The transformation of barbecue over the past 15 years from Southern workingman’s mainstay to national culinary darling has led to a sophistication not only at the grill but in the publishing house. Books related to the subject have gone from broad in scope to increasingly niche-y.
Last year’s “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto” by Austin celebrity pitmaster Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay (Ten Speed Press) was as niche as it gets. There was only a small handful of recipes in its 224 pages. The rest of the book was an exhaustive meditation on method. It was hailed as a tour de force and sold like Franklin’s wait-in-line-for-five-hours-for-it brisket.
There is no book of that stature this year, but there are several very good books, and, in their niche-ness, they represent the evolution of the cuisine.
“The One True Barbecue,” by Rien Fertel (Touchstone) is not a quest to find the best joints in America (a typical journey) or to understand the subculture that is barbecue, but an exploration into a sub-subculture: the imperiled tradition of all-wood whole-hog pit cookery. Fertel takes us on a sentimental journey into smoke-fogged pit houses to celebrate renowned pitmasters such as Rodney Scott of South Carolina and Sam Jones of North Carolina, and unsung ones such as Ricky Parker of Tennessee. Along the way, he reveals some deep fissures of class and race in American life.
Fertel’s vivid writing and love for his subject are engaging. “This is the magic hour,” he writes at one point, “when spice meets meat, ambrosia melds with nectar - when smoked and chopped pork becomes barbecue, when barbecue transcends its own simplicity and becomes simply beautiful.” You will probably get hungry as you turn the pages, but there are no recipes. Have a smoked-pork sandwich handy as you read.
Robb Walsh took a similar journey some 15 years ago, in Texas only, for his seminal 2002 book, “Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook.” Its eponymous update (Chronicle Books) includes information about several pitmasters, including Franklin, who weren’t in business when Walsh wrote the first book and who, with their use of top-graded meats and their “aerodynamic” approach to smoking, personify the massive changes that have happened in recent years.
Among the book’s 100 recipes are 32 new ones, including one by cook-off competitor Robert Sierra, who not only makes a complicated marinade for his brisket but also injects it into the USDA prime meat with a syringe. In Walsh’s first book, the brisket recipes called for the lowest grade, select, and there were no injections. Walsh, admirably, passes no judgment. He does, however, include a new chapter on community barbecue, perhaps the ur-barbecue of neighbors gathering for social or fundraising events to slow-smoke some meat, make some sides and trade some gossip. Also new is the addition of several specific barbecue trails, from urban adventuring to rural pilgrimaging. The original edition was valuable and groundbreaking. This updated version is even better.
The science behind cooking has been popular in the larger culinary culture for years, but it is just gaining traction in barbecue circles. The leading smoky-science writer is a guy who calls himself Meathead. He is anything but. A former wine critic for The Post with an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicagoan (whose name is Craig Goldwyn) began writing about barbecue several years ago on his blog, AmazingRibs.com. The blog has grown to become a one-stop shop of history, lore, recipes, advice and product reviews. It led to a book, “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The 384-page tome (full disclosure: I wrote a positive blurb for the book) is foundational in understanding how to make barbecue. Goldwyn employs a former chief technical adviser at Bell Labs named Greg Blonder to run experiments on everything from soaking wood chips (don’t) to resting meat (don’t) to bringing meat to room temp before smoking (don’t). The science results in the book’s signature “myth busting” segments.
Don’t be scared of the science. Goldwyn writes plainly and with humor. He explains the differences between conduction, convection and radiant heat, for example, by comparing each to how a lover’s body is positioned relative to yours. (You have to read it.) Nor is the book dense with text. Lots of photos and illustrations break up the text, which itself is broken into digestible tidbits. The book includes 118 recipes, ranging from the traditional (pulled pork) to the elegant (smoked salmon mousse canapes) to the exotic (chocolate chili barbecue sauce). Sometimes provocative (Don’t rest meats? Really?) but always interesting, “Meathead,” with its exacting experimentation, gives novices and pros alike a lot of information to up their game.
One guy not generally associated with niche writing is barbecue master Steven Raichlen, author of such gigantic best-sellers as “Barbecue! Bible.” With “Project Smoke” (Workman), he goes deep into the most elemental aspect of what makes barbecue barbecue. He may not employ scientists, but Raichlen’s comprehensive approach to exploring the mysteries of outdoor cooking remains peerless. “Project Smoke” is a tour de force of niche cookbook writing.
His “Ten Commandments of Smoke” offers useful advice (”lower heat produces more smoke; higher heat produces less smoke”). His writing is straightforward, whether about how to start a fire or what wood to use to achieve a desired flavor. He smokes everything, from tofu to meatballs, with everything: kamado, bullet, offset, kettle, you name it. And he shows you how, with illustrative photos and clear prose. Raichlen even provides directions on how to infuse smoke into a cocktail. Make one on a hot summer night to go with his smoked planked Camembert with jalapeños and pepper jelly.
As a woman in the male-dominated barbecue cook-off world, competitor Danielle Bennett, who goes by the name Diva Q, inhabits a niche within a niche. The 195 recipes in her “Diva Q’s Barbecue” (Appetite by Random House) include several from her competition cooking, including the pulled pork recipe that took first place in the prestigious Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue. Asian-Marinated Korean Ribs, while not from the circuit, makes for an easy and delicious summer dinner.
The most famous circuit competitor is certainly Myron Mixon. The brash Georgian who calls himself the “winningest man in barbecue” is the star of the reality TV show “BBQ Pitmasters.” The 50 recipes in “Myron Mixon’s BBQ Rules: The Old-School Guide to Smoking Meat” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) are aimed at the backyard cook. The handsome, clean design and specific instructions for processes from building fires to cooking whole hog make this perhaps Mixon’s most user-friendly book.
There is nothing niche about John Shelton Reed’s “Barbecue” (The University of North Carolina Press), from the publisher’s “Savor the South” line, but Reed’s graceful and witty writing makes it a delight to read. (Full disclosure: I’m included in the acknowledgements.) Reed is co-author of one of the great niche barbecue books, “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” but this concise pan-regional overview of the history and meaning of barbecue should be required reading for anyone interested in American-style smoked meats. It includes 51 recipes, all of them region-specific, from North Alabama White Sauce to St. Louis Hog Snoots. The book proves that, in the right hands, the big picture is still something to celebrate.
Chocolate Chili Barbecue Sauce
Makes 1 2/3 cups
This is a variation on a traditional sweet-spicy sauce. Baste it on ribs in the last 10 minutes of cooking. For color, and to make the flavor pop, just before serving the ribs, sprinkle a little orange zest on top.
MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a week.
Adapted from “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling,” By Meathead Goldwyn (Rux Martin Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon chipotle powder
Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, then add the vinegar, tomato paste, orange juice, cocoa powder, Worcestershire sauce, vanilla extract, salt and chipotle powder, stirring to combine. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, then cool to room temperature before using or storing.
Nutrition per 1-tablespoon serving: 30 calories, 0 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 40 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar
Asian-Marinated Korean Beef Ribs
4 to 6 servings
These delicious, no-fuss ribs are perfect for a quick after-work meal or casual weekend dinner party. Korean beef ribs, also known as flanken ribs, are cut lengthwise across the rib bones. They’re about 6 inches long and about 1 inch thick.
Serve with a salad or side of rice.
MAKE AHEAD: The marinade can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days in advance. The ribs need to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.
Adapted from “Diva Q’s Barbecue,” by Danielle Bennett (Appetite, Random House, 2016) .
4 pounds Korean-style beef short ribs, also known as flanken ribs (about 6 inches long and about 1 inch wide)
3/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sesame oil (toasted or not)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds, for garnish
2 scallions, thinly sliced, for garnish
Place the ribs in a 1-gallon freezer-safe zip-top bag.
Whisk together the soy sauce, light brown sugar, vinegar, hoisin sauce, water, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and onion powder in a bowl to form a well-blended marinade. Pour over the ribs in the bag and seal, pressing to remove as much air as possible. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and preferably overnight, inverting or repositioning the bag once or twice so the ribs are evenly coated.
Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
Remove the ribs from the bag, discarding the marinade. Arrange the ribs on the grate; cook, turning often, until slightly charred, 8 to 10 minutes (for medium). Transfer to a platter; garnish with the sesame seeds and sliced scallions.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
Smoked Planked Camembert
4 to 8 servings
This recipe calls for both smoking and plank-charring, a method that smoke-roasts the cheese for a deeply complex, woodsy flavor.
You’ll need 1 cedar, oak or alder plank, about 6 inches square (although, in this case, size doesn’t matter that much; it’s just a nice size for serving the cheese), and 1 cup of hardwood chips, such as pecan, oak or apple, soaked in water for an hour.
Serve with your favorite crackers or grilled baguette slices.
Adapted from “Project Smoke,” by Steven Raichlen (Workman, 2016).
One 8-ounce wedge Camembert cheese
3 tablespoons of your favorite pepper jelly or apricot jam
1 large or medium jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
Prepare the grill for indirect heat. If using a gas grill, turn the heat to high. Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium-high (450 degrees). Turn off the burners on one side.
If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have a spray water bottle ready for taming any flames.
Place the plank directly over the fire and grill until charred on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Let cool.
Place the cheese in the center of the plank. Spread the top with the jelly or jam. Shingle the jalapeño slices on top (to taste) so they overlap in a decorative pattern.
Place the plank on the indirect-heat side of the grill, away from the heat. In the charcoal grill, scatter the soaked wood chips over the coals. (The chips are added earlier to a gas grill because, in the foil pouch, they don’t burn up as quickly as they do on coals.) Close the lid and smoke-roast the cheese until the sides soften and begin to melt, 4 to 8 minutes.
Serve the cheese on its plank, hot off the grill.
Nutrition per serving (based on 8): 100 calories, 6 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 240 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar