Pitmaster meat-smoking secrets

Recipes for rubs, sauce, plus smoked chicken, salmon, brisket

By Alison Highberger / For The Bulletin


Published May 13, 2014 at 12:11AM / Updated May 13, 2014 at 11:43AM

Forget about plain old grilling this summer. Declare a moratorium on tossing food on a hot grill, even if it’s marinated and seasoned perfectly, and tastes pretty good the way you’ve always cooked it. Why?

You’re missing a dimension: smoke.

It’s what makes the food taste so great at barbecue restaurants.

For real barbecue, you have to add smoke to meat via wood chunks on the charcoal (but not too much).

You have to tweak your outdoor cooking techniques, too: Cook the meat low and slow (that’s about 250 degrees for hours).

Barbecue rubs are a must. Learn to serve sauce on the side, not slathered all over everything. That’s the real barbecue deal, according to pitmasters Ray Lampe and Melissa Cookston.

“What you’re doing with the chicken on the gas grill is not barbecue!” said Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe when we talked to him by phone recently from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. (www.drbbq.com).

Lampe (rhymes with “scampi”) is a multiple barbecue cook-off champion, a “spokeschef” for the Big Green Egg ceramic grill/oven/smoker, and author of six cookbooks, including “Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Barbecue,” (Chronicle Books, 2012) and “Pork Chop: 60 Recipes for Living High on the Hog,” Chronicle Books, 2014).

“I live in the southeast of the U.S., where we consider slow cooking to be barbecue. We consider burning the chicken to be grilling,” he said with a laugh.

Lampe shared tips with us for smoking meat that will help you make some of his favorite southern-style soul food, like Memphis-Style Dry Baby Back Ribs, Low and Slow Memphis Style Pulled Pork and Planked Salmon with Soy-Honey Glaze (see recipes).

“You’ll swear it’s just about the best thing you’ve ever eaten,” Lampe said about home-cooked, rubbed and smoked barbecued food.

You don’t need to buy an expensive smoker to cook this way. You may choose a vertical water smoker (or bullet smoker), an electric, gas, ceramic or pellet smoker, but a backyard charcoal or gas grill works well, too. You’ll just need a cooker with a lid so it will stay between 225 and 250 degrees Farenheit, plus a smoker box (small metal box with holes) for wood chunks or chips, and a lot of time.

“Patience is the key to barbecue. There’s just no good way to rush it. I like the relaxing nature of it. Put it on the fire, and sit near it for the next 10 hours; a cooler of beer, a bunch of guys, outside in nature, plus that danger element of the fire. It also fits into men’s way of cooking: If you’re going to cook a slab of ribs and I’m going to, we have to figure out whose is better,” Lampe said, referring to the many competitions he’s entered.

Barbecue’s not just for men, of course. Melissa Cookston is one of the best barbecue cooks in the country. She’s a two-time Memphis in May Grand Champion, and a three-time consecutive winner of the World Hog Championship. Cookston co-owns the Memphis Barbecue Co. restaurants, and her new, first cookbook is “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014) (www.memphisbbqco.com).

“I was the world champion twice, and there’s no ladies tee in barbecue. It’s not like I could start early or get some advantage. I think there’s a lot of ways to get good barbecue. The one thing I wanted to do with my cookbook was take the intimidation out of smoking,” she told us in a phone interview as she was driving from her home in Mississippi to Nashville, Tenn., for a book signing.

Cookston’s recipe for Brisket at the House and Burnt Ends takes about 10 hours to complete, while her Perfect Smoked Chicken (see recipes) takes about three hours.

She told us they’re both good recipes for novice smokers to try.

“The chicken’s easier; the brisket’s better. Whatever takes the longest amount of time is better,” she said.

“There’s nothing that can compare to good slow-cooked meat. You can’t get that in the oven, because you’re not going to get the smoke. It’s almost a love affair because it takes a lot of time. You can’t achieve that texture or flavor with any other cooking method. You just have to wait on it,” Cookston said.

Keeping track of the temperature inside the cooker is important for successful barbecue, as well as checking the temperature of the food.

Lampe writes in “Slow Fire” that many cookers come with a thermometer already installed.

“If not, you can use a remote instant-read thermometer, which has a readout base that stays outside with a cable and probe that go inside the cooker. These are nice because you can check the temperature near the grate, which is where the meat is cooking,” he writes.

“You can also stick a thermometer through a raw potato and put it on the grate so it can read the air temperature near the piece of meat. Or try an oven thermometer sitting on the grate, and you can open the lid and look at it fast,” Lampe told us.

To check the temperature of the food, Lampe suggests a remote thermometer or a unit with dual probes that can check the meat’s internal temperature at the same time as the inside of the cooker.

“Or you can go the simple route and get a hand-held instant-read thermometer. I like these because you can check the meat in different places, or check multiple pieces of meat very quickly. The absolute best in this category is the Superfast Thermapen by Thermoworks,” Lampe writes in “Slow Fire.”

First-timers to smoker cooking are advised to start with pork.

“Barbecue seems to work really well for pork. It has that fatty content to it, and yeah, boy, it’s certainly my favorite. People in Texas will argue for brisket, but pork shoulder or pork butt is such a great place to start,” Lampe said.

Both Lampe and Cookston have many recipes in their cookbooks for homemade rubs and sauces, and both make the point that “sauce should complement the meat, not overpower it,” as Cookston says.

“Traditionally, barbecue sauce is a condiment,” Lampe told us. He likes to serve it on the side or brush it on very late in cooking as a finishing glaze.

Both pitmasters write about how contests are won by building layers of bold flavor with seasonings, rubs, brining, liquid injections, pastes and more, so as you get into barbecue smoking, you might want to experiment with their advanced methods.

Both cookbooks list the basic tools that will help you barbecue, from knives and gloves to charcoal chimneys (to help get charcoal going without lighter fluid), grill brushes, tongs and skewers. Like most hobbies, there are interesting accessories that can make things fun and easy.

If you like to grill, you’ll get a kick out of introducing smoke into your fire this summer. Keep at it, and follow Lampe and Cookston’s advice, and it won’t be long before your backyard smoking turns out food that tastes like it came from a soulful barbecue shack.

— Reporter: ahighberger@ mac.com

Courtesy Leigh Beisch Low and Slow Memphis-Style Pulled Pork

Low and Slow Memphis-Style Pulled Pork

Makes 12 servings.

Slow-smoked pork shoulder is what real barbecue is all about in Memphis — long shreds of meat served with a little barbecue sauce on the side as a main course or a great sandwich. Just make sure to start early and cook it until it’s done. It may seem like a long time, but the results are worth it.

— Ray Lampe

One 7- to 8-lb pork butt

Barbecue Rub No. 67 (see recipe at left)

½ C apple juice

Barbecue sauce

Do not trim the fat cap off the pork butt! You may trim any extra pieces that are hanging loose, but most of the trimming will be done after the cooking. Season the meat liberally with the rub. Put it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.

Prepare your cooker to cook indirectly at 235 using a combination of two-thirds cherry and one-third hickory wood for smoke flavor (along with charcoal). Put the butt in the cooker, fat-side up, and cook until the internal temperature is 180. This should take 8 to 10 hours, depending on your cooker.

Lay out a big double-thick sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and put the pork butt in the middle. As you begin to close up the package, pour the apple juice over the top of the butt and then seal the package, taking care not to puncture it. Put the package back in the cooker until the thickest part of the meat reaches an internal temperature of 200. This should take about another 2 hours.

Transfer the package from the cooker to a sheet pan. Open the top of the foil to let the steam out, and let it rest for 30 minutes. Using heavy insulated gloves or a pair of tongs and a fork, transfer the meat to a big pan. It will be very tender and hard to handle. Discard the juices as they will be quite fatty. Pull the meat apart with your hands, discarding the fat and bones. Keep in big chunks or continue pulling into shreds if you prefer. Serve immediately with barbecue sauce on the side.

— “Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Barbecue,” by Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, Chronicle Books, 2012

Courtesy Leigh Beisch Planked Salmon with Soy-Honey Glaze.

Planked Salmon with Soy-Honey Glaze

Makes 4 servings.

Salmon cooked on a plank picks up just a hint of the wood flavor while it cooks, and the flavor of the sweet and salty glaze combines with it perfectly. The plank makes for a dramatic presentation when it’s brought to the table, and with the salmon already cut into serving pieces, guests can serve themselves the piece that looks just right.

— Ray Lampe

1½ lbs boneless, skinless salmon fillet, cut into 4 pieces

Salt

Soy-Honey Glaze:

½ C hoisin sauce

2 TBS soy sauce

2 TBS honey

1 tsp sesame oil

¼ tsp black pepper

Soak an alder wood cooking plank in water for 1 hour. Prepare your cooker to cook indirectly at 250 using light alder wood smoke for flavor. Place the salmon pieces on the plank, spacing them evenly apart. Salt the salmon lightly and place the plank in the cooker. Cook for 30 minutes.

To make the glaze: Combine the hoisin, soy sauce, honey, sesame oil and pepper in a small bowl. Mix well.

After the fish has cooked for 30 minutes, spoon half of the glaze over the top, coating it evenly. Cook for another 20 minutes. Spoon the rest of the glaze over the top and cook until the fish is firm, about another 20 minutes.

Transfer the whole plank to a sheet pan and take the whole thing to the table to serve.

— “Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Barbecue,” by Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, Chronicle Books, 2012

Courtesy Angie Mosier Perfect Smoked Chicken from "Smokin in the Boys Room."

Perfect Smoked Chicken

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

In the chefy world, there is always a big discussion about how to make perfect roast chicken. While I applaud their efforts, they’re slightly off the mark. They should be talking about how to make the perfect smoked chicken. By smoking chicken with a flavorful rub, you elevate an everyday dinner to amazing. I prepare this simply and concentrate on getting a good texture and appearance.

— Melissa Cookston

1 (4-lb) whole chicken

3 TBS Ultimate BBQ Rub (see recipe, Page D3)

½ C BBQ Mother Sauce (see recipe, Page D3)

Prepare a smoker to cook at 250 with 2 to 3 chunks of apple or cherry wood (along with charcoal). I prefer apple for chicken.

Using kitchen shears, cut the chicken in half lengthwise and remove excess skin and fat. Sprinkle the rub over both sides of the chicken, then place the chicken in the smoker to cook for 2½ hours, or until the thigh registers 175 on a meat thermometer. Remove from the smoker and lightly brush with the sauce, then place back in the smoker for 10 minutes to tighten up the sauce. Remove from the smoker and serve.

— “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” by Melissa Cookston, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014

Ultimate BBQ Rub

Makes about 6½ cups.

In competitions, a judge may take as little as one bite of your product — so you have to amp up the flavors. The judges tend to like flavors with more punch on both ends of the palate (both sweet and spicy areas), so this version kicks up the flavor components a few notches.

— Melissa Cookston

1 C turbinado sugar

5 C Basic BBQ Rub (see recipe above)

¼ C light chili powder

¼ C granulated garlic

1 tsp cayenne

Place the turbinado sugar in a clean coffee grinder and pulse until lightly powdered. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. (You may have to work in batches.) Add the rub, chili powder, granulated garlic and cayenne and stir until well incorporated. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 months.

— “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” by Melissa Cookston, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014

Basic BBQ Rub

Makes 2¾ cups.

This is my basic rub when I’m cooking at home. It also serves as the base rub for my Ultimate BBQ Rub — a fired-up version for the competition circuit.

— Melissa Cookston

1 C turbinado sugar

½ C granulated sugar

½ C kosher salt

1 TBS onion powder

2 TBS granulated garlic

1½ tsp cayenne

1 tsp finely ground black pepper

2 tsp dry mustard

¼ C light chili powder

1 tsp ground cumin (see note)

¼ C plus 2 TBS paprika

Place the turbinado sugar in a coffee grinder and pulse until lightly powdered. Transfer to a small mixing bowl and add the granulated sugar, salt, onion powder, granulated garlic, cayenne, black pepper, dry mustard, chili powder, cumin and paprika. Stir until well incorporated. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

Cumin note: Right before mixing any seasoning blends containing cumin, I like to lightly toast the cumin in a clean, dry skillet over medium heat for about 2 minutes or until aromatic. This brings out the oils and really improves the flavor.

— “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” by Melissa Cookston, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014

BBQ Mother Sauce

Makes about 6 cups.

This recipe has always been our “mother” competition sauce — the base we use to make the sauces we serve for competition judges. It is very forgiving of tweaking, so use it as a palette with which to add your favorite flavors. One of my favorite variations is to add a cup of peach or mango puree to 2 cups of the sauce for a fresh taste. When cooking competition chicken, I leave out the diced onion and substitute 1 tablespoon of onion powder, as I like a smoother finish on chicken.

— Melissa Cookston

¼ C canola oil

¾ C finely diced sweet or yellow onion

2 TBS minced garlic

1½ C ketchup

½ C honey

2 TBS tomato paste

¼ C white vinegar

¼ C plus 2 TBS packed dark brown sugar

¼ C Worcestershire sauce

2 tsp dry mustard

1 tsp cayenne

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

½ C water, or as needed

½ C Basic BBQ Rub or Ultimate BBQ Rub, or to taste (see recipes above)

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low if the onion is cooking too fast — you don’t want it caramelized or browned. As the onion is getting close, add the garlic and cook until lightly golden, about 2 minutes longer. Add the ketchup, honey, tomato paste, vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire, dry mustard, cayenne and black pepper and stir well. Slowly add water until the sauce reaches the consistency you like. A slightly thick consistency is best. Add about 3 tablespoons of the rub, stir well and taste. The sauce should have a good, well-rounded flavor. Add more rub in 1-tablespoon increments until your desired flavor is achieved. Cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

— “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” by Melissa Cookston, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014

Courtesy Angie Mosier Brisket at the House and Burnt Ends from "Smokin in the Boys Room" cookbook.

Brisket at the House and Burnt Ends

Makes 4 to 5 pounds.

This is a simple, old-school brisket complete with a rich, deep crust and a dense smoke flavor, and while I have turned in similar briskets and done well in competition, cooking this recipe is about expressing a more traditional flavor than most judges expect. You will have leftover rub, and it will keep in an airtight container for about a month.

— Melissa Cookston

House Brisket Rub:

1 C kosher salt

½ C granulated sugar

¼ C coarsely ground black pepper

For the Brisket:

1 (10- to 12-lb) choice grade whole beef brisket

2½ TBS yellow mustard

For the Burnt Ends:

2 TBS Ultimate BBQ Rub

1 C Chipotle Bold BBQ Sauce (see recipe below)

Prepare a smoker to cook at 250 (with charcoal and added wood). I prefer pecan wood, but any milder wood will do. I use 4 to 6 chunks of wood through the first 3 hours, and then replenish it. I don’t use any more wood after I wrap the meat in foil.

Mix the ingredients for the house brisket rub.

Remove any fat pockets from the surface of the flat part of the brisket and any surface fat from the top of the point. Sprinkle the meat side with 2 tablespoons of the rub, then top with 1½ tablespoons of the mustard and massage it into the meat. Place in the smoker meat side up and cook for 6 hours or until the temperature registers 150 to 160 on a meat thermometer.

Remove the brisket and place it in a large aluminum pan. Season with 1 more tablespoon of the house rub and the remaining 1 tablespoon of mustard and massage into the meat. Leave the brisket in the pan and return to the smoker. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 202 or a meat probe slides in easily, 3 to 4 more hours. Remove from the smoker and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Pour off the drippings into another container and set aside. Using a sharp boning knife and wearing heatproof gloves, slice through the fat between the point and the flat to separate the pieces. Leave the flat of the brisket in the pan, cover, and place in an empty cooler or Cambro for 1 to 2 hours to rest.

For the burnt ends, place the point of the brisket on a cutting board and remove the exterior fat. Slice horizontally through the middle of the point and then cut into 1-inch-square pieces. Place in a small pan, season with Ultimate BBQ Rub, and pour in ½ cup of the beef drippings and the sauce. Stir to coat the pieces. Place the uncovered pan back into the cooker for 1½ hours, or until the sauce is caramelized around the ends.

To serve the rest of the brisket, remove the flat from the pan, reserving any more accumulated drippings. Slice into ¼-inch slices across the grain and serve with the drippings. The brisket and the burnt ends will keep in resealable plastic bags in the freezer for up to 2 months.

— “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” by Melissa Cookston, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014

Chipotle Bold BBQ Sauce

Makes 31⁄2 cups.

This is my favorite sauce. I don’t really think of it as a hot sauce, but the chipotle chilies add a wonderfully warm, smoky layer with a little bit of heat on the back end. If you like it hotter, just add more of the chipotle chili puree.

—Melissa Cookston

2 TBS white vinegar

1 (8-oz) can chipotle chilies in adobo sauce

3 C BBQ Mother Sauce (see recipe at left)

1 TBS Ultimate BBQ Rub (see recipe at left)

Puree the vinegar and chipotles together in a blender.

In a small stockpot over low heat, combine the mother sauce and rub. Heat until the sauce is warm, and then add 2 tablespoons of the chipotle-vinegar puree. Stir and then taste. This is the heat level we serve for judges, but if you want it hotter, add 1 or 2 more tablespoons of the chipotle-vinegar puree. Cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. The sauce will get hotter as it sits, so be careful.

— “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” by Melissa Cookston, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014