Grilling 109: The Beginnings of Barbecue

This series is all about grilling, and grilling is all anybody needs. The holy trinity of meat, wood, and fire are more than enough to satisfy any person. Really. I love barbecue as much as anybody. And I love cooking it. But it’s not for everybody. I urge you, don’t start getting into barbecue. Stop now. Go make a nice steak or some pork chops. You can get all the barbecue you want at a barbecue restaurant.

You’re not listening, are you?

I understand. Having come this far with grilling, you can’t help but wonder what would happen if the meat was bigger, and sat in the cold zone faster, and all the kinds of rubs and mops and sauces and brines that you could come up with. When I lived in Corning, New York and worked for the glass museum, my whole world revolved around these kind of questions. And you know what? If I ever have a house again with a backyard, it will revolve around them again. Because barbecue is awesome. It’s like the next step in primate evolution. But it really is harder than it looks. So let’s see what we can do to prepare you for that Great Leap Forward.

1. Don’t buy any new equipment. Don’t buy a smoker. Don’t buy an injector. Don’t buy a wireless thermometer. Don’t buy foil. I know that in my previous lesson I spoke glowingly of ceramic cookers like the Big Green Egg or the Komodo, but they make barbecuing too easy, in my opinion. That’s why I kind of hate them. You might as well just get it from a restaurant when you cook in those things. Master the art of doing it in a Weber, and you will understand what you are doing later on when you find yourself using more sophisticated equipment. Starting barbecuing with an Egg is like learning to drive on the space shuttle. If you do want to buy something, buy a device called a Smokenator, an insert for your Weber grill, about which more later.

2. Start out small. Barbecue can be done really well on a kettle grill, but it has to be smaller pieces that can cook in a few hours. So think chicken quarters and spare ribs. You know what really works well too? Johnsonville bratwurst. I can’t tell you how many barbecues those things saved when I had ruined the ribs.

3. You are going to want a large (20 lb) bag of charcoal at minimum, and a 10 lb bag of wood chunks. In addition, plan on having some kind of spritzer bottle around, and a bowl big enough to eat cereal out of. This will be for your mop.

4. You will be familiar, after all this time, with the concept of a cold zone. Just to remind if, in case you’ve forgotten, this is the part of the grill that doesn’t have hot coals under it. When barbecuing, you want to have as big a cold zone as possible. This is where the Smokenator comes in. The Smokenator is a metal insert that fits in the side of the Weber and holds pieces of smoldering wood. I will say that I never had a Smokenator when I learned the trade. I just threw wet chunks of wood on the coal from time to time, along with more coals. Generally, this needs to happen about every 25 minutes or so.

5. Get some store-bought sauce you like and pour some in a bowl. Thin it out with some beer. Add in a small amount of your favorite spice, as long as your favorite spice isn’t mace or something. I like pairing a sweet sauce with something like allspice or ginger. But you can figure that part our for yourself.  Every time you add wood and coal, brush some on. You are building up flavor levels and keeping the meat moist.

Expect your first chicken or ribs to come out bad. Something will go wrong. That’s OK. That’s why they invented Manager’s Specials. Just keep trying. You aren’t looking to master barbecue; you’re looking to understand it. And if you get some succulent, smoky, pink-barked ribs or piquant chicken out of the deal, you are far ahead. Wonderful things lay ahead for you.

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