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Smoke signals: Hot barbecue topics

Seven experts discuss the state of the barbecue industry now and where it's headed

Russ FaulkRuss Faulk
Its origin has been Lost to time. No one is absolutely sure about where it came from. Some say it started in the West Indies. Others say George Washington partook of it somewhere in North Carolina. Some squabble over the very definition of barbecue.
     Called by many the quintessential American food, barbecue is made up of several regional styles that are as diverse as the cultures you'll find throughout the United States. As the outdoor cooking palates of people become more sophisticated, strong product knowledge is no longer going to be the only thing that carries the day when selling barbecues. Salespeople are going to have to know the passion people feel, the different cooking styles, skills and go-to tools.
     Since it is such a "hot" topic, several experts were asked to weigh in on their passion for it, the state of barbecue, must-know cooking skills and must-have cooking tools.

WHAT'S THE STATE OF BARBECUE IN AMERICA?
John Mariani, author of Grilling for Dummies and food and travel columnist for Esquire magazine: It's never been stronger or better embraced by upscale chefs in cities, especially in the North. In the South the old-time shacks, etc. seem still to rule.

Meathead, barbecue whisperer and hedonism evangelist at AmazingRibs.com: Once found only in the rural South, American style barbecue is being globalized. It is not unusual to find a restaurant in New York City off erring pulled pork with an Eastern North Carolina sauce, a South Carolina mustard sauce and a Kansas City tomato sauce. This educates the public even if everything is not totally authentic.

John MarianiJohn MarianiMeatheadMeatheadDerrick RichesDerrick Riches

     Derrick Riches, barbecues and grilling guide at bbq.about. com: Twenty years ago you wouldn't find pulled pork in a Central Texas BBQ restaurant, now it is expected by a clientele who know enough about barbecue to name some of the KCBS categories.

     Max Good, founder of Black Swan Clean Gourmet BBQ Sauce: Traditional BBQ joints are sprouting up everywhere. Regional styles in the USA will stay intact, but also morph and blend as regional and international styles mix it up from coast to coast.

     Jamie Purviance, New York Times best-selling cookbook author: The state of barbecue is good.

     Elizabeth Karmel, creator of girlsatthegrill.com and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market and Hill Country Chicken: I think the state of barbecue in America is robust. More and more people are eating barbecue; more and more people are making barbecue in their own backyards, they're reading voraciously about barbecue, they're taking destination trips to all the barbecue trails. It's also a hobby, like golf for some people.

     Russ Faulk, grill master at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet: Barbecue is stronger than ever. You can find a multitude of regional styles served in restaurants in any metropolitan area; and I think we are seeing a growing number of aspiring home pit masters lately. It seems like everywhere we travel, somebody is eager to discuss their barbecue exploits.

DO YOU SEE PEOPLE BECOMING MORE SOPHISTICATED IN THEIR OUTDOOR COOKING?
     Mariani: There's no question Americans are grilling more and doing it with far more variety, especially vegetables. I like to think that the media - not least guys like Steve Raichlen (even myself) - have made BBQ far more accessible for everyone, especially those not sure how to go about anything but grilling a burger or hot dog.

     Meathead: Most of us are still weekend warriors burning burgers and brats, but with the proliferation of barbecue restaurants, steakhouses, seafood grills, etc., more and more home cooks are trying to duplicate their experience at home.

Max GoodJamie PurvianceJamie PurvianceElizabeth Karmel

     Purviance: The short answer is yes. I see some young people coming in open-minded. There are no hard and fast rules in their mind. They are very open to different ingredients and they are bringing in their own ideas of flavors. They are creating the new edge of barbecue.

     Karmel: Absolutely. If you can eat it you can grill it. We've gone way beyond burgers. I mean people are cooking everything, and they are cooking whole meals on the grills. More and more women are grilling and I think the women really encouraged the whole meal grilling because they are used to making whole meals indoors.

     Good: People are becoming more sophisticated cooking in and outdoors. Plenty are discovering the social and culinary rewards of trying something new with friends and family. Popularity of food shows, acceptance of other cultures and unfamiliar tastes, interest in healthy foods: All that feeds into the BBQ world as well.

     Riches: While I do think that people are cooking a wider range of foods, that growth has been painfully slow. Surveys from a decade ago show almost the same breakdown of what hits the grill as surveys today.

     Faulk: People are becoming more sophisticated about cooking in general, and they are definitely bringing that sophistication outdoors. Some of the most popular recipes on our website go far beyond what I would consider basic outdoor fare.

IS BARBECUE IN DANGER OF BECOMING HOMOGENIZED WHERE EVERYTHING TASTES THE SAME FROM ONE COAST TO THE OTHER, OR WILL THE REGIONAL TASTE "DIALECTS" REMAIN IN PLACE?
     Mariani: On the contrary, more styles are out there than ever before. Nothing is more beloved and more traditional than regional BBQ, and when something is that revered for so long, it's not going to change.

     Purviance: It continues to evolve slowly, as it should. Memphis Pro Grill BBQ is not one of these things that is subject to huge shifts in style or something that reflects other modern trends. It is a really fairly stable, I think, American tradition that should pretty much stay the same with minor changes along the way.

     Karmel: We are suffering from a tremendous amount of homogenization in the United States where you go from city to city and the stores are exactly the same, but you go from city to city on the barbecue trail and they're not the same because those traditions have been preserved.

Memphis Pro GrillMemphis Pro Grill

     Good: Family restaurant chains like Applebee's have a place, but after you taste real BBQ you can't go back to boiled ribs slathered in salty pancake syrup.

     Riches: Barbecue is one of those terms that many people try to define too narrowly. Yes, grilling a couple of pork chops for Tuesday night's dinner is hardly barbecue, but those quick to dismiss a gathering around the grill for burgers and hot dogs are missing the point. One of the best parts of what I do is travelling around the world for what the locals call barbecue.

     Faulk: There are so many avid fans of the particular traditions and flavors associated with regional barbecue that I doubt barbecue will become any more homogenized in the near future. While I personally like to mix and match styles for the flavors that suit my mood, I love the dedication and craft of the purists.

WHAT ARE THREE MUST KNOW OUTDOOR COOKING SKILLS? WHY?
     Mariani: How to season; how to control smoke and heat; how to make a good sauce.

     Meathead: Don't trust dial thermometers. This is 2013, get a digital. Always set up a grill with two zones, a hot direct radiant heat zone, and a cooler indirect convection heat zone. Push the coals to one side, and leave a gas burner or two off . Keep it simple. Back down on the marinades, brines and sauces. A great steak doesn't need anything but salt and pepper, and cooking it to the right internal temperature.

     Purviance: Barbecue is so much about temperature control, so learn how to build and tend a fire. That's just fundamental. Get yourself familiar with the different kinds of woods that are available, and develop a sense for how to pair different woods with different proteins. Understand "doneness," develop skills with a thermometer and a sense of touch for when a pork shoulder is ready to come off a grill or wrap in tin foil.

     Karmel: Always pre-heat your grill. Know the difference between direct and indirect heat and when to use it. Oil your food and not your cooking grates.

     Good: Buy a digital thermometer. Two-Zone cooking: You need the ability to set up one side direct and the other indirect. Stage the cooking. If you're searing steaks, be ready to serve them straight from the grill. If you're slow smoking, plan WAY ahead. It's better to have ribs and brisket done too early. You can always wrap them in foil and keep them warm if necessary.

     Riches: A) Patience: Most people rush their cooking and end up with something improperly cooked and flavorless. B) Timing: Knowing when to turn, when to remove, when to season. Patience may be a virtue, but timing is everything. C) Flexibility: Outdoor cooking is unpredictable. Being able to adapt to the weather, the equipment, the company, are all very important.

Messermeister tongsMessermeister tongsWeber Smokey Mountain CookerWeber Smokey Mountain CookerKalamazoo Hybrid grilling drawerKalamazoo Hybrid grilling drawer

     Faulk: There is one outdoor cooking skill that I think surpasses all others in importance, and that is the combining of direct and indirect cooking techniques for the best results. It is also important to learn to read a wood fire - understanding when it will be ready to cook on and for how much longer you can maintain the right heat. The last thing that makes a big difference is getting to know your grill and your cooking times. You have to develop that gut instinct that tells you when something is done or not done. I trust my gut more than I trust my thermometer. This takes years of practice.

WHAT ARE YOUR THREE GO-TO OUTDOOR COOKING TOOLS? WHY?
     Mariani: Long tongs and heavy mitts.

     Meathead: The single most important thing is to get a digital thermometer for your meat. My heavy duty leather welder's gloves that allow me to move hot grates and even pick up hot coals. My hypodermic injectors: [they] get the salt all the way to the center where it can denature proteins and make them hold more moisture.

     Purviance: I would start with a chimney starter. I find it's easier to control temperature if I have a little bed of coals already burning away that I can add to my fire. I almost always use aluminum foil. Wrapping it in foil really helps in the overall tenderness of the product. One tool that is really helpful is to have a simple, plastic spray bottle with regular old H2O in there. It is really helpful to develop the right level of bark.

     Karmel: You must have two pairs of locking chef's tongs. I prefer 12-inch because the longer you get the less control you have from your wrists. I put red duct tape on one and green duct tape on the other. I use my red tongs for raw food and my green tongs for cooked food. A brass bristle cleaning brush; it's brass because it's strong enough to get the grime out, but it won't damage your cooking grates.

     Good: Digital thermometer. My old Weber tongs with flat ends, not the scalloped type. They're like mini spatulas. I can maneuver around just about any tong task with them. Grill Grate Brush. I'm not big on keeping my grills and smokers immaculate, but you have to scrape down the grate after every cook.

     Riches: I like to keep it simple. I've never found that a $30 pair of tongs are any better than a $4 set I can pick up anywhere. Believe me, I have boxes of accessories, tools, gadgets and virtually anything you can imagine. I keep a lightweight pair of long handled clamshell tongs, a thin and flexible spatula for stirring up coals, propping lids, moving grates, and a whole host of other things, including a couple feet of 1 x 2 pine board.

     Faulk: My No. 1 must have is a good pair of long tongs with good precision to their design. I also like to use a long, thin and flexible turner, and I keep insulated gloves on hand with long cuff s to protect myself when working over a hot fire.

WHAT DOES BBQ MEAN TO YOU? WHY ARE YOU SO PASSIONATE ABOUT IT? HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR PASSION FOR IT?
     Mariani: My mother would do BBQ style spareribs in the oven, but it was not until my first travels through the South that I learned how delicious and how varied BBQ is. It is clearly the most American of all cooking techniques.

     Meathead: I stumbled into open pit barbecue in the 1960s when I was in college. Y.T. Parker had a rib joint with a real open pit out back, and when he noticed me showing up several times a week in the part of town that college students usually avoided, he took me out back and showed me how the magic was made. Barbecue has been a quest ever since.

     Purviance: I tasted some really good spare ribs for the first time in my life [at a county fair barbecue competition in Louisiana]. It was just a mind blowing experience because the flavors were so complex but seamless. It was so different than anything I ever had and so far removed from my capabilities that I just thought that I have to somehow learn how to do this.

     Good: BBQ means good times with good people. Everyone loves BBQ: the smell of fire roasted meats, kids running around making racket, grownups laughing, drinking and gabbing.

     Riches: I was first introduced to traditional barbecue in Central Texas and will always associate barbecue brisket with a side of sausage and German décor. My hope is that there will always be enough people, knowledgeable enough to frequent those barbecue joints holding onto the old traditions so that they are not relegated to historical societies.

     Faulk: The amazing thing about barbecue is the craft behind taking a second-rate cut of meat and turning it into a tender, delicious dish. A great brisket is something to take pride in. Perfect smoke. No sauce to hide behind. I appreciate dry-rubbed ribs as well.

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