A Barbecue Primer
Created | Updated May 27, 2005
Barbecue - the English version of the Spanish version of an Arawak word for 'a wood frame upon which meat is dried or smoked.' The activity of roasting food outdoors, or the apparatus to do so.
The Development of Barbecuing in the Great Plains
Travel back to the period of North American history when the land west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies was explored and settled, by Anglos from the East and Hispanics from the South. It's a huge land, essentially flat in topography, and dominated by prairie. These immense ranges of prairie, spreading before the feet of the new peoples, were eminently suited to support what became a vital and storied industry: cattle-ranching.
Northward from Mexico, with the people that husbanded them, came the Longhorn, a hardy breed of cattle that came to thrive on these ranges.
There are no fences. The only limitations to a rancher's success are the strength of his will, the depth of his fortune, the fame of his brand, and the quality of his kitchen.
Eh? Come again? His kitchen?
Sure. After all, the man owns several thousand head, and they're spread all over Hell and Creation. They need continual attention, for which a small army of cowhands is required. Pleasures are few and simple in that rough-and-ready world...and for those hombres who have long since learned to sleep in the saddle, the few simple pleasures are very significant. 'Good Pay, Good Food' is the best endorsement that a rancher, as a potential employer, could earn.
Of course, to feed a small army of cowhands - vaqueros - 'buckaroos' - all over Hell and Creation, the ranchers face a logistical challenge. The chuck wagon1 is the only practical option. One has to have a well-stocked larder. No problem there...pack some beans, some cornmeal, some sugar, some dried chiles, and a great deal of coffee. The main course is the freshest beef possible.
Camp cuisine developed on these ranges. Many ways were discovered to turn good red beef into scorched leather, and the cooks, some sooner, some later, realised that there is a bit of an art to doing it right. This art is what we now know as 'barbecue.'
Beef is central to barbecuing across the Great Plains. Around the world, there are many traditions which highlight different cookers, meats, sauces, and sides. Some recipes are regarded as sacred. Others are jealously-guarded secrets. Still others are flamboyant expressions of haute cuisine. It's all good. The main point, common to these different traditions, is the proper cooking of delicious meat dishes using 'primitive' outdoor facilities. The successful barbecue chef is regarded as a gourmet.
The Nuts And Bolts
Equipment, conventions, and techniques to conduct a barbecue are hereby discussed. Recipes are not material to this presentation.
Coals, Not Flames
A large chunk of beef, sizzling over an open flame, looks and sounds mighty enticing. Direct exposure to flame, however, is bad news for any meat. Flaming fuel produces smoke. Smoke precipitates as tar and carries soot. Additionally, if the fat on the meat ignites, its chemical composition is altered to something you really don't want to eat. Don't cremate it, just gently raise its temperature.
Conformation of the Fire
A proper bed of coals is much hotter than flame, and a proper hearth or firebox is necessary to collect and concentrate the heat. Forget the image of a campfire set up on flat ground. It's not hot enough to cook meat properly, but sufficient for keeping the coffee warm and the bugs away. Dig a fire-pit instead. Bowl-shaped pits and trenches with semi-circular cross-sections are efficient designs. Better yet, the conscientious camp cook will have a cooker at hand.
Discussion of Cooker Types
The flat-pack cooker on the rickety, wobbly tripod is a waste of money. It's only hot enough for burgers and dogs2, but nothing bigger. There's not enough depth in the pan to hold the heat. A formula for this would stipulate that the depth of the efficient firebox is half its horizontal width. Safety is also a concern, due to the weak and unstable frame.
The better backyard cooker features a bowl-shaped firebox with an equally voluminous cover. The grill remains stationary, and temperature is controlled by means of the cover and a set of upper and lower vents.
The gas cooker is a waste of more money. It's too tricky to regulate the heat, and the lava rocks that are provided to store the heat tend to store grease drippings as well. The gas cooker is prone to flare-ups. It's touted as an environmentally-responsible alternative to wood and charcoal, but the concept needs refinements. The gas ovens and broilers in our kitchens are designed for efficient cooking, and the researcher suggests that gas cooking is best kept in the kitchen. Fine barbecue-style food can be created in the kitchen, after all.
The Hibachi is a time-tested, efficient design. Its small size limits its utility for large gatherings, but it is perfect for the intimate barbecue experience. A main consideration is that the meat be thinly cut, perhaps in conformance with Asian culinary practices. (The Researcher once attempted to broil a turkey loaf on an Hibachi, and the result was not worth the effort.)
The oildrum design is the Researcher's favourite, and a mainstay of serious barbecue chefs everywhere. These community-sized cookers, originally fabricated from 55-gallon drums, are capable of roasting a yearling pig. It takes several hours to do so, naturally, but a righteous Lechon3 is a labour of love. There are smaller sizes available through retail, eminently suitable for family fetes.
Equipment and Tools
- A sturdy work table is your kitchen counter. Omitting this item will cause major inconvenience.
- A set of fire tools would include a small shovel, fire tongs, poker, and bucket.
- The cooking tools should be sturdy and long-handled: Fork, spoon, spatula, tongs, and basting-brush.
- Knives and a cutting board. If the meat has been previously cut and trimmed (recommended), no on-site butchering is necessary. The board would be needed for large roasts.
- Stainless serving trays and heavy-duty foil are necessary to keep the cooked food warm.
- A cast-iron skillet and kettle would be used to cook the hot side dishes.
- A source of fresh water.
- A steady supply of cold drinks.
- A satisfying variety of cold drinks.
- Aprons and mitts for all cooks. Style points are awarded, or deducted, for the slogan on the apron.
- A cooler full of refreshing drinks.
The most popular fuel for a backyard barbecue is hardwood charcoal, formed into briquettes. It is neat, convenient, and consistent in its properties. It has no specific aroma or character. Hardwood or fruitwood is good, but it's a challenge to make a steady fire. It works well with the big cookers. Brushwood is undesirable, and may be a health hazard, unless the gatherer knows what type of brush he's gathering. For example, oleander is poison to man and beast. It's a large flowering shrub, suitable for hedges. In some areas, the public are clearly warned by roadside signs not to burn oleander. Generally speaking, brushwood is punishment for not being prepared. Mineral coal is not recommended. The Researcher has had no experience with either peat or cow dung as fuel.
Aromatic woods, used for that fine spicy flavour, are adjuncts to the fire and not fuel. When those fragrant logs are ready for the meat, they'll be bright coals devoid of the aromatic smoke. Shops that cater to the serious barbecuer will offer various types of wood chips. Hickory and mesquite are common flavours. Soak a handful of these chips in water, and strew them over the coals. They will then smoulder on the cooking bed like incense, gently releasing their spice, until they dry out and ignite. At that point, the meat above them will have received the flavour.
Building the Charcoal Fire
Build a conical pile of charcoal briquettes. It's difficult to ascertain precisely how much you'll need, but it's obviously better to have too much than not enough. With practice, you'll learn to estimate it closely.
Soak the pile with charcoal starter fluid. Not to saturation, but full coverage. Wait a few minutes for the fluid to soak in deeply.
Light the fire. Leave it alone. Put the starter fluid away. Sit back, pour a brew, chew the fat. The charcoal will develop spots of ash on the edges. Even if the flame from the starter fluid has subsided, the fire is still burning. Leave it alone. The ash will spread, which means the fire is growing. Give it a good half hour. You can use the time to make sure everything else is ready. In the meantime, leave it alone.
Is the charcoal completely covered with ash? Okay, now you can play with it. Spread the coals into a bed. Throw in the wet wood chips at this point, if you use them. Set the grill in place and load up the meat.
If you expect the cooking to last more than an hour or so, you'll need to replenish the cooking bed. To put fresh fuel on the bed is a bad idea, because you want to avoid the products of combustion. Establish an area off to the side where the new fuel can properly settle in.
Basic fire safety is implied. Do not set up the cooker too close to trees or structures. Remove any inflammable items and tripping hazards from the vicinity of the 'operating theatre.' Have water, sand, or an extinguisher to hand.
Do not even think about using a cooker indoors.
A solid stand for the cooker is necessary. Barring an act of an unkind Providence, there should be nothing that could tip the works over. Pets, frolicking children and stumbling drunks should be constrained from approaching the fire. It is a faux pas for a cook to become stumbling drunk.
After the fire is started, hide the starter fluid. Too many accidents have been caused by playing with it. Stay out of the cooks' way. Arrange a relief system of cooks. Continued smoke inhalation or heat exhaustion can ruin the experience.
The host, or the duly designated Chief Cook, has the final word. Guests' offers of assistance may be graciously accepted, but their 'expertise' will be ignored. Cigarette butts will not be tossed into the fire.
If food from the grill is bobbled and hits the ground, the three-second rule applies. If it picks up grit, it can be rinsed and returned to the grill for refinishing. If it's on the ground more than three seconds, the dog gets a treat. Cooks can taste at their discretion. Guests will wait for samples to be offered. If a guest's face and shirt front are smeared and spattered with sauce, that's a good thing. The barbecue is the rare occasion where men get together to cook. No sarcasm, please. We've heard all the one-liners.