There’s something about cooking over a fire that’s just primal. There’s a reason that even the most ardent “cooking is women’s work” jerkwad will drop that crap the moment it’s time to start grilling. Since that’s the case, I asked my favorite barbecue master, Jonathon LaForce to work up a series of guest posts on such tasty subjects as grilling and smoking meats.
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
So spake Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. In the summer time, men and women all over North America try their hand at the use of flame outdoors to create meals. More often than not, the end result looks like any VC hiding in the tree line when that air strike came rolling in: Burnt, crispy, dry. That burger patty could be used for sandpaper, the hound just turned up it’s nose at your over-flambeed hot dog, and the chicken looks like it’s been damned to a flaming circle of hell.
It happens every year. Like clockwork. Never mind that you and your neighbors and kinfolk never do anything on the grill besides what I just mentioned. Oh sure, you looked good firing up your grill. You had the slick tools, the fancy grill gloves, your wife bought you a “Kiss the Cook” apron for Father’s Day. Your male friends all gathered around the grill telling you how nice it all looked and how manly you appeared as you plied your trade, the avatar of the fire god Hephaestus himself. And then they lied to you, as they choked their way through what had been meat and is now blackened carbon. Add a little more pressure to it and you could make diamonds out of it!
I see this every year. And it disgusts me. What happened to men who knew and understood that the proper application of fire to meat, fish, poultry and all sundry items given to us for consumption produces incredible results? I’m not sure, but I have ideas on why. Whereas humility is not a martial virtue, it is not one which I have made the effort to cultivate. Nor will I attempt to engage in it now. If I say do something in the course of these articles, it’s because I know by experience it works or doesn’t work. Simple as that.
People have asked me, repeatedly- “Jon, what’s the secret to your barbecue tasting so good? Is it the wood? Do you have a special butcher you use? What is it?”
Don’t be afraid. Shall I repeat myself? DON’T BE AFRAID.
I’ve been doing barbecue of one kind or another for the last 15 years. I learned it alongside my father as a teenage boy in the High Deserts of Los Angeles County. Saw it put to use in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Hawaii, Afghanistan. I’m always learning. Ain’t gotta be humble to learn, just gotta be willing. And you cannot fear making bad barbecue.
You’re going to have good days and bad days. The rain’s gonna roll in halfway through a cooking session, you’re gonna be off on your time hack for a party and improvising your ass off, you’re gonna be setting up in 11 inches of snow with a strong east wind that freezes the hair off your face and makes you think you’ve been condemned to Niflheim. You’re gonna have grease flare ups and burned meat and overcooked ribs and ruined brisket and dry pork and chicken unfit for anything beyond a hazmat site. I’ve singed the hair off my face and arms so many times my wife has lost count, I’ve got scars from boiling hot grease that went straight through gloves. Accept that all right now and get over it. Because that’s where you learn. Next time add less salt, next time have a barrier between your chow and the fire, next time don’t add so much fuel so quickly. Whatever that lesson is, you learn it when you screw up. And keep moving forward. You’re going to completely ruin at least 1 cubic ton of meat before you start getting it consistently right. AND THAT’S OKAY. It’s all part of growing up.
This concludes my sermon. Let’s get to talking about equipment.
Home Depot, Lowe’s, or any other decent store will serve for our purposes of purchasing a barbecue upon which to cook. Propane has its place, just not here. I don’t like propane (with one exception) so I don’t use it unless I really need to. Charcoal and wood are my mainstays. Barrel smokers are great for our purposes. You’ll want something that has a multiple of grates IE more than 1. As you cook with wood and charcoal, your fuel supply inside the cooking area has to be replenished. Being able to leave your meat undisturbed is pretty helpful. If the first great commandment is “Be not afraid”, the second is “Make this easy on yourself.” Barbecue should always be fun for you. Even with bad weather. Having to juggle hot meat while refueling your fire is not fun. At least not for you. Your neighbors will probably be watching from their house with a bowl of popcorn in hand.
Where was I? Ah yes. Barrel smokers allow for both smoking and grilling. Grilling is fast, direct heat. Steaks, burgers, wieners, brats, hot links, seafood. Sometime even chicken. Temperatures run between 300 and 500 degrees. I have the pictures to prove that happened. It was great fun.
Smoking meat runs at lower temperatures, somewhere between 185 and 250. You’re dropping the temperature down because you have a larger or denser cut of meat that will require a longer cook time. Running it at 350 will get the outside cooked, but not the inside. Who feels like food poisoning tonight? Salmonella? Anybody? I didn’t think so. A barrel allows you to do both, easily even. Especially if it’s a single body with no attached smoke chamber.
Before you leave the your chosen store, here’s a few more things to buy:
1 single use bag of briquettes
1 propane blow torch with self-igniting head
1 bottle of accelerant
1 bag hardwood chunks
1 bag fruit wood chips
1 pair of leather gloves
1 pair of rubber grill gloves
1 spatula (get it with the bottle opener attachment, always worth it)
1 grill brush- go for single piece construction, preferably wood.
1 set of tongs
1 box disposable food safe gloves
Next stop, your preferred meat source- butcher, grocery store, or somebody who lets you root around in their freezer. Look for something like top round roast. Another name for it is London Broil. If you score it on a special, the meat is cheap (I got 3.25 lbs for under $15) and can feed four people. Once you’ve got that, mosey over to the soda aisle. Pick your favorite soda (I prefer Dr. Pepper) and grab a 2-liter. When you get home, put that beef in a pan and fill it with Dr. Pepper till it’s covered, add about ⅛ cup kosher salt, then leave it in the fridge overnight.
Marinades are often sold as sort of a gimmicky “oh you must use this style or you’re a plebeian!” I’m only 2 generations removed from ancestors who thought digging a pit and filling it with hot lava rock was by Pele the best way to cook a hog. I think they had something right. Soda is cheap, and it works. Overnight, that meat is going to tenderize and drink up all that delicious Dr. Pepper. Let it get happy in its glorious baptism.
When you set your grill up for the first time, inspect it. Cracks, loose nuts and bolts, those are not things to be ignored. I bought a barrel from Home Depot. It was by Char-Griller and it survived the 1 ½ mile drive to my house just fine. But a few weekends later, when I drove 85 miles south, it didn’t do so well and shook apart on the drive down the freeway! If there’s a Char-Griller rep somewhere reading this, I hope you know that this shaking apart happened EVERY TIME I drove somewhere with your smoker in the bed of my truck. Y’all folks in Georgia need to work on your quality control.
Once your grill is ready, it’s time to build the fire. Remove one of the grates and set it aside. That open space is where you’ll be adding fuel to the fire as necessary. Grab a sheet of cardboard or a small cardboard box, lay down chunks of wood, give it a quick squirt of accelerant. Now put your bag of charcoal on top of this, tear open the bag and add some more accelerant; couple more chunks of wood, and it’s time to cue up that Doors’ song. The pyromaniac in the crowd is looking happy right now.
A propane torch is handier than you realize. Unlike matches, it stays lit. Unlike a lighter, you don’t have to get your hand and arm inside the cooking area to start the fire. And unlike those cheap store-bought butane lighters, it’s reliable. Light up your fire, let it get going. For 15 minutes. Let it get hot, add a pinch more fuel as necessary and make sure that whatever breeze is blowing through your location, it’s going through the vents. This maintains the supply of oxygen necessary for combustion to occur. (See mom, I did pay attention in high school chemistry!)
Now, while the fire is getting set, you can go finish prepping the beef. Pull it out of the Dr. Pepper bath, pat dry with a paper towel. You’re going to add spices to the meat. With something like London Broil, I actually advocate a variety of things:
Very coarse black pepper
Apply all of this to the first side a layer at a time. Done? Good. Now massage it into the meat. This is a dry rub. Nothing wet or sauce-like at all involved. Flip the meat over and repeat with the other side.
Time to go check the fire. Your coals and wood should be burning merrily. The temperature gauge should be running 250. Drop 2 handfuls of fruitwood chips on top of the. Put the meat on the grate. Close the lid, making sure that you’ve opened the chimney at least halfway. This helps maintain your oxygen flow while keeping that delicious smelling smoke inside your cooking chamber.
Something I learned early on alongside my father is to keep the fracking lid shut. Heat and smoke escape far more easily if the lid is open. Keep it closed and set a timer for 17 minutes. Only check when the timer sounds the alarm. Otherwise, you’re gonna be back and forth every 3 freaking minutes fretting like a worried hen. Knock that off, sit down in a nearby chair, crack open a cold drink and enjoy the weather. Even if it’s snowing.
The timer goes off, you flip the London Broil over, check the temperature of the cooking chamber, and add more fuel. Also, this is the one and only time you add something to the meat. London Broil benefits from having a quarter-cup of butter placed right in the middle. Once you’ve added that, close the lid and go sit back down.
When the timer rings a second time, after 17 more minutes, grab a thermometer and go check your meat. Ideally looking at 135. It’ll be done and medium rare on the inside. If it’s not quite there, give it 4 more minutes, with the lid closed.
Pull the meat off the grill, place it in a dish, cover it. Set your timer for 10 minutes. This is the rest. And it is necessary. Trust me on this. If given time to rest, it will lose less juice and retain those traits that make it so desirable. Otherwise, stand by for freaking meaty cardboard.
Grab your cutting board and a sharp knife. Position the meat and yourself so that you are cutting against the grain. See how the meat has what looks like a pattern running across the surface? That’s the grain.
As a kid, your mommy taught you to cut with the grain because it made things easier. Today, you break away from what mommy told you. You will cut against that grain. If that pattern is running north-south, you cut left-rights. Check the pictures. I’ve included them for visual assistance in the matter.
Make your cuts in thin strips. This makes it easier to chew, and it will fall apart of its own accord in the process. If your in-laws are over and you want to make your presentation look proper, this also helps. Slide your knife under the slices, deposit on a proper plate, garnish it with a sprig of parsley and you’re set.
Notice how I haven’t mentioned any kind of sauce yet? That is intentional. YOU DON’T NEED SAUCE. If you’ve done exactly as instructed, sauce is not necessary. Sauce, on steaks and roasts, is to cover up undesirable flavors. It will also cover up all the good flavors. But if you’ve done this the right way you won’t need some runny, nasty swill like A1 polluting the table. Don’t even get it out of the fridge. Just let your guest bite in and see what they think. There might yet be some foolish heretic who fervently believes in the need for sauce on all meats, but we will yet convert them.
Serve with potato salad, baked beans, and cornbread, then stuff your face. You know you want to.
Next up: Chicken! Stupid simple, stupidly troublesome.