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Santa Maria BBQ - More Red Oak Flavor and the Science of Smoke & Nitrogen Dioxide

I live not far from the land of Santa Maria BBQ so not only do I have access to some of the best available, but I also have ready access to the red oak that's the main essential ingredient. When I go to the restaurants I like (e.g. Jocko's in Nipomo or Hitching Post II in Buellton) every one out of two or three visits my meat is brimming with red oak flavor (which is my objective) where other times it's there but not an over abundance of it. When doing SM BBQ at home my hit ratio is also random but less than the restaurants.

I've tried about everything I can think of to isolate where the magic comes from and it continues to elude me. The BBQrs that do this day in and day out have told me is: time on grill; freshness of the oak; and lots of wood and heat. Experimenting with this advice has done little in finding that magic component. Time on grill certainly has an impact and thicker cuts definitely have more flavor than thinner cuts. But even with large tri-tips that spend a lot of time on the grill it's still somewhat hit and miss.

Lately I've been looking to science for a possible answer and I think I might be on to something with what I've read about how smoke flavor is infused into meat. In particular a) the fact that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is attracted to moisture; and b) that NO2 is a result of incomplete combustion yet needs "high temperatures" to form.

With regards to the attraction to moisture, that could speak to support the basting (garlic infused oil & vinegar) that some people do after each turn of the meat. As for what the "high" temperature is that NO2 begins to form continues to elude me because most of the data I find is far beyond my technical ability to interpret. Clearly the fire needs to be "hot enough", but in a practical sense can it be so hot that the combustion process becomes so efficient that the amount of NO2 begins to fall?

Here's a little laundry list of things that I've tried but haven't found what I'm trying to achieve. Some of these seem to make a small difference but something tells me there's a necessary condition that needs to exist along with some of these other elements. IOW it's more than one thing.

- Time on grill
- Length of seasoning of wood
- Adding bark to the fire when the meat is on the grill
- Basting the meat when it's turned
- Hot fire with lots of wood vs. cooler fire with lots of smoke
- Seasoning the meat at various times before and/or while it's on the grill (garlic salt/black pepper and sometimes a dash of cayenne).

For the record, all of the BBQ I discuss here is done open pit with no covers or lids whatsoever.

I'd sure appreciate some thoughts from the more technically minded or other experienced BBQrs. Something I want to try in Santa Maria BBQ style is bone-in prime rib (two or three ribs thick) but I'm hoping to solve this red oak flavor dilemma first.

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  1. Way to go, love your approach to this - SM BBQ is an art form worthy of perfection.

    Sunset Magazine (Aug 2013) put SM BBQ on the map with all the ins and outs according to them, with some insipid recipes to boost the "best BBQ town you have never heard about".

    Planning a SM BBQ dinner this weekend though we use a (gasp) Traeger pellet system cooker instead of hot, live oak. I tried the Sunset recipe for the requisite beans and they were dull.

    But also was able to track down Susiques paquinto beans locally in a city to your south, which come with a packet of seasoning that was out of this world good and easy.

    Add the salsa, garlic bread and ...macaroni salad (they say the Swiss added this to the line up) and this is as good as Sunset gets for SM BBQ. So if you forgive us for our Traeger set up, anything else to help bring this SB BBQ alive when attempted out of its home of origin?

    We get our try-tips at Gary Lairds in Santa Paula and so far they have been 100% superb.

    6 Replies
    1. re: glbtrtr

      >>> was able to track down Susiques paquinto beans locally<<<

      so is this a secret source? ; >P

      Also, nothing wrong with a Traeger, did the best Coho salmon filet on ours last night, heavenly.

      Cheers,

      Dave

      1. re: PolarBear

        Went to all our local mexican markets and no piquintos, until I found this bag at only one of them -- pricey compared to all the others beans and there were a lot of very interesting choices at all the mexican markets, but SusieQ does add her secret sauce. Plan to have several of them now stocked on hand and they will also make a great souvenir gift when we travel.

        The Sunset mag article gives you the website if anyone wants to order them in not available in their area. Who knows, maybe they have been sitting on the shelf at Ralphs or Vons but did not start looking there. http://susieqbrand.com

        1. re: glbtrtr

          You can get piquinto's in bulk by the scoop for $.99/lb at many grocery stores in the Santa Maria / Lompoc area. Interesting point about the Susie Q flavor packet though as I have yet to find a halfway decent recipe online. There's a basic recipe that's posted on the "official SM BBQ" website that seems to have taken on a life of it's own and is replicated everywhere. It's way too sweet and lacks something that you get in some of the restaurants. I want to see the Sunset article that was mentioned to see if that recipe was used or if they came up with something good. I've made about three or four variations of recipes I've found online but haven't really attacked getting to the bottom of it. I'll have to try some Susie Q with the flavor packet.

          1. re: freedy

            SusieQ certainly gets a premium price for her one pound of beans, compared to the bulk prices. The Sunset recipe was basically sautéed bacon, chili powder and onions. It was okay but nothing special.

            Susie adds smoke flavor which took it up a notch, plus made it a vegetarian dish which is what I was looking for since there was no bacon or hamhock.

            Drawback was having to reduce the sauce to get the flavor more intensified as the basic directions led to a very soupy dish - 2 quarts water to on pound beans - slow cooked for several hours.

            BTW: SusieQ is part of the Far Western Tavern Righetti family according to the website.

            1. re: glbtrtr

              I think I may have found the sunset recipe for pinquito beans on their site. What I do like about it compared to the more common recipe is that it doesn't use tomato puree and uses chili powder instead of chili sauce. The Sunset recipe seems simple enough to use as a good starting point anyhow.

              I knew the Righetti's were behind Susie Q but didn't know of the association with Far Western Tavern. Unfortunately, Far Western has moved and changed (ownership too I think) to a more contemporary and upscale format about a year ago. This isn't intended to be criticism at all, it's just that I personally like those old classic restaurants that have been around for the better part of a century. I haven't tried the new format so it could be good in it's own right. It appears to be an updated translation of the classic local fare so it may be worth a try.

      2. re: glbtrtr

        I certainly wouldn't feel any remorse in using your Traeger to mimic SM BBQ. The red oak flavor is definitely icing on the cake but a simple well cooked tri-tip is to die for red oak or not. For years I just used a gas grill and can't tell you how many people told me I made the best tri-tip they've ever had. Truth be told all I did was use Lawry's Garlic Salt and properly cook the meat.

      3. We had guests this weekend and had breakfast at Jocko's....saw lots of red oak awaiting for the pit.
        Interesting science.
        We have collected some red oak bark on occasion to use here in Nipomo on our Jocko style open pit grill.
        Nothing better, especially if you have some pinquito beans, too.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Carol in California

          The BBQ gets fired up for the dinner menu which starts at 4:00. And a suggestion for anyone that goes there for dinner is to request a table next to the BBQ so you can watch all the action. It's on a covered patio area adjacent to one of the two dining rooms with just windows and four feet or so separation. Hitching Post II in Buellton has a similar setup.

        2. How dry is the red oak? How long has it "cured"?
          Interesting moisture question you pose.

          2 Replies
          1. re: bbqboy

            I bought a half chord probably over a year ago and it stored under a roof. So it's pretty well dried out at this point. However, it was pretty fresh when I got it and my results with respect to red oak flavor weren't noticeably better then. Also, a friend got a fresh batch a couple of months ago and he's challenged in the same way I am. So I haven't ruled out how long the wood has cured but it doesn't appear to be the obvious solution.

            Your question got me thinking about different species of red oak which is something I should know more about. Perhaps some red oaks are more intense than others. The guy I get my wood from says it's Coastal Live Oak from Jalama Ranch. I have no reason to doubt him because it's the familiar rough bark with the green fungus on much of it. I'm not sure if the Valley Oaks that are also common around the area are also red and if so, if there's any flavor difference. Seems to most cooks red oak is red oak and that's about all they know.

            1. re: freedy

              My ex got hers' from the Reagan Ranch. She was on the security force. Shipped about 50 lbs in her hold baggage when returning to West Germany. We rationed that for 3 years. And introduced proper Santa Maria Que to Giessen, Germany!

              The neighbors thought she was nuts doing it in the snow in February. But we all enjoyed the results.