BBQ Tips, Pits and Quickies

Tips for using rubs:
Pick a Flavor: As noted, rubs come in quite a range of flavors. Taste the rub to see if it’s gonna give you what you want for the particular dish you’re preparing. I make some rubs that I like on everything and some others that are much more specialized. You can spike a rub with extra spices or mix a couple of different rubs–feel free to experiment–but before you put anything on the meat, mix a few tablespoons and taste it. Utilize the great variety of flavors available to you in rubs to tailor your BBQ to your personal palate.

Rub Early: Give the flavors time to penetrate, and thicker cuts take longer. I usually rub steaks or chops just a bit before I start the fire, but I’ll give a brisket or butt 3 hrs. and let a turkey go overnight.

Storage: It’s cheaper to buy in quantity, like the larger bottles and 5 lb boxes, but how do you keep it fresh and clump-less? Easy. The biggest enemy of dry spices is moisture. The driest air in your home is in your freezer. Tightly seal your spices, and stick ’em in the freezer, where they’ll be cold, dark and dry–it’s like a week in Waikiki for a dry rub. If it’s gonna be frozen for a while, I’ll even put the bottles in a gallon zip bag. For boxes, I leave my rub in the food-grade plastic bag it came in, & double bag it with a zip- or heat sealed bag.

Salt Penetrates, Sugar Seals: Sugar makes rubs sticky so they cling to the meat, plus sugar melts down to form a glaze as you cook which seals the meat to keep it juicy. Salt helps carry flavor into the meat better than sugar but it doesn’t give as much protection against moisture loss. Marinating with salt (aka brining) uses salt to boost juiciness by wedging extra moisture into the meat before cooking. I lean toward sugar with meats that dry out easily, like chicken. Salty is my choice for large cuts, and anything seared, fried, or grilled at high temperature.

Once is good, twice is better: When you’re smoking meat, (as opposed to grilling) two moderate rubbings are usually better than one heavy coat. My rule of thumb is, “If I can’t see the meat, then the smoke can’t either”. Just season the meat moderately when you start cooking, because a thick coat of rub will give you a layer of splendidly smoked seasoning on relatively plain meat. I put on enough to give color, but I can still see the meat through the rub. Cook the meat to desired smokiness, then pull it off the pit and season it again with a heavier sprinkling of rub on all sides before wrapping it in foil. (See Foiled again in Cooking Tips)

General Cooking Tips:
Foiled again: When cooking any meat that takes more than an hour, finishing with it sealed in foil helps you in three ways. First, it cuts way back on the evaporation which cools the meat, so it cooks faster and stays juicier, and the moister, hotter conditions tenderize faster. Plus, it takes all the wonderful flavors that you’ve been building on the outside, and drives them INTO the meat, where they’ll really do you some good. Finally, there’s the “juice” that collects in the foil-it’s great stuff! I’ll let it stand and skim or pour off the fat as it rises, leaving an intensely smoky and flavorful liquid that you can baste back on the meat as an “aux jus” sauce, or use as a flavoring for potatoes or rice. Some losers refer to foil wrapping as “The Texas Crutch”. Texans call it cooking smart, and smile.

Dry Marinating: Most live critters are about 2/3 water, and not surprisingly, meat is about 2/3 water as well. You really don’t need added liquids to get flavor into meat or keep it juicy, because it has plenty to start with. If you rub salt and spices into the meat and give it time, the meat itself will do the rest, taking in the flavors and retaining extra moisture. Rubbing a brisket 3 hours prior to cooking (see “No Bull Brisket” in “Recipes”) is just one example, and I’ve used the dry marinating technique described in “Tremendous Texas Turkey” on literally hundreds of turkeys and it’s easy, fully field-tested for both fool-proof & drunk-proof, and utterly reliable.

The HOTBOX: I prefer to finish any meat that takes more than an hour to cook in a hotbox. A hotbox lets the meat coast at finish temperature for as long as possible, but without actually adding any more heat. You see, minimizing cooking maximizes juiciness, so I use this technique on every brisket, ham, shoulder, turkey (ESPECIALLY turkey) rack of ribs, etc. etc. that I cook. Even better, hotboxes are really easy to make. Select an ice chest just big enough to comfortably hold the meat. 15 or 20 minutes before your meat is done, run several gallons of hot tap water into the ice chest and close the lid, so it can thoroughly pre-heat. When your meat is done, dump out the water and dry the chest. Wrap your meat in foil and immediately stash it in the pre-heated chest. Don’t open the lid again for at least 30 min to an hour.

Rest is good: You need to rest to be at your best, and the same is true for your entrée. Cooking is very disruptive for a piece of meat, as the juices try to get away from the heat. Always let your meat sit for 5 minutes or so after cooking before you cut it. Instead of dumping lots of good juice out on the plate when you slice it, “rested” meat holds the juice inside where it does you the most good.

Cooking great Chicken or Pork Chops: Two different techniques work well with these easily dried-out meats, either use a sugar based rub (Sweet RubSweet n’ HeatBBQ Bomber ) to make glaze, OR use a dry marinade (SunshineSmooth MooveCelerbrationBeaumont ) which lightly brines and disrupts the surface of the meat. Both ways seal the meat so it stays juicier, with the glaze being a bit faster (no marinating) and the dry marinating slightly easier. Either way, use a low heat fire … you should be able to hold the back of your hand over the fire at meat level for at least 6-8 seconds. The most common problem is overcooking, and your best friend is a good meat thermometer. Chicken is done at 163°, pork chops at 158°. Pull ’em off the fire, cover with plastic wrap (and a dish towel, for pork chops), and let them sit at least five minutes before you cut ’em.

You can push a cow but you can’t push a chicken: Sear beef over the hottest fire you can manage but cook chicken low and slow. I can hold the back of my hand for ten seconds over a good chicken-cookin’ fire. BONE IN roughly doubles the cooking time on chicken, so I always prefer to ‘cue bone-in because I’ll have more time to get more grill flavor. Leg quarters: 1-1½ hours, bone-in breast: 45 min – 1 hr, boneless breast: 20-25 min.

Cooking your Steak: Cook with the hottest fire you can. Our goal is to keep the meat juicy, and in a piece of meat, juices run away from the heat. When you grill above a flame, the juices are forced up, away from the heat, and the hotter the meat gets the faster they move. When they break the surface, they’re lost and gone for good, so that’s your cue to confuse the juices by turning the meat and running them back the other way. When that top side sweats, turn it again, and repeat each time the top gets damp, until you hit desired done-ness. Just before the third flip is Med-Rare for most steaks. (see “Classic Steakmaker Steak” in recipes)

RULE #1: Quit kidding yourself! Buy a meat thermometer. Start using it and STOP GUESSING if the meat is done. Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard about people who don’t need one, but just assume that you’re not one of those people. Basic thermometers start at about $5, and run up through the models with transmitters (this is so cool) and remote displays that let you closely monitor your cooking from someplace air-conditioned, (that’s a big plus in Texas). Stick the tip of the probe in the center of the meat, not touching bone or solid fat. Any meat is sterile after holding 160° for one minute. Poultry is done at 165°, pork at 158°-160°, beef medium rare 140°, medium well 160°. To tenderize meat you have to get it hot enough to break down the collagen – ribs 195°, brisket – 198°. Remember, these ain’t ‘zactly NASA-Grade equipment-your actual read-out may vary from these figures, but it will be consistent and so will your cooking with a dab of practice.

As Temperature Rises, Sugar Falls: Sugar caramelizes at medium cooking temperatures (bueno) but it burns at high heat (yuck-o). Sugar will “brown” (caramelize) at lower temperatures than the meat it’s covering. That’s great for looks, but if I want to sear and brown the meat, I’ll lay off sugar.

Bark: It Bites: The bark on many popular smoke woods, Pecan for example, gives a bitter, acrid taste to the smoke. For the smoothest smoke flavor, knock the bark off your smoke wood, or at least add the wood with the bark side away from the heat of the fire.

Insulate the bottom of your firebox whenever possible: When I put down a layer of firebrick in the firebox of my trailer mounted smoker, I immediately cut my wood consumption by a third. Depending on the shape of your pit you may need to use washed sand (brick or play sand) but any heat you lose out the bottom is just wasted. Be careful that you don’t clog your air inlets.

“Smoking” On Your Grill: Smoking uses indirect heat, cooking beside the fire. Any grill can be converted to smoker simply by keeping all the fire on one side and the meat on the other. Got more than one burner? Turn off all but one and put the meat beside the fire. Wood or charcoal? Slide all the embers to one side and cook on the other side. Put wood chips along the fire where they will smolder but not blaze up. I never EVER wrap wood chips in aluminum foil-steel Smokeboxes are cheap, work very well and don’t make aluminum fumes when they get really hot.


Pit Design: Vertical or Horizontal?
Keep one thing in mind. Smokers are heat machines, and HEAT ALWAYS RISES.
As smokers become more popular, I see a lot of people working harder than they ought to because of a poorly designed pit. Thanks no doubt to the abundance of both empty oil drums and heavy pipe casings, the horizontal smoker with an external firebox is so common in this part of the world that they’re called “Texas Style” smokers. (Although I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t some crazy Cajun who built the first one.) I have a big trailer-mounted home-built pit and extensive experience with small backyard models built from thin steel. Frankly, for inexpensive BBQ pits, I like the vertical models, “the Black Bullets” that use a water pan between the fire and meat. The “chest types” that look like a little gun safe or a fridge come with a large side-swing door that’s real handy. With good timing, you can get a charcoal burner for around $50.00, and they’ll do two briskets. These vertical water smokers also come in propane and electric models, and they all work pretty well.
I have a big problem with the poor efficiency of the cheap horizontal smokers. The whole point of this type of rig is to give you control of the fire so that you can put your meat on and go away for a couple of hours. A well-built pit will easily hold a steady temperature for two or three hours. The light steel just doesn’t seem to hold heat very well.
Also, I don’t like round fireboxes, because they tend to fill in the edges of the firebox with ashes very quickly, so they don’t “breath” well across the full width of the firebox. The round cross-section also makes it much harder to insulate the bottom of the box. (See Quickies)
Many of the horizontal pits also ignore the very basic fact that HEAT RISES. Look at where the smokestack taps into the cooking chamber. Is it at or near the top? If it’s higher than the meat level, then hot smoke can come into the cooker, run across the top and out the stack WITHOUT EVER GETTING DOWN TO THE LEVEL OF THE MEAT. This is sooo inefficient. No wonder they call ’em “consumer” models; they sure consume a whole lot more fuel than they should.
My recommendation is to avoid the lightweight horizontal units. Get an inexpensive water smoker, (or 2 or 3! Heck you can buy 4 or 5 for the price of a horizontal) or chest-type with a side door, and save your nickels until you can afford the price of a proper heavy pit that will hold temperature and be a joy to use.

Good Luck and Keep ’em Smokin’ – Obie