12 BBQ Tricks and Tips from Pitmasters

iStock.com/Viktorcvetkovic
iStock.com/Viktorcvetkovic

Summer’s in the air, and that means the smell of barbeque should be too. Break out your tongs and hone your skills with these BBQ tips from the experts.

1. Don't use a gas grill

There are a lot of different ways to cook barbecue—direct heat, indirect heat, with charcoal, with wood chips, with split logs—but one thing that most experts agree on is that a gas grill isn’t the way to go. “The smoke is an ingredient in itself,” writes chef and TV personality Valentine Warner. Without it, you get the heat, but you’re missing out on the nuanced flavor.

2. Use wood from fruit trees for extra flavor.

Speaking of nuance—to change up the usual flavor, try adding fruit tree wood chips to your charcoal. Fruit woods are “mild in flavor and high in sap, and generally have fewer impurities in them,” writes Myron Mixon in his book Everyday Barbecue: At Home with America’s Favorite Pitmaster. “You can choose from whatever is easiest to find near you: apple, cherry, grape, and my personal favorite, peach.”

3. Soak wood chips in water before cooking.

Another tip from Mixon: soak wood chips in water for “at least an hour or, even better, overnight” before draining them. Then wrap them in an aluminum foil “burrito” and put them in your grill. The water content makes the chips produce more smoke, which increases your flavor.

4. Don't check the temperature repeatedly.

The proper technique for cooking barbecue can be summed up with three words: “low and slow.” Be patient. “Try not to check the temperature more than every half an hour at most since it cools things off when you do,” writes John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed in Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue. “There’s really no reason to open the cooker for the first couple of hours unless you think things are going too fast. As the saying goes, if you’re looking, it ain’t cooking. After that, every hour or so you can mop the meat with your sauce and check the temperature while you’re at it.”

5. Let the meat sit before eating.

After removing your meat from the grill, let it sit for a few minutes. “This seals the juices and keeps the meat from drying out,” writes Mixon. “Do not cut until you are ready to immediately serve and eat.” Another juice-saving tip, from the Academia Barilla Barbecue: 50 Easy Recipes: don’t poke holes in your meat while it’s cooking. Instead, “to turn meat, do not use forks, but barbecue tongs or spatulas.”

6. Avoid light fluid-flavored meat.

If you’re using lighter fluid to get your charcoal fire started, says fiery foods expert Scott Roberts, make sure that the fire is completely out before you introduce meat into the mix. If the fire’s not out, then there’s still some lighter fluid that hasn’t been burned away, and you do not want that taste on your food. You’ll know it’s time to start cooking when “the charcoal [is] mostly an ash-gray color with a little bit of glowing red underneath.” It should take about a half an hour.

7. Lay down aluminum foil for easy clean-up.

You may like cooking, and you may like eating, but nobody likes cleaning up afterward. To expedite the process, Roberts suggests to “line the inside bottom of your cooker with a couple of sheets of aluminum foil before you put your briquettes in. This will give you a quicker and easier clean-up of the gray coals and ash once you’re done barbecuing.”

8. Keep your equipment clean.

This one’s for barbecue newbies, or those who have just invested in a new smoker. Before you use it for the first time, explains award-winning Texas barbecue master in Aaron Franklin in Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, build the biggest fire you can and let it rage for 45 minutes to an hour. Doing so “seal[s] up the pores of the metal and incinerate[s] any remains and by-products—oil, grease, metal shavings, and any other gunk—of the manufacturing process… This is also a good thing to do if you haven’t used your cooker in a long time and don’t clean it regularly and the inside is covered with rancid grease or mold.” 

9. Soak wooden skewers in water to avoid burning.

If kebabs are on your summer menu, make sure to soak them in cold water for at least 30 minutes before use to keep them from burning. That tip comes from Brazilian Barbecue & Beyond, by the minds behind Brazilian barbecue joint Cabana, who add: “If using metal skewers, wipe them with a piece of paper towel dipped in vegetable oil to stop food from sticking to them.” Jamie Purviance, author of Weber’s Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling, notes that if you’ll be doing a lot of cooking, you can soak a bunch of skewers for an hour, drain then, freeze them, and pull them out a few at a time as needed.

10. Proper air circulation is key.

Meat shouldn’t touch anything—other than the surface it’s sitting on, of course—while it’s cooking. Other meat and the sides of the cooker are both a no-no. “Before you buy your smoker, take a look at how big a full 12-pound brisket measures and then think about how many you can get on the cooker you’re looking at,” suggests Franklin. “And you don’t want the meat smushed up against the edges either. It needs to have space around it for airflow.”

11. Stay away from grocery store logs.

Prefer smoking meat over wood fires to charcoal? It may be convenient to use the firewood sold in your local grocery store, but, Franklin cautions, it doesn’t produce the best results: “A lot of it is kiln dried, meaning that even the most pyro-challenged among us will have no trouble starting a fire with it, but the pieces will burn so fast and with so little smoke that you won’t get anywhere when you cook with them.” To tell if a piece of wood has been kiln dried, pick it up and feel how heavy it is; “if the log feels unnaturally light in your hand, it’s going to burn like gasoline.” Craigslist and the classifieds, Franklin argues, are better options for those serious about finding logs for their ‘cue.

12. Use aluminum foil as a grill brush.

If you’re not quite so serious about the craft of barbecue, to the point where you don’t have all the tools on-hand, don’t worry. In place of a grill brush, writes Taming the Flame author Elizabeth Karmel, you can just “crumple a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil until it’s the size of a navel orange and pick it up between locking chef tongs. The tongs will act as the handle. Holding onto the ball of foil, brush away.”

The Great Tryptophan Lie: Eating Turkey Does Not Make You Tired

H. Armstrong Roberts/iStock via Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/iStock via Getty Images

While you’re battling your cousins for the best napping spot after Thanksgiving dinner, feel free to use this as a diversion tactic: It’s a myth that eating turkey makes you tired.

It’s true that turkey contains L-Tryptophan, an amino acid involved in sleep. Your body uses it to produce a B vitamin called niacin, which generates the neurotransmitter serotonin, which yields the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate your sleeping patterns. However, plenty of other common foods contain comparable levels of tryptophan, including other poultry, meat, cheese, yogurt, fish, and eggs.

Furthermore, in order for tryptophan to produce serotonin in your brain, it first has to make it across the blood-brain barrier, which many other amino acids are also trying to do. To give tryptophan a leg up in the competition, it needs the help of carbohydrates. Registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer tells WebMD that the best way to boost serotonin is to eat a small, all-carbohydrate snack a little while after you’ve eaten something that contains tryptophan, and the carbs will help ferry the tryptophan from your bloodstream to your brain.

But Thanksgiving isn’t exactly about eating small, well-timed snacks. It’s more about heaps of potatoes, mountains of stuffing, and generous globs of gravy—and that, along with alcohol, is more likely the reason you collapse into a spectacular food coma after your meal. Overeating (especially of foods high in fat) means your body has to work extra hard to digest everything. To get the job done, it redirects blood to the digestive system, leaving little energy for anything else. And since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it also slows down your brain and other organs.

In short, you can still hold turkey responsible for your Thanksgiving exhaustion, but you should make sure it knows it can share the blame with the homestyle mac and cheese, spiked apple cider, and second piece of pumpkin pie.

[h/t WebMD]

How Mammoth Poop Gave Us Pumpkin Pie

MargoeEdwards/iStock via Getty Images
MargoeEdwards/iStock via Getty Images

When it’s time to express gratitude for the many privileges bestowed upon your family this Thanksgiving, don’t forget to be grateful for mammoth poop. The excrement of this long-extinct species is a big reason why holiday desserts taste so good.

Why? Because, as Smithsonian Insider reports, tens of thousands of years ago, mammoths, elephants, and mastodons had an affinity for wild gourds, the ancestors of squashes and pumpkin. In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Smithsonian researcher and colleagues found that wild gourds—which were much smaller than our modern-day butternuts—carried a bitter-tasting toxin in their flesh that acted as a deterrent to some animals. While small rodents would avoid eating the gourds, the huge mammals would not. Their taste buds wouldn't pick up the bitter flavor and the toxin had no effect on them. Mammoths would eat the gourds and pass the indigestible seeds out in their feces. The seeds would then be plopped into whatever habitat range the mammoth was roaming in, complete with fertilizer.

When the mammoths went extinct as recently as 4000 years ago, the gourds faced the same fate—until humans began to domesticate the plants, allowing for the rise of pumpkins. But had it not been for the dispersal of the seeds via mammoth crap, the gourd might not have survived long enough to arrive at our dinner tables.

So as you dig into your pumpkin pie this year, be sure to think of the heaping piles of dung that made the delicious treat possible.

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