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The Definition of American Barbecue


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It seems 'barbecue' has several definitions. As a kid in Australia, a barbecue was something that involved cheap supermarket-grade sausages, chicken wings (marinated in something from a bottle, probably involving honey and soy sauce) and such. Maybe lamb shoulder chops (which, to me, are a pretty poor choice--loin chops or the more expensive cutlets are more suited to fast cooking). Maybe pork spare ribs (I know, I know--different definitions of ribs, these ones are slices of pork belly) also marinated in the bottled sauce. Maybe steak. It's all about fast cooking.

Now don't get me wrong, people in Australia do more with barbecue. I do. Maybe it's re-watching Treme or something, but I want to learn about American-style barbecue, which seems less about the fast-cooking we do. The impression I get is that barbecue--good barbecue--is a slow-cooking method used with beef brisket, beef short ribs, racks of pork ribs, chicken legs, etc. Cuts that lend themselves to slower cooking. I'm unclear on what fuel is used. Or even the style of barbecue, as I don't envision most of the barbecues for sale at the local Bunnings being particularly good at slow-cooking anything. Most Australian BBQs run off gas, although you can easily get your hands on BBQs that you fill up with 'heat beads' (commercially-produced coal) or even timber.

Are there any books or, even better, websites that provide a solid, eGulleter-approved introduction to the topic? I've stumbled across a wealth of information and it's unclear where one should begin--and it's hard to tell what's good and what's a load of crap. Something that walks me through the fuel/style of BBQ and then gets onto suitable cuts of meat would be exactly what I'm looking for.

Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between

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there is lots of opinons on what contitutes real barbecue . Some say only low and slow smoking over hardwood, and anything fast is called grilling. Personally, I don't really care about the distinction. It is just different techniques in live fire cooking , which is what I think of as Barbecue.

Adam Perry Lang's cookbook "Serious Barbecue" is a great place to start to learn the principles behind smoking and grilling.

there are alot of good recipes on his website. He hasn't updated it in a long time but there is some tasty eats there, plus great info.

"Why is the rum always gone?"

Captain Jack Sparrow

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I think you'll find a perfect introduction in this wonderful eGCI course by Col Klink.

As to equipment, if you have access to a grill (even a Weber kettle), charcoal (briquette- which I think are the same as heat beads- or lump), and chunks or chips of appropriate hardwood, you have everything you need. That said, it's easier to BBQ in a dedicated smoker, like a Big Green Egg. Here's a thread about smokers.

Once you have everything set up, pop over to this thread for inspiration: Behold my Butt!

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In Texas, where brisket is king, you do need to smoke it a very long time. The standard piece of equipment is an "offset smoker." It's called that because you put the fuel (hardwood - usually pecan, oak or hickory; sometimes mesquite, but it's not as popular among competition cookers) in the small box that hangs off of one end of the smoker. With this method, the smoke is pulled through the barrel, and the meat is never subjected to direct heat.

You prepare the brisket with a dry rub. Oftentimes, it's just salt and pepper, maybe lemon pepper. The point is for the flavor of the meat to come through, so the idea is just to enhance it; not hide it. Some folks do get fancier, adding garlic or onion powder, some dried ground chiles, etc. Many of the famous barbecue joints sell their prepackaged rub. One that is particularly well-known in Texas is Cooper's. Their restaurant is in Llano, and they sell a lot of their rub via mail order. I realize it might not be practical for you to order it down in OZ, but here's a link to a Texas BBQ website where they discuss what's in Cooper's rub: What's in Cooper's Rub?

The stuff that you undoubtedly call "sauce," we call "mop." Along toward the end of cooking, some folks do apply the mop, using (what else) a small mop (How to make a barbecue mop). This is never done at the beginning of cooking. One reason is that (although Texas barbecue sauces and mops are never as sickeningly sweet at many of those elsewhere, like Kansas, Missouri and the Deep South) they sometimes do contain a little sugar, and that burns pretty rapidly. Some folks don't add the mop at all, preferring to serve a small bowl of sauce alongside the meat, a sauce that many Texas barbecue "purists" prefer not to use, believing that a strongly-flavored sauce masks the perfect flavor of the smoked meat that they've just sat up all night long working painstakingly to achieve.

Another difference between Central and West Texas barbecue, and that elsewhere (including East Texas as you get over toward Louisiana and the Deep South), is that Texans by and large serve Cowboy-style, Mexican-influenced, soupy pinto beans, and not the sweet, thick, baked beans that some folks think of as a ubiquitous barbecue side dish. These soupy pintos are never sweet. They're usually cooked with nothing much added initially but garlic. Then, after they're soft, more seasonings can be added, like chiles, bits of pork, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, etc. If you're interested, google "charro beans" or "borracho beans" or "frijoles de olla" or "pot beans" for exact recipes.

These offset smokers are not cheap. You can get an inexpensive one for about $300, but they don't work all that well. My son got one for Christmas several years back, but it just doesn't hold the heat well, and it's hard to keep a constant temperature, which is crucial. So he started checking around to get a better one and discovered that they are upwards of $1,000. That wasn't workable for him and his young family, so he decided to seek out a used one, figuring that expensive equipment for a hobby is often pretty easy to find at a reasonable price in the secondary market. But no such luck. He discovered that once a family gets a big, expensive offset smoker, it stays in the family. So he's got a friend that's a welder, and he contacted him. They spent some time going over various options and plans, most of which they found online, and the buddy is building him one for about $300 in materials. I think the buddy is doing the labor free, partly because they're friends, of course, and partly because the buddy had already decided to try his hand at building these things in order to earn a little side income.

The smoker that my son's buddy is building is about the size of a typical oil barrel, with the smaller box hanging off one end. Here's a photo of a really big, fancy, expensive one: Large offset smoker

On the large one, you can notice wheels. Folks pull these things behind their vehicle and that way they can set up anywhere.

If your interests run to Texas-style smoked brisket, you're pretty much gonna need an offset smoker sooner or later. Although I don't know for sure, I'd guess they're not widely available in Australia. You might contact a welder to see if he's interested in building you one.

Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Lots of people toss around the word "barbecue" pretty freely. But I think actual barbecue must involve SMOKE from wood. It's the KEY ingredient in the whole process. You can braise some ribs in the oven. You can cook a pork shoulder in a crock pot and pull it apart and put a tangy sauce on it. It might even be pretty tasty. But it ain't no BBQ.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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There are as many opinions on what's "right" in barbecue as there are people who make it, but I think it's safe to say that anyone who knows a damn thing about it agrees that 1) there must be smoke, and 2) it must be done slowly, over relatively low heat. From there, you can go a million different ways and not go wrong.

Edited by MikeHartnett (log)
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As with most words in the English language, that all depends on where you are, Mike. In the northern US the word BBQ is frequently used to mean "an outdoor gathering with a grill involved"; in Australia, a BBQ is synonymous with what we would call a grill here. I think it's sort of funny that no one thinks to assert that calling a "french fry" a "chip" is "wrong", but using the word "barbecue" to mean anything other than "smoking low and slow" is met with such derision.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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There are as many opinions on what's "right" in barbecue as there are people who make it, but I think it's safe to say that anyone who knows a damn thing about it agrees that 1) there must be smoke, and 2) it must be done slowly, over relatively low heat. From there, you can go a million different ways and not go wrong.

is cold smoked fish "BBQ"?? I certainly meets that definition.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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As with most words in the English language, that all depends on where you are, Mike. In the northern US the word BBQ is frequently used to mean "an outdoor gathering with a grill involved"; in Australia, a BBQ is synonymous with what we would call a grill here. I think it's sort of funny that no one thinks to assert that calling a "french fry" a "chip" is "wrong", but using the word "barbecue" to mean anything other than "smoking low and slow" is met with such derision.

Well, I don't recall potato aficionados ever discussing their beloved chips with the same passion that routinely accompanies barbecue discussions.

There's really something about barbecue, isn't there? Maybe it's national/regional/cultural pride? Maybe it's partly because good barbecue isn't all that easy to produce, and it's galling when you've sat up all night tending your brisket, and then the guy with a bottle of barbecue sauce, a pork butt, and a crockpot says, "Oh, I made some barbecue last night, too."

What my daddy used to call, "That ol' Yankee boiled barbecue."

:biggrin:

Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I guess I wasn't clear above. I'm fully aware of how barbecue is used in Australia. My response was to the OP's apparent request for info on southern American barbecue. Also, I didn't intend to provide a dispositive definition-- merely what are commonly understood to be "requirements" for BBQ.

And to Chris Hennes- I'm originally from the north. I'm well aware of how many things are wrong there. :laugh:

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And to Chris Hennes- I'm originally from the north. I'm well aware of how many things are wrong there. :laugh:

Touché! (Me too...)

I had a most excellent pulled pork sandwich for lunch today: the pork was smoked with applewood and hickory for seven hours, then cooked sous vide for 48. Absolutely unbelievable texture. If you've got access to a sous vide rig I highly recommend trying this method out.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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There seems to be some confusion about the noun barbecue here. When I say I'm going to a barbecue, I'm not necessarily expecting to eat barbecue. A barbecue is a gathering centering around food cooked with live fire. Barbecue is smoked food cooked low and slow. Grilled food is cooked fast.

Of course, that's just my opinion and people can call whatever they want barbecue. But if somebody invites you to eat some barbecue, and they say that in those terms, aren't you expecting ribs or brisket or pulled pork? If you showed up and your hosts were just grilling some hotdogs and burgers, wouldn't you surprised? I would, and I'm not from the south (from the Philadelphia suburbs and live in the midwest). Then again, those are just my expectations.

nunc est bibendum...

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Where I grew up (upper midwest) the word "barbecue" sans article meant "involves BBQ sauce" -- for example, a "BBQ Chicken" was probably cooked either in the crockpot or on the grill, and was cooked with BBQ sauce. To my knowledge, in most of the northern US it is only the "food cognoscenti" who insist that BBQ must involve smoke. The general populace seems to harbor no such ideal.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I started in southern California, spent some time in Charlotte, North Carolina, did most of my growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, did a couple of years in Richmond, Virginia, back to St. Louis, down to southern Illinois for half a decade, back to St. Louis, over to Kansas City, Kansas and finally down to Texas - first Austin for 16 years and now the Houston/Galveston area for nine. To me, the word barbeque has multiple meanings - from a friend's and/or family backyard cook out to meat from a championship cook off competition, but to make barbeque means low and slow, with smoke. And it also includes chicken! Friends of ours were on the winning team (Rotten Wood Cookers) for the Champion Chicken Award at the 2011 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World Championship Bar B Que Contest.

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Get a copy of Lolis Elie's "Smokestack Lightning" to get a real flavor of what American BBQ is all about. Fantastic book.

Real BBQ involves slow cooking meat over wood -- what kind of meat, what kind of wood, how much smoke, what kind of sauce, all vary tremendously depending on location and culture. You can make an argument for all different styles of Southern BBQ, but for my money, there is no better BBQ in the world than Lexington #1 restaurant in Lexington, North Carolina. Pork shoulder slow cooked over wood, not a lot of smoke but the taste of the wood just gets up in the meat. Absolutely haunting. God, my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

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Where I grew up (upper midwest) the word "barbecue" sans article meant "involves BBQ sauce" -- for example, a "BBQ Chicken" was probably cooked either in the crockpot or on the grill, and was cooked with BBQ sauce. To my knowledge, in most of the northern US it is only the "food cognoscenti" who insist that BBQ must involve smoke. The general populace seems to harbor no such ideal.

Probably right.

But in Texas, if you're invited to a "barbecue," it's going to involve smoke, and "real" barbecue and you'd best not promise it unless you're planning to provide it, if you know what's good for you.

If you want folks to come over to your backyard, not expecting actual barbecue, you invite them to a "cookout."

As in, "We're having a neighborhood cookout tomorrow night. We'll have the grills going, and are going to provide weiners and hamburgers and fixin's for the kids, but the grownups should bring one 'covered dish' side to share and whatever meat they want to eat for themselves - ribs, chicken, sausage, steaks, salmon, etc. - to cook."

I've been in neighborhoods where they have these sorts of outdoor cookout potluck bring-your-own-meat-and-a-side-and-an-alcoholic-beverage-if-you-want-it get-togethers at least once a month in the summertime.

And nobody down here ever confuses that with a "barbecue."

:cool:

Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Well, I am from Pittsburgh and I have no idea what anyone means about us northern folks......

:laugh:

I also grew up with the bottled sauce, and a small charcoal grill or crock pot used to make what was called bbq. I didn't know anything about "real" bbq until 20 years or so ago when the boy brought home KC bbq from a business trip.

oh.my.god.

I went straight to the book store and within a week or so we had out first smoker. Ahhh....

Now we have two and I spent years learning, tweaking and getting better. Even now though, I don't have any friends locally who smoke their own meat and make sauce. Bbq here just means to cook outside.

To the OP looking for some more information, this site is packed full of excellent information; from backyard beginner to competition kings.

:smile:

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I'm not sure we were really part of the food cognoscenti, but my mom was a pro cook so that might have had something to do with those expectations. Then again, if one of my friends invited me over for barbecue chicken, I would have expected chicken prepared in a variety of possible ways (usually baked and not at all necessarily grilled) and covered with bottled bbq sauce. So the adjective barbecue there definitely refers to the bottled sauce. Its amazing, the variety there is of regional or maybe even micro-regional meanings of the word barbecue.

nunc est bibendum...

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It really is amazing how one word can come to mean so many different things in so many different places. Of course, that said, I live in Oklahoma now, and have a smoker. I love me some smoked brisket, or pork shoulder! And around here that's definitely what you mean when you say "barbecue"!

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Those Yankees cooking hot dogs and hamburgers on a gas grill at their "barbecue" are probably drinking martinis made with vodka and peach schnapps while waiting 10 minutes it takes to cook 'em. :raz:

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Wow. So much information to digest. It seems I can buy smokers in Australia--the BBQs Galore chain sells a couple of different makes--but the price means this will be a DIY project, much like the mini-tandoor I want to get around to in the next couple of weeks.

Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between

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