Water's Edge — July 2009
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It’s the come-hither perfume of summer: Smoking coals carrying the sultry scent of fire-kissed meats, poultry, even fish. One whiff and otherwise- sensible neighbors go weak in the knees, heads turn and mouths water.

Of course, once the initial temptation has been satisfied, illusions dissipate as quickly as yesterday’s smoke. The United States may turn into an orgy of barbecue every July, but in the South, we take the romance very seriously. The mingling of savory victuals, smoke and sauce has to be handled properly, or not at all.

The most important thing to remember is that there’s a big difference between barbecuing and grilling. Grilling involves quick-cooking over medium- high to high heat, usually on an open grill. Barbecue requires long, slow cooking over a carefully monitored pit of smoking, occasionally glowing, coals. Barbecuing infuses slabs of meat with smoky flavor, breaks down muscle fibers to tenderize thick or tough cuts, and, at the end of cooking, coaxes the sauce to adhere to the meat.

Aficionados will tell you that authentic barbecue happens via the smoke of hardwood charcoal, burned until the flame is gone and the coals are covered with a thin coat of gray ash. Seasoned meats or poultry go on the grill or spit above the coals and a properly vented cover allows the smoke to caress every corner of the gastronomic masterpiece-inthe- making. From that point forward, it’s important to take stewardship over the coals, lifting the lid to add a little fresh charcoal when needed, cutting off oxygen to tamp down occasional flares and creating “hot” and “less hot” areas of the grill by concentrating glowing coals on one side of the pit. Rotating chicken pieces, brisket and ribs to and away from hot spots ensures that each piece cooks evenly without burning.

Firing the coals must be done without accelerants. True barbecue masters would never, ever taint the food and contaminate the pit by adding petroleum- based lighter fluids. Instead, coals should be started in a metal cylinder or teepee designed to ignite a core number of coals, which will then transfer heat to any added coals. These devices can be found at most hardware stores. In a pinch, an electric starter can be used. Now, if your barbecue pit is something other than a backyard kettle – in other words, if you’ve got your own stone fire-pit – then you can just go straight to the kindling and logs method of starting a cooking fire.

Barbecue purists insist that a gas grill is just that: a grill. It’s a handy device to sear tender steaks, burgers, boneless chicken and fish fillets without heating up the kitchen. Since there’s no denying the convenience of gas grills, we’ll give the genre a little more credence here. If you’re willing to carefully control the heat and add a fireproof box of soaked hickory, mesquite, pecan or oak wood chips to the pit, you can probably turn out some fairly tasty barbecue.

Of course, even those who are willing to compromise on fuel source become fiercely stubborn when the subject of sauce comes up. First, there’s the question of whether sauce should be applied to meats periodically during cooking or all at once at the end. Those who argue for no sauce during cooking insist that the sauce causes flare-ups and the sugars in the sauce burn on the outside of the meat. While that’s true, it’s also true that a thin sauce used to baste cooking meats can add immeasurably to tenderness and flavor. The trick is to apply a seasoned sauce made primarily of oil or butter with a bit of citrus, vinegar or broth added. Apply carefully, trying not to drip oil over the coals, and quickly close the barbecue cover to put out any flare ups.

Regional taste preferences determine the type of sauce used. In the eastern Carolinas, peppers and vinegar are the flavors of choice for chopped, barbecued pork butt, while in the highlands of South Carolina, a mustard-based sauce is preferred. Texas- style barbecue starts with tomato paste, chilies, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and other flavorings. In the Midwest, molasses thickens and sweetens a ketchup or tomato paste-based sauce and in Memphis, dry mustard and ketchup both turn up in the saucepot. South Louisiana barbecue sauce combines a well-seasoned tomato paste sauce with minced onions, garlic and peppers.

Here in Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida, we tend toward tart, mustardy sauces, but we’re an egalitarian lot. Most barbecue emporiums in the area offer three or four different types of sauce, including eye-watering, spicy elixirs. Arguments over which sauce is best usually ends with everybody trying everything at the table.

Novice barbecue chefs often serve tell-tale blackened beef, or undercooked chicken, or some unholy combination of burnt outside/raw inside meat. Each of these errors can be attributed to poor fire control. Too many coals or coals burning too hot can flame easily and char ingredients before the smoke has a chance to work its magic, and sometimes before entrees have a chance to cook all the way through. To solve the problem, allow coals to burn 20 to 30 minutes after lighting. Before placing anything on the grill or spit, check the heat. Hold your hand, palm down, about two inches above the grill. If you have to pull your hand back after only a second or two, the coals are too hot for barbecue (although they may be just fine for grilling steaks). Either raise the grill higher, if your grill is adjustable, or use long tongs to remove a few coals. (Place them in a metal or ceramic container of water to be safe.)

Medium to medium-low heat – which is the preferred heat level for most cuts – can be tolerated for a hand-test of five to six seconds. Seven to eight seconds and you’ve got a low fire, which is fine for hours-long cooking of large cuts, but can be tricky to maintain without losing the fire.

The fail-safe for protecting meats and poultry from cooking too quickly is keeping the slightlyglowing coals congregated at one side of the pit, leaving an area of the grill free for cooking via “indirect” heat. Rotating chicken, ribs or beef from indirect to direct heat areas and back ensures even cooking. Keeping larger cuts cooking over indirect heat only allows for a longer, slower cooking time and fork-tender roasts.

The only other inviolate rule of barbecue is this: Always cook more than you think you’ll need. The perfume of summer always attracts company.