Talking with Master Chef Mike from Tennesseasonings about BBQ is like eating his smoked meats: One bite and you are hooked, and there’s always room for more. Needless to say we came back for a second helping of both, and wanted to share his considerable insight about all things BBQ.
- In the beginning there was BBQ.
Barbacoa, Jerk, Kahlua, Bulgogi, or Barbecue; no matter what you call it, smoked, slow-cooked roasted meats are loved all over the world. Smoking meats was once used to preserve a kill so it wouldn’t have to be gorged on all at once. No one is sure where the name barbecue originated but the Spanish used the word ‘barbacoa’ to describe the Caribbean native way of cooking meat over a wooden platform. By the nineteenth century the technique of barbecue was well established in the American south and, because pigs were prevalent for many slave communities, pork became the primary meat used in barbecue. Here in the US, barbecue is a tradition of many, with styles varying greatly by region, due to local influence. From the New England clambakes and the Baltimore pit beef or the St Louis ribs and the Texas brisket; everyone seems to love bbq in one form or another, and we will talk more on that later.
- Let’s talk about preparation.
There are an endless number of different tools and grills, but there are 6 main grill types to talk about here: open, covered, ceramic, rotisserie, smoker, and fire-pit. The open grill is one of the most simple; a metal or stone box with wood or charcoal on the bottom and a grate or rack for the food to rest on as it is cooked. The covered grill has a lid that can be opened or closed at will and adds the ability to smoke food. Ceramic grills employ a thick wall and use the radiant heat from those walls as well as the direct heat from coals. One personal favorite, the rotisserie grill adds movement to the grill process. The slow rotation ensures even cooking and delicious crispy brown skin. One of the oldest American grills is the smoker. It uses low heat and smoke to cook and preserve meat in a tasty way. Lastly an open pit or campfire style is just a fire pit with a stick to hold over the fire. Master Chef Mike prefers the smoker, to give the meat that perfect combination of taste and texture that alights the senses and delights the soul!
- Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Smoke, the most important element to good barbecue, comes in many forms, and can be the difference between good and great barbecue. Originally all barbecue was cooked with dry hardwood. The heat cooked, the smoke added the flavor. Today charcoal, gas and even electricity is used for heat and wood chips, pellets, chunks or sawdust for smoke. Meat drippings also create smoke. The type of smoke is important. Hardwood, deciduous trees can be up to 50 percent water and therefore produce a lot of steam. Softwoods result in a bitter smoke taste. One of the most popular woods used is the bold and spicy mesquite. It is best on large cuts of meat since it tends to burn hot. Hickory, a close second, reminds folks of bacon. Pecan has a more subtle nutty flavor complementary to pork. Oak and maple are popular choices as well. Fruit trees like cherry, apple, and peach give food a slightly sweet and smoky flavor. Mixing cuts of meat and woods can be a fun and delicious way to find the perfect recipe. Master Chef Mike would love to share his secret combinations with you, but then the Russians might hack it and share it with the world. So we must keep it a closely guarded secret away from computer servers in bathroom closets.
- Chef Mike Knows BBQ, and the flavors are as distinct as where they originate.
- BBQ from Dixie.
Louisiana, like the rest of the south, has a love for barbecued meat, including the famed gator meat. Couchon de lait is a southern Louisiana tradition where a suckling pig is stuffed with garlic and spices and rubbed with seasonings, then slow roasted. Traditional pork barbecue is popular all over the state with creole and cajun seasonings being the unique factor. Louisiana is also known for its smoked or barbecued alligator and andouille, a smoked sausage made using pork. French immigrants, along with Acadians, merged to create the creole culture and it influenced much of the Louisiana flavor profile, and barbecue is no different. Crawfish bakes are another Louisiana experience unlike any other. Another state that enjoys alligator is Florida. The many barbecue styles reflect the melting pot culture of the migrant state of Florida. Unique to Florida barbecue are the citrus wood and juices used to infuse sauces and smoke the meat. Cuban flavors are popular in southern Florida. Smoked mullet, a type of fish is a tradition that is disappearing because the mangrove wood used to smoke it is now illegal to cut down. Mississippi barbecue is a little different from the rest of the southern barbecue world. Goat is a hugely popular barbecue dish in this region, much like Jamaica. The goat is slaughtered and then parboiled over an open fire and finally smoked over charcoal with a sweet thick tomato based sauce. Across the street in Arkansas, it is hard to define the style but there is no doubt about their love of barbecue. Arkansas borders many states and shares Texas and Memphis influences. Pork reigns in the eastern part of the state, and beef in the west. Moving on up to Oklahoma, barbecue borrows from Native Americans in this long-standing Cherokee influenced area, much like my home in Chattanooga, still home to nearby John Ross, former Chief of the nation. The Texas influence brings beef into Oklahoma as well as a sweet tomato based sauce. A Thanksgiving tradition in Oklahoma includes a smoked sausage with the turkey.
There is a saying that goes “Everything is bigger in Texas” and their love of barbecue is no exception. Texans say beef is the answer to great BBQ. The styles of barbecue in Texas are as vast as the state itself, so I have narrowed them down by regions. East Texas prefers it’s beef slowly cooked over hickory wood, falling off the bone, and covered in a sweet tomato based sauce. In central Texas, the preferred method is to rub their beef with spices and smoke it over indirect heat using pecan or oak. The beef in west Texas is cooked over direct heat with mesquite wood, and in south Texas they like a thick molasses type sauce that keeps the meat super moist. Finally on the Texmex border, barbacoa is a tradition using beef cooked in a pit covered with maguay leaves – goat and sheep are also popular in this style. The border is the only part of Texas where traditional southern sides like baked beans, coleslaw, cornbread are not served alongside the meat. No special occasion is needed for barbecue in Texas – it is an everyday thing.
In the great state of North Carolina, it is undisputed that barbecue should include people and pit-cooked pork. However which parts of the pig and which sauces are highly debated. The two most distinct styles are Eastern and Lexington. A sharp tomato free vinegar and pepper sauce influenced by Scottish settlers is important to the Eastern style. A whole hog is cooked in a pit for hours and served with a red slaw. Lexington style is a red sauce seasoned with ketchup, vinegar and pepper and uses only the pork shoulder. It is served with a mayonnaise based sauce. Both styles enjoy spareribs cooked with whichever sauce you like best. According to people from South Carolina, real barbecue is pork and takes 12 hours to cook, and, most importantly, comes from SC. There are four main kinds of barbecue in SC. Original Scottish influenced barbecue is found on the coastal plains. It is characterized by it’s use of vinegar and pepper. The second style, mustard sauce based BBQ, or “Carolina Gold,” originated with German settlers. Third is a light tomato based sauce popular in upper coastal plain areas. Last, but not least, is the heavy sweet tomato sauce of the southern part of the state.
- Kentucky Mutton
Bourbon, not Barbecue, is the first thing that comes to mind when I hear Kentucky. However, Kentuckians have a unique claim to BBQ fame; mutton. Kentucky is known for its mutton barbecue and black sauce that they like to call ‘dip’. Mutton, the meat from a sheep, usually full grown, is not traditionally used in southern American barbecue. Having said that, Kentucky does it very well. Using mutton started out of necessity and convenience, as did most other southern barbecues. Aging sheep did not produce enough wool. Food was another way to get use from these sheep. The meat is cooked in large pieces over hickory coals and basted with a worcestershire and vinegar spiced sauce. Mutton isn’t the only barbecue you will find in Kentucky, though. In the western part of the state they put cured ham and turkey breast in the pit and then thinly slice the smoky meat for sandwiches. Another unique Kentucky tradition is ‘monroe county’ style. They thinly slice boston butts and cook them over hickory coals with chicken and pork tenderloin, mopping up a ‘dip’ of vinegar, lard and pepper. The more it is dipped the spicier it is. Bluegrass state can produce more than just bourbon and basketball.
- BBQ Yankee style.
Be careful of Yankee BBQ. Some folks try, but a lot of it is as much BBQ as mud-river catfish is sushi. In Baltimore, Maryland, where many southerners settled over the many years, pitbeef is the claim to fame. It is grilled, not smoked and served rare, which would be a sin for most barbecue connoisseurs, especially in the south. Pitbeef uses top round, not brisket, and is shaved thin in a meat slicer, then served with a horseradish sauce and raw onion as opposed to barbecue sauce and coleslaw. In Vermont, they have a signature barbecue you cannot get down south, real maple barbecue. Sugar maple wood is used to smoke the meat and maple syrup is used to flavor the sauce and marinades. On the New England seaboard, a different take on barbecue is using seafood. A traditional clambake includes clams cooked by steaming over seaweed with corn, potatoes and other vegetables in a fire pit prepared with layers of stones and wet seaweed and prepared meat. It is then covered with a wet canvas and cooked for several hours. Just goes to show that the barbecue method of cooking is used in many different ways in many cultures and universally loved. Clam bakes sound like an awesome party I would like to attend.
Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures, including the Samoan culture, that brought various foods and cooking styles, and heavily reliant upon earth ovens, called imus, to cook meat and fish. The imus combine roasting and steaming, a method of cooking they call kalua. After pieces of meat were cooked this way they were put in a pit. The pit had been lined with volcanic rock or granite and a wood fire started. Once the rocks are glowing the wood embers are removed and this is when the meat is placed in the pit. Wet leaves and dirt cover the meat and a bamboo pole is inserted to add water and create steam. This intense heat cooks the food thoroughly. Large quantities are cooked and kept warm to eat for several days. This tradition continues to this day for special occasions. In 19th century pineapple and sugar plantations took over much of the land and became a popular food choice. Hawaiian flavors were also influenced by the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos. Barbecue sauce in Hawaii is basically a teriyaki sauce and is usually served with grilled pineapple. One popular technique is to use banana leaves to wrap a boston butt and serve it with a pineapple barbecue sauce.
- Big City Style
Some states outside the south have cities that are famous on their own for their barbecue. Three of the best are Kansas City, Chicago and St. Louis. In Kansas City, wide varieties of meat are slow cooked and smoked over different hard woods. The meat is then covered with a thick, sweet tomato and molasses based sauce. Burnt ends, the pieces of meat cut from the point half of a brisket, are considered a Kansas City delicacy. St Louis has declared pork ribs and spare ribs their kings. St Louis style ribs refers to a cut and shape of meat that makes it easier to cook and baste evenly. The local delicacy in St Louis is crispy snouts, barbecued pigs cheeks and noses. Chicago has north and south sides that totally disagree about what great barbecue consists of. The south side uses red oak cooked in an aquarium style smoker. The north uses a rotisserie style smoker for their pork butt and brisket and use local hardwood only. It’s probably not a coincidence all three places known for their BBQ are also known for their famed crooners, lyricists and guitarists of the blues.
- BBQ Around the globe.
It is believed by most food aficionados that the originator of the American style barbecue we know today was the Taino Indians of the Caribbean. They smoked meat over a frame of green wood. Modern day barbecue in the islands has many different styles. In Cuba, Lechon asado is grilled pork highly seasoned and served with rice and beans. And who could leave out Cuban Mojo, the citrusy papaya mix makes for the most tender meat you could imagine. In Jamaica the most prevalent barbecue dishes have jerk in their name. Spices are rubbed on the meat and it is then smoked over charcoal. Puerto Rico’s Lechon is a whole pig sliced from head to tail and slowly grilled on a stick rotating over an open fire. The slow rotation makes for an even crusty exterior and a mouth watering juicy center. Haitian barbecue ribs are a popular choice and unlike the Spanish side of the island Creole seasonings are king. Sour orange, lemon, and scotch bonnet make the barbecue fiery hot. Tomatoes are not frequently used in the sauce and rice and beans are normal sides. Barbados and Trinidad’s pig tails are the local delicacy. They are brined and then rubbed with spice and grilled till crispy and served at most special occasions. The necessity of experimenting with the newest styles forces Master Chef Mike to plan his trips to the Caribbean around America’s winter time.
Barbacoa, Spanish for barbecue, is as varied and loved in Mexico as it is in the U.S. Of course regional favorites differ. Pig, goat, cow, sheep and poultry are all used and everyone has their favorites. One of the most popular meats is sheep. They are slow roasted in an underground pit and served with a sauce of choice and fresh corn tortillas. Barbacoa is served most for special occasions, as it is labor intensive to fix. Puebla, a state in southeastern Mexico, is famous for it’s own version of bbq sauce called Mole Poblano Quajalote. It is a complicated sauce containing many, many ingredients depending on who is cooking it. It takes all day to prepare and often mole prep is a party in itself but the end product is amazing. Popular nationwide is Pollo al carbon. It is split chicken grilled over charcoal and served with a mexican style bbq sauce called adobo. Adobo recipes vary greatly and are often carefully guarded family secrets. In the southern region of Mexico, Cabrito, which is barbecued goat, is popular. It is usually cooked whole in an underground pit. Mexicans love their grilled and smoked meats as much as the rest of us do. I think I will make it my mission in life to try them all.
South Africa, Scotland, Australia and the middle east are just a few places in the world that are also known for their barbecue. In South Africa, the braai is the word for roasted meat in Afrikaans. From first glance this may sound like regular old barbecue, but a braai is a grill. All types of meat are cooked — sausage, lamb, steaks, chicken and seafood. Scotland’s barbecue is such a time honored tradition that huts are sold so weather will not affect a barbecue. Pepper and vinegar are the basics of Scotland’s barbecue sauce. Sheep’s meet is used frequently but also beef and poultry. The barbie, Australian’s barbecue, uses a grilled meat, not slow roasted. Lamb, prawns and sausage are king down under and sauces are similar to American, as are the side dishes. Moving on to the middle east, we have the colloquial kabobs. Beef and lamb are used primarily since many people in that region do not eat pork. They are seasoned with honey, mint, parsley, olive oil and other spices. Meat is grilled over hot coals on a stick. In many Asian countries, such as Japan, Philippines, China, and Korea, barbecue consists of smoked slow roasted meats and direct heat grilled meats. Yaki niku, which means grilled meat, is a style of barbecue that cooks bite sized meat and vegetables on griddles over charcoal. Bulgogi in Korea and Cha sui in china are the most popular forms of barbecue in their respective lands. Cha sui is a simple mix of honey, five spice powder, tofu, hoisin sauce, dark soy and rice wine used to marinate the pork. The meat is then skewered and placed over fire to cook. Bulgogi, a form of gogi gui is made with sliced beef marinated in a savory sauce of soy, sugar, sesame oil, and pepper. Galbi are short ribs marinated then cooked over charcoal or soot. Korean barbecue is probably one of the most famous worldwide other than American. In the Philippines the barbecue is similar to the United States and has a basic sauce of soy, pepper, lemon, banana ketchup, garlic, onion, and brown sugar. Many different cuts of meat are used and they are marinated then brushed with sauce while cooking over charcoal. Of course, here in Vegas, we get customers from around the world, and many of our locals can trace their ancestry to global lovers of BBQ, in their own distinctive styles.