Over the last 2 months this series has taken a look at the basics of backyard grilling. In the third and final installment of this series we will take a look at the apex of grilling, the art of slow and low, indirect grilling, also known as barbecue. This is the pinnacle of grilling. It is where smoke, heat, and meat come together to create a little “heaven here on Earth.” This is the stuff that competitions are centered around and reputations are built on.
Many people would have you believe that making good barbecue is impossible without a smoker or professional style barbecue rig, but I have made lots of great barbecue using my standard Weber kettle style grill, and you can also. I regularly make killer ribs and pulled pork using my kettle grill, but also have cooked a full Prime Rib on there on numerous occasions and almost always do the Thanksgiving turkey on my grill also. The key is learning about indirect grilling, and how to control the temperature of your grill.
While regular grilling takes a high heat approach, barbecuing and indirect grilling takes a low and slow approach. High heat works well for tender cuts of meat such as steak, pork loin, chicken pieces and fish, tougher and larger pieces of meat need a long, slow cooking method to turn them into tender morsels of goodness. The high heat of direct grilling will get the meat cooked, but without the long, slow process of indirect grilling it won’t make a tough cut tender. Cuts such as ribs or pork butt require this slow and low cooking process because they are full of connective tissues that take a long time to break down, whereas large cuts of meat such as a Prime Rib or whole turkey need to be cooked slow and low so that the outside doesn’t burn before the inside is cooked properly. Though these different cuts require slow and low cooking for different reasons, the same techniques can be applied to all of them to achieve the perfect results.
No discussion of barbecuing would be complete without a brief discussion of brining. Brining is a technique to bring additional moisture to large cuts of meat or drier meats such as turkey or pork loin. Brines can also be flavored to bring additional layers of flavor to a dish. At its basic, a brine is a salt solution of 1 gallon of water to 1 cup of salt (I prefer kosher salt or pickling salt and not table salt due to the additives in it). Some form of sweetener is usually added also to counteract the saltiness. This can be white or brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, cider, etc. and is usually added at the same ratio as the salt. From there any other spices, herbs or seasonings can be added to suit your tastes and needs. To make your brine bring half of the water to a boil, add the salt, sweetener and seasonings and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and add remaining cold water. Do not add meat to the brine until it is completely cool. Make enough brine to completely cover the meat. As for length of time in the brine solution, that depends on the size of the cut. Loin chops might only require an hour or 2 while a whole, 20 pound turkey or pork butt might take 12-24 hours, keeping it chilled the whole time. Once the meat is ready for the grill make sure that it has been dried off thoroughly.
Another way to bring flavor to barbecue is through a dry rub. This can be as simple as a mixture of salt, pepper, minced garlic and fresh herbs that you rub onto a rib roast or it can be a complex mixture of 10-20 spices and seasonings that some of the barbecue champions rub their ribs with. All rubs start with salt as their base then often temper that with sugar, of some sort. Heat and color are often added with the addition of paprika, chili powder, crushed chilies and black pepper. From there other seasonings are added, again based on flavor and ethnic preferences. Virtually nothing is off limits when it comes to creating a rub and it gives you a good excuse to play with some of those little used spices cluttering up your spice cabinet. Rubs are usually a last minute addition, often not being applied more than 1-2 hours before cooking, and sometimes not until right before, though there are exceptions.
If you are going to be using wood to add smoke to your meat, and isn’t that the whole idea of barbecuing, instead of roasting in the oven, then you want to make sure you have plenty of wood chips that you have soaked for about 2 hours in water. Most any hardwoods will provide decent smoke, but stay away from soft woods such as pine, fir, etc. They produce a thick, resinous smoke that isn’t at all pleasant. While the average person probably can’t tell the difference between most woods, look to fruit woods or maple for a more subtle smokiness while hickory, oak, and mesquite will provide a more pungent kick. The best size to use, on charcoal, is the size that comes out of chipper. Large chunks are too big, and are meant for use in large barbecues, while fine, almost sawdust like pieces burn up too quickly and make a huge mess.
And now, we are finally ready to start cooking. Fill your chimney starter with charcoal and light it. Don’t have a chimney starter yet? I highly suggest you get one as we will need to be adding fresh charcoal, to the grill, regularly, and you will need a place to pre start it. While your charcoal is heating up pull your meat from the fridge and allow it to warm up a bit. If it has been brined, now would be the time to dry it off.
Once the charcoal is ready, there are 2 main configurations that I use for indirect grilling and barbecuing. The first one is to cover ½ of my grill with charcoal and leave the other half free of charcoal.
This is a good set up if you want to sear the outside of something quickly to get a crisp skin, but then need to finish it slowly so that it cooks all the way through without burning. I use this configuration a lot with chicken leg and thigh quarters. The other configuration, and my favorite, is to create a ring of charcoal around the outside of the grill, leaving the center open.
This is where I place my meat so that it is surrounded by heat on all sides. No matter what configuration you use, if your meat is going to be spending more than 30 minutes in the grill then you need to place a small aluminum pan, with just a bit of water in it, in the area on covered with charcoal. This acts as a drip pan for catching juices but also provides a bit of moisture in the cooking chamber. Place your meat over the drip pan, add about ½ cup of the soaked wood chips to your charcoal, and cover the grill. After about 30 minutes, using your chimney starter, start another 15-20 briquettes. Once covered with ash (15-20 minutes) add to the grill, evenly spacing them around the meat. Never add unburnt charcoal directly to the grill. The chemical binders that hold the charcoal together will contribute some nasty flavors to your meat. Let that stuff burn off first. Go ahead and add another ½ cup of wood chips.
After 2 – 2 ½ hours of cooking you can stop adding wood chips as the meat has taken on plenty of smoke by that time. Continue adding 15 – 20 briquettes every 45 minutes until the meat is done.
Once your meat is done, it is important to allow the meat to rest. Smaller items need about 5 – 10 minutes to rest, while larger items such as a whole turkey or pork butt should be covered and allowed to rest for, at least 15 minutes.
How long your meat will take depends on too many factors to be able to pin it down exactly, but here are some guidelines; babyback ribs 2 – 2 ½ hours, pork butt 6 – 7 hours, rib roast (Prime Rib) 3 – 4 hours (for medium rare), whole turkey (15-20 pounds) 4 – 5 hours, beef brisket 8 – 10 hours (I usually cook it for 5 hours on the grill and finish it in the oven for 2-3 hours). Of course, things such as ambient temperature, wind, the type of charcoal used, rain, thickness and density of the meat all play a role in how quickly it will be done. But that’s part of the joy of barbecue. It gives us a chance to slow down and smell the smoke. It’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.
Hopefully, you have enjoyed this 3 part series and hopefully I’ve inspired you to think twice before you just through that meat on the grill. With just a little forethought you can take your grilling from good to great and become the envy of the neighborhood.