The Lexington Collection
 
Pretty Polly
 
  Making barbecue in the backyard.
 

Ask a half dozen folks how to make barbecue and you will likely get seven answers. And, they may all be right! Barbecue cookery is not a science. There is no absolutely right way and no totally wrong way. Making good barbecuing is a fine art, and pitmasters are the Picassos and Rembrandts and Jasper Johns of the genre. Go on and give it a try! If you will just remember that disappointment is the result of unreasonable expectations, you will most likely be glad you did.

Wood

The only barbecue maxim is that the cooking be accomplished by the actions of heat and smoke from live coals. That means no charcoal, no propane. Period. That also means a heap of hard work. Suitable wood must first be burned to coals.

Coals

The Combustion of Wood

Go here for the technical details on what coals are and how they are made.

The hot coals are then moved to a strategic location under the meat being barbecued. Furthermore, this process must be repeated frequently in order to maintain a proper temperature over the period of 7-15 hours required to convert an inexpensive piece of meat into barbecue.


A pile of aged hickory is ideal for making coals.

The wood for making coals should be from a nut- or fruit-bearing tree. Apple, cherry, and peach are a bit on the mild side but will work just fine. Hickory, the traditional wood of Southern barbecue, is excellent. Oak is perhaps most commonly used. The milder white oak is better than the heavier flavored blackjack and red oaks. A mixture of hickory and oak is a superb choice. Pecan, when you can get it, is the Cadillac of barbecuing woods, and walnut also makes a fine fuel. One pitmaster of many years expereience confides that when he really wants to impress, he uses dogwood! Alder and mesquite, two popular woods west of the Mississippi, are unsuitable for pulled pork barbecue. While alder is fine for fish, it is unfit for pork. Mesquite is great for grilling, but is too strong for slow cooking. And, evergreens of any kind are to be avoid altogether.

Many fine barbecue joints use green wood. When storage space is limited, this practice is a practical necessity. Additionally, some pitmasters prefer the hotter coals produced from unaged wood. (Some say that to produce proper size coals, the wood should be cut two weeks before using. And, to get metaphysical about it, the astrologically inclined would insist that the cutting must be done while the moon is waxing!) The sap and moisture in green wood, unfortunately, yields a strong tasting smoke. Accordingly, wood that has been aged for up to a year will generally produce the best smoke for barbecuing.

Pork

North Carolina pulled pork barbecue traditionally has been made from hogs weighing under 100 pounds. Unfortunately, modern methods of pork production has increased the size of hogs having the best taste and texture to about 150 pounds. Barbecuing a hog of that size is a challenge best left to the pitmasters who do it every day. A "barbecue shoulder" or two is a better bet for the weekend wannabee. Consisting of the "picnic ham" with the Boston butt still attached, this whole-leg shoulder should weigh about 15 pounds. ("Picnic hams" and Boston butts can be used in an emergency with a degradation in results.)


The whole shoulder with butt and picnic ends.

The fresher the pork, the better. That means your local supermarket is not exactly the vendor of choice. Unless your neighbor just happens to be a friendly hog farmer, you should sniff out a local slaughter house, preferably one who specializes in pork. In North Carolina, the Nanhunta Pork Center, in Pikeville (with a convenient outlet at the State Farmer's Market in Raleigh) and Craver's House of Hams in Winston-Salem are two excellent examples. (At Nahunta, simply give them a call and order a "barbecue" shoulder. They will know what you mean.)

Pits

The Southern barbecue purist digs a hole in the ground, tosses in the wood, burns it down to coals, and places a contraption of some sort above the coals to hold the meat. Such traditional pits are tricky! The barbecue joints are somewhat more sophisticated. Most have hearths for burning the wood to coals and separate above-ground "pits" with block, bricks, rocks, or metal sides. These "open" pits generally have a door of some sorts for shoveling in the coals. The meat is held above the coals by metal bars or grills. The proper distance for suspending the meat above the coals is the subject of great debate, but heights in the range of 18 to 36 inches are common. A metal or cardboard cover laying directly on, or held immediately above, the meat helps to concentrate the smoke and prevent ashes from falling on the barbecue as it is cooked.

An "open" pit can be constructed in your backyard by simply stacking up some concrete block, laying an expanded metal grill on top, and using a piece of sheet metal roofing to lay over the whole thing. It ain't pretty to look at, but it will get the job done.

A manufactured metal cooker is a more realistic "pit" for the backyard barbecuist. These devices generally have an offset fire box at one end and a chimney at the other end of a central cooking chamber. By adjusting the damper on the firebox door and the lid on the chimney, the temperature in the cooking chamber can be easily controlled.


This Oklahoma Joe cooker is made of 16"-diameter steel pipe.

Usually constructed with walls of 1/4-in thick steel plate, these cookers weigh several hundred pounds and will last a lifetime. They are available from a number of manufacturers, including Pitt's and Spitt's (1-800-521-2947), Oklahoma Joe's (1-800-227-5637), JR Enterprises (1-800-432-8187) and Smokemaster (1-512-345-7563), among others. If consistently successful results are your objective, these "closed" pit cookers are well worth their $400-$600 price tag.

Wilber D. Hog

Wilber D. Hog

Of course, if you want the ultimate barbecue cooking machine, then a brick pit like Dave's "Wilber D. Hog" pit is the way to go. Instructions are provided for building one in your backyard!

Rubs & Swabs

Both dry rubs and liquid swabs are great for adding zip to barbecued chicken, beef and pork ribs, and other meats cooked on the grill. On pulled pork barbecue, they are an unnecessary distraction and should not be used. The meat is naturally self-basting and the smoke will provide all the necessary flavorings.

Cooking

About 45 minutes before you are ready to begin cooking, strike up the fire and prepare the first batch of coals with the wood of your choice. Place the coals in the pit and increase the temperature until it is the proper range for cooking. Just what that might be is a matter of some speculation among pitmasters! Temperatures below 125F are adequate for smoking meats over long periods of time. Grilling tender cuts of meats generally requires temperatures above 350F. Pulled pork barbecue, on the other hand, is created by cooking an inexpensive cut of meat at moderate temperatures over a period of time long enough for the tough connective tissues to break down but short enough for the barbecue to remain moist throughout. That means maintaining a cooking temperature somewhere is the range of 250-275F for about 8-12 hours. At that temperature you should be able to place the palm of your hand directly on the surface of your cooker for a count of "one thousand one" or so before a strong urge to remove it sets in!


Making a batch of coals in a barrel "hearth".

You are ready to get underway when the cooker reaches temperature. Pitmasters who barbecue split halves of whole hogs start with the skin side up and turn them once during cooking. Whole-leg shoulders, however, are also started skin-side up, and are never turned. Laying a piece of cardboard on top of the shoulders throughout the cooking process helps reduce the amount of ash that falls onto the meat during cooking.

The first 6 hours of barbecuing are mighty dull. You will need to make more coals from time-to-time. Beyond that, about the only thing you can do is fiddle with the controls to maintain a steady temperature. The toughest part is resisting the temptation to take a peek inside the cooker every now and then. Don't! It only slows down the process by reducing the temperature and letting all that wonderful smoke escape. If your cooker has a fire box on one end, then it is probably worthwhile to rotate the shoulder at the halfway point. Also, if you are cooking more than one, you should also move the one on the firebox side to the chimney side, and vice versa, to even things out.


A nice pair of 15-lb whole shoulders well on their way to becoming pulled-pork barbecue
.

So when is the barbecue ready? Cookbooks say it is done when the coolest part reaches 170F. That may be so, technically speaking, but it ain't barbecue yet. The barbecue is ready when (1) the skin has turned a nice dark brown and is loose on the meat, (2) the outer layer of meat has developed a pink aura typical of meats cooked in the presence of smoke, and (3) the shoulder will no longer support its own weight because the meat pulls away from the bone when moved. Wiggle the leg bone. Is it loose? Lift the skin at one corner. Does it move freely? Pinch an exposed portion. Can you pull out a long hunk easily? If so, its ready! Depending upon the temperatures encountered along the way and the size of the shoulder, this happy state of affairs is usually achieved after 8-12 hours.

If the barbecue is ready before you are, don't panic. Just wrap it tightly in aluminum foil, idle the temperature back to 100-125F, or so, and let the barbecue sit. It will only get better!

Finishing Sauces

Some folks prefer their North Carolina pulled pork barbecue without the addition of a finishing sauce. By no means is it necessary. If you do use one, avoid drowning out that wonderful smoke flavor you just took all day to create.

Some joints sell bottles of their sauce for use at home. If you are making barbecue, you probably want to make your own sauce as well. Take your pick from these recipes covering both "eastern" and "western" styles of North Carolina vinegar-based barbecue sauces. If you cannot decide which style to use, give then both a try!

Pulled, Chopped, or Sliced?

At a Pig Pickin', the barbecue is likely going to be pulled from the bone and served in chunks. This "pulled pork" barbecue is mighty hard to beat. Add a finishing sauce if you like. Plunk it between a soft bun of white bread or eat it plain. Enjoy! The barbecue served in a joint is usually chopped. The addition of finishing sauce during chopping is common. If you decide to go the chopped route, be sure to remember that chopped and pureed ain't the same! Properly cooked barbecue is very tender and slicing is a tricky business when it is warm. Allow the barbecue to cool somewhat for consistent success. Of course, slicing failures are every bit as good as the successes.

Pig Pickin'

The menu at a Pig Pickin' varies from place to place. You cannot go wrong, however, with a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich, slaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, and iced tea. And, of course, banana pudding is the perfect finish.


"Stick me with a fork -- I'm done!"
Smokey Pitts, BBQ philosopher

 
 

The Lexington Collection