by Maggie Wolff Peterson
There’s barbecue, and then there’s barbecue.
There’s a world of cuisine between burgers on a patio grill and the complicated, brined, marinated, herb-rubbed, secret-sauced, slowcooked, smoked delights that come from America’s top pit masters. But it’s all good. There is something compelling about a fire, tended and contained, over which meat cooks. The urge to make and cook with fire is primal. And it smells great. Warm weather invites outdoor cooking, whether enjoyed at home or at a roadside stand. Barbecue masters have vied for decades to declare their ribs, chicken, pork or pit beef as the best. National events attract traveling teams to compete against each other for prizes and honor.
In Winchester, the Hogging It Up Barbecue and Music Festival is in its second season. What differentiates this event, running from June 27 to 29 at Clearbrook Park, is that not only do pit masters prepare their best for judging and tasting, but they offer mini-clinics on their techniques.
Event organizer Wayne Shafer “has dedicated his life to barbecue,” says his wife, Cindy. And although he keeps some of his tricks a secret, he’s willing to share “how to trim your ribs, how to barbecue your chuck. Things the public can do at home,” she says. Of the more than 400 championship barbecue festivals each year in the U.S., “there are only two where the competitors talk, and they’re ours,” Cindy Shafer says. “At other competitions, they come, they cook and they leave.”
So, what are the secrets that Wayne Shafer knows? “Barbecue is up to your own imagination, your own technique,” he says. Some people swear by Coca Cola as the secret to a great barbecue sauce. Others prefer a vinegar kick. Some pitmasters invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their rolling smokers. Some backyard chefs get a great result from a converted trashcan. “As long as it tastes good,” Shafer says.
Brian Pellatt, chef at Bonnie Blue restaurant in Winchester, oversees the production of barbecue by the gallon. Smokers outside the restaurant run nearly continuously, consuming cords of wood and perfuming the air with a savory scent. Pork and chicken is sold by the platter or pint. Kielbasa is also smoked in-house.
Pellatt says one secret to great barbecue is brining. In a one-to-one ratio, measure sugar and salt, then add enough water to cover the pork, chicken or even turkey you plan to cook. Brining isn’t great for beef, Pellatt says. Allowing the meat to soak in brine for up to three days before cooking “really adds moisture to it, that when it does smoke, it’s tender and juicy.”
Brining also speeds cooking time, Pellatt says, because the saltsugar mixture helps transfer heat. At Bonnie Blue, meats are smoked for 14 to 16 hours in low heat to achieve a fallapart texture and deep flavor.
Pellatt differentiates smoking meat from barbecuing over direct heat. Home cooks can achieve the same effect using a kettle grill, with coals on one side and the meat on the other. Let the fire burn down, then add scatter soaked wood chips over the coals to make the smoke that flavors the meat.
You want “a nice, slow, steady heat,” Pellatt says. Another way to impart flavor is to rub meat with spices before cooking. Beef brisket, especially, benefits from this. Again, according to Pellatt, time is the chef’s friend.
He prefers to let spice-rubbed meats rest for three days before putting them on the smoker. Barbecue sauces tend to show regional variation. North Carolina-style sauces are vinegar-based, while South Carolina sauce begins with mustard. Ketchup-based sauces are popular everywhere. Most sauces combine sugar with spice and heat, with enough vinegar for tang.
There’s no limit to what a creative cook can throw on the grill. Sturdy fish, such as tuna, salmon or swordfish, benefit from barbecuing, as do vegetables such as zucchini or corn. Some cooks swear by the barbecue for such shellfish as lobster, and some cooks like to throw clams on the grill. Wayne Shafer has seen straight whiskey injected into a roast, which tasted, “to me, awful,” he says. And he has smoked crab cakes, the result of which he termed only a moderate success.
“I loved them, but my wife hated them,” he says. Competitors Mike and Michelle Lackey of Bluemont, Va., bring international flair to barbecue; both the flag of Texas and the image of a kangaroo are featured prominently on their competition vehicle. As a native Texan, Mike Lackey has automatic barbecue credibility, and Michelle Lackey hails from Australia, land of shrimp on the barbie.
Their website, hogitupbbq.com, offers techniques and tips, as well as recipes for everything from Thai chicken to Texas pork ribs. The website shows how to prepare brisket for straight smoking, or cured as pastrami. There are even directions for potables such as a ginger and pineapple punch that gets its kick from ginger beer and sparkling wine.
And yet, Michelle Lackey says there are secrets the website doesn’t share.
“We can’t divulge them,” she says.
Unlike most kitchen duties, barbecue is social. Certainly, a solitary cook can pour charcoal, light a grill, listen for that first sizzle. But we usually think of barbecue in party terms. Throw on some burgers and dogs. Go upscale and brine a bird or two. Get fancy with a pork roast. Make a pitcher of something good to drink. Enjoy.
Courtesy of Hog-It-Up BBQ
Texas-Style Baby Back Pork Ribs
Yields: 4–6 servings
Cook time: 2 hours; Prep time: 15 minutes
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic pepper (optional)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 full slabs pork baby back ribs or
- 8 pork country-style ribs
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 2 teaspoons seasoning salt
- 3-4 tablespoons spicy brown or Dijon mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon thyme
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon grated orange rind
Combine the rub ingredients. Lightly coat the rib meat with mustard; all sides for country-style ribs and meat side for baby back ribs. Sprinkle ½-cup rub mixture evenly over the ribs. Press into mustard and wrap ribs tightly in aluminum foil.
Place the ribs on the grill over indirect heat. (Note: this means that you place all the charcoal on one side of the grill. When the coals are ready, the food gets placed on the opposite side of the grill.) Cook the meat covered for 90 minutes.
Remove the ribs from foil and sprinkle the remaining rub mixture over the ribs (do not rewrap in foil). Place the ribs, meat side down on the grill over indirect heat. Cover the grill and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the ribs so they are facing meat side up. Cover grill and continue cooking an additional 10 minutes or until ribs are tender.