Cooking With Fire
Hi, Sara and Steven:
I, too, wish we could be sharing a cold beer in a smoky environment; that's always fun.
I found your discussion of different equipment such as the Big Green Egg and the wood-fire grills fascinating. With all the diverse cultures that grill, it is interesting to note the unique equipment. I was just in Turkey, for example, and they use charcoal grills quite different from ours that are specially geared to cooking skewered meat.
I'm a more traditional American griller than you in that I use a Weber. It's called the Ranch Kettle and is 3 feet wide, so it can handle a lot of food. With such a large cooking surface, you can easily create those different cooking zones that Steven discussed. Its size and cover also make it perfect for cooking larger cuts like beef brisket or pork butts in the traditional BBQ manner (covered, indirect heat, and under 220 degrees).
Lately, I have been having some fun with a Chinese box, though. Are you familiar with that? Basically, it's a box lined with metal designed to facilitate cooking very large quantities, or, alternatively (and this is how I've been using it), whole animals like an entire pig. The way it works is you get an 80-pound pig, butter-flied, and put it in the box cavity side up. You then close the box and make a charcoal fire on top. The heat is conducted through the top, creating very high temperatures. The pig cooks in about five hours, and the skin is as crispy as potato chips.
I usually season the pig with a wet garlic paste. Sara, I'm with you in that I don't typically use liquid marinades. Pastes and dry rubs are great because they encourage the crusting that tastes so good. They're easy to make, too. For Latin-inspired rubs, I use cumin, coriander, and chilies. For Mediterranean, I use fennel seeds and coriander. For Asian, I might use white peppercorns with coriander and anise. (As you can see, coriander seed is super versatile.) And since the point of rubs is surface seasoning, not penetration, they don't take any advance preparation.
Regarding the sauce question, I've always believed that sauce should be served as a condiment, so that the bold flavor can speak out unhampered. But, I must admit that sometimes just prior to removing an item from the grill, I brush on a little sauce to add some glaze. Putting any kind of sweet sauce on early in the grilling process tends to be a problem because the sugar burns. And another mistake people make is not properly drying off the excess marinade before grilling. When the marinade drips into the grill, it generates a sooty flavor caused by the liquid dropping into the fire. This ill-flavored smoke then adversely affects the food.
Sara, you wanted to talk about smoke. I also occasionally run into the problem of oversmoking. I'm not sure of its cause; sometimes I suspect it is a bad piece of wood, or too much smoke and not enough heat. When I think of smoke cooking, I'm reminded mostly of the traditional Southern method of BBQ; slow and low, is the motto. My technique is to cook a large cut of tough meat with the heat and smoke from a wood fire at temperatures below 220 degrees until the meat is tender. Actually, this is pretty similar to braising; in fact you could call it smoke braising. The 220-degree temperature is important because it is low enough to melt tissue, rather than evaporating it. For example, you would never roast a brisket. Its doneness is determined by tenderness, not the internal temperature.
One question I am interested to hear your perspectives on is how you adjust your technique depending on what cooking method you are using. For example, what do you think are the best temperature ranges for traditional BBQ and hot smoking? Do you think there is a difference between hot smoking and smoke roasting? In my opinion, hot smoking is below 140 degrees, BBQ goes from 160-220 degrees, and smoke roasting is above 300 degrees.
Not to ignite a controversy (well, maybe), but how do ya'll feel about covered cooking over direct fire, i.e., cooking with the top of the Weber on? If you're cooking with indirect heat, I think it's fine. But I find when cooking with direct heat and the cover on, the food juices drip into the fire, creating a bad flavor, or "Weber taste." Any comments?
Finally, to address your question, Sara: My last meal would have to be the BBQ I grew up with in southern Virginia—a shredded pork sandwich with coleslaw.
For years, Sara Dickerman worked as a restaurant cook; she is now the food and dining editor at Seattle Magazine. Steven Raichlen is the author of award-winning Barbecue Bible, How To Grill, and the new Raichlen on Ribs, and is the host of Barbecue University on PBS. He's also the creator of the Best of Barbecue line of grilling accessories. Chris Schlesinger opened the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., in 1985. He is the author of eight cookbooks and also won the James Beard award for the best chef in the Northeast.