SMOKE, a quintessentially American summer seasoning, remains an elusive goal for many home barbecuers. How does one attain the perfect shade of fire-inspired flavor, a feat of the savory that many attempt and few truly master?
We asked Smokehouse 21's BJ Smith for advice: The aroma wafting from Smith's outdoor barbecue may attract business from blocks around, but it's his destination-quality food that keeps them coming back. Though he claims his style of smoking is just one method of many, as "barbecue by definition is hugely regional," here are some valuable tips from the respected professional behind some of the best barbecue in town, specially tailored to my personal ignorance of the process.
START WITH GOOD STUFF
Seems obvious, right? But Smith emphasizes the need to start with quality ingredients if you hope to end up with something special. "I use Nicky USA for all my meat, but if I'm running short I visit Chop on NW 21st, as they have all the high-quality stuff that I can get from my meat purveyor," Smith says. "That's my number-one tip for all home barbecuers: Start with a high-quality ingredient. New Seasons has good stuff and does a really good job with hormone-free as well. I would look for briskets and ribs at New Seasons."
The complement to quality meat, of course, is quality wood. For terrific timber, "pick the right kind of wood to smoke with—usually you would use a wood that is local to your region. [For example] we use white oak here," he says. "There's a guy called Wiley's Cooking Woods that does a lot of wood in chips, chunks, and logs, and he'll deliver as little as 25 pounds. If you're using a regular barbecue, you want chips—they'll release a lot of smoke all at once. If you have a box smoker, you want chunks—which release a lot of smoke over time. I would replace chunks every couple of hours, and chips more frequently." When it comes to type of tree, it's a matter of taste. While Smokehouse 21 likes oak for its flavor, "the general rule of thumb is that hardwoods are good for more robust flavor [hickory, oak] and fruit woods are a little more mellow for things like fish [apple, peach, cherry woods]."
GET YOUR RUB ON
Rubs and brines are absolutely essential for good moisture and flavor. Smith says, "Basically the one thing with good barbecue is allow yourself enough time with rubs, brines, and marinades—and don't rush it." Brine with a 50-50 solution of salt and sugar (one cup of each per gallon of water), and throw in flavors like coriander and mustard seed, orange peel, black peppercorns, chile flake, whole garlic, and thyme. Bring to a boil, simmer for 20 minutes, and remove from heat. Let sit overnight, and then add meat—brine overnight—once cool. See? This takes planning.
BJ gives us his basic recipe for a multipurpose rub, as well:
A Good Basic Rub for Everything
4 tablespoons each spice ("Things that I think are completely necessary are... black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, ground garlic, ground ginger," Smith says.)
8 tablespoons salt
2 cups brown sugar
For brisket, add more salt and pepper, while chicken wants white sugar instead of brown and extra chile powder. Didn't think to plan enough in advance? Smith recommends ready-to-go options at Chop and New Seasons as well as Asian markets like Uwajimaya.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Time is flavor. Even more than with most food, the more time taken with barbecue, the better the result. "For example, with a brisket you're going to want to rub and let sit for a couple hours, then smoke it for 8-12 hours depending on how big it is. Don't rush things!" Low temperatures are ideal, and Smith recommends cooking meats that easily dry out (chicken and sausages) at 180 degrees. He recommends 225 degrees for pork and prisket. Keeping things hydrated is important as well: "Smoking at home you definitely want to put a pan of water or apple juice [in the smoker] to keep moisture in the smoker. Basting also becomes really important, like once an hour."
And the secret to that perfect brisket that doesn't even need sauce is revealed—and it's called a "mop." "Water down your barbecue sauce with a little apple juice and vinegar, [then] baste it at the very end until it's dry and tacky. You don't even need sauce at the end of that. You're developing layers of flavor at that point—flavor from the brine, flavor from the smoke, flavor from the mop—all a little different, so throughout eating you're getting a different flavor. Finish everything with a fleur de sel. We use Jacobsen's sea salt to finish everything.
DON'T EAT MEAT?
Fish and vegetables are a different story. Smith recommends curing fish (like salmon and sablefish) first, "For a couple hours with an equal parts brown-sugar-and-salt mixture, and smoke it at 120 degrees for about 20 minutes." Pull fish out of the smoker while still rare, and finish in the oven for a perfectly cooked protein. Vegetables are easy, and advice for portobello mushrooms specifically dictates an overnight marinade in something heavy in acid and oil like a vinaigrette, before smoking for an hour. Other ideas for your favorite vegetarians include, "corn, onions, garlic, green garlic, and veggie kebabs with peppers and stuff."