SOMETIMES it seems the only thing BBQ aficionados enjoy more than eating the stuff is arguing about it. To sauce or not is a question that could easily spark an entire evening of sparring across a picnic table.
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One thing you’ll have to get over if you plan to read on: In this guide, “BBQ” is a big tent, with plenty of room for what quibblers insist is the only kind of cooking that merits the name barbecue (low and slow, over indirect heat, in the presence of wood smoke) as well as what’s technically termed grilling (direct heat, high temperature). Each of these methods can be a deeply rooted expression of identity.
In her book “Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill,” Leela Punyaratabandhu discusses how crucial open-air grilling is to many dishes in her native Thailand, and what a disappointment attempts to reproduce those dishes inside a restaurant kitchen can be. “What we end up with is satay seared on a griddle—a result miles away from skewered meat charred over a live fire, where it absorbs a heady mix of aromatic herbs and spices and of fat dripping onto sizzling, hissing, smoking hot coals.”
“ That’s BBQ: elemental, highly adaptable cooking that makes the most of what’s at hand. ”
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Eric Rivera draws on his Puerto Rican heritage and his experience in Michelin-starred kitchens to make the pride of the island: lechón, the smoky, seasoned roast pig that he believes belongs in the American barbecue canon alongside classics like Carolina whole-hog. “It’s culturally important, one of those styles of cooking that’s been around for a long time,” he said.
At Bludso’s Bar & Que in Los Angeles, the barbecue on offer, emphatically of the low-and-slow variety, reflects pitmaster Kevin Bludso’s summers with his grandparents in Corsicana, Texas, and his upbringing in Los Angeles, too. “We had every region of barbecue on Central Avenue between Downtown L.A., Watts and Compton, with at least 20 different barbecue restaurants run by people from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Memphis,” Mr. Bludso recalled. His rib tips and Texas-style brisket both get their smoky savor from the California red oak and pecan wood in his pits.
That’s BBQ: elemental, highly adaptable cooking that makes the most of what’s at hand. In this A-to-Z guide, we’re celebrating slow-smoked Memphis ribs and quick-fired Japanese yakitori; Mexican barbacoa from Philadelphia and hot dogs cooked in your backyard. There’s room for everyone at this BBQ, and there’s no arguing about that.
A is for Alabama
Created at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur in 1925, mayo-based Alabama white sauce remains the perfect creamy, tangy accent for chicken pulled from the restaurant’s hickory-fired brick pits—or your own smoky creations. $4.75 for a 16-ounce bottle, bigbobgibson.com
B is for Barbacoa
Spice-rubbed lamb, wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked in a pit, is Mexico’s gift to global BBQ. The iteration from Cristina Martinez at South Philly Barbacoa is in demand at the restaurant and on delivery runs to New York and D.C., too. instagram.com/barbacoachef
C is for Charcoal
Yakitori needs a hot-burning binchotan like Kamitosa White ($36 for 3 pounds, korin.com). Thaan Thai rambutan wood briquettes burn for hours ($50 for 22 pounds, thaancharcoal.com). Jealous Devil ironwood XL Lump brings heat minus pops and sparks ($50 for 35 pounds, jealousdevil.com).
D is for Dalmatian Rub
Make a best-in-show version of this simplest of BBQ seasonings—equal parts kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper—with Burlap & Barrel’s Zanzibar black peppercorns. Vine ripened, hand picked and sun dried, this pepper, plus the salt of your choice, gives brisket a little bite. ($8 for a 1.7-ounce grinder-top jar, burlapandbarrel.com)
E is for Embers
In his recent cookbook “The Outdoor Kitchen,” chef Eric Werner of Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico, recommends nestling ingredients—from steak to squash to onions—directly in your grill’s coals for “direct heat, radiant heat and smoke all at once.” ($35, penguinrandomhouse.com)
F is for Fruit
Tomato isn’t the only way to bring sweetness and zing to a sauce. Kansas City institution Jones Bar-B-Q offers a taste of the tropics in their Coconut Pineapple Sauce ($7 for 15 ounces, jonesbbqkc.com). Straight out of Atlanta, the Spicy Peach Barbecue Sauce from AubSauce is made with fine Georgia fruit ($14 for 12 ounces, aubsauce.com).
G is for Grilling
In “Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill,” Leela Punyaratabandhu asserts, “The best place outside Southeast Asia to experience the region’s grilled and smoked dishes as they’re meant to be enjoyed is not…at an Asian restaurant. It’s in your own backyard.” ($30, penguinrandomhouse.com)
H is for Hot Dogs and Hamburgers
Bypass baroque toppings and focus on the meat. For big beefiness (and a smaller carbon footprint) try the Patriotic Potluck Box from Butter Meat Co., with burgers and dogs (plus brisket and steak) sourced from certified organic former dairy cows. ($130, buttermeatco.com)
I is for Instant-Read Thermometer
Perhaps the most essential tool in a serious griller’s arsenal is a thermometer that can tell you what’s going on inside a chicken or brisket, quickly and precisely. The Thermapen Mk4 delivers a reading accurate to within .7 degrees in 2-3 seconds. ($99, thermoworks.com)
J is for Jerk
The secret to true Jamaican jerk is in the smoke. Pimento wood and leaves—ubiquitous on the island—impart an ineffable flavor that rounds out the classic spice blend. The Lil Jerk Kit has all the essentials for a taste of Jamaica in your own backyard. ($45, pimentowood.com)
K is for Kalbi
Also known as flanken, cross-cut short ribs go by the name kalbi in Korea, where they’re the star of the BBQ. This cut takes to the grill beautifully, especially when it’s as well marbled as the kalbi from Mishima Reserve’s wagyu beef. ($89 for approximately 2 pounds, mishimareserve.com)
L is for Lechón
Eric Rivera has brought Puerto Rican-style roast pig to Seattle, and now to diners nationwide. After brining and a rub with his own spice mix the lechón picks up smoky depth from binchotan charcoal and hickory. ($19 per pound, national shipping available, ericriveracooks.com)
M is for Memphis
“Smoke is our sauce” is the motto of Central BBQ, a prime purveyor of pork in this barbecue capital. Mail-order their ribs and you’ll get “dry style”—actually succulent slabs, coated in a cumin-tinged spice rub before smoking for hours in a pit fired with hickory and pecan woods. ($90 plus shipping for two slabs, rub and sauce, eatcbq.com)
N is for Newspaper
Your weekend paper is good for more than recipes and style tips. Use it to fuel the BBQ Dragon Chimney of Insanity. Set alight, this cleverly designed charcoal starter can get coals from sparks to searing steak in just 10 minutes without a drop of lighter fluid. ($36, bbqdragon.com)
O is for Offset Smoker
When you’re ready to take your home barbecue to the next level, consider this behemoth designed by superstar pitmaster Aaron Franklin and built in Austin, Texas. Ingenious construction promotes gentle heat and a steady flow of smoke. (From $2,950, franklinbbqpits.com)
P is for Pellet Grill
The biggest innovation to hit summer barbecues since the beer koozie, these sensor packed grills maintain precise temperature control by automatically feeding wood pellets into a burn chamber as needed. ($800 for the Traeger Pro 575, traegergrills.com)
Q is for Quail
Ribs, brisket and chicken will only get you so far. Intensely flavorful wild-game meats stand up especially well to the smoke of the grill. Quail from Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas, are ideal single-serving-size birds. ($11.50 for 4, whole or butterflied, brokenarrowranch.com)
R is for Rib Tips
When spare ribs are trimmed into squared-off St.-Louis-style racks, the cutaway portions are often cooked and sold as marvelously messy rib tips. At Bludso’s Bar & Que in L.A., Kevin Bludso smokes the meaty hunks over red oak and pecan. ($109 for 4 pounds, barandque.com)
S is for Santa Maria
In California’s Santa Maria Valley, tri-tip steak grilled over red oak is traditionally served with pinquito beans, garlic bread and a green salad. ($20 per pound for tri-tip steak, belcampo.com. $35 for Santa Maria seasoning, red oak chips and pinquito beans, susieqbrand.com)
T is for Trinity
Davila’s BBQ has been perfecting the essential Texas trio—brisket, ribs and hot links—(plus terrific lamb ribs) in the town of Seguin since 1959. Rubbed with salt, pepper and cayenne, the meats slow cook in a mesquite-fired pit. ($269 for a Davila’s Party Pack, davilasbbq.com)
U is for Utensils
You never want to confuse your burger with a hockey puck. Still, these grilling tools from Requip’d, with handles made from upcycled hockey sticks—used, in some cases, in NHL games—bring a competitive edge to your grilling. ($55 for a 5-piece set, requipd.com)
V is for Vinegar Sauce
Ed Mitchell has been making Eastern-North-Carolina-style whole-hog BBQ for decades, and this sauce recipe has been in his family for 150 years. The vinegar bite cuts the richness of the chopped pork and delivers a little spice too. ($19 for 3 (16-ounce) bottles, truemadefoods.com)
W is for Whiskey
Pitmaster Carey Bringle of Nashville’s Peg Leg Porker BBQ knows smoke. So no surprise the bourbon whiskeys he created get a delicious hint of the stuff, thanks to filtration runs through hickory charcoal made in his restaurant’s pits. Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Aged 8 Years, $60 peglegporkerspirits.com
X is for Xinjiang
Nashville importer the Mala Market worked with Seattle restaurant Plenty of Clouds to develop this BBQ spice blend in the style of Xinjiang region of China, fragrant with cumin, Sichuan pepper and black cardamom. (Shao Kao Spice, $13 for 3.5 ounces, themalamarket.com)
Y is for Yakitori
This Japanese style of grilling cooks chicken skewers fast, right over the coals. Ideal for yakitori and most any sort of skewer, Kotaigrill’s 612 Hibachi is made of heavyweight steel that stands up to the intense heat of binchotan charcoal. ($475 plus shipping, kotaigrill.com)
Z is for Zucchini
Search under “courgette,” actually, if you get your hands on “Charred,” the new vegetarian grilling and barbecue book from British live-fire-cooking expert Genevieve Taylor, who aims to “explode the myth that good BBQ has to be all about Man vs. Meat.” ($23, quadrille.com)
GRILL CRUSH / Try These Different Combos of the A-to-Z Elements for a Range of Delicious Fire-Cooked Meals
Utensils + Newspaper + Hot Dogs and Hamburgers
Equals: Backyard Bliss The folks at Butter Meat Co. in Perry, N.Y., knew they needed to take their frankfurters seriously. “Upstate hot dog culture is a real thing,” said owner Jill Gould. What distinguishes these dogs (H) is not exotic spicing or egocentric innovations: It’s the quality of the meat itself. Each pack of hot dogs—and batch of ground beef for Butter Meat Co.’s burgers, too—comes from a single cow. Think of it as the tube-steak version of a single-vineyard wine. Upstate New York style demands char-grilling, and the BBQ Dragon Chimney of Insanity (N) can get you cooking over coals nearly fast as a gas grill. But you’ll need to retrieve the meat before it goes from perfectly charred to simply burned. Take heart, the hockey-stick-handle tongs from Requip’d (U) will get you the “save” every time.
Alabama + Memphis + Rib Tips
Equals: BBQ Road Trip In any other year, the argument in favor of driving coast to coast, guided by whiffs of wood smoke, in search of the country’s best barbecue, would be irrefutable. Now, with interstate travel a fraught proposition, there’s never been a better time to let UPS and FedEx do the driving for you. How’s this for an itinerary? For lunch enjoy a mail order of barbecued chicken from Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Que (A) of Decatur, Ala. Then occupy yourself with something fun while imagining you’re on the 3½-hour drive to Memphis. That’s the home of Central BBQ (M) and the source of the smoky ribs you’ll have for dinner. If you were making the trip yourself, 1,800 miles of highway would still separate you from the rib tips at Bludso’s Bar & Que (R) in L.A.. But in this alternate reality you can enjoy them at the same meal.
Charcoal + Grilling + Yakitori
Equals: Stick With It There aren’t many universal truths, but this one holds up, at least in summertime: Foods served on a stick are the best foods of all. While you can pull off the recipe for Phanaeng curry beef skewers with pumpkin or any number of other skewered specialties from Leela Punyaratabandhu’s “Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill” (G) on any home grilling set-up, having the right gear improves your results and enhances the experience exponentially. With a surface area of just 6 by 12 inches, Kotaigrill’s 612 Hibachi (Y) is designed to accommodate single-serving skewers, with the ends hanging off the edge so neither the skewers nor your fingertips get scorched. Load the compact grill with Thaan charcoal briquettes (C), made for just this kind of cooking with their hot, clean burn.
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