By Steve Bivans
Everyone likes BBQ. I know that’a generalized statement and I can hear people out there saying, “You can’t say that! What about vegetarians and vegans?”
Yeah, guess what, they aren’t reading this article, so pipe down. True, not everyone likes BBQ, but they should. It’s like bacon and butter. I guess I”m partial to ‘Bs’ or something, Bivans, BBQ, bacon, butter, and oh yeah, don’t forget beer, bourbon and biscuits. All good things.
As most of you know, I’m from the South, North Carolina actually. And down there—I now live in Yankeeland, MN—we make real BBQ. Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of lame-assed bbq joints in the South too, but there’s usually one good one around, though I think even some of those are slippin’.
In fact, when I was down to visit in March, my girlfriend, her son, and my parents and I all took the pilgrimage out to B’s BBQ, in Greenville, N.C. Yeah, more B’s, I know. Now B’s is one of those bbq joints, in a cinderblock shack, outside of town, with smoke pouring out of the tin covered pit area in the back, a few old oak trees surrounding the crumbling parking lot. A creaking screen door is attached, kind of crooked like to the front of the building, supposedly to keep out flies, skeeters, and the like, but I don’t think it does. The place has been there so long that they named the road after it: B’s BBQ Road. I’m not kidding; look it up on Google maps.
Everyone in the area knows B’s. They’ve been there since the Ice Age I think. Every time ESPN comes to town to cover an East Carolina Football game, the crew makes the pilgrimage out B’s BBQ Road, to eat some BBQ, but about half the time they show up late. You see B’s closes when they run out of food, and they do that often. Now that should be a good sign, and not long ago it was. But when we went this spring, the bbq was mediocre at best, too much like most of the other ‘famous’ joints in the county. Maybe I just remember it being better. I don’t know. It was a bit watery, which means it was allowed to ‘steam’, or had steam applied to it at some point, probably in the storage process, if not before.
Lesson one. Never, ever, ever, allow your bbq to ‘steam’. Now I’m talking about making pulled pork today. We’ll talk about ribs, brisket and other things in another article, but for now, we’re gonna stick to pulled pork, and for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to stick to a pork shoulder, not the entire pig, like we make it in Eastern N.C. But NO MATTER WHAT you are BBQing, you must NEVER let water get near that meat. NEVER. Got it? If you do, you are going to ruin it. Yeah, I know, your uncle, who made the ‘best ribs ever’ used to boil them, or put them in foil, or some such thing, and they were ‘awesome’! They fell off the bone, yadda, yadda. The reason you think they were the best, is mostly because you really loved your uncle, or you’ve never actually had ribs or pulled pork that haven’t been subjected to steam.
Up here in Yankeeland, there are quite a few ‘bbq’ joints. They pretty much all suck. They serve up this ‘moist’, translate, ’steamed’ pork, slathered in their over-sweet, tomato-y sauce and call it pulled pork bbq. And yes, I’m using lower case and upper case letters, on purpose. BBQ is real, bbq isn’t. If you HAVE to put sauce on it, it’s not BBQ, it’s bbq.
I make the best BBQ sauce on the planet; I do. I’m not actually bragging. It’s just a fact. No, I don’t have to win any contests to prove it. I’ve tasted hundreds of so-called award winning sauces, and they’ve got nothing on mine. And I don’t give myself praise unless it’s warranted, trust me. For instance, I really suck at making popcorn. I mean suck. I burn it every damned time. But my sauces? Kick ass, the best. But as great as mine are, I do not ‘slather’ my pork in them. No way man. Just a little bit is all you need. As long as you didn’t ruin the pork in the cooking process.
Steam is water. I know, most of you know that already, but I need to emphasize this. Steam is water, and water does something to meat that isn’t good, ever. Because water doesn’t coexist with fat, it leeches out fat during the cooking process. And then people get their plate of bbq, and have to slather it with nasty sauce so it will have some ‘moisture’ and flavor. Why? Because FAT is FLAVOR! Duhhh. Steaming bbq is the number one reason that it tastes dry. It’s not because it was over-cooked. It’s almost impossible to over cook pulled pork. You would starve to death, or your mother-in-law would hit you over the head with a cast iron skillet long before the pork dried out via cooking it. It takes at least 12-14 hours to BBQ a pork shoulder, but many times upwards of 24, and then it’s perfect; so you can’t dry it out by overcooking it. You can, however, if you let steam get in there, because it will remove the one thing with flavor and moisture that really matters: fat.
If you’re worried about your fat intake, and you shouldn’t be, then you’re not reading this anyway. If you want real BBQ, then keep the water away. Boiling it, or adding water to the process isn’t the only way to steam it however. Meat has natural water content in it already, just like our cells do, so do the cells of little piggies. When you cook it, the water turns into steam and tries to escape, a good thing, but something that many people try to stop, a bad thing. Why do they attempt to stop this natural process? For two reasons, I think. One, they think that water = juicy, and/or two, they know that steam speeds up the cooking process.
I went to the Renaissance Fair up here in MN last fall, and they had this bbq contest thing going on that Sunday. Of course I went to see what kind of Q the locals were makin’. I was not disappointed. Ok, I was, but I was expecting it, so is it really disappointment then? Anyway, so I was watching this one bbq booth, where they had pulled, or more likely, chopped a bunch of pork shoulder. The bbq’er handed up this large hotel pan of meat to his wife, (I’m just guessing they were married mostly by the way they talked to each other), who peeled off a big thing of aluminum foil—they had lost me already—and then she did something that was possibly the dumbest thing ever: she poured an entire can of Coca Cola over the pork! OMG, I wanted to slap her! WTF? Cummmmonnah! If that wasn’t bad enough, and it was, she then re-covered it with the foil! Needless to say, I didn’t not buy any of their bbq.
Water, including that mixed with tons of high fructose corn syrup and other nasty, orcish chemicals (Coca Cola), does not equal juiciness. Sorry, I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s absolutely true when we’re talking about meat and BBQ specifically. As mentioned, water leeches out fat, and it is FAT that retains the moisture in the meat, the kind of moisture you want that is. Let the steam escape and you will have better BBQ. Keep it in, and it will suck ass. Simple as that. This point cannot be argued against. Well, you can argue against me—you have the ‘right’ to be wrong, I reckon. BBQing is not rocket science. It is VERY SIMPLE, but at the same time, it’s very hard to do. Those are not opposites, simple and hard. The concepts of BBQing are simple; the execution is difficult.
As to the second reason people trap steam, they have been told that it speeds up the bbqing process. It does. This is the main reason that bbq joints employ the tactic and the main reason their bbq sucks. It’s cheating. You cannot cheat real BBQ. You cannot rush it. It will not cook on a schedule; it simply will not. It is not some springy, nasty piece of tofu, that you can subject to a scientific experiment and hope to replicate for time immemorial. Every single pork shoulder you BBQ will take a different amount of time to be done. There are two reasons why: one, every shoulder is different (size, composition, fat content, collagen content, weight), and two, grills and smokers are subject to the weather (humidity, temperature), as well as the type of fuel you’re using. There are many variables involved in the time it takes for your pork to BBQ.
You cannot rush it. If you want fast bbq, go buy it at one of those strip mall joints, like Dickies or something. You’ll get it quickly, it will suck, and you’ll be done. No muss, no fuss, also, no BBQ. If you’re going to make it yourself, then do it RIGHT. Take your time. Slow down damn it. It’s BBQ. If you do, the reward will be great, though it may take you a few times to get it down. BBQ is a slow process, and there are reasons for that.
The biggest one, especially for pork shoulders, and briskets, is that they have collagen in them. Collagen is a stringy, tough substance in the muscle that holds it together. This is especially prevalent in the cheaper cuts of meat, like shoulders, where there is a lot of muscle. This also makes these cuts perfect for BBQing. Ok, I know we’re deep into this article, but I reckon it’s time to define BBQ. Yeah, I probably should have done it earlier, but hey, no time like the present.
BBQ is a way of cooking meat. It is not a sauce. You cannot slop bbq sauce on oysters and a call them bbq’d oysters. Same thing for chicken, pork, beef, and burgers. Just because it has Sweet Rays on it, doesn’t make it BBQ. In fact, it’s not even bbq; it’s just some cooked meat, with some crappy sauce on it. Real BBQing means the meat was cooked on a LOW temperature, for a LONG TIME. It cannot be rushed. Also, it means that it was cooked over WOOD COALS, with SMOKE. If you use a gas pit/grill, you are not BBQing, plain and simple, you’re not. You must use wood. Also the temperature has to be LOW. If you cook it on medium to high temp, you’re not BBQing; you are grilling.
I love grilling, don’t get me wrong. Grilled burgers, chicken, sausages, steaks, and pork chops, bring ’em on! But it’s not BBQ. To be BBQ it must be cooked on a LOW TEMP, for a LONG TIME. The old adage, ‘low n slow,’ is not just for show, it’s a law of the universe. So you need a wood coal fire, at a low temperature, with smoke. The smoke usually comes from wood that has been soaked in water (no this isn’t cheating), and is introduced to the fire in the early stages of BBQing, to add that kick ass smoky flavor to the meat.
Now that we’ve established WHAT BBQ is, and is NOT, let’s move on to the Practice, of actually making it, step by step.
You might also like to make some RIBS to go with that pulled pork!