Archive for the ‘BBQ Tips & Tricks’ Category

California’s BBQ Belt

126021845_181f5c3263Yeah, there’s Texas for that mesquite-kissed goodness.  And you’ve got the Carolinas, where whole hog and hickory reign supreme.  Kansas City joins the discussion with it’s claim as the hub of all things BBQ, a melting pot of the very best from each region.  But for those “in the know”, there’s also a gold mine right here in the “Golden State”!

Sure, us Californians boast of the abundance of fresh seafood so graciously provided by that big ol’ pond we call the Pacific Ocean.  The very best authentic Mexican food is at our beckoning call (made in non-descript stands by smiling grannies who were living south of the border just weeks before).  We have our star-studded, 5-star eateries with their “asian-fusion” creations, and asparagus and black truffle pizzas.

And we’ve got In-N-Out.  Boo-Yah!

Years ago, during a simpler, more rustic time in California’s glorious history, the central coast was home to a number of cattle ranches.  The original cowboys–known as “vaqueros”–would gather after a cattle round up to enjoy an outdoor feast.  They would dig a pit in the ground, fill it with the native red oak that graced the local landscape, and start a raging inferno of fragrant deliciousness.  Slabs of beef would hang over the fire to pick up the glorious flavors of the coals and smoke.  Tri tip quickly became the most popular cut, and a distinct version of BBQ was born: Santa Maria-Style BBQ (named after the city that was central to the cattle ranches)!  Many food writers actually consider the central coast the “BBQ Capital of the World”.

A few things have changed with the times.  No need for digging, a standard Santa Maria grill is a marvel of simplicity.  What you see pictured above is a large grill that can be raised and lowered above the oak wood fire (depending on the intensity).  No propane.  No electricity.  Accompanying the BBQ’d meats are now beans and fresh salsa.  But what hasn’t changed is California’s love for Tri Tip.  Not real popular outside of the most populous state in the union, this sirloin cut is usually seasoned with salt, garlic, black pepper, ground chiles and, maybe, oregano.  But the key ingredient is the red oak.

So what’s the point of this little BBQ history lesson?  The BBQ Family will be vacationing this coming week in this storied region.  More than likely, we’ll make daily treks to different beaches, exploring tide pools, caves and hidden coves.  I’ll sample the locally caught seafood at one of the historic fishing ports.  I’ll watch my share of Food Network, stay up late, sleep in, and allow my brain to enjoy a temporary state of vegetative bliss.  But I am also commited to my BarBeQuethMinistry! calling.  I will continue my BBQ research with the utmost of detail and honor.  I must explore California’s BBQ belt in all it’s smokey glory.  I’ll hit the most legendary joints, whether it be a roadside stand or a sit-down restaurant.  I’ll consume some form of Santa Maria BBQ every blessed day.  For research purposes, of course.  I owe it to you, my faithful readers.

I’ll not let you down.

Butt Barbeque

butt-001Pork Butt, that is!  Whoever decided to name this honkin’ piece of porcine succulence really had a childish sense of humor.  A butt roast (which averages 6-8 pounds) is actually from the shoulder of the pig.  The actual … uh … *whispers* butt is known as the ham.  The BBQthDirector’s Wife smoked up one of these the other day.  Aspiring pit masters usually cut their teeth on this most forgiving of BBQ meats.  Unlike tri-tip or ribs, they don’t require much prep.  Season it up (I use the same rub I put on my ribs–that would make it a butt rub *immature snicker*), let the spices penetrate overnight and start cooking.  The beautiful fat cap (I like fat about as much as I like caffeine) works as a natural baster, keeping the meat moist and tender.  Temperature control and timing are the keys.  You’ll find most recipes for BBQ Pork Butt require 12-16 hours of total cooking at very low temps (200-225 degrees).  I’ve actually done this before, but got tired of my kids growing up as I BBQ’d.  Seriously, I’d start the cooking process early in the morning, and by the time I was done, my kids were, like, two inches taller!  Waaaaay too much time.  We’ve found a way to do it in about six hours!  My BBQ Honey had it in the smoker for about two and a half hours (indirect heat using two chimneys of lump charcoal and a couple chunks of hickory), holding 275-350 degrees.  It’s a good idea to rotate (not flip) the meat every time you add wood or one side will get too charred.  Then she double wrapped it in foil real tight and threw it in a 300 degree oven for the balance of time.  When it’s all said and done, the internal temp of the roast will be between 190-200 degrees, which is where it needs to be in order to “pull”.  We can thank the south for this great tradition of taking two forks (or your hands) to just literally pull the meat apart (and get rid of any gristle and excess fat).  Yes, it will be that tender!  It’s such a big piece of meat, I think seasoning the pulled meat with a bit of your rub is needful (the inside can be a bit bland).  Add your favorite sauce, garnish with some creamy cole slaw, and you’ve got one crazy good BBQ sandwich!  You may never make sloppy joes again.

Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

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Just keepin’ it real, folks!  Hard core pit masters with the time and equipment will baby ribs for up to seven hours in their smokers.  Without the aid of gas or electricity, much effort is put into keeping the temperature and smoke just right.  As much as I revere this ever-so-pure form of authentic All-American BBQ, the reality of limited time, a bum ankle and a cheap smoker led me to cheat!  I’ll clarify later.

If you want good ribs, you can’t cut corners in the preparation.  First off, I prefer spare ribs, as opposed to the yuppy choice, baby backs.  Spares come from the belly of the pig and are bigger and much meatier.  But they require some surgery.  There are two distinct sections in whole spare ribs: the tips and the actual ribs.  The tips have a whole bunch of cartilage and gristle and cook up differently.  We split the sections, BBQ the ribs, and use the tips to make some killer New Mexican-style Green Chile Stew (the tips make some crazy good broth).  Also, there’s a rubbery membrane on the back of the ribs that needs to be removed.  Since I’m a gimp right now, I asked my better half to do the dirty work.

Removing the membrane is a cinch.  Use a knife to get under it right on top of a bone.  That's one slippery booger, so use a rag or paper towel to just pull it right off...

Removing the membrane is a cinch. Use a knife to get under it right on top of a bone. That's one slippery booger, so use a rag or paper towel to just pull it right off...

See, just like that!

See, just like that!

With the ribs properly trimmed and peeled, they’re ready for a good rub.  My seasoning rub consists of (in order of prevalance): celery salt, sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, New Mexican red chile powder, chipotle chile powder, black pepper and cumin.  I like to let the rack and rub get to know each other for a couple hours.

I’ve come to prefer “grill smoking” ribs.  That means I put them directly over a thin layer of lump charcoal along with a chunk of hickory that smolders over to the side.  You’ve got to be careful with this method, as you can torch your ribs if you don’t keep the temperature low.  Let ’em brown on one side for about five minutes (depending on how hot your coals are), then flip.  I keep it in the smoker this way for about an hour.  The initial blast of heat makes for a tasty crust, then the coals slowly cool off enough to gently smoke.  The flavor is unbelievable this way.  But here’s where the cheatin’ comes in.  After the hour in the smoker, I wrap the ribs real tight in foil and finish them off in a 225-250 degree oven.  Total cooking time was just under five hours.  The meat fell right off the bone, which some people like, but a bit mushy for my tastes.  I like my ribs to be tender, but still have some integrity.  As far as moisture and flavor … man, don’t mean to sound “Joe Biden-arrogant”, but I nailed it!  Some of the tastiest ribs I’ve ever had.  Tenderness probably would’ve been perfect if I pulled them half an hour earlier.

Cheatin’ never tasted so good!

Tuesday Tri-Tip

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Tuesday is my day off and since the weather improved from awful to pretty bad (yesterday was rainy and in the high 50’s, today there’s no rain but it’s barely above 60), I decided to brave the elements and BBQ a tri-tip.  This cut of beef from the sirloin primal is not very popular outside of California and I’m not sure why.  Along with the brisket, it is probably the beefiest piece of … uh … beef you’ll eat.  Tender and juicy when cooked properly, its big beefy flavor stands up to hardwood smoke wonderfully.

Other than the smoke, I think the key to a nice tri-tip is trimming it properly.  Some places (like Sam’s Club) over-trim.  They completely remove the fat cap on the top.  The fat cap is what makes the tri-tip juicy and succulent.  Without it, you’ve pretty much assured yourself of beef jerky since tri-tip is relatively lean.  But usually there’s way too much fat on top, and you’ll have to perform surgery.  Slice away all but about a quarter inch of fat cap.  Don’t freak out, most of it will render away during the cooking process and the rest can be easily trimmed off as you eat (but I have no idea why anyone would want to do that).  But more importanly, you’ve got to get rid of the silver skin.  This rubbery tissue doesn’t melt away and it is almost impossible to get your teeth through it.  Do your best to get rid of it and you’ll have one mighty fine piece of meat!

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It takes just a bit of patience and a good knife to get the silver skin off. See how stretchy it is?

Here's the tri-tip post-trimming.  You can see how much fat and membrane I took off on the right.  Sweet knife, huh?

Here's the tri-tip post-trimming. You can see how much fat and membrane I took off on the right. Sweet knife, huh?

After trimming, here comes the rub.  My tri-tip rub is a mixture of celery salt, granulated garlic, chipotle powder and black pepper.  Simple, yet teeming with assertive flavors.  I let it “marinate” for just a couple hours.  You can let it sit overnight, but it’s not necessary.  A tri-tip isn’t all that thick and the salt will draw out a whole bunch of moisture.

Using a full chimney of lump charcoal, I start my tri-tip directly over the coals to give it some good color and form a tasty crust.  It takes just a couple minutes on each side.  I’m not about to tell you exactly how long because it really depends on your grill and the intensity of your fire.  You’ve got to baby sit it for a bit, than you can move the tri-tip over to one side, mound your coal over on the other side, and throw in a couple chunks of hickory.  The authentic Santa Maria BBQ is with oak (which I like, too), but hickory is my go-to wood.  I try to hold a temp somewhere in the mid 300’s, and I’m usually done in about an hour.

Start right over the coals and don't be afraid of a little color!

Start right over the coals and don't be afraid of a little color!

After a few minutes of searing, the indirect smoking process begins.  From this point, you're about an hour away from some good eatin'!

After a few minutes of searing, the indirect smoking process begins. From this point, you're about an hour away from some good eatin'!

If you BBQ regularly, you’ll get to a point where you can tell the doneness of your meat by feel.  I can press on a steak and pretty much know if it’s rare, medium rare (the BBQthDirector’s choice), medium or torched (well done).  Until you get to this point, invest in a good meat thermometer.  I usually pull my tri tip out of the smoker at about 130 degrees, but I blew it this time and it got to 138.  Let it rest, for about 10 minutes (the temp will climb another 10-12 degrees), then slice against the grain.  Just start at the tip and work your way toward the fatter end.  This will make for a more tender mouth feel.

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The finished product!

Overall, I’d have to give my tri-tip effort a B-.  It was mighty tasty, but I think it was just a tad oversmoked and definitely overcooked for my taste.  It was a lot closer to medium well than medium rare.  Still, not bad for a midweek lunch in the dead of winter!

Lump Charcoal

Let me say one more time that one can cook up some mighty tasty grub on a gas grill.  But it really isn’t BBQ.  Think about where you’re getting your flavor from… propane?  Yum-O!  Sure, you can season/sauce up the meat and give it a char on your outdoor broiler, but you’re missing out on the rugged beauty–not to mention flavor–of a real hardwood fire.  It is definitely more work, but let us not compromise what’s best for what’s convenient.  Hey, that’ll preach!

Now, if I can get a few converts out there (from propane to charcoal), the temptation would be to get yourself a bag of charcoal briquettes (which is better than that gaseous blue flame).  But you need to understand what briquettes are all about.  They’re like hot dogs.  Sure, there’s meat in those weiners, but there’s also… okay, let’s not go there today.  Briquettes are made mostly of wood.  But then you’ve got binders and fillers added to the mix.  You don’t quite get that true woodsy flavor from briquettes, but they are definitely a step in the right direction. 

Then there’s LUMP CHARCOAL, which is nothing more than wood!  You know what briquettes look like, those perfectly formed… thingies.  Here’s the real thing:

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 **the BarBeQuethDirector swoons at the sight**  Not quite as easy to use as briquettes (some of the additives help with ignition and stability), but much hotter and a ton tastier.  It’ll take you some time to get used to this stuff, but, trust me, it will be worth it all.  A must for the lump charcoal user is a “chimney starter” (which I’ll tell you about in a future post).  Here are my favorite brands to use:

1.  Royal Oak (I get mine at Wal-Mart, this has the best balance of flavor, ease of lighting and price.  $5.37 for a 10 pound bag.)

2.  Barbeques Galore (The house lump for the place I get my smoking wood.  Not the cheapest stuff, but excellent all around.  Easy to light, great flavor.  $14.99 for 20 pounds.)

3.  Hot Wood (It’s more than just a name, this stuff gets crazy hot–plus, you get an exciting fireworks show when you light it!  It’s pure Mesquite, which is known for it’s intense heat and strong flavor.  Great for steaks because you want that high heat for searing.  I think it’s too strong for chicken or even pork.  I’ve seen this at most grocery stores.  It’s usually $5.something for, I think, a 7 pound bag.)

Brands I don’t like: Cowboy (Trader Joe’s), Lazzari (OSH), Kingsford Charwood (everywhere).