The best BBQ I’ve ever had was in the backyard of Gary Wiviott, for years Pitmaster at Lincoln Park’s Barn & Co. and the man behind the “Low and Slow” BBQ books.
The furthest I’ve ever traveled for BBQ was a few weeks ago when some friends and I drove six hours downstate to Murphysboro to eat at 17th Street BBQ, presided over by Mike and Amy Mills, authors of the landmark “Praise the Lard,” and organizers of a yearly BBQ cook-off of the same name. The Mills team will be serving up their outstanding Q at this year’s Windy City SmokeOut, July 13-15.
Whatever success they’ve achieved commercially, both Wiviott and the Mills family started out cooking at home, as many of us do. I asked both Wiviott and Amy Mills some questions about how to achieve the best possible Q in one’s very own backyard.
Please keep in mind that we’re talking here not about grilling (exposing food to direct fire) but rather BBQ, which is smoking at low temperatures to get the smoke flavor into food and render even tougher cuts of meat just as tender and even more delicious than more expensive cuts.
Heck, with the right person at the smoker, even the humble bologna becomes a marvelous thing, as I explained a few years ago in an article for the “Chicago Tribune.”
You can smoke meat with a standard Weber, but some years ago, Wiviott turned me on to a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker; it’s an inexpensive smoker that when used correctly (it’s not hard) can help you turn out the best smoked meat you’ve ever eaten.
What are some common mistakes made by backyard barbecue cooks, and how can these mistakes be avoided?
Use natural lump charcoal, wood chunks, and never soak wood if you want a small clean burning fire.
Never ever use liquid fire starter; instead, use a charcoal chimney to start your fire fast and clean.
Don’t constantly open the lid, if you’re looking you’re not cooking.
And billowing smoke is not ideal; you want light blue almost invisible smoke with a clean fresh campfire aroma.
Two common mistakes are using too much wood and heat that’s too high. Remember, charcoal is for heat and wood is for flavor. Meat absorbs smoke until it reaches 140°. Any smoke added after that lays on top of the meat and can result in bitter, over-smoked meat.
In a perfect bite of barbecue, you should be able to taste a kiss of smoke, seasoning of sauce and dry rub, and the meat itself — creating a rodeo of flavors in your mouth.
What can backyard barbecue cooks do to ensure that their food comes out tasting great, every time?
Use quality ingredients and fresh spices, and don’t over manipulate the meat with sugary sauces, rubs, and spice blends. The best barbecue is a partnership between smoke, meat and Pitmaster.
Keep your equipment clean. High-quality outdoor cookers are built with airflow dynamics in mind. Fire needs airflow to burn cleanly. Ash and grease residue interfere with that airflow.
Patience, practice, don’t poke, prod, futz. Keep your grates and cookers clean.
Have your ducks in a row before starting to cook (BBQ way of saying “mise en place”).
Is there one key message you’d like to communicate with backyard barbecue cooks?
My daddy taught me that the whole key to barbecue is consistent fire management, using the lowest heat you can consistently maintain. There will always be variables that affect your ability to hold a steady temperature, such as the cooker itself, weather, air quality, brand of charcoal, wood, and how many times you open the cooker. Our magic cooking temperature is 210° — probably the lowest in the industry. That means that our meat shrinks less. Consistent heat is important for the texture of the finished meat as well. Take the temperature up slowly and maintain it, instead of letting it drop and spike. If the temperature varies up and down constantly during the cook, the meat will not be as tender.
National Barbecue Day is July Fourth.