No doubt about it, we Americans take our barbecue seriously and will fight to protect it. Regional U.S. locations have their favorites, and at some point have drawn battle lines to defend the title: Home of the Best Barbecue. Some years ago, the longstanding barbecue rivalry between Kansas City and Memphis turned downright ugly. Tempers flared; accusations flew. Charges of cheating in the contest aimed to settle the feud festered. This self-proclaimed labeling is not only the boast of cities, but extends to barbecue restaurants and backyards as well. With little goading, any BBQ eatery will rise up, greasy tongs snapping, to guard its reputation. Criticize the tough, dry ribs your buddy chars up at his annual backyard barbecue and prepare to duck hot coals.
All BBQers claim to have some secret ingredient, special cooking method, or exotic mops and rubs. As a true do-it-yourself barbecue aficionado who has stolen peeks into smoke-filled pits belonging to friends and relatives, and as one born and raised in Kansas City, lived in Texas, and traveled to Memphis (all bitter barbecue battlegrounds), I’ve found that most have a few tricks in common. Following are some of these so-called secret ingredients to help you make your next barbecue the best in town.
First, few self-respecting KC BBQers will entertain the thought of precooking meats before barbecuing. Boiling meat removes the fat and oils essential to the taste and texture. During boiling, flavor is lost to the water. Baking meat first offers no alternative. The juices, oils, and taste either goes into the garbage with the aluminum foil or ends up reduced to a hard brown crust on the bottom of the roasting pan. Cleaning the ribs properly before smoking is key to the meat sliding off the bones tenderness, while keeping all the delectable flavor and juices intact. Reaching this euphoric state of barbecue utopia requires only a few hours of cooking and smoking depending on the thickness of the meat.
Ribs are easiest to clean straight from the package. Before washing, dry the entire slab with paper towels then place it meat side down on the kitchen counter. The underside bones are covered with a thin whitish-gray film. Start lengthwise at one end lifting and peeling this skin away from you until you have raised a strip large enough to grip. Use a dishtowel or paper towel to peel it away if it proves too slippery to hang onto with bare hands. A good portion of the membrane will often rip off in one large strip and sound like tearing paper as it’s removed. If left on, by the time this sinewy cover is tender, the meat is dry and tasteless.
Many pros omit the cayenne pepper in the rib rub if they use cayenne in the sauce. The good ones never use liquid smoke in barbecue sauce. Liquid smoke leaves a heavy, metallic aftertaste that can’t come close to duplicating the velvety undertones of real smoke. Instead, invest in a good smoker, ideally one that has a water pan and uses both gas and wood like the commercial pits. Then use wood chunks or wood chips of your choice. You can either soak the chips in water or use them dry. Either way, the smoke will taste the same. Wet wood burns slower, but a couple hours of thick smoke pluming over the neighborhood might send your neighbors scurrying to call the fire department. Unlike meats cooked with charcoal, meat cooked solely with wood will retain its smoky flavor even after it’s frozen.
Hole-in the-wall Kansas City BBQ joints, the shacks in rundown neighborhoods with bad attitudes that serve exquisite barbecue, smoke their sauce. Open a pit and you’ll come eyeball to eyeball with a sinister-looking, greasy black cauldron. Its life is spent inside this smoky hell crouched in a corner burping sauce. Copy this technique by pouring your sauce in a wide kettle or pan, and then smoke it alone on a covered grill for a few hours or while the meats cook. Stir occasionally.
Many BBQ restaurants buy smoked spices to season their sauces. Cattleman’s Artisanal Smoked Spices are sold almost exclusively to restaurants – never directly to the public. http://www.adrianascaravan.com is a good link for do-it-yourselfers to purchase Cattleman’s smoked spices. Cattleman’s blends a smoked Kansas City style rib rub and BBQ seasoning, which you can buy from Adrianas. Order spice for enough sauce to fill several clean bottles. Cap, and then save in the refrigerator for the day a hankering for barbecue hits you and you can’t/won’t fire up the grill. The sauce not only retains its smoky flavor, but also keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.
A tasty, wonderfully offbeat way to prepare ribs I picked up from my mother: When using the grill is impractical, cut a slab of ribs into individual sections, season, dredge in flour, and then deep fry until fully cooked and golden. Serve drenched with smoky, warm sauce, or dunk each rib as you eat. No juice or flavor loss here.
If you like pepper heat, but hate breathing fire at first bite, add cayenne pepper to the sauce during the last few minutes of cooking. Cayenne added at this stage delays the sting and lets the spicy flavors woo your palate before the heat creeps in.