Before Ray Lampe became a member of the BBQ Hall of Fame, he remembers the first time he smoked a piece of meat. He took a block of unseasoned hickory wood and split it, and then threw too much into the smoker’s firebox while he was cooking.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize you should never use unseasoned wood, and on top of that, that hickory is very strong,” Lampe says. “My food was over-smoked to the point that it tasted acrid and metallic.”
Great cooking comes down to confidence
It was so bad, his mouth went numb eating it, he says. “I now take the approach that just because a little smoke is good, doesn’t mean a lot of smoke is better.”
Nearly 40 years later, Lampe, aka Dr. BBQ, is one of the most recognized pit masters in the country. He’s written books, acted as a judge on Tailgate Warriors with Guy Fieri, and recently opened Dr. BBQ, a new American smokehouse in St. Petersburg, Florida’s historic Edge District, where he serves Korean barbecue pork belly alongside smoked pork chorizo, kimchee fries, and spit-roasted pineapple.
“It’s my first restaurant so everything is new to me,” he says. “All the things I’ve thought about over the years that I might want to see in a restaurant are now possible.”
Now he’s sharing the biggest mistakes budding pit masters (or, you know, recreational grillers) should always look out for.
“It’s very possible to over-smoke your food when you’re cooking low and slow or grilling. As many backyard cooks do, I like to add a little wood for flavor, but not too much –– more is not always better. All grills and smokers are different, so it can be hard to determine the right amount of wood, which may lead to inconsistent smoking. Start with a small amount of wood and gradually add more, if needed. Your mileage may vary, of course.”
2. Dry veggies
“Grilled vegetables are terrific as a side dish or as the main course. Remember that veggies don’t have any fat in them, and for grilling, a little fat is your friend. A workaround is to drizzle the veggies with olive oil or wrap them in bacon. I love portobello mushrooms marinated in a garlicky Italian dressing and slow-cooked until tender.”
3. Burned barbecue sauce
“Barbecue sauce is a condiment… that’s the mantra of us hardcore smoke-heads, but not everyone abides by that rule. Many folks like that sweet taste on a perfectly glazed rack of ribs or on a piece of chicken. But using a tomato- and sugar-based sauce as a marinade can be a problem when cooking over fire. The sauce can easily burn before the meat is properly cooked. If you choose to use the sauce in the cooking process, I recommend waiting until the meat is almost finished cooking before adding it. When ready, brush the sauce on and flip the meat. Keep brushing and flipping until you see that perfect glaze. The meat will be tender and juicy, and you’ll have that taste that you love.”
4. Poor time management
“This happens a lot to new backyard cooks as they don’t quite know how long it takes to cook real barbecue. Great ribs may take five to six hours, and a brisket or pork shoulder may take 14 hours or more. Even if you’re grilling hot and fast, the prep can take a lot of time, too. If you’re brining or marinating, you might need a whole day for the full flavor to develop. Even a dry rub needs to be on the meat long enough for the two to get to know each other. Plus, you definitely need to preheat your grill, or the meat won’t cook right. Whether you’re using a charcoal or gas grill, metal or ceramic, it needs to heat up before. Plan accordingly, and enjoy the process of getting dinner on the table on time.”
5. Tough meat
“Nobody wants to serve or eat tough meat, but unfortunately it’s pretty common in backyards across the country. There are a couple of ways to keep this from happening. Start out with quality meat. Look for good marbling, and always buy from a reputable butcher shop. No matter what you buy, you must cook it to the proper degree of ‘doneness’ or it will be tough. No marinade will help you if you overcook the food. Also, invest in an instant-read thermometer and use it. Without that, you’re just guessing. Every grill and every fire is different, so timing alone just won’t work. Most of us rely on our experience, our eyes, our nose, and a good thermometer to get it perfect every time.”
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