Monday, September 14, 2009

Barbecue Bellwethers

The Atomic Nerds Stingray and Lab Rat ask:
"When you walk into a barbecue joint you’ve never tried before, and are seeking to gauge the quality of the ‘cue, what is the must-order to benchmark the place: beef brisket, ribs, or pulled pork? Or, for that matter, other?

If you think it’s chicken or sausage I think you’re a freak, but I still want the data point. If you’re asking yourself why a restaurant for meat grilled outdoors would exist, we’re speaking two different languages."
Ahhh, now here's a question I can (pardon the pun) sink my teeth into.

First things first, what exactly is barbecue?

Technically, barbecue is any meat roasted over a fire using either direct or indirect heat and smoke, outdoors.

There are any number of styles of barbecue, including Caribbean, Argentine, Peruvian, Korean, Mongolian, Japanese; and in America alone, Santa Maria, Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago, and Texas style, as well as plain old American style charcoal grilling (which yes, can technically barbecue by the strict definition).

Each style has its own traditional meats, seasonings, sauces (or lack thereof) and exact details of cooking methods; and each is good in its own way.

In America, "real barbecue" , as opposed to grilling, means meat roasted with indirect heat and smoke. The differences then are primarily regional, and involve sauces, seasonings, and choices of meat.

In most of the southeast, BBQ is primarily pulled pork, in vinegar based sauces, often flavored with mustard.

In Memphis, pork ribs are king, with a dry rub. They may or may not be wet mopped with a tomato and vinegar based sauce (which may or may not contain mustard) while they are being smoked. They may, or may not be served with two sauces, one a very sweet molasses or brown sugar and tomato based sauce, the other a thing vinegar, tomato, and mustard sauce.

In the midwest and southwest, BBQ can include pulled pork and pork ribs; but is primarily cuts of beef, including beef brisket, tri tip, rump roast, flank steak, beef ribs, and both beef and pork sausages.

In Chicago, its all ribs, all the time, in a sweet slightly spicy, tomato based sauce with lots of brown sugar; and there may or may not be a rub involved.

In Kansas city it's ribs, tri tip, and brisket, with a similar but even sweeter sauce; and a sweet and only slightly spicy rub.

In Texas, and the southwest, there may or may not be vinegar, tomato, or molasses bases sauces involved; but you'll always have at least brisket and sausage.

In California, they have their own native Santa Maria style, which involves smoking above a hot fire, essentially smoking and grilling simultaneously. They use more tender cuts of beef than slow smoking styles, favoring steaks, and tri tip; and the sauce is based on beef stock, and herbs.

If you go to an all round barbecue joint outside of any of the major BBQ regions, you're likely to get some mix of all of the above; though it's rare for any particular place to do both beef and pork ribs, unless they are specifically a rib joint.

Obviously, if we're going to do some comparisons, we need to lay out at the very least, an inclusive definition of what we consider barbecue for the purposes of this test.

If we accept the proposition that proper barbecue involves hot smoked meat; and is not limited to pork (and I do), then we have a first principal to work from, and therefore can answer the question usefully.

The common barbecue dishes out there, that most places outside of an area that specializes in a particular style (i.e. Chicago specializes in ribs, South Carolina in pulled pork) are likely to have, are probably (in order of commonality):

1. Pork ribs
2. Sliced Brisket
3. Pulled pork
4. Sausage
5. Chicken (whole or parts)
6. Chicken (pulled)
7. Chopped or pulled beef (usually brisket or tri-tip)
8. Chopped or sliced pork
9. Beef ribs
10. Sliced tri-tip

If we accept those 10 as a common set of menu items for possible comparison, and that most places will have at least the top five available; the bellwether meat in that list has to be SLICED brisket.

Honestly, anyone competent can do a good pulled pork (which is probably why Carolinians insist it is the ONLY form of BBQ); and ribs aren’t significantly more difficult.

Pulling or chopping meat, and slathering it with sauce, hides a multitude of sins.

Sausage, by definition, is already pulled and chopped; and if you can't smoke a sausage properly you have no business preparing food at all.

Chicken? Seriously? You might as well just judge a place by the quality of their water. Or what ketchup they serve.

Just about every BBQ place serves chicken, because it's what people who don't like BBQ eat when they're stuck at a BBQ place... Or what a guy eats when his wife reminds him the cardiologist put him on lipitor.

Now, getting brisket just right on the other hand, requires some real work, and not inconsiderable talent.

First you have to get the right fat content. Then you need to trim both lean and fat to the required thickness. You’re dealing with a piece of meat that can very in thickness from less than half an inch up to 4″ with a fat cap of nothing to over an inch. Do you butterfly? Cut and trim? Split the brisket into more consistently sized pieces? Do you want burnt ends or not?

Then there’s your rub. Just how much sugar, salt, and spice are going to be involved; and that plays back into the fat question, as well as the strength, heat, and length of smoke.

Are you brining? Are you going to mustard or vinegar rub it first, then dry rub? or dry rub alone? or wet mop alone? or dry rub then wet mop? What about sauce glazing?

Finally, there’s the smoke itself. What wood or woods? How hot? How long? Do you smoke for half the time, then foil wrap and finish in the smoker, foil wrap and finish in the oven, or no wrap at all and smoke from raw til done???

If you’re just going to pull pork, none of that really matters; and ribs and chicken are far more forgiving of anything but overcooking and drying them out, especially when slathered with sticky sweet sauce, as most people like them.

No, brisket is really the indicator meat.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should just limit yourself to the brisket when you go to a new place; or that you should avoid it until you know that place is good. That's why they have combo plates after all.

When I check out a new place, I go for the three meat combo: Brisket, pulled pork, and sausage.

I don’t order ribs anywhere unless I already know it’s a good BBQ place; not because I think ribs are an indicator of good BBQ, but because I don’t particularly like ribs unless they are world class.

Importantly, I don’t like heavy sauce on any meat, let alone ribs. If the place is great, they don’t need to heavily sauce their ribs, and they’ll still be moist, tender, and tasty.

Unfortunately, that’s not a good indicator , because even great places frequently slather their ribs in wet, sticky, sweet sauce; because that’s how the majority of the public seem to want it.

It would be nice if you could then say “Ok, if they offer their ribs dry, it must mean they’re good” but I’ve had too much 'Q in Texas (where traditionally, ribs are dry; though not so much anymore) where dry ribs didn’t necessarily mean good ribs.

Also, having good ribs is really no indication that anything else is good. There are lots of places with fantastic ribs, but mediocre brisket and pulled pork. I have never found that to be true about brisket. If the brisket is great, everything else is generally great.

Now if you happen to be in one of the few places that put them on the menu, and want to really judge the quality of the pitmaster on duty at that moment; order smoked shrimp, or smoked fresh fish.

Both are prepared from fresh and take less than 20 minutes in a hot smoker, both are EXTREMELY difficult to get right, and both are COMPLETELY inedible when done wrong.

Of course the problem there is, if the place isn't great, and the pitmaster isn't on his game, you're going to have a bad meal. With beef and pork, even if the place isn't that great, mediocre smoked meat is still half decent with a little sauce and some bread, french fries, and a cold beer or three.

Personally, I'd play it safe and order the brisket first, and only once you know they're damn good, try seafood.