BBQ, barbecue or Bar-B-Que, not many methods of cooking seem to cause so much debate among fellow men.
Is it even a method of cooking, many would argue it’s a type of food?
The Oxford English dictionary actually defines it as both a verb and a noun. A barbecue can be the name of an event, i.e. a gathering outdoors where meat is cooked over an open fire. Or it can be the name of a piece of equipment used to cook meat.
It can even be the name of the food cooked on the grill itself, as in “all the barbecue you can eat”.
Barbecue can also be the act of grilling food as in to barbecue the meat. Webster’s dictionary describes the word barbecue as a transitive verb:
- 1to roast or grill on a rack/revolving spit over a source of heat (such as hot coals).
- 2to cook in a highly seasoned vinegar sauce.
What can’t be disputed is the fact that barbecue is the oldest form of cooking or food in the world.
Read on to learn more from this ultimate guide to BBQ.
Table of contents
The History of Barbecue
To barbecue meat at its most basic level is to cook it over an open fire.
Something which, throughout most of history, we have had very few other ways to do. We haven’t always had gas cookers, convection ovens and microwaves.
It’s argued that cooking meat dates back about two million years to the age of homo erectus, the ape-like creatures just before Neanderthal man.
Harvard anthropologist, Richard Wrangham, suggests a breakthrough in evolution occurred by accident. An ape dropped some meat in a fire.
Apes learning to cook very quickly changed the evolution of the human being. First of all, cooked food is more calorific, which allowed the apes to grow stronger and nourish their brains more.
Next, our ancestors would have learnt to hunt with flint axes and primitive knives, teaching them social skills and strategy. And the big breakthrough would come when these ape-like men learnt how to control fire.
The history of barbecue is fascinating, especially the development of spits or racks for roasting a whole animal slowly.
Spit-roasting was the most common barbecue cooking method for many years around the world. Soon after the Iron Age started, grid irons were developed, similar to the grates we use on a modern grill.
The Spanish and the New World Barbacoa
Let’s jump forward to the Spanish settlers and the beginning of the all American barbecue, otherwise we could be here all day.
It’s very rare that anybody gives the Spanish the proper credit for laying the foundations of what was to become the modern barbecue.
The word barbecue is actually though to derive from a native American word for a spit, which the Spanish misheard as barbacoa. Samuel Johnson, the British lexicographer and one of the first writers of a dictionary, listed the proper spelling as barbecue in 1755.
The arrival of hogs with settlers from Jamestown led to the ever popular slow cooking and smoking of meat we know today. Many of the barbecue enthusiasts of the Carolinas to this day will insist a barbecue can only ever be pork.
They forget the original “barbacoa” could have been fish, lizards and other game cooked by the native Americans.
The Rising Popularity of the Barbecue in the Americas
Although, strictly, barbecue was not invented in the US, not many other nations can hold a flame to the way it’s ingrained in our society.
The settlers quickly copied and adapted the ways of the native Americans. Often they would build a simple wood-burning grill made from mud, fitted with a steel plate that could act as a griddle.
Barbecue, especially the low and slow methods, was an effective way of cooking tougher cuts of meat.
Smoking was found to be an effective method of preserving meat, as the smoke removed the moisture needed for bacteria to grow. Even George Washington had a large smokehouse at his plantation in Mt. Vernon.
The flavor of slow-cooked, smoke-roasted meat with plenty of sauce grew in popularity in the South.
It was a cheap way to entertain a lot of diners at one time and was often used as a picnic for church gatherings or a way of lobbying votes. Towards the end of the 19th century, barbecue restaurants started to open up, and barbecue became a kind of food rather than just a method of grilling.
What Exactly Is Barbecue?
Which brings us back to that eternal question, just what are we talking about when we say barbecue?
Is it the act of grilling or cooking food, or is it the actual food produced when you “barbecue”?
As we saw earlier, even the dictionaries can’t decide.
Of course, as the popularity of barbecue has grown, the USDA couldn’t help but stick their nickel’s worth in.
The Code of Federal regulations in 1985 stated that any barbecue meat labelled as such should be cooked in a dry heat from the burning of hard wood or hot coals. That effectively rules out many of the gas barbecues, restaurant style smokers or electric grills.
Barbecue had many snob enthusiasts or deniers who are keen to point out what is and isn’t true barbecue.
Today’s modern society uses the word barbecue which has stretched for hundreds, if not millions, of years around the world.
It encompasses many techniques and foods, in America alone, it can be split into four styles.
The Four Main Styles of Barbecue in the United States
We’re not talking about chicken, beef, pork or roadkill, but rather the four major regional variations on slow cooked barbecues.
There are no strict rules about what differentiates them from each other, just as there are no rules for grilling versus barbecue.
In general, they all place meat on some kind of platform to be heated, either directly by hot coals or burning wood, or sometimes indirectly too.
Carolina Style Barbecue
Most aficionados would argue this is the original style of barbecue.
An abundance of pork in the Southern states means most Carolina barbecues use pork. Any cut of pork will do, from the pork butt (actually shoulder) to the ribs, or even the whole hog.
They don’t normally use too much rubs, but rather a sauce base. Depending on whether you are in North or South Carolina, this can vary from a thick mustard sauce to a clear vinegar based sauce, respectively.
The tang from the vinegar means the sauce cuts through the fat in ribs or shoulder, to flavor the meat while cooking.
Texas Style Barbecue
As you would expect, with Texas, it’s all about the beef.
They may occasionally throw in some chicken or perhaps pork ribs as a garnish, but in general it’s beef served with a side of beef and more beef. Cuts like beef brisket or beef short ribs are cooked with a dry rub, which is often based on mustard or chilli powder.
Any sauces they use tend to be a basting or mop sauce with heavy flavors from bold ingredients. These can include ground chillies, hot sauces, cumin, meat drippings and sometimes beer or coffee.
If you want the end result to be “wetter,” that will involve dipping the meat into the bucket of mop sauce before serving.
Kansas City Style Barbecue
Kansas style barbecue is the one most people are familiar with, especially their barbecue sauces.
The familiar barbecue sauce of a thick tomato base with plenty of sugar originates in the Kansas City style of barbecue. A barbecue in Kansas will usually consist of pork, pork ribs and chicken, all slathered in that sweet barbecue sauce.
Even the rubs for a good Kansas City style recipe will consist mainly of brown sugar with a few herbs thrown in.
Kids tend to love Kansas style barbecue. It’s important that Kansas style barbecued meats are cooked slowly over a lower heat, otherwise all that sugar turns into a charred lump.
Memphis Style Barbecue
Finally, we have Memphis style barbecue, which is similar to the Kansas style but without all the sugar.
Instead, Memphis barbecue rubs tend to be more spicy. Meats like pork ribs or shoulder/butt are cooked without a sauce, but will occasionally be basted while cooking.
Without that sticky sauce splattered all over the meat, Memphis barbecues are not as messy as a Kansas style. Many would argue they’re not as much fun, with the only sauces normally found at the table for dipping.
The sauces will be less sweet, generally thinner and maybe tangy, like the Carolina sauces.
Barbecue Around the World
In America, we might have backyard barbecues as a social gathering.
In Hawaii, traditional feasts and celebrations feature digging a pit. A pig is usually buried in a sand pit and cooked for hours before being served up with live music and a dance party.
One of the more common restaurants popping up in neighborhoods across the states is the Brazilian barbecue.
Here, meat is roasted on long skewers over an open fire pit, before being served at the table straight off the skewer.
Argentinian “asado” menus employ a similar grill but use large slabs, often whole animals, over the open fire pit.
Korean barbecues usually consist of an all-you-can-eat buffet, where you choose thin strips of meat cooked with rice. These will sometimes use Japanese-style hibachi barbecues set in the table. And of course there is the ubiquitous Mongolian barbecue, which is neither Mongolian nor a barbecue, rather a stir-fry from Taiwan.
It’s commonly argued that true barbecue is only American.
An American classic, it’s perfect for when those Fourth of July parades have died down, or just tailgating at the local football stadium. Throw some meat on that grill or in the smoker for a taste of the good ole US of A.
A Look at the Barbecue Techniques
When it comes to cooking meat over an open fire, there are four distinctive cooking methods.
Although we are going to focus mainly on grilling and smoking in this article, let’s take a look at the four types.
To avoid confusion with other worldwide barbecues, let’s refer to them as BBQ, the common American abbreviation we all use today.
Roasting on a BBQ
If you own a kettle BBQ or gas grill with a hood, you can try roasting whole birds or large slabs of meat.
In effect, you are turning your grill into an oven where the heat circulates freely around the meat. This helps the meat to cook more evenly and avoids the charred spots you often get with grilling.
Charcoal grills can be easy to set up for the roasting method, with you placing charcoal in the two outside thirds of the grill.
This leaves the middle free of direct heat for that roasting effect. On a hooded gas grill, simply don’t turn on the middle burner, just the outer two.
Once the grill reaches temperature, just place the meat/bird on the empty part of the grill where there is no direct heat. I personally recommend placing the meat in a tray to avoid any direct heat from the coals (if using a charcoal grill).
Adding a little liquid to the tray can help keep the meat moist as it cooks, and create a steam effect.
Spit-roasting is another popular method of roasting poultry on a BBQ.
Set the grill up the same way as for roasting and ensure the lid can close without catching the rotisserie. One of the best things about spit-roasting is the meat will baste itself as it turns around on the spit.
BBQ Braising? Really? Yes You Can
Although grills are traditionally used to quickly cook meats like burgers or steaks, they can also be used to braise meat.
Traditionally, you would braise meat by browning it first in a dutch oven before adding a flavorsome braising liquid. Cooking for several hours this way, in an oven or stove top, will result in a tender, melting meat.
Similar to the roasting method, you set up your BBQ with a lid, like an oven.
The big advantage of using an outdoor grill to braise is the different areas of direct and indirect heat. You can quickly brown the meat for extra flavor before braising, and glaze it over the direct heat when cooked, to give it a saucy crust.
Gas grills tend to be better for braising as you have more control over both the indirect and direct heat needed for this method.
If you are a pit master genius though, you can set up the grill for indirect heat by banking the charcoal against the sides, as in roasting techniques.
Grilling on a BBQ: Now You’re Talking
This is the most common method of cooking on a BBQ, in fact most BBQs are referred to as outdoor grills.
A method that uses direct heat, it’s perfect for cooking those hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs and chicken breasts. The higher heat sears the meat on the grill and ensures the moisture stays inside of the meat.
With fattier cuts of meat, like pork chops or rib-eye steaks, a high heat will help render down that fat.
This results in the most succulently cooked meat and that instant melt-in-your mouth effect. Whole chickens cooked using the grilling method benefit from spatchcocking, to ensure they cook more evenly.
If you’re worried about meats being too tough or lacking flavor, you can always add a marinade. Just be careful when the marinade or fat drips on to the coals or burners it doesn’t flare up.
As one of the most popular BBQ techniques, we will be looking in more detail at the grill method of cooking later.
Smoking: The Ultimate Low and Slow Technique
This is what BBQ is all about.
That smoky flavor you only get from a BBQ and a long slow cook for the most tender meat, especially with less expensive, tougher cuts. Smoking meats is truly a game changer and has a dramatic effect on the way the meat cooks.
If you enjoy the taste of hickory, cherry or applewood smoke infusing your meat, smoking is the way forward.
You do need to exercise care when using stronger woods like mesquite or sap tree wood, like pine, as they can be too pungent for many guests. Smoked meats often tend to be more moist than grilled foods, and fall off the bone much easier.
While smoking meats may have previously been used for preserving them, many people now use it for the smoked flavor. Most of the larger grill companies have recently released new high-tech smoker grills to meet this rising popularity.
We will focus on the many benefits of each type of smoker later.
The Art of Grilling
For the majority of BBQ enthusiasts, grilling is where the true magic begins.
That perfectly seared steak, the caramelized to perfection crust on a pork chop, or that extra sizzle on the sausages. Although most BBQ chefs like to think of their craft as an art, there is a reason why BBQ tastes so good—and that’s science.
Getting creative on the grill, as with all forms of cooking, is actually a form of chemistry. As the heat from the grill hits the meat, it forces the food into chemical changes. Grilling meats not only adds flavor, but removes bacteria and makes food easier to digest.
Nobody wants to don a scientist’s lab coat for too long; we would rather be throwing a few more steaks on the grill.
However, understanding the science behind grilling can take your experiments with BBQ food to another level. It will also make you seem so much more knowledgeable at that next BBQ competition.
Never a bad thing among other grill professionals.
A (Very) Brief Science Lesson
Let’s start at the very beginning.
Meat consists of muscle from some form of animal. It is made up of approximately 75 percent water, 20 percent proteins, 5 percent fats and carbohydrates.
In each muscle cell, there are two proteins, actin and myosin, which are made from amino acids and bonded together by collagen.
Amino acids can be charged with salt ions to increase the water-holding capability of the meats, which explains your marinades or brines. It’s basic osmosis like we all learned at school. But more importantly in grilling is a reaction named after the 20th century French chemist, Louis Camille Maillard—store that name for your next BBQ trivia quiz.
The Maillard effect dictates that meat will brown as the amino acids and sugars mix together at higher heats.
Browning of the meat tends to start at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, as the meats sugars and proteins react with each other to form an unstable structure, which breaks down into various compounds.
These add more savory flavors and caramelize the meat with a higher temperature, resulting in more intense browning.
Put simply, use salt to prevent the meat from losing moisture, and a higher heat to add more browning and complex flavors.
The subject of BBQ food science is a complex one, but we would rather do our experiments on the grill than a bunsen burner.
This YouTube video from the American Chemical Society offers up a few chemistry-backed tips to improve your grilling.
The World of BBQ Grills
BBQ aficionados argue that you will only get that intense sear, or browning, of meats from an outdoor grill.
The next question is: what type of grill do you choose?
There are many options available to you, including charcoal grills, gas burners/grills, electric grills and disposable grills.
Below we look at each type before answering some more commonly asked questions about the most popular grills.
Each has its own pros and cons, what might be right for one grill enthusiast may be wrong for another. Mainly, it comes down to a choice of personal preference.
Charcoal grills are the go-to grill of the more traditional BBQ enthusiast.
Normally they use charcoal briquettes or lumpwood to fuel the fire for cooking.
Most enthusiasts, including myself, would argue you can only get that distinct BBQ taste from a charcoal grill—without wood or coals you don’t get that flavor-packed smoke.
Gas grills are currently the most popular type of backyard grill in the states.
In a 2017 survey by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, 64 percent of respondents indicated they owned a gas grill.
They can either be run on a choice of propane gas or the natural gas you already receive from your utility company.
Although many would argue the merits of propane or methane, there is—in reality—not much difference.
If you already have natural gas in your home, getting a link to the outdoor grill can certainly be more convenient and cheaper too.
Electric grills are a relatively new development in the BBQ world.
Despite offering some advantages, they have not proven to be too popular. In the survey we mentioned earlier by the HPBA, electric grills only accounted for nine percent of all backyard grills.
These grills, as the name suggests, are powered by electricity using heated grill plates and require no fire.
For people who live in the city and may be prohibited from using gas or charcoal BBQs due to fire regulations, they can be ideal. But the taste leaves a lot to be desired if you are looking for that BBQ flavor.
Other Types of Grill
If you can’t decide between gas, charcoal or electric, there are hybrid grills or wood pellet grills available.
These can offer the advantages of all types of grill, but tend to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
A hybrid gas grill may offer a compartment for charcoal briquettes or possibly lava rock coals for those meat drippings.
A wooden pellet grill will use electricity to fire the wood, but produce a smoke effect with a more sustainable and longer-lasting fuel.
Other grills include portable grills, disposable grills or even DIY grills which you can build in your backyard.
Portable grills can be either propane or charcoal, but have one thing in common: they are easy to transport. Weber, and other well-known manufacturers, offer some miniature kettle style grills, while there are also smaller propane grills available.
Although portable grills may offer a smaller cooking area, for an outdoor picnic or that perfectly grilled hot dog before a game, they can be perfect.
The ultimate portable grill for many is a disposable one. These normally take the form of an aluminium tray filled with charcoal and a metal grate which you simply toss in the garbage when you’re done.
(Just make sure it’s completely cold or extinguished first—nobody appreciates a burning trash can BBQ!)
If you can’t find a grill you really like, building your own is another option.
The most common DIY grill is traditionally the oil drum style grill. Simply take an old steel drum, preferably not an oil but something less toxic, like honey, cut away and make a stand.
Depending on the design you choose, it could even be portable—click here for a very good Instructables page on how to make your own barrel grill.
For something more permanent and much more sturdy, you could consider building a brick or concrete grill in your backyard.
Your imagination is your only limit, and the availability of heat-proof bricks, of course. Your design could include storage for charcoal, a work surface and even a gas ring for keeping those sauces hot.
Most of the cheaper portable grills you can buy are something you could make yourself.
A simple turkey roasting tray with a drip pan grate can provide a quick impromptu grill.
Other items, like an old tool box, a large wok or terracotta plant pot can also be used—you just need something fireproof that can hold the lit charcoals, and a grate to place the food on.
Charcoal or Gas: Which is Better?
Perhaps the biggest decision when choosing your grill is what fuel you will use.
The charcoal vs gas debate has raged on like an angry fire since the introduction of domestic gas BBQ grills in the 1950s. Nowadays gas grills are found in the most backyards, but BBQ diehards will always bemoan the inferior BBQ taste.
Science again is on the side of the charcoal enthusiasts.
Charcoal, and the smoke from wood chips, give off various aromatic compounds which rise up to permeate your meats.
Furthermore, lignin in wood chips breaks down to produce a compound called guaiacol, which gives meat that rich smoky flavor. And finally, as juices drip from the meat onto the charcoal, they form other compounds which add to that true grill flavor.
Arguments we have seen above, for gas being more convenient and cheaper to run, are all valid points.
However, for that authentic BBQ grill taste, you simply can’t beat the traditional fuels of charcoal or wood.
Let’s take a closer look at each method and answer some more commonly asked questions.
Charcoal Grill FAQ
What Type of Meat Can You Cook on a Charcoal Grill?
What’s the Difference Between a Charcoal Grill and a Smoker?
What Type of Wood Should You Use in a Charcoal Grill?
Is Charcoal Bad for Your Health?
How Do You Keep a Charcoal Grill Hot?
Gas Grill FAQ
What’s the Difference Between Propane Gas and Natural Gas?
Can You Use Charcoal on a Gas Grill?
Is Cooking on a Gas Grill Healthy?
How Much Gas Do You Need for a Gas Grill?
Electric Grill FAQ
There aren’t too many frequently asked questions about electric grills, as electric isn’t yet seen as a viable alternative—not in the BBQ fraternity at least.
Of the three major grill types, it was the one least people owned as a backyard grill, with a paltry nine percent of the market.
George Foreman grills may be very popular indoors, but they haven’t quite made the transition to outdoor grills yet.
How Do Electric Grills Work?
Is an Electric Grill Faster Than Gas or Charcoal?
The Secrets of Smoking
If grilling is where the magic of BBQ starts, smoking is the secret the Magic Circle doesn’t want you to know.
But fear not, we are here to demystify the smoking process and reassure you it all just comes down to basic science.
I would even go as far to say that, without smoking, BBQ as a subculture wouldn’t exist.
We’ll keep the science part brief, I’m sure we’d all rather be at the grill than in a virtual classroom. Then we will take a look at the many different types of smokers you can use, and the advantages of each.
Any one of these smokers can turn that piece of brisket into a succulent cut of pastrami, or transform a pork butt into the ultimate pulled pork.
The Science Behind Smoking
Today’s methods of smoking meats evolved from a process of preserving foods before we had refrigerators or chemical preservatives.
The smoke created by burning wood contains chemicals, including formaldehyde and acetic acid, both known to slow the growth of microbes. Additionally, wood smoke has a very low pH of 2.5, which will kill microbes and bacteria.
The chemistry of fat is the true weapon of modern smoking methods.
At higher heats, fat makes meat become tough as it is made up of collagen with molecules which tighten. At lower slow cooking or smoking temperatures, the collagen literally melts, or renders.
How does smoke do this?
It’s about the cellulose found in wood which breaks down and is turned into sugar as the wood burns. These sugars caramelize on the fat and help to break down the collagen, and water starts to make its way into the fat.
The result is a savory fatty jello-type texture, rather than a tough old bit of fat—it’s what makes that cut of brisket so tender.
Smoke Flavor and the Infamous Smoke RIng
Smoke basically consists of a bunch of aroma and flavor particles floating in a vapor of water and gasses.
As wood burns, it gives off nitrogen dioxide which dissolves as soon as it hits the meat, and loses the oxygen ions.
This reduction of oxygen makes the smoke more acidic, which looks for something to bond with to become stable.
Hold on, we’re getting there!
Enter myoglobin, that stuff which keeps meat red. The acid is attracted to the myoglobin in its quest to become stable, and is pulled into the meat, creating that smoky flavor.
That smoke ring which forms just under the surface is also caused by a chemical reaction between myoglobin and the gasses in smoke. For many, it is the sign of a meat well-smoked, like a badge of honor, particularly in low and slow smoked meats. As nitrogen dissolves on the moist surface of the meat, it binds with the myoglobin and prevents it from becoming metmyoglobin, a dark brown version.
The pink color is locked in by the smoke. The ring only tends to be on the outside as the smoke is absorbed from the outside inwards. As it hits drier meat, it has nothing to bond with.
If you want a thicker smoke ring on your meats, or more flavor, moisture is the key.
Which Are the Best Types of Smokers?
You can smoke on just about any grill, especially if it has a hood or a lid—just add some wood chips in a small tin box or foil parcel.
However, for the best smoked meats, a specialized smoker can be used.
Don’t think it just has to be wood or charcoal burning, gas and electric smokers are also very popular—just add wood chips or pellets for smoke.
Bullet Style Smokers
Sometimes also referred to as a vertical water smoker, the bullet smoker tends to be one of the most popular style of charcoal smokers.
For many people, a bullet smoker was their first, and the Weber Smokey Mountain range of smoker grills have proved very popular.
Using three parts, you will find a chamber for the charcoal and wood chunks/chips, a water bath directly above, and a cooking chamber.
The meat is placed on grates above the water bath, with a lid to close it. Airflow can normally be controlled via vents on both the top and bottom of the smoker.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Why are bullet smokers great for slow cooking?
A: Water-based smokers are one of the best ways of achieving a slow cook using charcoal. Using the minion method, where you place about 15 lit coals on a ring of unlit charcoal, provides a slow burn.
Q: How does a bullet smoker maintain a temperature for so long?
A: The added water bath creates steam, which helps raise the temperature of the smoker; just ensure you only add hot water. This not only helps to maintain the temperature, but also hydrates the meat, which can be important in longer smokes. Try adding some beer, wine or cider for more flavor combinations.
Also known as “ugly drum smokers,” this is the most simple form of smoker you can get.
A barrel is stood upright with a basket at the bottom, to load with charcoal and chunks of wood.
About a foot higher there is a grate to put your meat on, and a lid to enclose the smoke. Vents at the bottom and on the lid allow you to control the temperature.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: How to Build Your Own Barrel Smoker?
A: Detailed guide can be found here on how to build your own barrel smoker, it’s relatively simple and needs only a few tools. You can choose to make either a vertical drum-style smoker or a horizontal one similar to an offset smoker.
Offset smokers, made popular by TV shows like BBQ Pitmasters, were traditionally made with old propane tanks and bits of scrap metal.
Tanks are turned on their side and put on a stand, with hinged doors fitted and cooking grates inside. A smoke or firebox is usually welded on the side.
Commercial offset smokers can vary in price, with quality smokers often costing more than $800.
The cheaper models may use thinner metal which doesn’t retain as much heat and doors that will not seal as well. The more expensive models will use dampers on the doors to prevent heat and smoke from escaping.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: What Is Reverse Flow Technology?
A: When looking at offset smokers, you may have heard the phrase “reverse flow technology,” which is said to offer better results. Using a reverse flow smoker rather than a traditional design gives a more even distribution of temperature and a greater smoke flow.
A reverse flow smoker is a kind of offset smoker which uses an additional metal plate. This plate works to direct the flow of smoke under the meat and back over the top before it leaves via the chimney. It also protects the meat from more intense heats.
A baffle plate sits at the bottom of the smoking chamber and forces smoke and heat from the firebox to cross the lower section. As it rises at the end of the plate, it travels up across the meat and back towards the chimney. This ensures a more even smoke distribution and less need to rotate the meat during cooking.
Pellet Grills and Smokers
Similar to an offset smoker, these grills use more tech.
You can set one of these up and just leave it running.
You fill a hopper with small pellets made from compressed sawdust. An electric auger feeds the pellets to a small firebox, where a metal rod ignites the pellets.
An electric thermostat controls the temperature by changing the speed with which the auger adds pellets to the firebox. Smoke from the pellets flavor the meats with a steady temperature.
Gas or Electric Smokers
Operation is pretty simple with a plate which you place the wood chunks or chips on top of the heating element or burner. As the unit heats up, it causes the wood to smoulder or smoke.
Shelves in the gas or electric cabinets mean they can normally hold a larger quantity of meats.
They are perfect for small business use or larger grill parties. You can just switch them on and walk away, safe in the knowledge there’s little chance of a flare-up or other disaster.
Which Charcoal Is Best for Smoking?
If you have decided to stick with charcoal for your smoker, it’s important you choose the right kind.
The best charcoal for smoking should last a longer time and provide a steady high heat.
Many of the purists will insist on using hardwood logs, but most use charcoal for that smoky flavor it gives to food.
Briquettes can be a good choice for your smoking needs.
Try to avoid any briquettes which have additives, like quick igniting briquettes. The lighter fluid which is added to these will leave a bad taste to the food, and it’s harmful to the environment.
Similarly, avoid briquettes which claim to have added mesquite or hickory flavor—it’s just as easy to add real wood for that smokiness.
Briquettes will normally burn longer with a steady temperature, compared to lump charcoal. However, they can take longer to light.
Lumpwood charcoal is made from actual whole pieces of wood which have been fired into a charcoal—they’re about as close as you can get to smoking with hardwood, without chopping logs.
Lump charcoal will burn cleaner than briquettes, with less ash, and it burns hotter too. In general you will need less lump charcoal than you would briquettes, meaning it’s cheaper in the long run.
Don’t Forget the Wood
The old saying may state that “There’s no smoke without fire,” but for smoked meats it should say “There’s no smoke without wood.”
It’s not just a case of throwing any old scrap of wood on the grill, sometimes chemicals in treated wood can taint or even poison the meat.
You should also avoid using a softwood or resinous wood, like fir or pine, which will cause flare-ups as the sap oozes out and similarly taint the meat.
Smoking meats requires different combinations of meat and wood. In general, heavier meats—like pork and beef—will benefit from a seasoned hardwood.
More delicate meats, poultry and fish will be better with a lighter hardwood.
The Best Woods for Smoking
Let’s start with what is agreed to be the most quintessential wood for smoking meat.
If you are new to smoking, oak is a great place to start. It offers a medium-strength flavor, which is rarely overpowering and is ideal for larger chunks of meat. Varieties of oak used include a red oak with a sweeter flavor, and white oak, which can burn for longer.
Best for: lamb, beef brisket, sausages and fish.
Perhaps the most well-known smoke flavor, this is the one you often find in BBQ sauces or flavoring kettle chips.
Hickory has a sweet and savory, almost bacon-like, flavor— although too much hickory can leave a bitter taste.
Best for: larger cuts of ribs or pork shoulders, all red meats and poultry.
Maple is one of the most subtle flavored woods used for smoking. Maple will add a sweet, light and milder smokiness to your meats.
Best for: poultry, pork, game.
From the most subtle of woods, we move to the one that packs the biggest punch.
Mesquite should be used with care. It has a flavor which can be overpowering, especially with larger cuts over a prolonged time.
It’s best used in small quantities and in combination with other woods. It’s also an oily wood by nature which may cause your embers to pop and burn hotter and faster.
Best for: red meats, and to impart more flavor when grilling.
As you would expect, apple is the perfect combination with pork.
The mild and sweet flavors take longer to get into the meat, ideal for that slow cooked shoulder of pork. The fruity flavor will also work well with more delicate meats or fish.
Best for: pork, whole hams, poultry and fish.
With a natural sweetness and a light flavor profile, this wood is perfect for pairing with poultry, fish or white meat.
In the Pacific Northwest, Alder is commonly used to smoke salmon.
Best for: fish—like salmon or other Pacific Northwest fish, poultry, ham.
Cherry is another fruity yet mild wood which works well in combination with other woods, like alder, pecan or hickory.
When used with beef or pork, it gives the meat a deep mahogany color.
Best for: chicken, turkey, ham. Also used in conjunction with hickory, for beef and pork.
If you like a sweet, nutty flavor to your food, pecan is perfect.
To be honest, you may find this wood so sweet you will want to try balancing out the flavor with another hardwood. Belonging to the hickory family, use sparingly as it can be quite pungent.
Pecan actually burns cooler than most other hardwoods, so is more suitable for larger cuts which need a longer cooking time.
Best for: brisket, roasts and ribs.
The Important Part: The Meat
So you have chosen your grill, decided whether you are going to grill or smoke and which wood if smoking.
The only big decision left now is which meat you should cook on your grill.
As we discussed earlier, many of the Southern states argue if it isn’t pork then it’s not BBQ.
However you can use grill for virtually any meat you like, and even for those veggies too.
Chicken vs Beef vs Pork: Which Is Best on Your Grill?
For the healthy option, chicken or poultry has to be the winner every time.
Chicken breasts are both easy to grill and low in fat at the same time—just ensure you remove the skin. You have to be careful when cooking a chicken breast as they can become dry if overcooked. This is where marinades add not only flavor, but moisture too.
Chicken drumsticks can be great on the grill too, but can take longer to cook evenly. I always like to pre-cook them in the oven for 20 minutes or so just to make sure they are thoroughly cooked.
Although, my absolute favorite on the grill is skinless and boneless chicken thighs. They cook quickly and have more flavor than breast meat. Having a little more fat than chicken breast, they are less likely to dry out.
Chicken can be delicious smoked too, although it’s advisable to brine the bird first, to avoid it drying out too much.
A water-based smoker, like the bullet style, can also help the chicken retain its moisture. Just don’t apply a rub to the chicken if you brine it, as it will normally be too salty.
Beef is absolutely perfect on the grill.
Ground beef can be made into patties which cook quickly and are so easy to grill. Most beef steaks will also taste great when grilled, just try to limit the thickness to an inch or an inch and a half.
Thicker cuts will need a lower temperature than grilling provides.
Flat iron, skirt, flank and hanger steaks are all examples of flavorsome cuts of beef which cook easily on a grill. Ribeyes and T-bones tend to be the classics, which only come out for special occasions in our backyard.
For the slow and low cooking method associated with BBQ, you need to be looking for the minor primal cuts of beef.
What Are Primal Cuts of Beef?
A primal cut of meat is best defined as any meat that has been separated from the carcass of an animal during the butchering process.
Examples of primal cuts of beef include the round, the loin, rib and chuck steak.
The minor primal cuts include plate, brisket and foreshank, which are all tougher and need longer cooking times.
The Wonder That Is Brisket
It’s impossible to talk about BBQ and smoking without mentioning brisket of beef.
This flavorsome cut of beef is the one used for that delicious pastrami or those melting pot roasts. Being tougher than other parts of the cow, it will need much longer cooking, ideal for a 12-hour smoke session.
Beef brisket comes from the lower chest or breast of a cow, sometimes even veal. As cows don’t have collar bones, the muscles in the chest support about 60 percent of the animals total weight.
This involves a lot of corrective tissue in the muscle, which needs a slow cooking to tenderize the tissues.
Brisket can be cooked in many ways, including boiling, roasting or—our personal favorite—smoking on the smoker. Normally, a rub or marinade is added, before being cooked slowly over the indirect heat of charcoal, wood, or gas and wood.
As the smoke hits the meat, it breaks down those tougher collagen tissues to form a delicious gooey mess.
Until you have tasted a slow and low cooked Texas brisket, you haven’t really tried BBQ. Other ways of smoking brisket include curing it first and then smoking to make a pastrami for the perfect Reuben sandwich.
I even like using any leftover smoked brisket to make a chilli for those midweek football games.
Pork: Saving the Best for Last
Back to where it all started, those darn tasty pigs the Spanish brought with them.
Go in to any BBQ restaurant or grill house in the South, and the menu will be dominated by pork. From slow-cooked shoulder, smoked ribs or even good old fashioned pork chops, you will find them all on the table.
Pork chops can be thought of as the porky version of a T-Bone or Ribeye steak. The high temperature of the grill perfectly caramelizes the fat for a crispy bacon-like crust.
Ham steaks are easy to grill too and only take a matter of minutes, even less if already cured.
Pork ribs will need less heat and a longer cook time for that fall off the bone quality. You can braise ribs or grill them over an indirect heat; but for many it’s got to be a smoker.
Slathered in a sticky BBQ sauce or rubbed with a spicy rub, Memphis style, slow-cooked ribs are hard to beat.
The Quest for Slow Cooked Pork
The holy grail of BBQ must be the whole hog roast or a slow-cooked shoulder/Boston butt.
Unlike pork chops—which need a high and quick heat, much like steaks—whole chunks of pork will need that slow and low heat you only get with BBQ.
There’s literally hundreds of pork-cooking tournaments across the US every year, with one even called Pork Fest, in South Carolina—the original home of the roast hog.
In fact, type “Pork Fest” into Google and you will find many events listed, from Alabama to Washington. When it comes to BBQ, there’s no escaping the pig.
That succulent meat, crispy bark and even crispier crackling has been known to make grown men cry. There are now over 73,000 pork farms in the US, which send about 120,000,000 pigs to the US market every year.
Consumption of pork is only just behind that of beef, at 23.2 billion pounds, compared to 25.8 billion pounds respectively.
To Wrap It All Up...
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