Barbecue: Going Local

Kimberly Decker, Contributing Editor

July 21, 2009

7 Min Read
Barbecue: Going Local

To barbecue pros, authentic is one of those loaded terms that sends passions flaring and sparks family feuds. Pitmasters, professional as well as amateur, take a lot of pride in their work, notes Peggy Iler, flavor applications manager, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI. Combine that with a lot of backyard cooks and you end up with a lot of opinions on what makes good barbecue.

When queried as to his own definition of authentic, Kell Phelps, publisher, National Barbecue News, Douglas, GA, serves up a similar verdict: Youll get 50,000 different answers if you ask 49,000 different people.

Insofar as enthusiasts can agree on anything, theyll concede that true cue is less a product than a process; barbecue isnt something you eat; its something you do. According to Stephen Giunta, CMC, culinary director, Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, KS, Barbecuing is a cooking principleits a cooking method. Whats more, he adds, Its not a quick-cook method. Its long and slow.

The meats of the matter

Pros generally agree that treating lean meats, like chicken breasts or filet mignon, to barbecues slow-cooking, low-heat methods is a fools errand. You really need that fat, says Giunta. He offers beef brisket as an example. The top part, what we would call the deckle, will have a little more fat than the bottom partthe flap or point, as its called. But if you actually put the whole piece on the grill without trimming away any of the fat, you get a lot of self-basting.

Cuts of meat still hanging on the bone also take well to barbecuing. Some of the whole-hog barbecue is really fascinating to me, because you actually get three eating experiences, Giunta says. You get this crackling, crispy skin. You get this really nice bark on the outside. And then you get this soft, succulent, very tender meat in the middle. So, if you can leave the bone in a pork butt, or if youre talking about a whole chicken, those things are going to perform just wonderfully, as opposed to getting the boneless, skinless chicken breasts and trying to barbecue that.

That doesnt disqualify leaner meats entirely. Salmon, though fatty for a fish, is decidedly leaner than a pork butt, yet it remains a smokehouse staple. In a nation that watches what it eats (or claims to), barbecued chicken breasts and smoked pork tenderloin will be in demand. This is where brines come in handy. You may brine the meat first to help keep some of that moisture in there when there isnt fat to keep it moist on its own, says Jud McLester, corporate chef, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI. We will brine the product, add some flavor to itwhether chicken flavor or smoke, liquid or dryand maybe some sugars to help with the caramelization.

Regional cue

With Americans rediscovering their culinary roots, regional barbecue is enjoying a renaissance. Just focusing on North America, says Iler, we have regionalized barbecue from Texas, four distinct barbecue styles from the Carolinas, Kansas City-style, Memphis, Southern or Cajun, Southeast, Southwest, East Coast, and West Coastjust to name a few. Adding to the ferment is the continual evolution of these traditions as they absorb new influences. The more-eclectic styles of barbecue include new and emerging ingredients and seasonings, or ones that merge different styles, she says. If we move outside of North America, there is island-style barbecue from the Caribbean, and barbecue from Asia.

Traveling the country would undercover a vast barbecue repertoire with subtle and no-so subtle differences. However, in general, regional styles of barbecue can be narrowed down to four general schools: Texas, Carolinas, Memphis and Kansas City.

Deep in the heart

In Texas, says Phelps, dont expect to see much pork in the pits. In fact, he suggests, if you can find pork in Texas, I need to know about it, because I want to write about it. He may be over-generalizing, as eastern Texas has a tradition of smoking pork shoulder and ribs over hickory. But in light of its strong ranching legacy, Texans turn to beef, cooking cuts like brisket and shoulder clods over mesquite.

Also common to Texas is a preference for dry rubs over sauces. They use very little sauce, and its usually on the side, Phelps says.

According to Shane Boling, R&D chef de cuisine, Kraft Food Ingredients (KFI), Memphis, TN, and a competitive barbecuer with several Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest top placements to his credit, Texas barbecue has a sharp, distinct smoke flavor of mesquite added to spicy and bold flavors. Chili powder, cumin, onion and garlic powder, cayenne, salt, black pepper, paprika, and sugar are common rub components, with the paprika boosting color, while the sugar contained in the rub will caramelize, helping lock in moisture and enhance color, he says.

When barbecues a noun

Farther east are the Carolinas, what some call Americas barbecue cradle. Pitmasters here have developed probably the most unique style of barbecue in the nation, Phelps says. In eastern North Carolina, the standard is pork basted in a sauce of vinegar and hot peppers. If you go into a barbecue joint in that region on the eastern side of North Carolina and you say that you want a barbecue sandwich, Phelps says, you will get pulled-pork with a lot of vinegar and a scoop of coleslaw on top. Those guys will do a whole hog and chop it and put all the parts togethertheyre noted for that. But most of your restaurants are going to do a butt or a shoulder, maybe even hams.

The states Piedmont region tweaks things by serving pork shoulder with a mix of vinegar- and tomato-based sauces. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Phelps says, youll get a mustard-based barbecue. When you order your sandwich, youll get hickory-smoked pulled pork that is sauced with that mustard-based sauce.

Wet or dry?

Memphis barbecue is a bit of a salmagundi, with both porkpulled shoulder and ribsas well as beef making an appearance; dry rubs, sauces, and mops fair game; and tomatoes or vinegar used as the base.

Memphis has got a wet and a dry style, Phelps says. Their dry is going to be a paprika, chili powder, little bit of cayenne, salt, and sugar-based rubno sauce at all. If you want the wet style, he says, order the dry and ask for a tomato-based sauce with a little bit of vinegar and a little bit of mustard in it sometimes added to the meat after cooking, or on the side. How sweet the profile gets depends on whos doing the cue, but molasses and even Coca-Cola provide sweetness in some stands and shacks.

KCs burnt ends

In Kansas City, youre going to get a sweet, tomato-based sauce, Phelps says. And when you order a sandwich, they will serve you pork or beef. Hickory is a popular smoke.

Phelps says the town is believed to have invented what are called the burnt ends of the brisket. And, man, he says, that is awesome. After the brisket is cooked for about eight hours, you separate whats called the deckle from the flap part, re-season the deckle, put it back in the smoker for another eight hours, render more of that fat into that meat, and then chop it up. And thats what burnt ends are.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing Editor

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected]

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