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BBQ 101: The Basics of Home Smoking Barbecued Meats

BBQ is simple but not easy.

Barbecue is one of my favorite foods to make for myself and my family. There’s nothing quite like firing up the grill and taking some time to relax out in the backyard with loved ones, smoke a cigar, do some yard work, have some whiskey or beer, and just enjoy some down time.

Smoked BBQ cooking gives you the perfect excuse to do those things and unplug from the day to day grind. And the end result is often some of the best food you’ll ever eat… if done correctly.

The good news is that making exceptional barbecue is simple. However, without any experience or knowledge, it’s not easy.

But that’s where this page and website more generally comes into play. We’re trying here to break down BBQ to the most basic level so that anyone can quickly start producing world-class smoked meats.

The Basic Concepts of BBQ

A central concept of barbecuing is knowing when to use direct heat and when to use indirect heat.

Direct heat, simply put, is where you place the food directly over the heat source.

Direct heat is best used when you want to get a sear on the meat at a higher temperature. This will allow a quick crust to form that will lock in the juices and produce a lot of flavor.

Steaks, fish, chicken pieces, and vegetables are all candidates for direct heat cooking.

Indirect heat, on the other hand, is where you place the meat away from the heat source.

Indirect heat is used for both roasting and slow & low cooking that can take hours. Briskets, ribs, and pork shoulders are all cooked with indirect heat.

These are the three main cooking temperatures to master.

The slow & low temperature is best for tougher cuts of meat that you want the cooking process to tenderize. Think brisket and the pork shoulder cuts. The key here is to use wood coals or lump charcoal for fuel. These bigger pieces allow you to go longer without having to add more fuel to your cooker.

The roasting temperature is just like you would use in your oven. Think whole chickens, salmon, or roasts. Even the pork shoulder cuts and brisket will do well at this temperature — although at a loss of some flavor from less exposure to smoke. When roasting, I prefer to use a mix of lump charcoal and briquettes.

The grilling temperature is great for anything you want to sear. Steaks, hamburgers, chicken breasts, and veggies are awesome. For grilling, use charcoal briquettes for the highest heat production.

A lot is made of the whole debate of whether it is best to use gas or charcoal as your barbecue fuel.

Although I firmly come down on the side of charcoal because it adds a layer of flavor to your grilled meats, there is a whole lot missing from this debate. Namely… wood!

The use of wood in barbecuing goes back to the time of cavemen. In the United States, barbecue wove its way into the fabric of the nation’s culinary tradition due to the efforts of pitmasters. From the black slave who did his best to make do with the toughest cuts of meat to the German immigrant who sold his smoked meats in the meat market, the common denominator was the pitmaster’s expert use of wood coals to slowly and patiently roast meats to perfection.

These pitmasters of yesteryear would burn whole hardwood logs down to coals. And then shovel those coals under or around the meat in their pits. The result was meat that not only turned out deliciously tender due to the slow roasting process, but also was infused with additional layers of flavor from the smoked produced by the wood.

Today, most barbecue restaurants have moved away from the use of wood because of the expense. But the backyard barbecuer need not.

Whether you build a backyard pit or use wood chips in your barbecue, you can infuse your slow and low meats with the ultimate flavor profile provided only by wood smoke.

Mild Woods

Mild woods such as applecherrypecan, or maple, are greats woods to use in your barbecuing. These woods tend to kiss your meats with a hint of sweetness while providing a nice overall smokey flavor.

Because of their mildness, they work with all types of meats including seafood and poultry. As with anything in barbecue, try different woods and see what you like best.

Medium Woods

Hickory and oak are two of the most common woods used by pitmasters in the South. If you’re looking to do some serious pork shoulders or whole hog barbecuing, you can do a lot worse than cooking with these woods.

These woods produce more smoke and flavor than the milder woods and therefore are not commonly used with seafood. Nevertheless, these are all-purpose woods that do well with pork, beef, and poultry.

Strong Woods

Many Texan pitmasters use mesquite for their briskets. This wood produces a ton of smoke flavor and therefore works best with beef. Although pork will do just fine with it as well.