Barbecue is almost a religion among cooks

Barbecue is almost a religion among cooks

In the mid-1990s, I bought one of the big black Weber kettle grills and started to work figuring out how to get the most out of it.

For a while over several years, I was firing on all eight cylinders, pumping out delicious grilled meats, vegetables and even soups — I put a pork roast on the grill with coals out to the side, dropped a disposable aluminum pan underneath filled with water and aromatics, and the dripping from the pork created an amazing chickpea concoction on its own and gave me the credit.

I did a lot of chickens, some excellent fish in a basket, grilled shrimp, eggplant, and slices of onion and cabbage.

I did ribs all wrong. If barbecue is almost a religion among cooks, ribs must be the hymns of the craft. I gave them a spicy rub, lit up the banked coals and hoped for the best.

They tasted very good, but with the benefit of 21st century ubiquitous knowledge, they were too chewy. I prefer, as Cleveland chef Michael Simon says, a little resistance to my ribs. I don’t want them “falling off the bone.” Pork ribs, like any other meat dish, should be tender, and you had to have pretty strong teeth to eat mine.

Now I see all sorts of techniques I didn’t know about then. I see chefs wrapping their seasoned ribs in plastic wrap, then again in foil, and baking them at low heat for several hours before transferring them to a smoker.

I see enormous cast iron smokers filled with raw ribs, which are allowed to steep in the aromatic smoke for the better part of a full day. It all makes me think I need a good barbecue mentor and to find a contest that awards a pricey smoker as the prize.

It seems like plain, old grills have taken a backseat to those smokers, with which the low and slow mantra can really do its thing to best advantage without so much worry about things getting burned. They also present the chance to smoke salmon or make your own jerky.

These things will have to wait for the next house, with a deck. Many of those cast iron smokers are as big as a Buick and with a price tag rising past $2,000. I’m never going to get that serious about it. My goodness, that would buy a half tank of gas.

I have a newer kettle grill now, and its paint is still glossy enough to give away the lack of use it sees. It sits parked on our tiny back porch, wrapped in a pretty protective cover.

This summer I’ll resume the barbecue experiments, even if the neighbors wish I’d take up knitting instead. Charcoal grills make an awful lot of smoke, but I think they’re far superior to the gas variety in the full spectrum of flavor they deliver to food, especially vegetables.

It will surely take all the rest of the season to play around with rub recipes, sauces, temperatures and methods. I don’t expect to get good at it, but I do expect to eat well on the successes and failures.

Midwest barbecue folk are partial to sweeter ketchup-based sauces, the south and southwest to spicy sauce, and in the Carolinas, it’s mustard-based barbecue sauce. I can do without the sweet stuff, but the rest has potential.

You can always buy sauce in a bottle, but there are way too many great recipes out there to not try and find your own perfect creation. If you want to add pickle juice to your barbecue secret sauce, who’s to judge?

Then there are the ribs. St. Louis style or baby back or just the giant untrimmed slabs? Don’t talk to me about the country-style ribs with all that meat attached. Those are for slow cookers and church pot lucks. You have to have lots of bone in there, to my thinking.

I would love to hear your barbecue secrets.

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