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What makes good barbecue?

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Brian S Jan 14, 2006 12:53 PM

I wrote the following paragraphs as an introduction to a post to the southern board giving brief reviews of my favorite BBQ places in Tulsa, whose culinary delights remain unsung for the most part. But it occurred to me that they would make a very interesting question for this board. They describe what I think makes good barbecue. What do YOU think?? And, specifically, am I right that meat trumps sauce? That coal or wood pits are essential? That long smoking is necessary? That the best places are tiny shacks like the photo? that a great rib has 3 layers? I'm a novice and I crave the benefits of your experience.

I'm a New Yorker but lately I've been spending more time in Tulsa than I should. My family moved here and my mom's been sick. So, as a transplanted Chowhound I naturally spent a lot of time seeking out the one thing we New Yorkers lack. Barbecue. What passes for the best BBQ in NYC they'd feed to the dogs here.

When I first got here, I spent hours walking through Northside, which in those days looked like my vision of a tiny deep South hamlet. Wood shacks, lots of swampy trees, sluggish streams with names like "Dirty Butter Creek" I'd seek out tiny nameless joints (see photo below), eat a rib, move on to the next place.

I quickly found a great divide in BBQ philosophy. Some places cared about the sauce. They'd serve indifferent meat with a yummy secret-recipe sauce, and you'd be more likely to get the formula for Coca Cola than you'd be to get them to divulge their recipe. Other places just slopped a sauce together and cared only about the meat. (In Tulsa, pig ribs.) They'd respect you if you ordered your meat dry, without any sauce. And it's this second type of place that I respect. Most of them are on the Northside.

The best places all use coal or wood. They dont use gas. Now an old coal or wood oven (or "pit") is a lovely thing and requires an artist to use it. There are hot spots, cool spots, sweet spots and the meat must be moved from one to the other in the correct time and sequence. (A lot like coal oven pizza at Totonno's, NYC) Also, the meat should be cooked slowly, smoked more than seared. As much as 12 or even 18 hours, and if it's less than four forget it, you're getting fast food.

A great rib has 3 layers. First, a crust, turned sweetly caramel by the long heat and smoke. Then, a pink layer, not pink from undercooking but from smoke. Finally, beneath it all, succulent, moist, juicy pig meat.



Image: http://www.tulsainsite.com/detail/Res...

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  1. j
    JMF RE: Brian S Jan 14, 2006 01:17 PM

    Brian- If you look back this topic has been discussed indepth. That said, I bet we will hear dozens of responses.

    I hope Joey Deckle and some other folks who compete, are certified BBQ judges, or cook pro will chime in on this.

    I won't go too indepth except to say that BBQ is very personal, regional, and always argued about. I worked in an open pit BBQ in Georgia for almost two years during grad school. I have friends who are in the top competitive BBQ teams in the country and own some great BBQ restaurants. Everyone has their way of doing things and bitter fights and rivalry goes on all the time. BBQ politics are unbelievably intense.

    Personally I think it's all about the meat and the smoke. A good dry rub is essential. Sauce is to moisten up the meat a bit but should be thin and not too strong tasting. Almost an after thought. Sauce may be nice, but a lot of the time it's a crutch to disguise poor meat and poor smoking technique. The best BBQ has no sauce at all, just a hint of spice from the dry rub and the intense sweet, meaty smokiness of good care and technique.

    By the way when you say coal you mean hardwood charcoal, not mineral coal. There is a big difference. BBQ hardwood charcoal is not at all like the coal used in a coal over for pizza. Mineral / anthracite coal burns at a very high temp that would destroy BBQ, but makes a great crispy, charred, thin crust pizza. Hardwood charcoal burns at a much lower temp. The best BBQ is made with slow burning woods lods and chunks, not even charcoal.

    A pit is NOT a charcoal or wood burning oven. A PIT is an open pit / fire where logs have been burned down to coals and more fresh wood is thrown on top for additional smoke. The meat is directly over the coals and smoke on a rack several feet high.

    The layer just under the outside that is pink is called the smoke ring. The smoke penetrates the meat and forms the ring during the first part of the smoking process when the meat is at a low temp.

    3 Replies
    1. re: JMF
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      chileheadmike RE: JMF Jan 14, 2006 03:26 PM

      I compete, and am a Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS) certified judge, I'd say you both have it right. BBQ is a method of cooking, using indirect heat using charcoal (not coal) and/ or wood as a heat source. Brisket and pork shoulder are cooked for 12 to 18 hours, ribs 6-8 hours. Cooking temps are in the 250 to 275 range. It may be sauced or not.

      Meat that has been in an oven or crock pot, or has been immersed in boiling water is not BBQ.

      Link: http://www.rbjb.com/rbjb/rbjbboard/

      1. re: JMF
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        Shep RE: JMF Jan 16, 2006 08:59 PM

        Ain't there just something special about seeing the 'cue boss open the door of the firepit and throw in a dipper or two of water on those logs, to keep 'em cooled down and smoldering out all that magic smoke.

        1. re: Shep
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          Bobfrmia RE: Shep Jan 17, 2006 07:29 AM

          If you think watching a dipper or two thrown on the logs is special, go to LC's in KC and you'll be in heaven. When LC throws open the doors to the firepit, he's standing with a garden hose. When he lets loose the whole neighborhood knows it.

      2. m
        Monty RE: Brian S Jan 14, 2006 01:30 PM

        Being from Texas, BBQ is of course very close to my heart. Currently live in the bay area where BBQ is only a myth. Some think they produce good "Q but alas, NOT.

        I have to agree 100% with your take on it, it is ALL about the meat. Anyone can take badly cooked meat and cover it with somekind of sauce to cover up that fact. Almost every place I've eaten BBQ in Texas asks you up front if you want sauce on the meat. Lovers of BBQ almost never have sauce put on the meat.

        Also in Texas, it's almost always about the brisket although ribs and sausage are very important.

        Hope you enjoy Tulsa, nice town. Get a chance, wonder down to the Austin area and try some BBQ there. There's no doubt you'll love it.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Monty
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          Bobfrmia RE: Monty Jan 15, 2006 08:56 PM

          "Lovers of BBQ almost never have sauce put on the meat."
          To me that is the difference between great and everything else. Great BBQ doesn't need help. Sauce is help.
          LC's burnt ends in KC is the best I've had. Once plain, and once they sauced it. Plain was sooo much better.

        2. s
          Steve RE: Brian S Jan 14, 2006 07:47 PM

          This is what I hope to find in great bbq:
          exterior crunch, tender meat, nice wood-smoke 'bite' to the flavor.

          All that judging stuff is for competitions and sissies. For example, the pink layer you talk about... a blind person should be able to tell great bbq.

          1. q
            qball RE: Brian S Jan 14, 2006 10:36 PM

            Is the crust a regional or stylistic thing? Pearson's used to have a little crunch but RUB (my fave) and Blue Smoke don't seem to. Does the lack of crust have to do with ribs being kept warm and moist for too long after they come out of the smoker? Are they supposed to be freshened up on a grill or something?

            2 Replies
            1. re: qball
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              Steve RE: qball Jan 15, 2006 12:11 PM

              it is very common for bbq ribs, once they are ordered, to receive a final basting and be put on a grill to give them a crackly exterior.

              1. re: Steve
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                Shep RE: Steve Jan 16, 2006 09:01 PM

                Joking, right? Don't know any East Bay bbq places that have grills. Chili's, maybe.

            2. r
              rexmo RE: Brian S Jan 15, 2006 07:13 AM

              Tough cuts of meat have lots of connective tissue loaded with collagen. This has to be broken down with heat to make them tender. The crust, known as bark, will be burnt if this is done too fast, at too high a temperature. Gelatinized collagen, rendered fat, and the almost invisible blue smoke from a fire that has burned off the bitter, acrid creosote fraction that gives off visible smoke are probably the 3 keys to real bbq, followed closely by a good mix of spices in the bark. Another factor favoring low and slow is that purportedly smoke adsorption declines as the surface temperature of the meat rises.

              If I were trying to speed the process, I'd 1) run low and slow until past the point of appreciable smoke ring formation, 2) cover with foil to protect the surface from browning and bake at higher temperature until internal temperature approached final pulling level, and 3) uncover and cook for long enough to develop the bark.

              11 Replies
              1. re: rexmo
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                Jimmy Buffet RE: rexmo Jan 15, 2006 06:29 PM

                Kamado has a formula on their website (www.kamado.com)called the 3-2-1 formula that has worked well for me in making ribs...

                3 hours on an open fire at slow heat followed by
                2 hours wrapped in foil, sauce optional, followed by
                1 hour out of foil on open fire again, sauce optional.

                For me, the sauce is rarely optional, tho...

                1. re: Jimmy Buffet
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                  JMF RE: Jimmy Buffet Jan 15, 2006 07:05 PM

                  Pro Competitive BBQ folks call wrapping in foil the "Texas Crutch" for people who don't have the skill and technique to keep their meat moist naturally while smoking it.

                  1. re: JMF
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                    chileheadmike RE: JMF Jan 16, 2006 08:22 AM

                    Oh man! You went there. Next you're going to say that meat cooked over mesquite tastes like its been cooked over railroad ties. :)

                    1. re: chileheadmike
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                      JMF RE: chileheadmike Jan 16, 2006 09:48 AM

                      Yup... and too much hickory makes it taste like bacon bits. I like a fruitwood mix with a hint of hickory, (preferably from 1" branches collected in the spring on a south facing slope and aged for two years.)

                      1. re: JMF
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                        chileheadmike RE: JMF Jan 16, 2006 10:14 AM

                        I love bacon bits, real ones anyway. I use a lot of apple and pecan. But there is nothing better than pork shoulder done with a nice spicey rub and slow smoked over hickory. MMMMM Maybe I'll fire up the smoker this weekend, too bad its only Monday.

                        1. re: chileheadmike
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                          Pepper Ann RE: chileheadmike Jan 16, 2006 10:45 AM

                          How do you two feel about Oak?

                          1. re: Pepper Ann
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                            chileheadmike RE: Pepper Ann Jan 16, 2006 10:51 AM

                            To be honest, I've never used it. Strange because there's lot's of it around here.

                            1. re: Pepper Ann
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                              JMF RE: Pepper Ann Jan 16, 2006 10:55 AM

                              Here's a link to all ya want to know about wood for smoking. Personally I'm a fan of fruitwoods as I said before, especially apple and cherry. I have a 1/2 cord of sour cherry in my yard from a tree that came down last winter and I plan on using it this coming 'cue season. It's just a wee bit too cold to do any smokin' right now. It's 13 degrees out. That won't stop me from grilling up a nice ribeye later.

                              Link: http://www.eaglequest.com/~bbq/faq2/8...

                              1. re: Pepper Ann
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                                GoalieJeff RE: Pepper Ann Jan 16, 2006 10:59 PM

                                I'm gonna butt in , it depends on the type of oak . White oak isn't bad for curing fish ( thats what we commonly use up here in Mi. ) red oak and southern oak can partake a bitter flavor to most meats , it's ok with goat and some sausages , but the burning tannins tend to not work so well with fatty flesh . The same things that make whiskey and some wines taste so good with aging just don't always apply to smoked meats . I have had some luck with the commercially available Jack Daniels shredded oak barrel wood chips . Strictly for the home smoker .

                                1. re: GoalieJeff
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                                  pepper ann RE: GoalieJeff Jan 18, 2006 12:45 PM

                                  Hey GJ, I liked that viewpoint. Growing up in KC, I always figured it was all Hickory all the time, but the idea of mixed woods, like blended coffee beans, has a seductive appeal. I'll file this away.

                            2. re: JMF
                              j
                              Joey Deckle RE: JMF Jan 16, 2006 12:50 PM

                              Another thing to consider when procuring hickory is moss. I take my wood only from deadfall that has generous amounts of meadow spike moss nearby.

                              Kidding aside here are some criteria that as a KCBS competitor/judge I've picked up in an admittedly short 3 years. First of all talking 'cue is like talking politics or religion and often gets as heated and divisive. I'm not going to get into regional sauces/'cue styles. As for cooking methods wood is the way to go and I prefer a blend of hickory and fruit woods.

                              * Smoke ring: Good 'cue often has a pink ring, which is formed by the reaction of the smoke with the meat. Unfortunately it can be artifically achieved through the use of nitrate tenderizers. One of the first things you learn as a KCBS judge is not to evaluate meats based on the presence or absence of a smoke ring.

                              * Crust, bark aka Mr. Brown: The outer layer is formed by the Maillard reaction, which involves the combination of denatured proteins and sugars as the meat cooks. While rub certainly contributes flavor it is not the source of bark. And by no means is this layer formed by brushing sauce on smoked meats and then finishing them on a grill. In the hands of a skilled pitmaster this technique can yield good results but all too often it creates a burnt exterior that encases dried out meat.

                              * Sauce vs. no sauce: I'm of the sauce on the side school. If I must have it on my 'cue I prefer a light glaze. That aside, if a place is gonna have sauce, make it a good one where all the ingredients are carefully blended. No one wants something that tastes like ketchup and a handful of spices that have been hastily thrown together.

                              * Pulled pork: A balanced blend of Mr. Brown and chunks of succulent porcine goodness is what I look for. If you're gonna oversauce and overpull it put in a can and sell it to Purina.

                              * Ribs: Should have a good crust, smokiness and should not be "falling-off-the-bone tender." This means they've been steamed or are overdone. You should be able to bite into them and take just a chunk of meat.

                              * Brisket: Should be smoky, beefy and have a crust and be able to be sliced without falling apart. By no means should it have the tensile quality of a rubber band.

                              One last point all there's a big difference between greasiness and juiciness, excessive grease usually means the fat has not been completely rendered.

                              Keep on smokin',
                              Joey Deckle

                    2. t
                      Tha Groovin' Gourmet RE: Brian S Jan 15, 2006 02:05 PM

                      Gee...I wonder if you are going to get as many responses (or sets thereof) from every BBQ region?!?!?

                      I grew up in Texas, so brisket comes first, but I'm a ho for any kind of smoked meat and/or sausage. I've lived in and traveled the Southeast extensively, scarfing down every Q I could find. I always found it interesting that in a state as big as Texas there is essentially one style, but a state as small as South Carolina has 2 or 3 distinct regional divisions (depending on where you are from...I wound up embracing the mustard/non-mustard philosophy)

                      I've made the pilgrimage to Arthur Bryant's and I've enjoyed the best of
                      Santa Maria-style having lived in SoCal on two different occasions.

                      I admit to being a condiment slut, so sauce is important, but 2nd to the meat. Good meat and not so great sauce beats bad meat and great sauce every time.

                      So for me, good barbecue must meet the following criteria:

                      As for the meat...strong smoke flavor, well-defined smoke ring in sliced meats, fair percentage of bark and reddish/browned bits if chopped.

                      Provided there is at least some smoke flavor (and how some BBQ places come up with meats devoid of it I do not know), the determining factor is melt-in-mouth quality which only a handful of places have achieved in my experience.

                      As for sauce, being from Texas I'll take the tomato/worcestershire-style stuff in the big vat in the warming tray with my corn flakes.

                      All other sauces are second-best, but I am decidedly of the vinegar/pork crowd despite my love of mustard. And I like Bryant's sauce better than Gates (and the Q too.)

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: Tha Groovin' Gourmet
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                        pepper anne RE: Tha Groovin' Gourmet Jan 15, 2006 02:30 PM

                        ...and the thing is, AB's sauce is unlike any other KC sauce. Actually, it's unlike most other BBQ sauces, but it is addictive stuff.
                        I'm of the "There's no bad Q, just some that are better than others"
                        school, even though, having grown up in KC, I'll always be partial to my KC Q.

                        1. re: Tha Groovin' Gourmet
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                          Jimmy Buffet RE: Tha Groovin' Gourmet Jan 15, 2006 02:37 PM

                          >> I admit to being a condiment slut

                          You are not alone in your slutdom. I have yet to find ANY barbecue I didn't like; I even like the canned stuff

                          Having lived near or in Lexington, North Carolina and Lexington, South Carolina, I've tried many places and have gotten pretty good at making it on a Kamado grill.

                          For me, the criteria for the good stuff is low and slow over hickory with a tomato based sauce first, vinegar based second, and mustard based third.

                          For me, the sides make it. Baked beans, slaw, hash and rice, pork skins...

                          1. re: Tha Groovin' Gourmet
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                            Scott RE: Tha Groovin' Gourmet Jan 16, 2006 09:59 AM

                            Groovin',

                            You write..."I always found it interesting that in a state as big as Texas there is essentially one style...."

                            There are many styles of barbecue in Texas. If you haven't done so, read Rob Walsh's excellent "Legends of Texas Barbecue" to get an overview of what those styles are, where they came from, and where they can be found in the state today. With all due respect to other barbecue hot spots, Texas has more diversity in meats, fuels, and cooking styles for barbecue than any other region.

                            Scott

                            1. re: Scott
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                              Tha Groovin' Gourmet RE: Scott Jan 16, 2006 11:53 PM

                              Sold!

                              In almost 40 years of devouring Texas Q the only variations I have experienced have been woods (I'm a hickory guy) and the division between sit down places and butcher paper places, with gradations in between. The meat has always been slow-smoked brisket (and I usually get sausage), the sauce always tomato/worcestershire based.

                              I've had good (too numerous), great (Black's) and gawdawful (plenty, but Mikeska's in Temple especiallly comes to mind).

                              But apparently my scope has been somewhat narrow. I'll look forward to the book, and a new list of places to try.

                              1. re: Tha Groovin' Gourmet
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                                Scott RE: Tha Groovin' Gourmet Jan 17, 2006 04:30 PM

                                The diversity of wood is important. The variation in flavor produced by hickory, pecan, post oak, and mesquite is pretty darned wide. The latter two woods virtually define two subregional styles of barbecue in Texas and are almost completely unused elsewhere in commercial barbecue eateries (not the competitive circuit, which is a whole different animal).

                                Speaking of whole different animals, show me a region that features more animals than Texas: pig, cow, lamb (and sheep), chicken, turkey, goat, quail, shrimp, trout, deer, etc.

                                Show me a region that features as many *parts* of as many animals: legs, ribs, shoulders, loins, briskets, heads, sausages (e.g., chorizos, Polish, German, Czech, boudin, bologna, etc.)...you name it, we smoke it.

                                Show me a region with as many styles of pits: jury-rigged oil barrels, aquarium smokers, metal boxes, brick chutes, holes in the ground, etc. The German-style smokers that feature so prominently in the area south and east of Austin (e.g., Lockhart) are almost completely absent elsewhere in Texas, let alone other barbecue regions. Same thing with the superficially similar, but functionally very different, burn-down bins and direct heat pits (using mesquite) in the Hill Country. Is there any other region that uses direct heat methods comparable to those in the Hill Country (e.g., Cooper's, Laird's, Opie's, Salt Lick, et al.)? Is there any other region that does barbecue in closed earthen pits in the ground (e.g., barbacoa in the Valley)? Are there subregional arguments in other areas about whether or not sauce is permissable and, if so, what kind (e.g., sweet and tomatoey up north, hot and vinegary out east, mustard based in parts of south central Texas, etc.)? Is there another region that draws from as many cultural and culinary wellsprings (e.g., blacks, Mexicans, cowboys, Germans, Czechs, etc.)?

                                I've eaten a fair amount of barbecue in and out of the state of Texas. But for sheer diversity and wealth of subregional approaches, I've seen nothing to match it. That doesn't mean Texas is "the best"--just that it's a big place with a long history and unique demographics that make for a lot of interesting barbecue.

                                Scott

                                1. re: Scott
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                                  Monty RE: Scott Jan 17, 2006 06:02 PM

                                  Spoken like a true Texan. Here here. Oh, and right on the money.

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                            Paul in Irmo, SC RE: Brian S Jan 21, 2006 09:42 AM

                            As the story goes BBQ on these shores was invented in colonial Charleston, South Carolina by an early English settler named Bernard Quayle. Old Bernard was a real party animal and his low country feasts of game especially wild boar cooked over open pits gave rise to the shortened version of his name. As the birth place of BBQ, South Carolina has had the advantage of many more years to perfect it barbecue. It's cooking techiques and sauces became the secret lore of soot-faced pit masters across our fair state and it's product, comparable to none.

                            The following elements although not universally practiced are key to the greatness of South Carolina barbecue: sheltered open pits on concrete slabs, oak coal beds, hickory smoked whole hog cooking, and sauce basting after 5 or 6 hours. The pork should be lean, juicy, tender, and bursting with hickory flavor. With a dash of slightly sweet and spicy mustard sauce the flavor is accented not obscured. The ribs should be slighty chewy and can be as tasty with tomato and spice sauce as with the mustard base. Overly fatty ribs are not acceptable nor is stringy chopped pork. BBQ pork hash on rice, rarely found outside of the Carolina's is a required side dish to chopped BBQ and ribs. Hush puppies or white loaf bread, slaw, pickles, sweet tea, and table BBQ sauce are a necessity.

                            In S.C. you can tell what BBQ sauce you are likely to eat by the soil you are standing on. In the Low Country where the soil is sandy and loam you will find vinegar pepper base. In the Midlands where the soil is orange you will likely see the great mustard base sauce. In the Piedmont or upstate you always find tomato base as the soil is red clay. Unlike other states we take great pride in our sauces. Our folks will defend their regional sauce to no end. We perfected the cooking techniques centries ago and there's little debate there. So the debate in this state is over the best sauce but they are all great. Remember this, BBQ without sauce is just smoked pork!

                            1. b
                              Brian S. RE: Brian S Jan 21, 2006 11:20 AM

                              I want to thank everyone who put time and effort into writing those long, informative replies. (Keep 'em coming! I'm still checking for replies!) I learned a lot. More important, many of Chowhound's eight hundred thousand monthly visitors did too. If I were a professor in Japan or France or Burkina Faso teaching a course on American mores, memes and culture, I'd probably make all these posts required reading.

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                                pepper ann RE: Brian S Jan 22, 2006 12:37 AM

                                a couple of more excerpts to throw in the mix:
                                http://www.iabbq.org/modules.php?op=m...
                                http://www.iabbq.org/modules.php?op=m...

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: pepper ann
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                                  semmel RE: pepper ann Jan 22, 2006 03:32 AM

                                  don't know too much about bbq, except get it going soon enough so those who have been indulging in the hard liquor the whole afternoon aren't wasted by the time it is ready.

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