The elements of barbecue

There is little agreement in the world of barbecue. Here we run through some of the overriding categories that unite them, like seasonings and applications of heat (all barbecue is seasoned and heated, right?. Plus a few recipes.

There may be intense debate over what barbecue truly is, but there are some basic facts that most would agree on: barbecue is not the same as grilling, it requires smoke to properly flavor and color the food; barbecued foods are cooked at low temperatures for long periods in order to develop the best flavor and tender texture.

Beyond that, controversy reigns. Some believe that pork is the only real barbecue, but beef, mutton and even goat (kid) are traditional choices for others. Some argue in favor of a thick, tomato-based sauce, others for a thin, vinegar-based sauce with no tomatoes at all. Some prefer hickory for fuel, while others tend toward pecan, maple or oak.

Barbecue evolved as a way to make tough, well-exercised meats very tender. But the exact type of meat that is associated with an area has a great deal to do with local availability. Seafood doesn't need long, slow cooking to become tender, but in areas where seafood is widely available, it is used for barbecue. Throughout the South, with the exception of Texas, you are more likely to find pork than beef.

Hardwoods—including oak, hickory, pecan, maple, beech, butternut and ash—are common choices for barbecue. Mesquite, grapevine, citrus wood and apple or pear are also used. Some cooks blend woods, especially when using strongly flavored woods such as mesquite. Softwoods should never be used.

The presence of a smoke ring is a sign that foods have been smoked, rather than merely grilled or roasted and brushed with a sauce. The smoke ring is reddish in color and may be about 8 to 12 millimeters deep, extending from the exterior toward the center.


Rubs: A mixture of spices, salt and sugar. Dry rubs contain no moisture and are applied in a layer and left on the meat for several hours (even days) before the meat is cooked. Wet rubs contain enough moisture to hold the ingredients together as a paste.

Marinades & brines: Liquid mixtures used to season meats before they are cooked. Marinades typically contain an oil, an acid (such as vinegar) and various spices and seasonings. A brine is a mixture of salt and water, though it may also contain acids and spices. Brines may be used to submerge foods, or they may be injected directly into the meat. The primary purpose of both marinades and brines is to add flavor to the meat.

Basting sauces: Also known as mops or sops, these are applied to barbecued foods as they cook. The basting sauce may be the same marinade or brine used to season the meat, or a separate preparation. These sauces do not contain sugar, since the sugar tends to brown and burn too soon.

Barbecue sauces: Used in some regions as a finishing sauce or glaze. Some barbecue styles call for the sauce to be served as a condiment, if it is served at all. Ingredients range from the vinegar and seasoning mixtures favored in the Carolinas to the tomato-based sauces of Kansas and Texas. Mustard-based sauces and mayonnaise-based sauces (known as white barbecue sauce) are also used.

Applying head & smoke

Indirect heat: The fire is maintained in a separate chamber and the heat and smoke are vented into a closed portion of the barbecue. The fire is maintained between 225° and 250°F (107° to 121°C).

Direct heat: The food cooks directly over the coals in a closed barbecue. This style cooks meat at 300° to 350°F (149° to 176°C), and is often used for smaller and more tender cuts that cook more quickly.

Barbecue marinade

Yield: 1 pint
10 oz. vegetable oil
5 oz. cider vinegar
1 oz. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. Tabasco sauce
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1/4 oz. garlic, minced

  1. Combine all the ingredients
  2. Add the food; refrigerate

Barbecue sauce

Yield: 3 cups
2 garlic cloves, minced to a paste
10 oz. orange juice concentrate
8 oz. white beef stock
6 oz. ketchup
4 oz. Heinz "57" sauce
1/2 tsp. celery seeds
4 oz. Worcestershire sauce
6 oz. red onion, minced
2 oz. oil or clarified butter
1/2 tsp. chervil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat oil or butter in 5-quart saucepot. Add onions and saute until tender
  2. Add garlic and saute 1 minute
  3. Add remaining ingredients and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes
  4. Add salt and pepper if necessary

Barbecue spice mix

Yield: About 2 ounces
1/2 oz. paprika
1/2 oz. chili powder
1/2 oz. salt
2 tsp. cumin, ground
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. cayenne

  1. Combine all spices and mix well
  2. Store in sealed container


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