To my sweet daughter, Eloise, who kicked me (literally)
out of bed each morning to write, and tested each
of the recipes in this book in vitro.
I will never forget my first taste of barbecue. I was at a hole-in-the-wall joint just outside of Trussville, Alabama; it offered classic two meat/ three side combos, a huge selection of smoked meats, and sides like warm peaches drenched in syrup and creamed corn. When I first bit into those tender, smoky ribs, I had to take a moment of silence.
My journey into barbecue curved, stopped, looped, and stooped. It began in Alabama where my dad grew up. We spent summers there with my huge, glorious southern family. I worked in restaurants and catering companies for over twenty years; and though I tried, I never completely left the lure of the food business. I met a barbecue-loving chef, and twelve short years later we opened a barbecue restaurant, Smokin’ Pete’s BBQ.
Even so, I was past thirty before I learned how to properly cut a chicken. I destroyed carcasses for years, used dull knives, and gingerly held up meat between my fingers like something the cat dragged in. The fact that I now own a barbecue restaurant, grill like a she-Hulk, and cater for thousands means that you, too, can sidle up to the smoker. I made many mistakes along the way, and I share them gladly in hopes you will laugh with me, or at me if need be.
She-Smoke is a basic guide to get you started. I’ve also included a look at the greats for you to study, including a smokin’ trail of female barbecue blazers out there. If you’ve thought that your grill could blow up at any moment or felt iffy with big hunks of raw meat, or if you’ve wondered “Why?” when told the back-yard grill was the man’s domain, then sister, this book is for you.
Together we will break down the barbecue barriers that exist in the “smokesphere” and that say you have to “be” from barbecue country, i.e., Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas, Texas, or regions in between; that barbecue is the stuff of secrets; and that barbecue is a man’s world.
I may be “half southern” (I like my sweet tea cut with unsweet), but I’m also a Pacific Northwest left-coast girl. In honor of that I include a chapter on the traditional Northwest Salmon Bake. Also included is a whole mess of information about sources for buying local, natural meats and making sustainable choices, something everyone ought to be concerned about.
Though people the world over smoke and grill their food, the Church of Barbecue, that holy worship of smoke, resides right here in the United States. It’s time that women stood up for their barbecue rights. So grab your tongs—it’s time to journey into the smoke.
“If you take barbecue away from men, Julie, what will we have left?” asked my friend Victor.
He didn’t expect me to give him a history lesson. “Actually,” I replied, “there is mounting evidence that it wasn’t yours in the first place. Hunting, I’ll give you, Victor, but fire tending, tool making, and food preparation were most likely the realm of women.”
Because it was fire and food preservation that bumped us from Neanderthal and Homo erectus man into the Homo sapiens we are today, weeeelll, one can pretty much deduce that though you guys slew the beasts, without women, y’all might still be “a little behind” in the classroom. Barbecue may well be what helped make early humans jump to modern humans, and back then, women were in charge of the barbecue. My friend slumped away, poor guy, shaking his head and wiping the barbecue sauce from his chin.
Now, I’m not here to discredit men. In our postmodern world, where cooking so often involves picking up pre-packaged units from the freezer, it is the guys, for the most part, who have kept our slow, outdoor cooking tradition alive. If we are going to combat our fast-food, quick-’n-easy relationship to meal making, then we all need to learn to tend a slow fire.
Sister, don’t be afraid of the fire. It won’t bite. And if early woman was the keeper of the fire, then somewhere, deep inside, you know just what to do.
Have you always let someone else “man” the barbecue? We need to understand why. Why is barbecue such a man’s sport in this country? Why are you and most of your girlfriends not out there with smoky tendrils dancing in your hair?
Most people say it’s because women don’t have time to stand around for twelve hours, drinking PBR and scratching themselves. We’re doing everything else. This is true, but I think it goes deeper. I’m talking about the 1950s: the Renaissance of Backyard Cooking. Weber came out with its Kettle grill, and the patio daddy-O’s started swinging out burgers and kebabs in a frenzy of martini-infused flames. This is where women at home got booted from all things fire, and separated from the smoke.
I bring you Exhibit A: my mother.
My mom married a wonderful, albeit at the time, traditional man. Without question, she assumed her role as housewife. Cooking was a forty-year chore for her, and it showed. “Quick-’n-easy” became her mantra. She loved that seventies Crock-Pot. While the kids chomped on cereal, she’d throw in a can of pineapple, a packet of sweet-and-sour mix, and chunked chicken, turn that baby on, and voilà! When hubby and the kids showed up frothing hungry at six, she had Hawaiian Chicken ready to roll.
In all those years of toil, fire never entered the picture. She never grilled, smoked, or turned the rotisserie outside. Why? Firephobia. Not the kind that requires therapy, but something pumped, pummeled, and propagandized into ladies’ heads in the 1950s. She is still convinced that anything involving charcoal, propane, or wood chips might explode at any moment.
“It’s that word ‘propane,’” she said recently. “It sounds so ominous.”
Now on to Exhibit B: Just read the cookbooks of the time. My good friend Christine collects old cookbooks and booklets like “Fun with Aspic!” and “Velveeta: Recipes for People Who Eat Food.” (Clearly the goal of this book was to convince the reader that Velveeta is in fact food.) In the 1958 edition of The Better Homes and Gardens Barbecue Book, they practice not a speck of subtlety. The meat chapter’s opening line? “This is Dad’s domain. Sit back, Mom; admire Chef. He has the fascinating how-to on big steaks, and other juicy meats that take to charcoal.” We laugh, but looking at them, you read the language pounded in through words, pictures, and titles: Dad is chef, Mom the salad gal. Illustrations place Dad at the barbecue, while Mom holds the fixin’s platter. It is time, gals. Time to take back our place by the fire.
So what did I mean when I told Victor that women cooked the first barbecue? One anthropologist, Dr. Sonia Ragir, posits that because the larger males had first pick of the ripe fruit and other easy pickin’s, it was the females who, out of necessity, invented tools for breaking down less desirable foods. Tough foodstuffs such as tubers, roots, and bulbs required mashing, fermenting, or drying to break down the “digestion inhibitors” and make them edible.1
Males adopted those same tools while hunting and began snagging larger prey. Once hunting became more efficient, there was more meat to go around. This, paired with the discovery of fire, changed everything. The new food abundance required a separation of labor to process and protect it. The family unit formed out of necessity, and it was most likely the females who stayed behind at “camp” to tend to the food and offspring.2
“The tendency of . . . females to forage close to the main group or camp put . . . [them] in a position to control the use of fire. Thus, it is likely that women were responsible for cooking and the innovations in human culture that followed from it,” asserts Dr. Ragir.3 More protein and nutrients meant higher birth weights, and the subsequent larger brains “catapulted” early man to the Homo sapiens we are today.
Whether it was woman or man who was the first to smoke up some woolly mammoth ribs may be argued, but what you have to remember is that barbecue is the simplest cooking there is. Early man and woman had little else than fire and wood. At its basic element, you can literally barbecue with sticks. Dig pit, rub sticks together, light fire. Whether that fire should be direct or indirect, whether the wood should be hickory, apple, or cherry, and how to make the best smoke are where it gets interesting.
Along with teaching you the basics of how to barbecue, this book will get you started on being a kickass ‘cue girl. You are going to discover that barbecue is not the stuff of secrets. It is not impossible with a busy schedule. It is not one bit scary. Barbecue, sister, is fun.
The Difference between ’Cueing & Grilling
The first thing—the very first thing—is to understand the difference between true barbecue and grilling. Barbecue is about cooking with wood, slow and low, with indirect heat. As a method of cooking, it is at opposite ends with the grill. The word “barbecue” in America, however, also means the event and the whole realm of outdoor cooking. We’ll cover grilling, too, because often you can do both on the same equipment, and getting comfortable with one technique lends itself to the other.
Even if you have some grill or barbecue experience, read through these first few chapters to familiarize yourself with the terms I use throughout the book. “Slow and low,” the mantra of barbecue, means you will cook foods on a very low temperature (usually between 180°F and 225°F), for long periods of time (usually from 4 to 14+ hours). We make barbecue by cooking with indirect heat, meaning the food does not sit above the fire. We can do this with a variety of equipment, which you will learn about in chapter 1. The first two chapters cover equipment basics, fuel, fire starting, and fire tending.
Grilling sears food by direct heat fire, locking in the flavor. In the Grilling chapter we’ll talk about the different levels of heat and grilling with a combination of direct heat and indirect heat.
How to read this book: While you might skip around when reading a cookbook depending on the recipe you want to try, it is best to read She-Smoke in order, at least for the first chapters. We start with the basics and build from there.
Tools of the Trade
You can make great barbecue with an old refrigerator, an oil drum, or a pieced-together metal box—many have—but thankfully there are plenty of options for grills and smokers at your local fireplace dealer, hardware shop, or home improvement store. Once you get to competition- or commercial-level equipment, the scope (and cost) of equipment expands, but I’ll focus on home-model equipment.
PIT BARBECUE—You hear “pit-cooked barbecue” advertised at restaurants, but what does that mean? Pit barbecue is the traditional way of barbecue—cooking with wood fire. Wood is burned down to coals, to keep temperatures consistently low, and meat is cooked indirectly, apart from the fire. This can mean the meat is placed on one side of the grill, the heat generated on the other, or that the heat and smoke are generated in a separate chamber and fed into the indirect oven where the meat cooks. Though a pit can just be a hole in the ground, regularly used pits were historically stationary structures, often in a building separate from the main kitchen. Today a “pit” means any smoker that burns wood or a combination of wood and charcoal, ranging in size from a small home unit, which can start at about $200, to a rig that “travels” via trailer, which can cost in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. What any of the equipment below is trying to do is create that same flavor of pit barbecue with a smaller, home-size unit, some using alternative fuels like gas, electric, or pellets, which we will discuss below. Many are set up for direct-heat grilling too but can be used for barbecue by adjusting how much fuel you use, using your grill vents to regulate the temperature, and keeping your food indirect from the heat source.
DEDICATED SMOKER—I call grills that are made specifically for barbecue “dedicated smokers.” By design, these cook food indirectly from the fire, have the capability to maintain low temperatures, and often cannot cook at the higher temperatures for direct-heat grilling. Some examples of dedicated smokers below are the bullet “water” smokers, the box-style electric smokers, and grills with an offset fire box.
KETTLE GRILL, a.k.a THE WEBER—There are other brands of the kettle grill—so named because of its shape and dome lid—but the Weber is the original king of the kettle grill. Fifty percent of Americans own a charcoal grill, and chances are you are among them.1 The invention of the Weber kettle grill in the 1950s began the back-yard grilling revolution. Its domed lid and vents gave flexibility to the cook in terms of even, all-around heat that the open braziers of the time couldn’t achieve.
For barbecue, slow cooking on a kettle grill is just a matter of keeping a low charcoal fire indirect from the food. It takes more work to cook at low temperatures on a kettle grill, so you might consider one of the smokers listed below—but I love my Weber and list it first because you can do everything in this book on a kettle.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A GRILL AND/OR SMOKER
When shopping for a grill and/or smoker, here are some points to consider that will help you make great barbecue, with greater ease.
1. Separate fire box or separate entry to the fire. One key element to maintaining the consistent low temperatures needed for slow and low cooking is keeping the grill lid down. You will need to “feed the fire” incrementally, and having access to the fire without opening the lid is important. You don’t have this option with a Weber kettle drum, but you do with the bullet smokers and offset smokers listed below.
2. Vents. Opening or closing vents helps manage the fire temperatures by regulating how much oxygen feeds the fire. Choose a smoker with at least a bottom and a top vent for greater control. Some units have more elaborate venting systems.
3. Ash removal. Excess ash in the bottom of your grill or smoker can clog your vents, smother your fire, and, with a gust of wind, coat your food. Some grills make removing ashes easier than others.
4. Capacity and distance from fire. Size matters when you want to cook for a larger party. Look for smokers that have multiple racks or a chamber large enough to accommodate a whole brisket. The greater distance from the fire and the food in larger units also makes maintaining low temperatures easier.
5. Durability and thickness. Sturdier units with thicker walls will better insulate your fire, keeping temperatures more consistent (and that means less work for you!). They will also last longer and save money in the long run.
6. Built-in water pan. We will discuss water pans in greater detail in this chapter, but often in barbecue we place a pan of water or other liquids next to or in between the coals to create humidity in the cooking chamber. Water pans combat the drying effect of smoking foods and help regulate temperature. While you can easily place your own water pan in your grill, units that have a built-in pan, like the bullet smokers listed below, are handy.
7. Remote (external-read) thermometer. Knowing how hot the inside temperature of your smoker is takes the mystery and guesswork out of the equation. Some units have temperature gauges on the outside so you know the temperature inside without opening the unit. Others can be easily retrofitted with one, like the Weber Smokey Mountain smoker listed below. If your unit does not, have no fear—there are remote thermometers you can purchase that serve this function. I discuss this in the Favorite Tools section in this chapter and list a few options in the Resources chapter.
As you travel deeper into the ‘cue, you will start to seek out the endless equipment possibilities in barbecue chat rooms, blogs, and web rings. Beware of future obsession.
BULLET SMOKER—The bullet-shaped smoker, often called a “water smoker” because of its built-in water pan, is a favorite in the barbecue world both for its features and its compact design. With two to three racks for food, bullet smokers are big enough to smoke a turkey, yet at only 17 inches in diameter, their footprint is minimal. A separate door to the fire and built-in water pan are key features, and while most do not come with a built-in thermometer, some units, like the favored model in the barbecue competition world, the Weber Smokey Mountain, are easily modified to include one. Called WSM’s by those in the know, these shiny “bullets” stand like sentry guards, smoking through the night, at competitions (read more about the competitive world of barbecue in the Pork chapter).
While charcoal is a competition must-have (only wood or charcoal can be used as fuel), water smokers come in gas and electric, too. Lower-end bullet smokers, like the Brinkmann, run in the $50-$80 range, and the WSM runs about $250. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. The Brinkmann does not have vents to monitor your heat and is made of a thinner metal, meaning less heat insulation. The electric Brinkmann, which is a convenient and inexpensive unit, keeps a consistent temperature of 225°F-250°F. But that is it. The only way to lower the temperature is to unplug the unit.
KAMADO GRILL AND THE BIG GREEN EGG—The Kamado grill and Kamado-style grills like the Big Green Egg are real lookers on a patio, but their true beauty is on the inside. Their shape and durable ceramic material create an insulated barbecue womb. Though they can reach kiln-level heat, their ability to maintain low temperatures with allover heat makes for great barbecue. You will use about one-fifth less charcoal than in a regular grill, and they are a snap to light.
The original Kamado-brand grills are mosaic works of art. People swear by these beautiful ceramic-tile grills. The only thing is you need to be committed to replacing the tiles when they pop off, which they do from time to time.
BOX-STYLE ELECTRIC SMOKER—Like little smoke shacks, some of the best smokers come in this style. Both the Cookshack AmeriQue and Bradley electric smokers are excellent for slow and low barbecue and can maintain temps low enough for cold smoking. With their three to five racks inside, you can smoke larger quantities in these compact units. Both have external thermometers for monitoring temps. The Bradley unit has a separate smoke box—nice for adding chips without opening the oven section. Keep in mind, however, that more parts equals more maintenance.
THE HASTY-BAKE OVEN—This well-designed grill-smoker-oven includes features made for the regular outdoor cook such as a full-width fire door to access your fire without opening your grill lid. I particularly like the adjustable fire box. With multiple vents, it gives you one more way to control your heat.
GRILL SMOKER WITH OFFSET FIRE BOX—Plenty of companies make these, ranging from home models up to competition and commercial rigs and available in charcoal or gas. The separate-side fire box in this style of smoker is convenient because you can feed your wood and fuel to the fire without opening the main compartment.
Smoke travels up to the main cooking chamber and out through a chimney that draws smoke across the meat. Lower-end models can be rickety. Choose one that is solid enough to withstand many seasons. A few well-known brands that make home-size models are Brinkmann, Char-Griller, and Bar-B-Chef. For an excellent higher-end brand, try Pitt’s & Spitt’s of Austin.
She’s Smokin’: Buying Used Equipment
Lynnae Oxley, of Sugar’s BBQ & Catering in Portland, Oregon, bought her first Weber at a garage sale for $5. “I learned everything on that thing—grilling, barbecue. . . . I like that the story of a grill gets soaked into it,” she says. As she became more interested in barbecue, she upgraded her equipment, selling that same Weber for $5 at a garage sale to another woman. Though a chef for twenty-four years, Lynnae has been competing on the barbecue circuit for just one and a half years. She admits that being a chef doesn’t necessarily translate to being ready for competition barbecue: “What makes barbecue an interesting endeavor is it comes out a little different each time, and you won’t know what that is until ten hours later. There is no right or wrong way to barbecue—it’s about how you feel about it . . . and obsess about it.”
PELLET GRILL—Pellet fuel is just compressed-wood sawdust. The Traeger-brand pellet grills have a great reputation because of Traeger’s understanding of barbecue. An electric rod lights pellets in a separate “hopper.” An auger feeds the pellets to the fire so all you have to do is flip the switch to ON and indicate high, medium, or low, designated as “smoke,” and make sure you have enough pellets for the length of your cooking. Some say the pellets give a different flavor than wood or charcoal. Units start at a little under $500 and quickly go up from there.
STOVETOP SMOKER—The Barbecue Queens* tip their crowns to the indoor smoker for those wet or freezing days when even the most hardcore barbecue fanatic just needs a night inside. The little smokers sit right on the stovetop burner, using either wood chips or wood sawdust to create smoke. A rack separates the food from the wood, and the cover keeps the smoke inside. While they’re fine for getting a “smooch” of smoke on foods, you won’t be cooking a brisket on one of these. To me, a huge part of the enjoyment of barbecue and grilling is that it is outdoors, so I smoke it up postal-style: through wind, rain, sleet, and snow. *See Resources for info on these big-time barbecue gals’ many cookbooks.
HIBACHI—You won’t make barbecue on these little overlooked wonders, but when we get to the Grilling chapter, the hibachi is our friend. With their adjustable racks, they are versatile, space-saving, and fuel-efficient little hummers that are great as everyday grills or as second grills when your big-girl grill is overfull.
GAS GRILL—The choices are almost endless. Pick one that fits your space, needs, and budget. Do you like to rotisserie chicken? Then that bell or whistle might warrant the extra bucks. Choose a gas grill with a lid and one that has a minimum of two but preferably three burners for indirect-heat cooking. If the grill features many rack levels, make sure they are adjustable to accommodate large cuts of meat like a brisket or whole turkey. If a smoke box is an option, I’d get it. I find the usual method of creating smoke on a gas grill—putting wood chips wrapped in a foil pouch with holes, then placing them on the burner—an inadequate smoke producer.
Buying Equipment: A Cautionary Tale
When I started this chapter, I wanted to pump up my personal equipment arsenal for recipe testing. I had my trusty Weber, a gas grill with an offset smoker box, and a few other well-worn charcoal grills junking up the back yard, but owning a barbecue restaurant with commercial smokers at your fingertips means you neglect your home equipment.
I walked into my local fireplace and outdoor cooking store to basically decide between the Big Green Egg, which I’d been lusting after for years, and the Cookshack AmeriQue, a box-style electric smoker. Neither is cheap—they range from $900 to $1,550—so I was ready to spend some bucks.
“May I help you?” asked the salesman as he sidled up to me.
“Yeah, I like both these models and am just trying to decide which one to get.” I went on a bit about both, so he’d know I was serious. His next utterance confused me.
“These are for smoking with wood,” he said, pointing. “Here is where you put wood chips to create the smoke.”
“Um . . . yeah, I know both these models,” I said, cutting him off. Then I saw my favorite charcoal smoker, the Weber Smokey Mountain. Its sleek black bullet shape and great rep among barbecue competitors had it at the top of my list. I wanted to do some side-by-side comparisons with the WSM and a low-end Brinkmann smoker because the Brinkmann can be found just about anywhere.
He immediately saw his commission shrink with the $250 Weber Smokey Mountain, so he tried his best to sell me on the Cookshack electric model. “The great thing about this one is you can turn it on and go shopping!”