I tried this before in another thread but it was hijacked and morphed into something it was never meant to be. So, here goes another try.
So, you want to learn to cook good BBQ? Here are my tips for doing so. This is not an exhaustive study. I'm sure that there are other methods just as good or better than this one. But, this is how I learn to become comfortable cooking ribs, brisket, pork shoulder and chicken on my BBQ smoker.
Any other methods/tips the brethren may have are welcome and encouraged. If you are like me, you don't cook that many briskets day in and day out. You are not a caterer nor are you a restaurant owner who cooks BBQ day in and day out and then gets a return on your investment.
This process is for backyard BBQ cooks who want to speed up their learning process. So, how can a backyard BBQ cook learn to cook great BBQ without breaking the bank? That's the purpose of this thread. Everyone is encouraged to share tips, methods, and experiences. This isn't an argument thread. Take your arguments somewhere else. This is a thread about helping each other cook better BBQ. If you have a better method, please let us know. But, don't start an argument because you think you have the only way to learn to cook BBQ. I can assure you, you don't so, don't claim that you do.
There is an old proverb that says “Give a man a fish and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime." This thread is about teaching each other how to cook good BBQ. This thread is not about recipes or spoon feeding ingredient lists. This thread is about learning to cook meat that the cook and the cook's friends and family love. This thread is more about technique than it is about rubs, sauces, and injections.
The Ground rules -
There are none. Tradition be damned. What matters here are the results, not the tradition.
There are many methods for cooking BBQ. Regional differences do not invalidate the legitimacy of methods. Some traditions call for braising, some call for grilling over coals, some call for low temps in pits or smokers, and some call for spritzing and mopping. The point is, all of them are legitimate methods for cooking BBQ. Regional differences are encouraged and valid. Foiling or not foiling are also equally legitimate options. The results are what matter, not the process. Pick what works for you and ignore the naysayers.
Sauce, injections, marinades, and seasonings are not as important as the quality of the cooked meat. The important thing in BBQ is the meat, not the sauce. As someone observed, BBQ sauce can cover a multitude of sins. Well, this learning process is about cooking the meat, not the sauce. The sauce is an after thought, not the main target. Poorly cooked meat with good sauce is poorly cooked meat. Well cooked meat without any sauce at all is well cooked meat. Sauce is an added benefit in such cases.
So, here goes.
Some people cook BBQ at 225 F and some cook at 325 F. Both can cook good BBQ. However, you will not get the same results cooking at 325 F using the process that works at 225 F. Change the temperature variable only and you change the results.
Some people get too worked up sometimes about recipes. Newcomers are always asking "What kind of rub should I use?" "What should I put in the injection? " "What is the 3-2-1 method?" The truth is, if you can't cook meat properly in your smoker you will not have good BBQ regardless of your recipe or rub or injection. Good BBQ can be cooked with nothing more than salt and pepper. Most of it isn't merely about the ingredients. It's about the sum of all the variables.
If you are just starting out cooking BBQ, I suggest that you first learn to cook good BBQ using nothing but salt and pepper as a seasoning. Don't concentrate so much on recipes or ingredients. Concentrate on technique, especially at first. If you don't have a repeatable technique under your belt, the great recipe you use will be of little value.
I know of several small town restaurants that thrived under their original owners. The food they served was delicious and everyone wanted to know the recipes they used. When the original owners retired or sold the businesses, the new owners just couldn't make the food the way the previous owners did. They have the recipes but not the techniques. Technique is the most important thing that you as newcomer to BBQ must learn. Recipes will come later.
How do you brown food? There are several techniques. You can heat it. Enough heat will cause the sugars in the food to caramelize and turn brown while adding flavor at the same time. How about just letting it sit? Can't you slice an avocado, let it sit in the open air and watch it turn brown? Yes, you can.
Heating or exposing to air are two different techniques for browning food. One has a good result and the other has a bad result depending on the other VARIABLES. Do you want to caramelize a fig or a prune with heat? Maybe. Do you want a slab of ribs to sit in the air and turn brown? Probably not. But you sure do want your plums to sit in the air to dry and turn color if you want prunes. You do want a steak to be seared on the outside with a nice caramelization. But, the technique you use makes all the difference depending on other variables such as plum or steak.
For example, fresh plums + drying in air = Prunes. Let's change a variable.
Fresh plums + 300 degree F heat = cooked plums.
You have to use the appropriate technique to get the results you want. If you want prunes, you had better learn how to properly dry fruit before you get too concerned with the recipe.
What does all of this have to do with BBQ? Everything. BBQ is generally described as slow cooking over low heat. But, how slow is slow? How low temp is low temp? Did you know that beef jerky is made with low temperatures? BBQ is supposed to be tender and juicy. Jerky isn't. What about the slow part? How slow is slow? Will baby back ribs require the same amount of time to cook at 225 F as a pork shoulder at 225 F? No, the shoulder will cook slower than the baby backs. Let's look at the variables.
8 pound pork shoulder + 225(indirect) F + ~12 hours = tender juicy pork.
Baby Back ribs + 225(indirect) F + ~12 hours = rib jerky.
Notice that when you adjust one variable, you have to adjust at least one other variable. When you change the shoulder to baby backs, you also need to adjust cooking time. Every variable impacts the others. That's the whole point to this thread.
The major categories of cooking techniques are baking, roasting, frying, grilling, smoking, boiling. Everything you do to cook food will fall into one of those broad categories. Focus on the techniques and let the recipes worry about themselves. Sometimes, you may want to mix techniques and that's fine. But, that's not the point. The point is the finished product.
So, how do you learn the proper technique to cook BBQ? One word: practice. There are no shortcuts. However, while there are no substitutes for practice, there are some methods of practicing that can help speed up the learning process. Here are some tips.
Use your kitchen oven to practice. Your oven produces heat and your smoker produces heat. Heat is a variable. Now, I'm not saying that your oven will cook as good BBQ as your smoker. But, what I am saying is that your oven will cook meat tender and juicy just like your smoker as long as you maintain the proper temperature.
So, to save the time and expense of firing up the smoker, preheat your oven and use it to practice. Get a slab of ribs, cut them in half and rub them down with salt and pepper and put them in your oven at a temperature range of 225 to 275. Experiment with temps in that range.
Whatever temperature in that range you want to learn to cook ribs in, set the oven to that temp. Since you cut the slab in half, you basically now have two slabs to practice with. Start one slab 1/2 hour to an hour after the first. This will let you make adjustments to the second slab if you cook the first slab too long, for example. Sure, you will have some failures.
However, failure is a learning experience that will help you improve.
Put the ribs in the oven and let them cook. Take them out every hour to check on things like color, tenderness, and juiciness. Practice learning to tell when the meat is at the right tenderness by either looking at how the meat pulls away from the bone, or how the ribs bend when you pick them up with a pair of tongs, or how tender they feel when you insert a toothpick in the meat between the bones on the back of the ribs.
Practicing this way removes a lot of variables. For example, it will probably be a lot easier to maintain 250 F in your oven than in your smoker. This technique eliminates a lot time and effort from your practice sessions.
When practicing with your smoker, first learn to manage temps in it. Don't go buy a new cooker, start a fire in it, and throw in some ribs or a shoulder. First, learn to manage the temps in your smoker. Get a feel for how much air your smoker needs, how much fuel it needs, and for how long it can maintain temps before needing more fuel before you start trying to make BBQ in it.
When you are comfortable with your smoker, start with something easy like a pork shoulder or some baby back ribs. Use what you learned cooking in your oven and apply it to your smoker. Everything you learned about temperature and about determining when the meat is done, apply it to your smoker. The smoker will introduce some new variables, but you should have a better handle on which variables may be causing problems you may encounter.
Once you can cook a delicious rack of ribs or pork shoulder using nothing but salt and pepper, you have just overcome 90% of the problem. Now, it's time to start checking out recipes for rubs and injections.
This method of practicing reduces the number of variables while you are learning. That's important because when you are learning you need to keep things as simple as possible. Once you master the more simple equation, start adding variables ONE AT A TIME. Don't start adding a bunch of variables at once while you are learning. Keep things simple with an emphasis on the quality of the finished meat not the rub recipe.
Soon, you will be making better BBQ and be better able to pinpoint the cause of problems when you increase the number of variables or ingredients. The idea, when starting out, is to minimize the number of variables in the process. As you learn and gain skill you can add a new variable one at a time, observe the results, make adjustments, get good results, add another variable, etc.
Let's say you have progressed to the point where you can cook tender and juicy ribs with nothing more than salt and pepper. Now, you want to experiment with rubs.
Let's say you pick a rub, put it on the ribs and BBQ them. But, now they don't look the same as before. Maybe the outside meat got stringy. Maybe it looks burned. What was in the rub besides salt and pepper that could be the culprit? Usually, not always, it's sugar. Sugar has a tendency to burn.
How do you deal with it? Here are some options to prevent sugar from burning.
Stop using it.
Use it later in the cook.
Reduce the cooking temperature.
Reduce the amount of sugar.
Use a different kind of sugar.
Increase the room around the ribs available for air to circulate within.
Add something to the sugar that will reduce its tendency to burn.
Any of the above options will require adjustments to other variables too if you want to achieve the same results when using any of them.
The point of the process and the ingredients is the resulting BBQ. I know of people who would never boil ribs in a pot on the stove but they routinely cook ribs in their smoker wrapped in foil with some liquid in it with them. Call that what you want, but it is a form of boiling the ribs. The foil blocks any chance of smoke getting to the meat acting more like a pot of water on top of your stove than a BBQ pit. Does it matter? It doesn't matter if it produces the results the cook is seeking.
So, start with the fewest variables and master a technique. Practice it over and over. Once you are comfortable with a few variables, begin adding variables ONE AT A TIME. Observe the results and make adjustments. Some attempts will fail but some will be great. Soon, you will know what works for you and what doesn't and you will be on your way to cooking the best BBQ you can. Don't let tradition, convention, or naysayers stand in your way. Results are what matter.
Here is a recent practice I did for brisket. I used chuck roast rather than brisket because it was on sale, it is similar (though not exact) to brisket and, is a nice platform for practice without spending $25 to $30 for a full packer brisket. In this practice session, I am working on my brisket injection and rub and the chuckies were a cheaper alternative to a full packer. What I am doing is trying to adjust my injection and rub to intensify and enhance beef flavor. It's cheaper and quicker to use chuckies when they are on sale compared to using full packer briskets at this point. Once I zero in on an injection and rub that I really like, I will try it on a full packer brisket and then make adjustments if necessary. What I did here was use slightly different injection recipes in each chucky in an attempt to zero in on the best seasoning I can find for BBQ beef. This method is quicker and cheaper than using brisket since the chuckies were on sale for $1.99 per pound unlike small brisket flats that are as much as $3.99 per pound.
Chuckies injected and marinated -
Chuckies rubbed with Bovine Bold, black pepper, and cumin -
I cooked the chuckies at 275 F to 310 F in my Bubba Keg for about 2 hours until the internal temp reached about 175 F. Then, I put them in a foil sealed aluminum pan and cooked them until the internal temp reached 215 F. I then removed them from the smoker and put the sealed pans in a cooler and let them rest for 2 hours.
Now, smoking chuckies is slightly different than smoking brisket. However, it is easy to make the transition from chucky to brisket. The benefit here was, I get an idea of how my injection and marinade work and enhance or take away from beef flavor. I have found that brisket cooked at the same temperatures and rested for 2 hours is a little more tender than chucky so, I adjust my brisket cooking method to foiling at 165 F and cooking until internal temp is 205 F and then resting for two hours. But, with this practice method, I can make adjustments using the cheaper chuckies before trying the injection/marinade on the larger, more costly briskets. I save money, time, and speed up my learning process.
Notice that I am using incremental changes. Both chuckies have the exact same rub. Only the injection/marinade has small differences in each. I also notched the edge of one of the pans so that I could tell the difference in the two chuckies during and after the cooking process.
Find what works for you. If you ask a question here, expect to get many different answers to the same question. That's why you must put in the effort to find the answers that work for you. The tips I listed above can help speed up that process.
Make things simple while you are learning. You will learn more and be better able to handle problems as things get more complicated.
Sometimes, the problem isn't the ingredient but rather how it's being used. By the same token, sometimes a small change in an ingredient can fix a problem with a particular process.