So, yesterday was Saturday and as has so often happened before on a Saturday where I’m left to myself, I ended up getting myself involved in a weird, over the top all day cooking adventure. This time featuring a stable from the American South: Barbeque.
You may wonder why on earth I came up with the idea of becoming my own pit master.. It’s quite simple, really. Well, okay.. Honestly, it’s not.. But bear with me.
It all started out with my dear colleague Torben pushing for me to become a grill owner. I had played around with the idea a little before, but wasn’t quite sure what the hell I’d use a charcoal grill for. Torben made deciding a little easier for me by simply insisting on lending me his Weber Smokey Joe charcoal grill to play with. I’ve had it for a few weeks now and have had a chance to play with it over a few weekends.. And I gotta say that generally I wasn’t too impressed with it. Maybe I’m just not used to cooking in this kinda way but I found it wholly incapable of performing simple tasks like reaching high temperatures and performing quick even cooking or adding a nice sear to steaks. I did however find that with the lid on, the thing was quite capable of maintaining a steady, albeit quite low, temperature which made it ideal for such tasks as grilling sausages and the likes. Well, I’m not about to spend upwards of a hundred dollars on a fancy grill simply for making sausages, so I would have to at least think of one good use of a steady, low heat source if I were to justify purchasing one of these things.
At some point over the last week, possibly after watching an episode of Man Vs Food, the idea of barbeque suddenly materialized in my head. Now, I pretty much knew nothing about BBQ other than it involved exposing nicely marbled or tough cuts of meat to slow heat and smoke for anywhere from four hours to.. Well, four days, I guess. Which was about reason enough for me to jump head first into the project of creating my own BBQ, using a Weber charcoal grill. “I think I’m gonna spend my Saturday modifying Torben’s grill into a hot smoker and do me up some BBQ,” I proudly informed Tina the next day. Tina replied with her patented sweet smile and head shake as well as a “Well, it sounds about crazy and stupid enough to be right up your alley” and as such it was settled.
On Saturday, April 10, Johan would have his first attempt at BBQ! “I wish you luck,” my pretty little sidekick told me, “I hope it goes well!” – “Baby,” I replied, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing and a fridge full of beer.. Those are like my two major criteria for success!” Which, oddly enough is actually pretty true when it comes to me and cooking. I’ll just headfirst into some project I’ve no idea about how to complete, have a few beers along the way and just pull through on a mix of guesstimates and research.. Usually with pretty awesome results. And so, on Friday with little to no knowledge about the hardships ahead, I set out on operation BBQ.
The first step along the way was to find out how to actually use the grill to produce low, slow heat and smoke. For extended periods of time. This was actually achieved in a pretty simple manner:
I removed the grate on which the food would go, and placed a large aluminum foil tray on the bottom where the coals would usually go, then placed two small piles of charcoal briquettes on each side, lining them up with the air intakes on the bottom of the grill. I then replaced the grate and secured another large aluminum tray on top of it. The idea was that the tray on top of the grate would contain the meat to be BBQ’d and the one at the bottom some sort of smoking agent. Once the grill was lit and the lid placed tightly on top, the briquettes on the side would burn slowly, creating a nice indirect heating source while sucking in air from the air intakes and at the same time heating the tray containing the smoking agent. This, theoretically, would produce smoke which would travel with the sucked in heated air past the food located directly above and out the air vent at the top of the lid.. Simple as! But would it work.. That would have to be determined.
Before I could even get this far, I needed a smoking agent, a hunk of meat and some additional flavors. While scouring the local supermarket for inspiration, I found a nice big Pork Butt (which actually comes from the neck of the animal despite the name – go figure) on sale which seemed perfect for the job: Inexpensive, large, full of fat and connective tissue that if treated properly would melt down into delicious finger-licking goodness. It also served to remind me of some super delicious pulled pork sandwiches I had in Kansas City during my first brush with real BBQ and as such, I was sold.. Well, technically, the pork butt was sold, but my mind was set for pulled pork sandwiches.
Now, pulled pork sandwiches are simple to make. At least on paper. You take a pork butt, you smother it in a spice mix known as a dry rub and then you cook it for forever until it pretty much falls apart, then you use forks to break it up and serve on a hamburger roll.. Easy! If not for the time and secrecy involved. It seems that everybody and their mother has a secret recipe for dry rub and you’ve got about as much chance of getting the recipe out of them as this blog has a chance of winning the Pulitzer price. So rather than fighting anybody for the recipe, I decided to do what everybody else does and fabricate my own secret dry rub. Which ended up consisting of sugar, kosher salt, four kinds of chilies and eight different spices in a pretty set ratio.. Hah, see, I too can be secretive!
This rub was applied to the huge hunk of meat the night before the experiment was to start and while the meat chilled in its spicy goodness in the fridge, I went to work and on a search of smoke along the way. I’d heard somewhere that nice dense pieces of wood, oak in particular, are best for your smoking needs, so I went to my local hardware store/lumber mill in search for something to use. I figured I’d just beg them for some scraps but was surprised to find that there’s actually a whole market for various kinds of smoking woods. While browsing the selection, I came across scraps from an old Jack Daniel’s Bourbon barrel.. And well, I probably don’t need to tell you that I was sold. Barbequeing three pounds of meat over the smoke of an old whiskey barrel? How Rock N Roll is that?!
I ended up heading on to work with a big smile on my face, knowing that all preparations were now done and all that was left was to execute the grand scheme.. Which I don’t think I need to tell you was a little more consuming than I had initially imagined. Well, to be honest I hadn’t really imagined anything. It wasn’t until I got home from work during the very early hours of Saturday morning that I realized that.. Umm.. Wasn’t time one of the more important ingredients of good BBQ? For whatever reason I hadn’t realized that if I was planning on eating at say 9 PM on Saturday, I’d have to get started no later than 7 AM. Looking at the clock while coming to this realization showed that it was creeping up on 4 AM and as such, I got my ass to bed as quickly as I could and napped for a few hours before my alarm clock went off at 6:45 AM.
You’d think that after so little sleep, I’d be pretty tired and grumpy Saturday morning. But no, I actually woke pretty well rested and motivated. I had a challenge in front of me, after all.. A challenge to produce excellent BBQ! So as the sun rose, so did I, jumping straight into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, then rushing out to pull out the BBQ and lighting it up. And so, on a pretty picturesque occasion, as the first rays of sun hit the ground, the first whiffs of smoke hit the sky.
Incidentally, this was the time that my house owner, Brian, who was apparently home for the first time in like a week, decided to pop his head out the door and see me hunched over the grill, lighting a fire at 7 AM in the morning. The ensuing conversation was pretty predictable.
Brian: Good morning! What in the fuck are you doing?
Johan: Lighting a grill..
Brian: It’s 7 in the morning.. on a Saturday!
Johan: Good food takes time..
Johan: Hey, it’s all in the name of barbeque..
Brian: Man, you are NOT right in the head!
Johan: Everybody keeps saying that..
And with that, the conversation ended and Brian trotted off, shaking his head and mumbling things I wasn’t quite able to pick up. I had no time for that anyways, because while we were talking, the briquettes had reached the point of readiness and it was time to assemble my makeshift smoker. The bottom tray was filled with wooden chips, briquettes were placed on either side, a few soaked chips were added to the very hot briquettes to bring the temperature down a bit. Grate was placed on top of the concoction, second tray fitted away from the direct heat and eventually the lid went on.. Now everybody in presence (which counted me, a stray blackbird and the neighbor’s cat) held their breath and waited to see if it would all work according to plan..
Success! We had achieved smoke! Now all that was left to do was to wait for about 10 hours while maintaining constant smoke and an heat in the range of 90-110C degrees.. Which I’m not afraid to admit was a bit of a challenge at first since, like I’ve mentioned countless times, I had about fuck all idea of what I was doing and while MacGyver himself would probably have been pretty proud of my DIY spirit, it wasn’t the most easily configurable setup in the world.
For temperature control, I enlisted the help of my trusty probe thermometer which I poked down the air vent in the lid in order to read the air temperature inside. Heat management basically consisted of controlling the amount of airflow while periodically adding more briquettes and wood chips and basting the hunk of meat while I had the lid off anyways. It took some experimenting but eventually I fell into a rhythm of adding four additional briquettes and a few handful of chips (ether soaked or dry depending on the whole temperature situation) every 90 minutes or so. It was all good fun, in a sort of demanding kinda way.
After some three hours, things actually started looking a lot like BBQ and smelling a lot like it as well, which made the next seven or so hours increasingly frustrating as things just continued to cook down, caramelize and getting increasingly more yummy looking and smelling. After about ten hours of total smoking time, I decided that enough was enough. By this point, I had a pork butt which had shrunk considerably and was almost falling apart as I poked the thermometer probe into it to discover a core temperature of 82 degrees which sounded fine to me.
So off the grill it went and into the kitchen where it spent the next hour or so resting while I cooked up a bunch of sides. I honestly have no idea what a fitting side for pulled pork sandwiches would be, but since I figured it was a bit of a comfort food/soul food kinda thing, I couldn’t go wrong with Mac and Cheese, green beans and bacon.. Y’know, just for the sake of making things a little more unhealthy. Additionally, I cooked up some homemade BBQ sauce comprised of some of the leftover basting liquid from the meat, some hot sauce, ketchup and a healthy dose of apple cider vinegar to counteract all the sweetness of the sugar involved.
With the sides were finished, time came to pull the pork which was actually a pretty easy experience as the meat turned out to be so tender that the process could actually be done using a spoon rather than forks.. Ridiculous!
And as such, after only about 11 hours, I actually had dinner ready:
How was it, then? Well, if I can be honest: Pretty fucking amazing for a first try. The meat was succulent and tender, fully penetrated by the rub and the smoke. The sugar in the rub added a nice, deep, subtly burnt and caramelized sweetness which was counteracted perfectly by the tanginess of the vinegar loaded BBQ sauce. It was a lot of fucking work for dinner, but it was a pretty damn interesting and entertaining experience which rendered a small truckload worth of left-overs which is probably a pretty good thing because I was probably a little too good about keeping Tina updated with updates, pictures and progress reports leaving her both jealous, hungry and salivating ever so slightly.. So I suppose I’ll have to fix her left-over dinner one of these days.. And even with that out if the way, still have more leftovers.. Which is all good, as I suppose it’ll be a while before I repeat this ridiculous project.
But then, that’s it, one more crazy project under my belt. Homemade BBQ style pulled pork.. Done! What’s next?