Food & Drink

31 Things You Have to Explain to People Who've Never Cooked BBQ

bbq plate
Dan Gentile

Behind the shrouded curtain of smoke and steel, barbecue pitmasters work tirelessly to supply hungry patrons with perfect bite after perfect bite. But if you've never walked 20 hours in a pair of brisket-making boots, it can be hard to understand just what goes into the art of barbecue.

To help enlighten those who've never cooked it, we asked a group of experienced pitmasters to share some of their secrets, philosophies, and pet peeves of the barbecue industry. Read on to learn just how much these guys work, why barbecue is becoming more expensive, and how to pick the right smoker for yourself.

smoker
Dan Gentile

Getting started at home

Don't be scared to be humbled
Everyone fails at first. But everyone also has the occasional lucky day.

When buying a smoker, the first thing you need to consider is space
If you live in the city and just have a balcony, your options are limited.

The second choice is gas, charcoal, or stick-burning
If you want to set it and forget it, gas is your move. For an excellent down & dirty cooking experience, go with charcoal. And for the realest of deals, go all-wood. If you can't decide, they sell hybrids that do all of the above.

Sometimes the most basic grills are the best
Even very experienced pitmasters often favor their old starter grill for cooking at home or testing out recipes.

But other times your equipment makes a big difference
A cheap smoker might do the job, but it won't retain heat nearly as well as one with thicker metal, so you'll be adding logs all night long.

cooking
Dan Gentile

Cooking

To achieve consistency, remove variables
A smoker is a fragile ecosystem, and any change you make will affect every other variable. So if you want to improve cooking at home, try to keep constant as many variables as you can.

Every smoker is different
If you put two identical smokers next to each other, odds are that they'll cook dramatically differently.

Smoke is an ingredient, not a cooking method
Pitmasters use smoke like a chef uses spice. They never use liquid smoke.

Thermometers aren't that useful
Purists will tell you that it's all in the feel, not the numbers. A brisket might be the right temperature inside, but you don't know it's ready until you can feel it jiggle just right.

Not all wood is created equal
Chopping a fresh piece of wood off a tree is romantic, but you really want that wood to be "seasoned", meaning it's had some time to dry out. The flip is if it's dried too long, it'll burn dark and hot and your meat will taste like a telephone pole.

Not all smoke is created equal
If the smoke looks black, it's not a good sign. You want a nice light grey color that's nearly transparent, otherwise your meat will taste like a different telephone pole.

When cooking a whole hog, only one third of the weight is edible
Two thirds are skin and bones and guts... and you're not qualified to make hot dogs.

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Keeping things warm 

When buying a cooler, make sure it’s built to keep things warm, too
YETI Coolers have full-frame gaskets that seal outside air out, and trap heat. Just add warm water to the cooler to prime it, wrap your meat in a damp cloth, and occasionally de-latch the lid to let steam escape, in order to keep your fixin’s right-off-the-grill hot. 

barbecue judging
Dan Gentile

The competitive circuit

People take competition barbecue very, very seriously
Although there's always room for newbies, the higher echelons of the competitive circuit require an incredible investment of money and time. Top teams will spend tens of thousands of dollars for a weekend of 'Q-ing. The payoff is an immeasurable combination of money, press, and glory in the annuls of barbecue history.

Most competition barbecue isn't something you'd want to buy in a restaurant
Competitors tailor their flavor profiles to judges, not consumers. They therefore cook the meat to be ultra rich and the sauces super syrupy.

If you want to get into competition barbecue, don't be afraid to ask to cook on someone's team
It's the best way to learn. You might have to chip in for beer, but you're essentially paying for lessons.

texas apron
Dan Gentile

Regions

Everyone thinks they know good barbecue
Maryland might have some secret barbecue scene that no one knows about, but unless you're coming from a BBQ Mecca, it's unlikely your hometown joint has readied your palate for the meat of legends.

Regional barbecue flavors are often defined by the wood on-hand
People in Central Texas began using post oak because it was widely available. Same for fruitwoods in Georgia. Proximity has helped define and develop regional styles.

Climate affects cooking
In a regular kitchen, you're isolated from the elements. In the world of barbecue, any shift in humidity -- or, God forbid, rain -- will have a big effect on your cooking.

There are regions within regions
Texas barbecue has come to mean one thing across the country, but the reality is there are subtle distinctions based on what part of the state you're in. The same thing applies everywhere else.

salt and pepper brisket
Dan Gentile

Straight from the pits

It takes a lot of time
A brisket might take 20 hours to cook. Some BBQ joints might have set-it-and-forget-it gas-assist smokers, but most places worth their salt and pepper are fanning a fire all night. This means your pitmaster is most likely working at least 12-hour days, every single day. They might sell out at 2pm, but that doesn't mean they're taking off early.

The best bite of barbecue often isn't for sale
Usually pitmasters save the spice-crusted burnt ends as samples to whet their customers' appetites. This is second only to a magic bite of fat pulled right off the brisket or butt fresh off the smoker before it's wrapped.

The industry is evolving
Most legendary pits stick to their traditions like smoke sticks to brisket, but the reality is that the industry has changed wildly over the past decades thanks to rising costs, regional style emigration, and a return to artisan ideals.

Barbecue isn't cheap
Sadly, barbecue is becoming more and more expensive, but it isn't because these pitmasters have payments to make on their new speedboats. The price of meat is rising at incredible rates, and, whereas it pains most BBQ guys to charge a premium price for their product, it's the only way to stay in business.

There are muscles within muscles
The jowl holds a juicy bit of meat just within the cheek bone that's often referred to as the pearl. And the very end of the shoulder is called the money muscle because of its thick marbling and tenderloin-like appearance. Buy an experienced pitmaster a beer, and he will unlock an anatomy of secrets.

bbq fire
Dan Gentile

Repetition is key
Barbecue's steeped in tradition, and tradition means doing the same things over and over and over. It's the reason your Grandma still buys you Paddington Bear stuff, and it's the reason that a great pitmaster's flavor is consistent. 

BBQ guys love to share their secrets
Maybe not all of them, but if you just bought a smoker and are having trouble with it, most pitmasters will happily give you a few tips.

Some of the best BBQ joints are only open for lunch
Due to the insane amount of time that goes into each piece of meat and the decidedly non-infinite capacity of smoking apparati, lower-volume barbecue joints often run out of meat shortly after lunch. This isn't because they're jerks/hate dinner, but because they don't have enough hours in the day or space on the pit to cook more.

It's a marathon, not a sprint
Barbecue isn't a flip-switch style of cooking: you can't make a change on the fly, so consistency is usually valued over creativity.

Grilling isn't barbecueing
The word barbecue has become synonymous with anything cooked over fire, but most pitmasters think there's a very big difference between grilling up a burger and spending 20 hours on a brisket. And they're right.

It's usually a lifetime vocation
Hobbyists aside, there are no part-time pitmasters. It's something you dedicate your life to, waking before the sun and going to bed long after a customer's last bite. The legends have been doing it their whole lives and wouldn't have it any other way.

Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He's never cooked barbecue before, but hopes to someday craft a very mediocre brisket. Follow him to gratuitous salt and pepper at @Dannosphere.