Summer Guide: Barbecue—The quest for fire—and food

Local experts give some tips—and do some bragging—about the art of barbecuing

Barbecuing is one of the most natural—and delicious—ways to cook.

Barbecuing is one of the most natural—and delicious—ways to cook.

Photo by David Robert

When I was in culinary school, many of the classes I took involved classical recipes with a very Euro-centric focus. Other classes paid special attention to the delicate pastries. But believe it or not, most of us were captivated by classes that taught us about, of all things, butchery.

Maybe it was our teacher, the enigmatic and clever “Butcher Bob.” He was a third-generation butcher and had a surgeon’s precision. He never wasted anything, and he taught us how to make our own bacon, sausages hung in knotted links and how to fillet a fish properly. Almost all of these items would end up in the smoker, an enormous oven-like contraption with enough room to hang a whole bear.

In a most caveman-like fashion, the men in the class would fight for the right to light and tend the fire in the box below. The women in the class never had a chance to get near it. That smoker had a mystery about it—an almost alchemical aura that changed ordinary meat into magical, aromatic matter that could bring even the staunchest of vegetarians to the table. I was among them, and I have been a confirmed meat-eater ever since.

In today’s society, guys who wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen the rest of the year fancy themselves to be warriors of summer backyard cuisine. Whether it comes in the form of a primitive fire pit or a top-of-the-line propane behemoth, there is a kind of macho romance to playing with fire that men are just drawn to.

Just watch as a group of men analyze a pile of charcoal briquettes to determine their readiness. Serious looks and much chin-rubbing will go into it. Then the alpha-dog cook will spear the meat and throw it onto the sizzling grill, much to the grunting appreciation of the masses.

Mike Collins, owner of the Texas Longhorn Bar & Grill (2325 Kietzke Lane), waxes nearly poetic on the subject. According to Collins, most people are in too much of a hurry when they barbecue.

“The biggest problems most beginners face are using too much wood and too much heat,” he says. “The result is overly smoky and not as tender. If you don’t have the 12-14 hours it requires to cook a beef brisket, start with smaller cuts of meat, such as ribs or pork tenderloin.”

Achieving results like the pros can present a challenge. Keeping a low fire lit on a small scale involves constantly adding hot coals to keep the cooking temperature at about 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit, without going above or dropping below. Collins suggests using an electric smoker, or even a gas grill with one side turned off and the other on low, with a pan of wood chips.

Although Collins prefers to experiment with various types of wood—apple, oak or hickory—he points out that hickory chips are readily available.

“Unless you are an aficionado, you won’t be able to tell the difference,” he says. “And anyway, if you are out cooking, that is what is important. Part of it is social.”

Ralph Blevins, owner of Rutherford’s Ol’ South (55 E. Nugget Ave., Sparks) definitely takes this stuff seriously. Quick to point out the awards that Rutherford’s has won at various competitions, he personifies the competitive edge that comes with being in the barbecue business. He announces with obvious pride that his restaurant recently took top honors for their ribs at the first official barbecue cook-off in Louisiana, beating out the local boys in what must have been quite an upset.

Blevins remarks that the type of wood used is very important, and he offers a helpful tip: “If you have any kind of fruit tree in your backyard, cut off a few branches and use that. Green wood works just fine for smoking. Peach wood is especially good for chicken, and if you can disjoint the bird, you can smoke it a bit hotter (around 300 degrees) for crisper skin that isn’t too leathery.”

Again, low and slow is the key to success. Blevins suggests that when barbequing larger items, such as brisket or pork shoulder, smoke the meat outside first, and then move it to a low oven indoors to finish it off. Always cook the meat with the fat cap up, as turning it is not necessary.

Blevins prefers to pair barbecued foods with red zinfandels, which he says are bold enough to take on the spiciness of the food. Sides can be simple, such as coleslaw, baked or BBQ beans and, of course, cornbread.

Peter Rathmann, owner of B.J.'s BBQ (754 N. McCarran Blvd., Sparks) recently became a judge for the Kansas City BBQ Association and sits on the board of directors for the National BBQ Association. His winning ribs have garnered top honors at the Best of the West Cook Off, an invitation-only event held Labor Day weekend (this year: Aug. 30-Sept. 3) annually by John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks. After one of his wins, he reports that one of the Texas competitors gave him a rare hug and declared him “one of us.”

One of Rathmann’s secrets is a closely guarded formula for his “dry rub,” the spice mix that most competitors use to season the meat before cooking. He will part with this much information: Two parts sugar to one part salt. After that, add small amounts of the spices of your choice until you get what you want. Things to try: paprika, pepper, herbs, granulated garlic or cumin.

He suggests that people cook until the meat is tender and the bones slide out. For added food safety, use a meat thermometer to make certain that proper temperatures are reached. Most butchers can provide guidelines for any type of meat if you ask.

According to Rathmann, if you want to start a fight with a Texan, start a discussion about the “smoke ring” on the meat. Apparently, there is no such thing as a “smoke ring.” The pink color comes more from the spices used reacting with the heat of the cooking process. This revelation, by Kansas City BBQ Association President Ed Roth, caused several overall-wearing, sensitive cookers to storm out in disgust.

But when all is said and done, what matters more than the awards or the theoretical debates is the food. The process of learning to make world-class ribs and chicken is as much a rite of passage as it is a way to get something to eat.