Okay, so looking out the window, it might not seem like the start to BBQ season, but trust me: there are backyard champions all over America just counting down the minutes to Memorial Day weekend, waiting for the first clear, blue and sun-struck afternoon to break out that big grill, crack open a case of tallboys and get down to the serious business of outdoor cooking. Chefs are already making plans for their summer BBQ spectaculars (see Joule's Urban BBQ for the best I've seen thus far). And just this morning, I found myself having a long conversation with a couple of friends about the rules of backyard barbecuing--a kind of informal list of thou-shalt-nots laid down in advance of the summer sun.
Is it just me, or does that pig look like he's waiting for something other than BBQ?
Now, me? I don't barbecue. I don't grill. Frankly, I don't home-cook much at all. Instead, I dine. And because of the weirdness of my position, I get to spend the entire summer going to places where other people bring the barbecue to me rather than having to go out in the yard and make it myself.
Nice work if you can get it, right?Still, I've been on both sides of the apron. And owing to this, I have come up with a series of do's and don't for all of you out there who do like getting out in the yard and charring stuff on the grill. A lot of these are simple. Most of them are common sense. Some of them, though? You'd be amazed how often I've seen these elemental BBQ commandments broken in the course of my hungry wanderings.
I'm going to start off with the biggest rule of all:
Thou Shalt Know The Fucking Difference Between "Grilling" and "Barbecuing":
To grill is to cook stuff fast over direct heat (read: fire). To barbecue is to cook stuff slow using indirect heat (read: not fire). To grill is to throw a few burgers, some dogs, maybe a couple chicken breasts down on the grate and let fire do what fire is meant to do. To barbecue is to take an entire pork shoulder, rack of ribs, side of beef, what-have-you and close it up inside a hot box for a loooong goddamn time and let the magic of smoke and low heat do its business. This nomenclature matters. A lot. Invite someone over to your house for a barbecue and then offer them nothing but grilled burgers and brats? This person, if they care deeply about proper barbecue, might hold it against you for a very long time. They might talk shit about you to their friends and relations. They might "forget" to invite you over to their house when they get it in their heads to make some actual barbecue, and then where are you? Crying and with no ribs is where.
Thou Shalt Not Put Vegetables in the Side Dishes. EVER.:
Do not put chopped up bell peppers in the macaroni salad. Do not put chunks of celery in the potato salad. A little pickle relish? That might be okay, but for god's sake be discrete about it and go easy. Backyard cooking is about the meat. No one ever made a good impression on his friends and neighbors by showing off his wicked bell pepper brunoise.
Thou Shalt Remember the Hierarchy and Keep It Holy:
Wood is better than charcoal. Charcoal is better than briquettes. Everything is better than gas. Gas should be a cooking method of last resort when we're talking about working outdoors. In the kitchen, gas is best. A big afterburner plume from a blackened rangetop is a beautiful thing to behold. But when grilling--and particularly when barbecuing--wood is what you want.
Thou Shalt Not Make Cornbread Unless Thou REALLY Knowest What Thou Art Doing:
In many cases having even a bad version of a thing (barbecue, chicken wings, blowjobs) is better than not having the thing at all. This is not the case with cornbread. There is absolutely nothing worse than bad cornbread--all dry and crumbly and awful. Bad cornbread can ruin an otherwise great barbecue, so unless you truly know what you're doing in the cornbread department, just leave it alone. Also, as a bread-based codicil to this commandment, the proper type of bread for pulled pork sandwiches is the cheapest, whitest grocery store bread you can find. Nothing artisan, nothing fancy, nothing with any flavor at all if it can possibly be avoided. The pork is what matters in a pulled pork sandwich, so don't let the bread upstage your meat.
Thou Shalt Serve Baked Beans:
Not the ones from the can, though. Make your own. It's not tough. But bear in mind that you shouldn't use the same sauce you're using for your barbecue to spice up your beans. If you have a great BBQ sauce, using it twice is just too much of a good thing--like wearing an all-white suit with a white shirt, white shoes and a white top hat and ascot. The best and simplest bean sauces are just brown sugar, some onion, maybe a little ketchup or hot sauce, some mustard powder. Oh, and bacon. I'd make a separate Thou Shalt just to cover the inclusion of bacon in your baked beans, but that's really more of a general rule than something barbecue specific: if bacon can be added to something, bacon should be added.
Thou Shalt, In This One Instance, Serve Your Sauce On The Side:
Like so many other things in this world, barbecue is best when naked. And I don't care how good you think your sauce is--make it, put it in a bowl or a squeeze bottle and keep it to the side. If I want to try it, I will, but don't force me to by slathering it all over everything before I have a chance to taste the smoke and the rub of a properly prepared and naked rib.