Barbeque for Foreigners.
(Matt makes another guest-post appearance, which is likely to cause controversy!)
Checking the statistics for this blog, it appears that a solid third of the readership is outside the United States (for some reason, the happy sorceress is very big in the southwest Pacific rim). Having put together two posts discussing foreign cuisines for the benefit of Americans, it seems fitting to do the opposite for a third post. So...
Barbeque for Foreigners
One of the few distinctly American (or, to be more specific, United States-ian) cuisines, I find that barbeque is something that foreigners understand incompletely, if at all. But it's not their fault. We're inconsistent about it ourselves, which is a consequence of having a range of conflicting regional styles, each of which its practitioners will insist is the only true barbeque, and each of which has been muddled by historical migrations and Americans' unusually high mobility. (It's also a consequence of our never being particularly consistent with our own language, but that's something else altogether.) So what's the deal?
What Barbeque Is And Why
First and foremost, what barbeque is *not*: cooking outdoors over a grill. Certainly, barbeque is usually cooked outdoors over a grill, but that in itself doesn't make it barbeque any more than living in a garage makes Frank Zappa a car.
There are a number of suggested etymologies for the word "barbeque." The most charming is probably a story about shipwrecked French pirates who subsisted on a few wild goats, for which they prepared a tasty sauce. It was good enough that the pirates could consume the goats entirely, including the beard and tail, or "barb et queue." Cute, but unlikely. A more likely derivation is from "barbacoa," a method of cooking meat on a grid of green sticks over a low fire, practiced by the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean (I believe the word itself is a Spanish corruption of the Arawak name). This method of cooking made its way to the continent, where it became barbeque as we know it.
Barbeque, then, is a method of cooking meat over a slow fire, typically done in a moist atmosphere. The moisture is usually provided by marinating the meat beforehand and basting it frequently while it cooks (food scientists caution that you're likely to lose more moisture by opening the grill than you'll add by basting), although some people will add moisture directly to the air by putting a pan of water directly underneath the meat. The vaporizing water keeps the meat moist, and without coals directly under it, the meat is cooked by indirect heat, further moderating the temperature. This method of cooking reduces the meat to extreme tenderness, while the moisture keeps it from drying out and becoming tough and stringy again. It serves tough cuts of meat like beef ribs very well indeed. Cooking over charcoal or wood rather than gas is widely regarded as superior, although gas is used for the sake of convenience in many homes. Charcoal and particularly wood provide a wonderful smoky flavor not present in food cooked with mere propane. Sticklers for accuracy might point out that this starts to cross the line from barbequing into smoking; as penance, they are required to eat only barbeque cooked over a gas flame.
Barbeque is also a social phenomenon. Barbequing usually involves cooking a large quantity of food outdoors over a period of a few hours but in a way which doesn't require much labor or attention. Consequently, it provides both motive and opportunity for a casual social occasion. Even most Americans, who really should know better, will call an event focused on cooking things outdoors on a grill a "barbeque" even if they aren't actually barbequeing, and that sloppy usage has unfortunately spread to the rest of the English-speaking world.
But that's not what makes barbeque a contentious issue. It comes down to barbeque sauce. Well, sauce and related issues like rubs and marinades. There are countless thousands of recipes for barbeque sauces. Do a Google search for "barbecue sauce recipe." I dare you. Most of the regional differences in barbeque are the result of differences in when and how to flavor the meat. Indeed, where some countries have ethnic and sectarian conflicts, we have different barbeque sauces.
"Barbeque sauce," as the term is generally understood by the world at large, is a thick, sweet, possibly spicy, possibly smoky tomato-based sauce. That's certainly the majority opinion, most heavily influenced by the Kansas City style although the Memphis and Texas styles are somewhat similar, and you can make a decent barbeque sauce by cooking together a healthy quantity of ketchup (Heinz if it's available, another American brand if it isn't; my experience with non-American ketchups has been dire, so you might reconsider the exercise if you can't get anything USA-ian), some brown sugar or molasses, and a little bit of chile powder (American chile powder, that is: a mix of ground chiles, cumin, and perhaps traces of some other spices), paprika, onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and/or mustard. However, the precise ingredients and proportions of any given sauce are often a jealously guarded family secret. And that doesn't even begin to get into regional variations and "secret ingredients." A sauce might be sweetened in part by fruits like pineapple and apricot, use beer, stock, coffee, whiskey, or Coca-Cola as additional cooking liquids, involve a variety of other spices and herbs (allspice, cloves, bay leaves, etc.), have wildly varying ratios of the major ingredients, even forego the tomato
altogether. The vinegar- and mustard-based sauces still predominating in the coastal regions of North and South Carolina respectively, relics of the days before the tomato was regarded as edible, are notable minority styles.
Even the question of when to use the sauce is fraught with controversy. Some say to baste the meat with the sauce while it's cooking so the sugars will caramelize. Some say never to baste the meat with the sauce while it's cooking for exactly the same reason. Some use a different, low-sugar "mopping sauce" to baste the meat, and some barbequeists don't use a sauce at all and rely on a pre-cooking marinade or spice rub.
And then there's what to do with the meat once it's cooked. With some cuts, the meat is eaten directly off the bone (frequently the case for ribs). With others, it is chopped or shredded and eaten from a plate or in a sandwich, sometimes with a brief additional bout of cooking with a sauce.
Finally, there's equipment. This is less a matter of dispute and more a point about peculiar terminology. Barbeque used to involve cooking most or all of an animal on a spit over coals, which were laid in a shallow pit in the ground. In order to better control the moisture and temperature, though, cooking has moved to enclosed methods. Professional (and hard-core amateur) barbeque is cooked in a device which looks a bit like an oil drum turned on its side and mounted on a rolling cart. The drum, made of thick steel plate to retain heat, typically has attached to it an offset firebox (again, for indirect heat) and a chimney. And this peculiar-looking device, a blackened metal container raised off the ground, nevertheless retains the name of "barbeque pit." A barbeque pit is expensive and highly specialized, though, and most home cooks make do with large kettle-style charcoal grills.
Making Your Own
So how can you, Mr. or Ms. Foreign Person, get a reasonably authentic barbeque taste in your distant land? I've got some instructions, but remember that these are simply a combination of an inconsistent variety of regional influences and don't encompass the totality of barbeque any more than any one dish can summarize daal, pasta, or jook. For example, the pulled pork shoulder leans slightly towards the Carolinas (you'll find it just about everywhere, but it's difficult to find anything other than pork that far east), the particularly sweet tomato-based sauce is firmly in the Kansas City tradition (a bit more vinegar would tilt it toward Memphis, less sweetening would push it towards Texas), the smoking medium is distinctly non-Texan (which tends towards mesquite), and the post-processing instructions are more upper-Midwest (they've got an Ohio and Illinois vibe, I believe, although it comes to me by way of the Kentucky/Ohio border). Here's what you'll need to cook the meat itself:
- A large kettle-style charcoal grill (sorry, folks who live in apartments or only have open grills, but there's really no substitute; indeed, it's already a substitute for a hole in the ground or a specialized slow-cooking rig)
- Hickory chips (hickory wood probably isn't readily available outside of the US; if you can't find it, maybe we can work out something)
- A disposable aluminum pan (an 8 to 9 inch round cake pan or a square or rectangular pan of similar size is about right)
- A 3-5 pound pork shoulder
- An electric thermometer with a remote probe (this'll save a lot of trouble with timing)
Take a large handful of hickory chips and soak them in water overnight. If it pleases you to do so, prepare a marinade of a half-cup each of the vegetable oil of your choice (although not olive oil) and water, beer, or stock, a tablespoon each of chile powder (again, American-style, with contains large quantities of cumin) and Worcestershire sauce, and a half-teaspoon each of mustard and garlic powder. Marinate the pork shoulder overnight, perhaps in a large ziplock bag, turning occasionally.
Light the charcoal, using a chimney, electrical starter, industrial laser, or any means other than lighter fluid, which universally tastes dreadful. When the coals are going, put the aluminum pan in the center of the grill, fill it with water, and arrange the coals around the pan. Drain the hickory chips, put them on a piece of aluminum foil, roll the foil into a flattish (you're going for a single layer of wood chips), open-ended tube, and place the tube directly on the coals. Take the pork out of the marinade if you're marinating it, put it on the grill over the pan, put the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the meat, and cover the grill. You want to reach an internal temperature of around 185F (around 85C). How long it takes depends on a number of factors, but count on it taking at least an hour and and easily longer. Depending on the size of your grill, you may need to put in a new round of coals after an hour or so.
When you reach the desired temperature, remove the shoulder from the grill. It should be thoroughly cooked and have a distinctly smoky smell. It can be chopped or, if you've done it right, shredded with forks. It can be stored in the refrigerator or even frozen if you're not going to eat it right away.
To serve, get some inexpensive rolls and split them open; good barbeque is rather over-the-top, so a fine ciabatta or other high-quality bread would be an absolute waste of time. Besides, the tradition is cheap bread, and who are we to argue with tradition? Reheat the shredded meat in a pot on the stove with enough sauce (see below) to moisten it, pile into rolls, spoon on a little more sauce, and serve with even more sauce on the side and a lot of paper napkins (barbeque is a very messy food, which is yet another reason it never gets served at formal occasions). Depending on the region, barbeque might be accompanied by cole slaw (that's the tradition I come from; it frequently gets put on roll on top of the barbeque itself),
potato salad, baked beans (often cooked alongside the barbeque), black-eyed peas, cornbread, cooked greens (collards, for example), and/or fresh corn (my tradition briefly boils the shucked ears; farther southwest it gets roasted in its husks). Watermelon, ice cream, and pies are appropriate sweets. If you're into that kind of thing, it is also traditionally served with copious quantities of beer.
Generic Barbeque Sauce
1 small onion, grated or finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3 T olive oil
2 cups ketchup (see notes above for brand)
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup beer, stock, or water
1 T cider vinegar
1 T Worcestershire sauce (you can substitute soy sauce if you absolutely must)
1 T chile powder
1 t mustard powder
1 t paprika
1/2 t ground black pepper
1/2 t cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
2 t liquid smoke, hickory flavor (optional)
Sautee onion and garlic in the oil until well-softened. Add all remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, them simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and somewhat reduced.
And don't forget---Blog Party #2, Tiki Party, is coming soon!