Barbecue is a far cry from the days past when you were simply handed a platter of meat and sent outside to a grill. I mean, you don’t see leg of lamb braising contests at every turn, or weekend-long fish sautéing competitions — at least not yet — and while you won’t see men look longingly at a stock pot, they will ogle a smoker or a grill like it’s the centerfold of a men’s magazine.
Here is the thing: sadly, we have made BBQ complicated, as though it can only be great if you have a huge smoker attached to a trailer and pulled by a souped-up, four-wheel drive (I call it over compensating for something). We’ve taken BBQ to the extreme and made it feel out of reach for the ordinary average Joe or Jane.
It doesn’t have to be. There are the fundamental BBQ rules, and once you understand these, it’s not about your equipment as much as your method. After all, 200˚ Fahrenheit is 200˚ Fahrenheit — no matter if it is the temperature of your smoker, your oven, or your crockpot.
Don’t get me wrong: if you BBQ a lot, enjoy smoked foods, and find yourself cooking outside through the winter, then by all means, invest in a high-end smoker or grill. It’s no different than spending money on a muscle car, or woodworking, or refurbishing a sailboat. It’s an edible hobby for some — nothing wrong with that. But for those that don’t want another hobby, there is no need for BBQ envy.
Be it pulled pork or brisket, what I don’t want — and what you don’t want either — is to get to the end of a long process, only to take a bite and need a swig of beer to get it down. There’s nothing worse then getting the hiccoughs every time you attempt to swallow some dry brisket. No amount of sauce is going to make it go down any easier; dry is dry, and it will stay dry.
Generally speaking, the goal of good BBQ is to take a fatty and tough cut of meat and cook it at a temperature low enough to break down the muscle until it is tender, without rendering the fat away. In some ways, the cooking process is similar to sous vide — but where sous vide is largely unattended time, BBQ takes lots of tending.
Here is the thing: a little bit of smoke can go a long, long way There is no need to tend a fire for hours on end, unless of course, you want too. So if you want hassle-free smoked BBQ that will stand up against any out there, you can — and with a lot less fuss.
But first, get to know your barbecue commandments:
1. As I said, the good news is a little smoke goes a long way. You can easily get forty minutes of smoke onto the meat, then finish cooking your pulled pork in the oven. The smoke will be an addition, rather then the dominant flavor, and the cooking process is largely unattended at this point. Simply use an indirect low heat set-up on a grill and add a few water-soaked hickory chips (drained) to the fire side of your grill. Once the smoke is rolling place the meat as far away from the heat source as you can and close the lid.
2. Always build the pellicle: it is what lets the smoke stick to the meat and allows for the beautiful mahogany color of smoked protein. The pellicle is formed by seasoning the meat and letting it sit uncovered in the fridge overnight. It is as much a visual process as it is mechanical. Have you ever seen BBQ that has gloppy coligin puddles that sort of look like puke? That is what happens when you don’t form a pellicle.
3. Use a sheet tray with edges when handling the protein so you can collect any and all accumulated juices. In the end, mix these back into the shredded meat for added moisture and flavor.
4. Take the time to make your BBQ sauce. It is the most important step in the process. I don’t get the notion of spending all day cooking the meat only to dump a bottled sauce onto it.
5. Don’t cook blindly. Figure out what your temperature and time factors are, and make sure you don’t overcook your food. My goal is to have the meat shredded and tender, but rarely do I smoke or roast something until it is falling off the bone; by then, the meat is often flavorless and dry.
Author Notes: CB Stubblefield — or Stubbs, as he was known — was a legendary pitman, and my BBQ hero. I got to know Stubbs briefly in the mid ’80s when he was serving BBQ at lunchtime at Antones, a blues bar in Austin. I was a photography intern working at the Austin American Statesman and a staffer, Jay Godwin, took me to lunch to teach me about Texas BBQ. It was a lesson in regional cooking and, for me, the birth of my interest in cooking. I will never forget the taste and flavors that Stubbs himself brought to the table. For a young kid from Indiana, it was an eye-opening experience into the diversity of food in America and the diversity of BBQ.
Pulled Pork with Stubbs Sauce
Serves 6 to 8
For the Picnic:
6 1/2 pounds bone-in picnic shoulder (pork shoulder)
3 tablespoons kosher salt plus extra for seasoning
1 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
2 cups hickory chips, soaked in water for 24 hours then drained
For the Stubbs Sauce:
2 cups Pomi brand strained tomatoes
2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
1/2 cup vinegar
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
Kosher salt, as needed
1. The day before cooking — or up to three days before — combine the salt and brown sugar and carefully rub it into the pork picnic. Set the pork onto a cooling rack that fits onto a sheet tray with edges and put it back into the fridge uncovered. If you plan to go longer than a day in the fridge, cover the meat until 24 hours before you plan to put it into the smoker. Soak some hickory chips in water for 24 hours too.
2. Set up your smoker for indirect heat. If you need help, there are tons of videos on YouTube to help you get the idea.
3. Once your coals are ready, add a third of the hickory chips. Once they begin to smoke, place the pork skin side-up (if it has skin) onto the side of the smoker/grill with no heat. Lower the cover and let the smoking begin. Try not to let the coals heat the interior of the smoker/grill above 200° F. If it does, remove the lid to let out the heat and then replace the lid. Add more chips as needed. Smoke the picnic for anywhere from 40 minutes to 4 hours — it is up to you.
4. You can finish the pork on the grill if you want, or you can place it into a 200˚F oven for a total of 10 hours, including the smoke time. So if you smoked the pork for 40 minutes, then you need to slow-roast it in the oven for another 9 hours and 20 minutes; if you smoked it for 4 hours, it will need 6 in the oven. You get what I am saying?
5. While the pork is cooking, combine all the sauce ingredients in a saucepan. Bring it to a bubble over medium heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and let the sauce meld for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust as needed. Let the sauce thicken till it coats the back of a spoon then remove it from the heat.
6. When the pork is done, remove it from the oven. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, use two forks to pull the meat from the bone. Do this on a sheet tray so any juices that run get blended back into the pulled pork. The warmer the pork, the easier it is to shred.
7. Blend in enough sauce to wet the pork; or, as I do, serve the sauce on the side so everyone can add it to their liking. Serve as a sandwich or family style, with cornbread, greens, sweet corn, and pickles.