Barbecue is as much art as science. But leaving aside regional and philosophical differences, personal taste preferences, and conflicting opinions about Jackson Pollock-influenced sauce patterns, certain factors will most definitely affect the flavor of your barbecue. Here are six to mind carefully.
Type of wood
Gas grills serve their purposes, and some respectable barbecue joints will run smokers with gas assist functions due to spatial or time constraints, but there's no substitute for the flavor of burning wood. But wood isn’t monolithic. Milder woods like oak give a cleaner, lighter smokey flavor, fruitwoods impart a subtle note of sweet flavor, and mesquite adds a richer, fuller smoke taste.
Charcoal, wood chips, or pellets all have their relative advantages: charcoal burns longest but has the least woody flavor, chips will add a punch of extra smokey flavor, and pellets typically offer the pitmaster the highest degree of control over whether they’d like their beef flavored with just a hint of oak, or supercharged with the flavor of mesquite.
The heat/time ratio
Generally, a “low and slow” approach is the only way to render the fat and tenderize thicker, tougher cuts of meat. When the fat renders, it laces an otherwise tepid cut of meat with mouth-watering flavor. For thinner and more delicate cuts, a hot and fast method gives a caramelized sear that locks that unmistakeable grilled flavor into the surface and keeps the meat from drying out.
One of the greatest glories of barbecue is the contrast between the tender interior meat and the slightly crisper, well-seasoned bark. The rub of seasonings that creates this bark (and its corresponding bite) is one of the most personal elements of barbecue, and an opportunity for experimentation and flavor manipulation that isn't at the mercy of fickle fires. Some common pitfalls include using too much sugar and not enough salt, but a few smokes should be enough time to dial in a desirable balance of flavors, be it a pure salt and pepper Central Texas brisket rub, or more pork-centric techniques like vinegar and oil-based wet rib rubs.
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Historically, barbecue was a thrifty way to celebrate tough, ornery cuts of meat, and thus many old-school pitmasters would roll over in their grave at the thought of a prime brisket. Every backyard smoker has to make a personal value judgement on the quality of meat they purchase, but with cheaper proteins like chicken it's a no brainer to go for something that isn't raised in a factory. Both your mouth and conscience will agree that the meat tastes richer and cleaner. Commodity pork is more predictable, but the difference between a heritage breed shoulder is night and day, with the latter offering unique depths of flavor depending on breed thanks to higher degree of marbling. And although some lauded professionals do go prime with their brisket, it's surprising how many world-class barbecue joints use select or even choice, relying on the smoke and rub rather than the rancher to bring out the savory notes.
Sauce or no
When a piece of meat has spent nearly a full day soaking up smoke, tended with the level of care typically reserved for infants, it can be seen as an insult to douse it in sauce. That said, just like in the case of rubs, the pairing of a flavorful sauce is one of the primary ways a pitmaster can distinguish their meat and honor regional differences.
From the heavy tomato and vinegar flavors of Texas sauce that brings out the natural savoriness of beef, to the mustard and apple cider South Carolina sauce that wets chopped pork, to the sweet brown sugar twang of Memphis sauces, every region has their own signature, but home pitmasters can use almost anything in the pantry to add unique flavors like coffee or fruit to their ‘cue. Or try one of these incredibly flavorful bottled sauces.
The proliferation of pricey gas-assist or pellet-driven driven equipment might imply that it's necessary to drop a full paycheck on a smoker to achieve an authentic smokey flavor, but some of the best barbecue masters got their start on humble Weber charcoal grills. A simple offset smoker, where the smoke passes from an exterior firebox through a chamber, imparts the most powerful smoke flavors, but the temperature is trickier to regulate than on ceramic kamado-style grills like the Big Green Egg (which can still make brisket taste like you’re biting into an oak tree). It's important to research what fits your personal cooking priorities, but remember that every hour of indecision could be better spent getting intimately acquainted with the juicy flavors of pork butt.