For decades, barbecue was something sold out of tumbledown roadside stands lurking on the edges of small Southern towns. The wood smoke curling up from rusting half-barrels and interesting smells being pulled inside our cars by the AC as we sped by—they were the kind of places that only the locals who wore bib overalls and perhaps food adventurers such as Calvin Trillin would actually stop to eat at.
Then, radical chefs who cooked at places with white tablecloths started putting their handcrafted barbecue on the menus and charging foie gras prices for it. That was the signal that it was okay for the rest of us to lick our fingers and buy expensive grills—no rusty metal for us—to make barbecue at home.
“Each region of the South has its style, and within those styles there are often family differences,” says Brian Shaw, co-chef and co-owner at Fair Hill Inn in Maryland. “Texas specializes in brisket, Carolina in chicken, and Memphis has pork. Generally, though, the hog rules in barbecue.
“Even sauces are different,” Shaw continues. Carolina uses vinegar-based sauces, Memphis dry rubs, and Texas has tomato-based sauces. Louisiana likes mustard sauces, a part of the region’s French heritage.
“Barbecue is uniquely American,” says Phil Pyle, co-owner and co-chef at Fair Hill, where the two regularly feature barbecue nights during the summer. “The fun of barbecue is learning its culture.” Barbecue essentially uses marinades and sauces to break down protein for whole cuts of meat slowly grilled and basted over an open fire. The preparation is historically communal—slowly fixing a meal while people socialize. Barbecue for one is seldom done.
“The great thing is that you can barbecue anything you want, even vegetables,” says Chef Tim Smith, a barbecue devotee and owner of Twelves Grill in West Grove. Smith says he barbecues everything from portebellos to asparagus, freshwater trout to sea bass.
For those who want to improve their home barbecuing skills, here are some tips from the three chefs:
THE GRILL. Make sure the grill is cleaned—not just brushed off—and lightly rub it with olive oil. Start with the grill hot to sear the meat, then back it off.
THE WOOD. None of the chefs are hung up on one kind of wood, although hickory is traditional with pork. Fruit woods, mesquite, sassafras, oak all work. If you want more smoke, soak the wood first. Gas without wood works well—there will just be less of a smoky flavor. Charcoal chunks pre-soaked in lighter fluid are frowned on, however.
THE MEAT. Tougher cuts of meat with the bone in are traditional, as they profit most from marinading to break the protein down and from the long, slow cooking. Brisket is an exception. Sometimes a whole pig is cooked, and the term “moppin’ sauce” came from using a clean mop to baste the big animal. “We often use pork belly at Fair Hill,” Pyle says.
THE MARINADE AND SAUCE. The basic elements of marinades and sauces are acidity, sweetness, and mild heat. Vinegar or wine is often used as an acid, brown sugar and honey for sweetness, and peppers for heat—although Smith says he’s been “experimenting with whole cinnamon sticks.” You can use the marinade both as a baste and a sauce, but it should be cooked after marinading to prevent cross-contamination.
Dry rubs can be great, Pyle says, but don’t expect the cooked meat to be dry. Commercial sauces? Although the chefs at Twelves and Fair Hill make their own, the former recommends Bull’s Eye, and the latter Stubb’s, if you want a commercial preparation.
How done is done? “Meat should have a little staying power,” Pyle says, “and not fall off the bone. In barbecue, you’ve got to gnaw the bone.”
THE SIDES. Baked beans and cole slaw, to be sure. Smith adds a little blue cheese on his slaw and likes to marinade and grill vegetables. “Don’t use mushy vegetables like eggplant,” he warns. “Spoonbread, cornbread, and rolls are all traditional somewhere,” says Shaw, who grew up in the barbecue back country of the Delmarva Peninsula, “and there are whole theories about wet bread versus dry bread.”
THE DRINKS. Beer, of course, and iced tea for Carolinians. If you must have wine, serve something with good acidity to cut the fat and fruitiness to match the sauce—French Rhones and American zinfandels. Shaw’s roasted lemonade is a big hit at Fair Hill’s barbecues.
HOMEWORK: Pyle recommends reading the books of Edna Lewis, called the grande dame of Southern cooking. Whatever you barbecue and whatever style you prefer, be prepared for lots of sticky fingers.
Start with a salmon filet, leaving the skin on to help hold it together while grilling. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper and a variety of fresh herbs, such as minced parsley, cilantro, and thyme, and rub on salmon with good olive oil.
Clean, oil, and preheat the grill.
(Make ahead to allow the flavors to build.)
Place salmon on the grill, flesh side down, for 2 minutes, turn 1/4, and continue for another 2 minutes. Flip to skin side down, and grill for another 3-4 minutes. Remove from grill. Spoon a pool of yellow pepper sauce on the plate first, then the salmon filet, and top with a spoonful of tapenade on top and around.
A similar technique may be used with peaches. They are peeled and pitted first. Follow the same approach but reduce the amount of water by half. The finished liquid may be used to flavor ice tea.