Barbecue can be serious business. Just ask the legions of chefs, both amateur and pro, who travel the competition and fair circuit, testing their techniques against those from all over the world. Joining them this season is Blake Smithson, the former co-owner and head chef of the now-defunct Chicky’s Fine Diner. After spending the year as the executive chef at a wild game ranch in his home state of Texas, he’s vacating for the oppressively hot San Antonio summer and heading back to New England to put his own barbecue to the test.
The intricacies of barbecue as a method, a meat, and a meal are several. Thankfully, Smithson is generous with his seasoned advice. Geographical distinctions define "barbecue," he says. “Barbecue is smoked meat. In the north, barbecue is used to mean meat cooked outside. In Texas, if you’re going to barbecue, you’ve got the smoker fired up and you’re cooking briskets. In Virginia, you’ve got pork. In Tennessee, you see a lot of mutton. But, in Texas, it’s always been about beef cattle. That’s what we smoke because it’s plentiful. Every region has its own great smoked meat. In the Midwest, they smoke a lot of fish, and I think that is great barbecue.”
Hold it, did he just say barbecued fish? “Sure, it’s their regional thing. I’m not a purist about barbecue. I don’t correct people who say they’re barbecuing when they light the grill out back. But, I know people who would.”
One of the most significant discussions when barbecue is the topic is wet sauces versus dry rubs. But Smithson is diplomatic and non-judgmental: “I approach that discussion on a meat by meat basis. Actually, it’s more on a cut-of-meat by cut-of-meat basis. The same thing just doesn’t work for every cut of meat. So, I don’t buy in to the black-and-white thing of dry or wet, or barbecue or grilling. Because, there are some things that should really be brined before cooking, like chickens. But after brining, sometimes I’ll put on a dry rub. Sometimes, it will be a sauce. It all depends on the circumstances and what the meat is asking for. But, for the most part, I use the same basic sauce and rub and make adjustments from there.”
What's the best low-dough cut for barbecuing? “I think pork butt is the cheapest, largest yielding thing you could go for. When prices aren’t through the roof like they are now, you can find it for lower than a dollar a pound. That particular cut takes the low-slow cooking method really well. It’s well marbled with fat in the muscle tissue as a well as the fat ‘cap’ on top that acts as a self-baster. For most smaller home grills, though, a knuckle roast works best for size.”
When discussing actual cooking techniques, Smithson admits that he has become comfortable with his smoker. But, without the specialized gear, a backyard grill will work just fine: “The idea always is indirect heat over long periods of time. No matter what size or shape of meat you’re working with, you just don’t want it over direct heat. You can do it in a kettle grill; just push the fire all to one side. The trick is keeping the temperature around 225 degrees.”