually have less capacity for handling large amounts of meat.
The Caja China is a type of reverse grill where the meat (roasted pig is the Caja’s specialty) is placed in a wooden box and covered with a metal lid holding a layer of lit charcoal. In this way, the meat roasts at an even temperature from above. Although the Caja China would not be qualified as traditional barbecue, this method yields a crunchy skin with a moist interior (and it can roast a whole pig under 4 hours).
For a sidewalk pig roast: After getting the necessary legal permit, build a square area using cinder blocks. Strategically place buckets of hot charcoal (to be refilled at intervals) inside the perimeter and sandwich the meat between two metal grates held by rods (like a stretcher) so that you can easily flip it over. Lastly, make sure you cover the pig during cooking with a large piece of metal roofing.
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