Monday, November 24, 2008

Wax Philosophic With Me: What is Barbecue?

First, let us take a moment to talk about the difference between barbecuing and grilling. Grilling is cooking quickly over high heat, and imparts flavor through caramelization, and some smoky goodness if you are grilling over charcoal. Barbecuing is cooking food slowly over indirect heat usually with the addition of smoke. For the purposes of this discussion, grilling will be excluded, although I will be posting recipes for grilled food on this blog and welcome grilling discussion.

The word "barbecue" means different things, depending on the person you ask. To some, it brings to mind meat slathered in sweet sauce with a side of coleslaw (and lots of napkins, of course). While to others it is used in the more general sense to describe a party where cooking outside plays some part. I have spent a lot of time on countless websites that are dedicated to this subject and what I have seen covers the whole spectrum. One thing is for certain: when it comes to "Q", just like religion or politics, you have your hardline zealots who believe no sauce should ever touch meat (EVER!) and you have your liberal-minded cooks who just want to eat good food and don't care about convention or tradition.

Some of these guys are serious about barbecuing, from the grill or smoker they spend thousands of dollars on, to the method of preparation that is used to tenderize and flavor meaty goodness with low heat and smoke. Debate is heated at times, and I am sure feelings get hurt, but overall I have met a great bunch of guys that just like to eat good food. A good number of regulars out there are actually competitive cooks and a lot of money can be at stake. I suppose if $10,000 were at stake, I would be that serious too.

As is my usual bent on any topic, I fall somewhere in the area of moderate when it comes to barbecue. I am somewhat traditional, and believe the product that comes out of your smoker or grill should taste good all by itself and sauce should be the extra something that adds an extra layer of flavor. It isn't about the sauce to me. If you think meat is just a vehicle for a good sauce, I say just save time and money and eat the sauce. Don't spend your hard earned money buying spareribs at $3 a pound so you can boil it and drown it in your favorite store bought barbecue sauce. Instead go buy a delicious McRib. As to the type of sauce, I prefer the sweet sticky kind, and I always (or rather Mrs. Bullfrog) make sauce at home. Making sauce is really easy and fun, even the kids can help, and you can tweak it to your liking. If you are in a pinch, go ahead and spend $4 on a bottle of ketchup and brown sugar, just don't let me see (I'm closing my eyes). Some Southern barbecue traditionalists insist that only the thin, vinegar flavored sauce is appropriate for good barbecue (heard of it or had it?), and I will reserve judgement as I have not tried it.

I am a purist when it comes to certain methods of food preparation, like par-boiling for example. The mention of par-boiling makes me cringe. This is a simple one to explain: if you are, at any time, boiling a piece of meat, poultry, or fish, you are making stock. You are transferring flavor from the food to the water using heat, which means the flavor is not in the meat anymore. When I am talking to someone about barbecue and the conversation turns towards recipes, they inevitably start with, "First I boil..." or "I like to shorten the cook time, so I start by baking..." Sigh... If you are in the house boiling or baking anything, are you barbecuing? I assume I don't have to answer that.

So let's at least agree that to be barbecuing, you have to be outside standing over an open flame of one sort or another.

Which brings a subject of much debate: gas, charcoal or wood?

Personally, unless I am grilling weenies or burgers, I cannot picture myself using gas. It sort of takes us back to the "being outside" statement I made earlier. In terms of flavor, what is the difference between cooking in the house using your gas stove and cooking outside on your gas grill? Okay, you are outside and the grill marks, while they do take practice to master, are appetizing and somewhat impressive. Other than that, not much flavor difference unless you are real creative. If convenience is more important to you than patiently creating a delicious product, you are not worthy of barbecue and may go now, hand over your apron. Just kidding, keep reading.

The key difference between gas and charcoal is that charcoal makes heat and flavor at the same time! Gas only makes heat, and it does that consistently with little bother. While keeping a good fire going using charcoal and maintaining consistent heat is generally more work, I reckon it is worth it in the end. As for wood burners, if you have access to a good wood in your area I hear this is a great way to go. I live in San Diego and it is pretty hard to find a good wood source, not to mention "stick burner" smokers (at least the ones I would consider purchasing) are out of my reach financially.

So for me, charcoal it is. But for the purposes of this debate and for future recipe posts, I will concede that using a "gasser" is acceptable, and I will include creative ways to add smoke to the equation when using a gas grill.

Smoke really is a key component of flavor and what differentiates good barbecue from bad. When you eat at that really good BBQ joint that taste so much better than the ribs you got at Chili's, it is likely smoke that made that difference. So learn how to use it.

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