Are you fired up for summer yet? Here are some tips on how to get smokin’ and some thoughts on a hot local topic.
For real barbecue fiends, there’s no such thing as “barbecue season.” Barbecue season is anytime you can go outside, light a fire and start smoking your favorite meats (or vegetables, or meat substitutes). In Kansas City, where I’m from, that’s just about any time there’s not a severe storm or tornado warning. (It’s January? Just throw on some extra layers.)
But for most of us, barbecue season coincides with the summer months from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Which means that you’ve probably pulled your grill out of storage by now.
Grilling is relatively easy, but barbecue takes some skill. Fortunately, the skills are easy to learn and the equipment easy to acquire.
The must-have item: A grill with a lid that closes. You produce barbecue by cooking foods over low, indirect heat and smoke. The smoke is important, for it cooks the food as much as the heat does. That fact can cause you some problems with your neighbors. Some might object to all those carcinogens you’re sending their way, but a more likely problem will come from the neighbors who want you to share some of what you’re cooking with them.
If you’re lucky, you will have a backyard where you can smoke to your heart’s content. If you’re not, then your options consist of your porch, your front yard if you have one, or the sidewalk.
If you do have a front yard, you’re set. If you don’t, there are some things you need to mull over.
City fire codes require you to keep grills at least 15 feet from any structure that could burn and bans them outright on balconies. (Sorry, apartment-dwellers.) But the code makes an exception for one- and two-family houses, so if you live in one of those, feel free to set your grill up on your front porch – even if some of your neighbors consider it bad form, it’s allowed under the fire code in those cases.
But be careful when porch-grilling or porch-smoking. Don’t leave your coals unattended while you’re lighting them. And be careful with the lighter fluid. If you can, get a chimney starter – you can use it away from your grill, and there’s less risk of flare-up. And if you’re grilling rather than smoking, stay close to the grill while you’re cooking and keep a spray bottle of water handy in case of flare-ups if you have an open grill. (It’s a good idea to have one around anyway when grilling, even if you have a grill with a lid.)
City fire codes also stipulate that if you’re cooking with gas, the propane tank has to be five feet from any building opening. In other words, the fuel you use for the fire matters. But you shouldn’t need a fireman to tell you that.
Nothing beats charcoal as a fuel for barbecuing. It produces smoke as it burns, while gas doesn’t. If you have a gas grill, you can use a metal box filled with wood chips as a workaround, though; be sure to soak the wood chips before you use them so they don’t just burn up.
By contrast, you can use something better on charcoal: actual chunks of hardwood trees. They will catch fire from the heat of the charcoal and produce smoke while they burn.
Not all hardwoods are created equal, however. Each variety imparts a different flavor to your meat, and some varieties work better with pork while others are better for beef. Hickory is one of the most common hardwoods used for smoking, but you can also use mesquite, applewood, cherry, pecan, sassafras, maple, or alder.
If you decide to go the tree-chunk route, it helps to have a smoker where the fuel and the food are kept separate. But if you use chips, any lidded grill will work. Just remember to keep the fire on one side and the food on the other. If you’re using a Weber kettle or similar round grill, the best way to handle this is to arrange the coals and wood around the edge and put a pan in the middle to catch the drippings from the meat.
Speaking of meat — when it comes time to BBQ, every home chef has their own preferred seasonings & techniques, and you will no doubt discover yours through delicious experimentation. Pro Tip: taste your way around to different neighborhood Q joints, and reach out to your favorite pitmasters thru social media. Most of them love to talk about their craft and would be happy to share their secrets to dedicated home chefs. (This is a good way to get local butcher recommendations, too.)
Now that the basics are out of the way, it’s up to you to determine how and where you will get smokin’ and what you will smoke. Why you will should be a no-brainer.
2022 UPDATE: Sandy’s Guide to Southern BBQ is just the thing to inspire mouth-watering adventures in grilling. Includes the author’s own special recipes for his authentic KC rub and sauce.