4 Tell me about barbecue (The Mini FAQ)
[What is the best way to learn how to barbecue?]
Put the engineering books away. This is cooking meat here. There is far
more art than science, more alchemy than chemistry. Get some wood, matches, and meat and
go to it. You will learn far more by building a fire and watching the results than anyone
here can teach you. There is no instruction book on making good barbecue.
[Will the smoke preserve my food?]
There are two types of smoking, cold and hot. Cold smoking is a method
of preserving meat. First the meat or fish is soaked in a brine solution, then smoked cold
at temperatures of 100F or so. Bacon is done this way. Hot smoking is really smoke
cooking. It is done at temperatures in the 225F range and will not add any preservation to
the foods. This FAQ is devoted to smoke cooking.
[What meats are used?]
Beef briskets are favored in Texas, pork shoulders in North Carolina,
ribs in Kansas, chicken in Louisiana. Much of the regional favoritism is due to the type
of animals raised in the area. Turkey, seafood, lamb, goat and venison can also be smoked
in this manner.
[Why cook the meat so long?]
Barbecue is an evolution of cooking technique that involves using the
tough, cheaper cuts of meat and cooking them until they are tender. Brisket comes from the
breast area of a steer that does a lot of work and tends to be very tough. This is also
true for pork shoulders (the forelegs of the pig). These cuts of meat have a lot of fat
and collagen, the material that holds the muscle together. Long slow cooking transforms
the collagen from a tough material to a gelatin that dissolves. This can take hours at a
temperature of about 160F.
[What is a rub?]
Often meats are seasoned before cooking by application of a dry rub. It
is a blend of spices and herbs rubbed onto the meat to enhance flavor. There are many
variations. Most recipes include: salt, paprika, chili powder, garlic and onion powders,
black and red peppers. There is no limit to the imaginative use of spice combinations.
[What is this 'Mr. Brown' I read about?]
The brown crust that forms on the outside of the barbecued meat is
referred to by some barbecuers as 'Mr. Brown'. This dark tasty layer is also called 'the
crust'. There is also a commercial dry rub with the trade name of "Mr. Brown".
It is available at barbecue specialty stores.
[What's the best kind of smoker for me to buy and what will it cost?]
You can spend as little as $30 for a bullet water smoker or tens of
thousands of dollars for a custom-built rig. Most of us spend less than $500. Keep in mind
that equipment is only part of the story. A good pit-master can turn out good barbecue on
simple homemade units costing a few dollars. Starting out, consider the Brinkmann Cook'N
Cajun Charcoal Smoker or similar unit at around $50, or an off-set firebox smoker that
runs about $200. Once you have mastered those, you will know better what suits your needs.
[Are all smokers wood-fired? Can I use my gas grill to barbecue?]
It is the wood that is used to generate the smoke. That is the common
denominator of all barbecue pits. For a heat source, some use charcoal, wood, gas, wood
pellets, even electricity. Traditionalists use wood as a fuel, but many of the newer units
work well with charcoal. A gas or electric smoker with wood chips for the smoke can do a
very good job of making barbecue and be much less labor intensive in keeping the fire at a
The common backyard gas grills are not air tight enough to do proper
smoking, but you can still get some flavor by using the wood chips in a pan over the lava
rock. Use one burner and keep it as low as possible and put the meat on the other side of
the grill, elevated if you have a top rack.
[I've seen some inexpensive bullet water smokers. Are these smokers any
There are two main types of barbecue smokers, horizontal and vertical.
The horizontal smokers usually have a firebox off-set to the side to provide the heat and
smoke. I highly recommend the vertical water smokers to the beginner, especially if you
are not sure if this is the way of life for you. They are very capable cookers and can
turn out prize-winning food.
There are three basic types of vertical water smokers, segregated by the
fuel they use: wood or charcoal, gas, or electricity. All can give the beginner very good
Vertical smokers are more compact and can be cheaper to build. A good
example is the $30 Brinkmann Sportsman Smoker, the better $50 Brinkmann Cook N' Cajun and
The H2O Smoker from Char-Broil. Weber makes the best charcoal bullet smoker, The Smoky
Mountain Cooker, around $170 . What they have in common is a water pan. This is what
differentiates the smoking process over indirect heat from grilling over direct heat. The
water pan is a buffer between the heat source and the meat. It also acts as a heat sink
and thermal mass, lessening the temperature spikes often seen while adding fuel to the
The original Brinkmann had two pans, one for water, one with a hole in
it for the charcoal. Due to someone burning down his deck, they no longer provide the hole
in the bottom pan. This restricts the airflow and makes it more difficult to use. See
Section 7.2.1 for information on how to modify your bullet smoker to make it work more
efficiently and to give you better barbecue.
[Can you help me get started on my first time with a water smoker?]
Start the coals with a chimney starter and let them burn until a white
ash covers the coals. Put the water pan in place. To make clean-up easier, spray it with
Pam first and put in a foil liner. Pour in some hot water. I suggest hot (almost boiling)
because it will get the food cooking faster instead of wasting the heat output to bring
the water up to temperature. To add water during the cooking session, use a long-nose
water can or similar item. Open the door, not the lid, and pour. If you are using an
electric or gas-fired water smoker, lift the dome lid and pour the water past the meat
into the lower water pan. DO BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU MOVE OR POUR HOT WATER, AS SERIOUS INJURY
CAN RESULT FROM UNSAFE HANDLING. FOLLOW THE MANUFACTURER'S SAFETY GUIDELINES FOR YOUR
It is best to pre-start coals if you must add more than a few. This can
be done in a bucket or other pan. Use tongs to transfer the coals to the smoker. If the
temperature drops, give the coals a stir with a metal rod. Re-bar and old Studebaker lug
wrenches work well for this job.
After you use the smoker a few times, you can experiment. Instead of
water, leave the pan empty, but cover it with foil, much as if you were making it into a
drum. You will still have the buffer, but the smoker will now operate at a higher
temperature. If you have a hole in the center, or place an aluminum pan on the top, it
will still catch the drippings from the meat.
You may want to add a more accurate thermometer to your smoker to
supplement or replace the simple thermometer that came installed in the dome of your
smoker. Most important is knowing your smoker. Note the needle position of the factory
gauge and the actual number will not matter; after a few tries, you will know if the
temperature is running too hot or too cold. The end result is what counts.
Resist the temptation to peek. You release a lot of heat and smoke every
time you lift the lid. You can use wood chips, pellets, or chunks to get the smoke you
want. Just put them on top of the burning coals, the gas plate or on/near the electric
element. Chunks should be soaked in water for an hour or two before hand so they do not
burn up too fast. It only takes a few chunks to turn out good smoked food. You want a
light white smoke, not a dense white smoke. More here is not better.
[How do I maintain an even temperature inside the smoker?]
Regulate the amount of fuel in the fire. Dampening down the burning wood
can make the fire smolder and make a heavy, bitter smoke. It is better to use less fuel
burning at a high temperature, rather than a lot of fuel burning at a low temperature. If
the temperature gets too high, open the door to release the heat. Short temperature spikes
and drops are normal and will not affect the end result.
There are two approaches here. One is the Lazy-Q way, letting an
electric or gas-fired system make your life easy. The other way is to have a traditional
wood-burning smoker. The Lazy-Q'ers are often at odds with the wood purists. Have to say
though, the wood burners work harder and develop more skills to make good barbecue. It is
more challenging, both mentally and physically to keep a fire in a narrow, low temperature
range for a long period of time.
You have to learn to think ahead, not for what the thermometer says now.
You have to anticipate. Using a baseball analogy, the batter starts his swing long before
the ball is over the plate. He has to figure out where it is going to be and has to be
there to meet it. Same with wood; you have to know how long the coals will be hot, how
long for the next log to catch, what the wind will be doing, what effect the sun or lack
of it will have on the smoker. What works at 2 p.m. in the afternoon is not going to work
at 2 a.m. the next morning when that brisket is still going.
The sun affects the heat of the smoker. On a 90F day, you have a
differential of 135F from optimum cooking temperature. Later that night, you have a 175F
differential. At night you'll have no heat absorption of the sun's heat, and a slight
breeze may carry off lots of BTUs from the surface of the smoker and you'll have a
stronger draft in the flue.
[What's the best kind of wood to burn and do the different kinds of
smoking woods 'taste' different?]
The southwest uses a lot of mesquite, the south uses mostly hickory, the
northeast has maple. The main reason is because these woods are plentiful in those areas.
Any wood from a nut or fruit bearing tree can be used. Do NOT use any softwood. The resin
in conifer wood (pine, fir, spruce, etc.) will ruin the meat and can make you very sick.
There is more information regarding woods for smoking in Section 8.
[Can you make good barbecue with briquettes and what's the difference
between lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes?]
Charcoal is made by burning wood in very low oxygen levels. This leaves
mostly carbon. In this form, it is known as natural or lump charcoal. It will be of
irregularly-shaped pieces of broken-up wood. If you shake the bag, it sounds like the
tinkle of broken glass. Briquettes are different. The charcoal is ground into a powder and
then additives are introduced. The additives can include starches, coal dust, oil products
and other binders. Under high pressure, the ground charcoal and additives are formed to
the regular shapes that are familiar to us. The advantage touted by the manufacturers of
briquettes is the consistency of the product in heat output and burn rates. Lump charcoal
has a higher BTU rating per pound and is preferred by many barbecuers. Never use the
easy-light type charcoals for slow cooking. They have additives that must be burned off at
high heat and if used in a smoker will give your barbecued meat nasty flavors.
[My door mounted thermometer read 220F the whole time but it took a lot
longer than I expected for the meat to get done. Why is this?]
The thermometer on the door is giving you the temperature at the door.
Cooking temperatures are defined as the temperature at the rack where the food is. All
smokers have hot and cold spots as well as temperature stratification. Heat rises so the
readings at the top can be 50 or more degrees F hotter than at the rack. Use an oven
thermometer on the rack to find the difference in your smoker. Keep in mind, the
temperature can vary depending to how the smoker is loaded with meat, so you will want to
try this several times. Once the difference is known, you can make the adjustment by
knowing that you have to keep the door thermometer at a certain temperature so the meat
cooks at 225F or so.
[What is a smoke ring?]
Smoke rings are produced by a chemical reaction between the meat and the
penetration of the smoke. You will see a smoke ring on meat barbecued over a wood fire. It
is a pink color that extends from the outside surface into the meat. It's thickness is
dependent on several factors, such as the type of smoke and the duration of smoking. See
the following two questions for a better understanding of the chemical reactions involved.
[Why is my barbecued chicken pink? Is it still raw?]
No, the smoke has a reaction with the chemicals in the bone and meat.
The meat turns a pink color even though it is thoroughly cooked. Ash is loaded with
potassium and sodium nitrates. This reacts with oxymethyglobin to form
nitrosaminoglobulins and gives us the pink color of hams, lunch meats, hot dogs, and smoke
Man has known this for a long time and has been using salt to preserve
meat. It was found that nitrates are a natural impurity in salt. This was isolated and
used to chemically cure meat. (Saltpeter)
[When do you use a dry rub and a marinade?]
Much depends on your personal choice. A marinade can flavor and moisten
the meat. A rub only adds flavor. Many barbecuers use a marinade followed by a dry rub.
[Can you give me a few recipes for dry rubs?]
Dry rubs contain some salt along with other spices. Many have sugar in
them to take the bite out of the spices. Experiment to find what you like.
Danny Gaulden's Sparerib Rub
This may be a little hot for some folks, so one may want to reduce the
cayenne a little, but that's the way they like'em out West. I believe the brown sugar is a
must, and when it caramelizes, it produces that rich dark cherry-red color, plus it tastes
Dry Rub for Poultry
||ground bay leaves
Sprinkle this on chicken and turkey before barbecuing.
[Can you give us a recipe for a simple marinade?]
A simple marinade is 8 ounces each of cider vinegar and lemon juice, two
ounces of Tabasco sauce and a few cloves of crushed garlic. You can use beer and onions or
you can use Dr. Pepper or Coke, or all four together. Another simple marinade is to just
combine orange juice or apple juice with beer.
There are many dry rub and marinade recipes in the BBQ List recipe
[When do I apply the barbecue sauce?]
Finishing sauces, especially those with tomato and sugar, should be
applied only at the very end of cooking. If applied too early, they will caramelize, burn
and turn black from the heat.
[What's a mop and when do I use it?]
Mops are basting sauces used to add moisture during the cooking process.
They usually contain liquids that can take the heat with no ill affects. They consist of
one or more of: beer, wine, beef broth, fruit juices, vegetable oil and some spices. Apply
them about every hour during cooking.
[How do I barbecue really good tasting and tender pork ribs?]
Everybody likes ribs, especially baby backs. On the bone side of the rib
there is a membrane. From one corner, cut under it with a knife and work the it up with
your fingers. Pull it off working toward the other side. You can marinate them or you can
put a rub on them. Remember, ribs are thin so you do not want to pile on the rub like you
would a large piece of meat. Just a light coating on each side will do.
Fire up the smoker and get it up to a temperature of 225-240F at the
grill. If you put them on flat, place them fat side up. If you want to save space, use a
rib rack to stand them on end or you can roll them up loosely and hold them together with
a bamboo skewer. Smoke baby backs for about 3-4 hours, spares for about 4-5 hours. You
will see the meat pulling back on the bone when they are done. Use a carving fork and poke
it between the ribs. When the ribs are done, the fork will go in easy. Serve with a little
sauce on the side. Opinions vary, but the meat should be the star, not the sauce. Sauces
are to accent the taste of the meat.
[How do I barbecue North Carolina-style pulled pork?]
True NC pulled pork is a pork shoulder smoked over hickory coals. You
can use either the picnic half or the butt half as it is difficult to find whole
shoulders. Each half will weigh about 7 to 8 pounds. Smoke gently (220-240F at meat-grill
level) until the meat is very tender. This takes from 8 to 12 hours, keeping the meat at
or above 160F. The meat should be ready to fall apart at an internal temperature of
185-190F. Pull or chop the meat, putting it into a container. Eastern NC style uses a
sauce consisting of cider vinegar, salt, black pepper, and red pepper. Variations include
sugar to off-set the vinegar. About 12 ounces of sauce to 6 pounds of finished meat. Mix
this together, refrigerate overnight so the flavors meld together and serve on white bread
buns, perhaps with coleslaw on the top.
[Can I smoke bacon at home?]
Yes, it is a cold smoking and curing process. An excellent description
is on Rick Thead's page for meat preserving.
It describes the brining process, gives the cure recipe and the smoking process.
[Is it really possible to get good barbecue from an inexpensive water
There is a gentleman named Harold F. from Oregon who has ten or so
Brinkmann water smokers, and he often uses up to four units to compete with. He has won
the Oregon state championship, as well as taking first in ribs (open) and brisket
(invitational) at the 1994 American Royal Barbecue Championship in Kansas City. The
invitational is all-state, comprised of champions or winners of previous cook-offs. There
are over 50 cooks competing and the cook-off is KCBS sanctioned. If you learn to use your
water smoker, world class results can follow.
The RE Max team at the KCBS of 1995 uses 2 or 3 Weber water smokers and
has won many events. The Weber units cost about $170 and are the highest quality of all of
the water smokers, and they have the best air controls.
[Can I make good barbecue on a gas or electric smoker using chips of
I just want to say this. Sometimes we old pros and perfectionists get so
carried away with the long, slow, wood-only, "perfect" Q'ed product, that I
think we get some of the beginners thinking that if they can't do it that way, then just
don't barbecue anything. That's horse hockey. If you have the time, and gain the
experience, then do it the old-fashioned way--it can't be beat. But if time is short, your
experience level low, or you're just plain lazy, there's nothing wrong with a little
faster smoking time, or using a gas or electric smoker. It can still be darn good, and
better than most anything you will ever put in your mouth.
[Can you help me make some good barbecue on my gas grill? Any good
recipes? And can you make barbecue as good as what comes off a wood-fired smoker?]
Your "any good recipes to try on my gas grill?" couldn't have
been more timely. As a matter of fact, it might be the best way to get started to some
excellent barbecuing, for learning to build and maintain the proper wood or charcoal fire,
keeping the heat and smoke correct, etc. can be a school of learning in its own right, and
is a little overwhelming for a lot of beginners. Sometimes they get discouraged and give
up--we don't want that to happen with you. With the gas grill, you can concentrate more on
the meat, play with the smoke, have a few cold ones, and the odds with the gas grill will
be more in your favor to produce some good stuff the first few times around than with a
wood burner. Is it "as good as what comes off a wood fired smoker"? Not in my
opinion, but it's next to it, and better than anything you will ever cook in the kitchen
oven, and that's a pretty good start. And it will have that great outdoor flavor.
While at my cabin recently, I carried a few things to barbecue, and one
of the items was a pork Boston butt. I have a little smoker up there, along with a
smaller, cheaper gas grill. I intended to smoke the butt on the smoker with charcoal and
wood chunks, and didn't take any charcoal, for I thought I had a 20 lb. bag of it up
there. Guess what--no charcoal, and the nearest store was about 25 miles down the
mountain. So I elected to use the gas grill. It is a two burner with left and right
control knobs. I rubbed the butt with some of Willingham's dry rub, let it sit awhile at
room temperature (it's cool up there), fired up the left side of the grill on the lowest
setting it would go, and put the butt on the right side for an indirect smoking process.
The temperature next to the meat stayed at about 250 to 275F, but no burning of the fat
cap, or meat occurred. I threw some wet hickory wood chunks (no foil, just raw chunks)
onto the lava rock fired side every time one would burn out. I did not use a mop. I cooked
the butt with the fat side up for about 4 or 5 hours, then turned it over with the fat
side down. About every hour, I would turn the meat with a different side to the fire so it
would cook more evenly. After 8 hours, it was very fork tender through and through, and
was a beautiful color. I basted it with my mustard, vinegar and brown sugar glaze a couple
of times during the last half hour of smoking. This really turned out great, and was a lot
of pure fun to do without a lot of hassle. It did take a lot of attention during the
entire cooking time, but I had nothing else to do, and enjoyed it. It had a really nice
smoke flavor, as I kept a little smoke on it almost constantly.
If you have a Weber Genesis grill, you should be able to achieve a more
even heat distribution than I did with my cheap grill, so get to barbecuing, and make some
[Can someone help me with some basic questions about using an electric
bullet type water smoker?]
OK. Fire away with the questions.
[Will an oven thermometer sitting on the rack show an accurate
I use an oven thermometer on the bottom rack where I can see it when I
open the side door. One problem with putting a thermometer in the smoker, is that after
awhile smoke will most likely get under the cover and it will become unreadable.
Environmental conditions can affect the lower grill temperature as measured by my oven
thermometer. During hot (90+F) and no wind days, I've observed 260F at the lower grill
level and 265F in the dome. I drilled a 1/4" hole in the dome near the handle to hold
a cheap metal candy thermometer. If it's windy the grill temperature is usually somewhere
between 235F and 250F depending on air temperature. The dome temperature is very sensitive
to wind. With no wind it can get over 265F. Breezy wind and it has trouble staying above
220F. I now use a funky old cardboard box about 2 ft. square and slightly taller than the
smoker as a wind break on breezy days and during cooler weather. On a recent smoking
session in November the air temperature was 54F and breezy at 2:00 p.m. and dropped to 46F
by 5:00 p.m.. With the windbreak in place, my lower grill temperature stayed at 250F once
the smoker was heated up to temperature. The dome temperature varied between 220F and
[Where in the smoker do I put the chips?]
I use water-soaked hickory chunks, either right on the lava rock or in a
little steel pan set on the heating element. Forget the foil log stuff. My chunks catch on
fire if they touch the element, so I don't let them do it. Flaming chunks generate too
much heat and flying ashes.
I have a Char-Broil electric smoker (1650 watts). The best method I've
found to date is to put three or four 1" x 2" chunks of mesquite, hickory or
pecan right on top of or touching the electric element. The chunks slowly burn for almost
two hours and this gives a nice, steady, light-white to invisible smoke and the best
tasting end results. As the chunks burn, I turn them over or move them closer to the
heating element every 60 minutes or so. You want a light to invisible smoke, not a heavy
I have not seen a smoke ring in any of the meat I have smoked in my
electric water smoker, no matter what wood chunks I use.
If the electric bullet is not set up right, it can be difficult to get
it up to temperature. The things that effect it the most are:
1 Light-weight extension cords. -- Use at least a 12 gauge
wire cord. Buy at a hardware store or make one up yourself.
2 Too many lava rocks to heat up. -- Get rid of them and
line the bottom with foil. No lava rocks or ceramic briquettes are needed.
3 Way too much water in the pan. -- Use about 2 liters of
4 Excessive lifting of the lid. -- don't peek. Lift
the lid only when necessary to mop, not peek.
5 Too much heat escapes around the lid. -- Fill gaps
with foil. Make new vents in top of lid that you can open and shut.
[What goal should I aim for in my barbecue? How good is good enough?]
I've made ribs that make grown men fight and chicken that has made women
(Editor-- Sounds like a pretty fair goal to me.)
--End of Mini-FAQ--