Grilling hamburgers and hot dogs on a charcoal grill has nothing whatsoever to do with “barbecue,” Norman Rockwell-era imagery notwithstanding. But there is no reason, with proper patience and planning, that real barbecue — the low and slow kind we associate with places like Texas and Kansas City, Memphis and the Carolinas — cannot be the new “backyard barbecue.”
Barbecue is intensely, notoriously regionalized. Those four most prominent styles are mostly defined by the meats (and cuts) they use and the sauces.
- Carolina is about whole-hog barbecue, except in North Carolina’s west, where it’s mostly pork shoulder with a tomato-vinegar sauce. In South Carolina, on the other hand, the meat is pork cuts and the sauce is mustard-based.
- Kansas City features “burnt ends” (fatty, little nubs of beef brisket smoked over hickory until they’re deep, dark and delicious) in a thick and sweet tomato-based sauce, and a wide variety of meats.
- In Memphis, pork rules: smoked pulled pork with either dry or wet ribs and a sweet, tomato-based sauce.
- In Texas, it’s all about the meats — particularly brisket and pork ribs — with sauces being secondary.
While San Diego lacks a signature barbecue style, it’s not because we lack for good barbecue spots. Among the best is Andy Harris’ Grand Ole BBQ with locations in Flinn Springs (featuring a smokehouse Harris describes as the largest west of Texas) and Petco Park and an original North Park location, Grand Ole BBQ y Asado, reopening soon after renovations. Grand Ole BBQ tends toward the Texas style — though, perhaps, not exclusively so. Harris tends to avoid complex spice rubs in favor of salt and pepper. Similarly, he cooks his brisket and beef ribs without any sauce (though he does offer a variety of sauces for dipping).
Rather, Harris seems to focus on what is at the core of all good and true barbecue. If styles of barbecue are separated by choice of meat (both animal and cut) and sauce, what unites them all as “barbecue” is low and slow cooking. The point of “low and slow” is to decrease the temperature gradient between the outer and inner portions of the meat.
The heat source — whether burning wood or ashes, gas or charcoal — is not what cooks the interior of meat. The heat source cooks the outer surface; that outer surface then radiates heat inside to cook the center. Keeping the temperature low over a long cook time ensures a more even temperature throughout the finished product.
But it also does something even more important: It makes the food moist and juicy. Cooking low and slow renders the meat’s fat, essentially basting it internally. Perhaps more critically, it breaks down the meat’s connective tissue (collagen) into gelatin. This process keeps the meat moist and juicy, despite the long cook times.
It’s a combination of temperature and time. The longer the meat’s internal temperature stays in the collagen breakdown zone, the more thoroughly broken down that collagen will be and the more tender, moist and juicy the finished meat will be. And that’s what barbecue is all about.
While there is a common perception that barbecue is a quintessentially American genre — and, perhaps more specifically, a genre of America’s South — the reality is that it was born in the Caribbean. It was, to be specific, derived from the techniques of Indigenous peoples, the Taíno, who called their technique of slow-cooking animals over a raised wooden platform “barabicu.” Their Spanish conquerors dubbed it “barbacoa” by the mid-1500s and brought it to continental North America.
Although cook time is at the core of all styles of barbecue, the clock does not stop when the meat comes off the heat. Harris emphasizes that “the most important part” may come afterward: the rest.
“You do all this work to make sure you have a tender, juicy meat,” he says, “but if you just tear right in, it may look juicy, but those juices run out and (it) ends up eating like the desert.” The meat itself needs time to reabsorb the juices.
It may seem as if two hours is a dreadfully long time to “rest” meat and that it will get cold. But most commonly, especially for brisket or pulled pork, the meat coming off the heat clocks in around 200 degrees. There’s a lot of cooling between that temperature and “cold.”
It does take more effort — and a lot more time — to cook real barbecue than it does to grill up some hot dogs and hamburgers. But that is what weekends with family and friends are made for. The mythology of the “backyard barbecue” is all about long, slow weekend afternoons. And if that effort and time is good for burgers and dogs, it is that much better for brisket and ribs. After all, time — and the luxury of time — is what the lazy weekend afternoon and the backyard barbecue are all about, isn’t it?
Here’s what to get
Harris emphasizes that starting with the best product yields the best finished dish. For the beef brisket, Harris recommends corn-fed, natural Black Angus brisket, though prime-grade brisket is a decent substitute. For pork ribs, again, look for a higher end pork. Harris says, “the darker the color normally means the higher quality of pork.”
Despite the fact that just about every barbecue enthusiast has a clear favorite smoking setup, Harris makes clear that brisket and ribs can be successfully smoked on just about any rig — Green Egg, Traeger or other pellet smoker or even a simple Weber — that can be set up for indirect heat. Harris prefers using white oak for the smoke, though “a little hickory mixed in never hurts [and] … some fruit woods for pork products brings out a nice flavor.”
Andy Harris’ Barbecued St. Louis Cut Pork Spareribs
Makes 4-6 servings
FOR THE SPRITZER:
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
FOR THE RIBS:
2 3-pound racks of pork spareribs, trimmed
1 cup Andy Harris’ Reluctant Rub (recipe below) or salt and pepper
1 cup Texas-Style BBQ Rib Sauce (recipe below) or sweet-style barbecue sauce of your choice
Prepare the smoker and stabilize the heat at 275 degrees. While the smoker is coming to temperature, prepare the spritzer by adding the apple cider vinegar and water to a spray bottle and shaking vigorously to combine.
Meanwhile, prepare the ribs. Start by trimming any excess fat off the top of the ribs. To remove the silver skin — that thin layer of skin on the back side of the rib rack — from the bottom, use a butter knife to lift the silver skin up and away from the back of the ribs. Use a paper towel to grab hold of the end of the silver skin and pull it down the ribs. The silver skin should come off relatively easily. Season the ribs liberally with the spice rub (or salt and pepper).
Smoke the ribs for 2 hours, spraying every 20 minutes with a few sprays of the spritzer. After 2 hours, glaze both sides of the ribs with the Texas-Style BBQ Rib Sauce and spray again with the spritzer. Smoke the ribs for about 2 more hours, until you can pick up a rack in the middle with tongs and the ribs on each end of the ribs bend over, almost touch but don’t break.
Andy Harris’ Reluctant Rub
Makes slightly less than ½ cup
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons turbinado sugar (see Note)
3 teaspoons granulated onion
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
Combine all the ingredients together in a small mixing bowl. Stir well to fully combine. Use a fork, a spoon or your fingers to make sure all the brown sugar is completely broken up and no large clumps remain. Transfer mixture to an airtight container or resealable bag. Store in a cool, dark place for up to three months.
Note: Turbinado sugar is a light brown raw sugar that is minimally processed and has large crystals.
Texas-Style BBQ Rib Sauce
Makes about 4 cups
2 tablespoons bacon fat (or vegetable oil)
½ large yellow or white onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups ketchup (the lower the sugar content, the better)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Maggi seasoning sauce (or good quality soy sauce; see Note below)
In a medium saucepan, heat the fat until it coats the pan and begins to shimmer. Add the chopped onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook over medium heat until the onion has started to brown and the garlic has started turning crisp, about 3 minutes more. Add the brown sugar and cook, stirring frequently until the sugar melts and starts to form a glaze, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the apple cider vinegar, ketchup, paprika, mustard, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened slightly, then add the Worcestershire and Maggi sauces and simmer for 1 more minute.
Add the contents of the saucepan to the bowl of a high-speed blender or food processor. Starting at low speed (or pulsing) and increasing the speed to high, blend the sauce until it is smooth and takes on an orange hue, approximately 1 minute.
Transfer to an airtight container and allow to cool to room temperature. Store in a refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Note: Maggi seasoning sauce is a condiment made from fermented wheat protein; it is similar to soy sauce and offers a nice hit of umami.
Andy Harris’ Barbecue Beef Brisket
Makes 10-14 servings
FOR THE BRISKET:
10-14 pound high quality (corn-fed, natural Black Angus or prime) beef brisket
Coarsely ground — almost to the point of just being cracked — black pepper
FOR THE SPRITZER:
1 cup water
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Lightly trim the beef brisket, removing the deckle fat — the hard fat that connected the brisket’s flat section to the cow’s rib cage — and as much of the silver skin as possible. Pat the brisket dry with a towel to remove most of the moisture. Season the brisket liberally with kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Place the meat on a large plate, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight to help soak up the liquid from the beef and help form a crust.
Prepare the smoker and stabilize the heat at 275 degrees. While the smoker is coming to temperature, prepare the spritzer by adding the water and Worcestershire sauce to a spray bottle and shaking vigorously to combine.
Remove the brisket from the refrigerator and smoke until it forms a dark bark, about 6 hours, spraying every hour or so with a few sprays of the spritzer. Wrap the brisket in unwaxed butcher paper and return to the smoker. Continue smoking the brisket until you can poke the meat and it feels like poking your cheek, about 202 degrees on an instant-read meat thermometer. That should be somewhere between 5 and 7 hours.
Cover the brisket with plastic wrap and let it rest on the counter for at least 2 hours before unwrapping and slicing.
Texas-Style Vinegar and Tomato Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 2 quarts
½ gallon of water
2 lemons, halved
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
1 small head of garlic, halved
3 cups tomato puree
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup white sugar
1 cup Worcestershire
5 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper, preferably fresh ground
Combine the water, lemons, onions and garlic in a large pot and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. Continue boiling, uncovered, until reduced by half, at least 30 minutes. Strain the liquid.
Add the strained liquid along with the remaining ingredients to the pot and bring it back to a boil over high heat. Continue boiling the liquid until everything is thoroughly incorporated, about five minutes.
Note: If you over-reduce the lemon-water liquid in the first step, just add some additional water to the pot to get it up to a quart of liquid.
Gardiner is a freelance food writer whose first cookbook, “Modern Kosher: Global Flavors, New Traditions,” published in September 2020. He lives in La Mesa.