How to beef up your barbecue
Forget charcoal – the secret of gourmet grilling is sizzling your meat over mesquite, hickory, or even wood chips infused with Jack Daniel's.
Thursday 07 July 2011
The chef Adam Perry Lang is showing me round the various ovens in his kitchen. There's a custom-built burn pit with a couple of slabs of oak smouldering on top. There's a Texan smoker, a kind of covered barbecue filled with smouldering wood chips, slowly cooking some shoulders of pork and there's an Argentinian grill, the height of which is adjusted by a vast wheel, blasting out heat from a big pile of coal. His cooking is all about the open fire and his kitchen uses virtually no gas or electricity at all.
When Perry Lang teamed up with Jamie Oliver to open Barbecoa in London's St Paul's last November, they instantly elevated the art of the barbecue to the level of fine dining. The pair met five years ago at Perry Lang's Manhattan restaurant, Daisy May's, widely considered New York's best barbecue establishment, which, in a land obsessed with meat, is a great accolade. When Perry Lang offered to give Oliver a demonstration of his restaurant's smoker, a friendship blossomed.
"Jamie and I are both meat- and fire-obsessed," Perry Lang says. "When we met, we looked at each other and said we wanted to do a restaurant like this and here we are – it's a celebration of the relationship between fire and food."
Perry Lang says he has spent his career perfecting what he calls the "3D-flavour" barbecue. "The key to cooking good meat isn't just one thing," he says. "It's the baste, the dry ageing, the smoke, the seasoning, the wood. Without all these things you are missing a dimension."
Perry Lang believes that in the UK our attitudes to barbecuing lag somewhat behind those of the States. "There is a good portion of people in this country who think that a barbecue means a few scorched hamburgers and some dried-up bangers," he says. "But I think more and more people are beginning to appreciate what barbecuing is. Essentially it's long, slow cooking."
One of the most popular things on the Barbecoa menu is pulled pork shoulder. Each shoulder goes into the Texas smoker on a low, low heat and cooks for up to 10 hours – a technique that produces meat so tender it can easily be pulled apart. Perry Lang feeds the smoker with apple wood, which imparts delicate flavours into the meat. On the burn pit he shows me how he hangs game birds over the smouldering hunks of oak. "It's like cooking it in a fireplace," he says, "it perfumes it and it keeps it warm naturally."
When he wants to add bigger flavours to the meat, he creates more smoke by dampening the flames with handfuls of ash, and when he wants to reduce the smoke, he wafts the fire to increase the flame. After he's chucked a rib eye on the Argentinian grill he shows me how he positions its height so the fat drips off the meat on to the coals in just the right way. "The drippings hit the coal and atomise instantly, which you don't get from gas grills," he says. "Then it bounces back up and lands on the meat. It's meat aromatherapy."
Perry Lang isn't the only one who is embracing this type of cooking. The Pitt Cue Co truck, currently parked under Hungerford Bridge on London's South Bank, is deserving of its long queues. Meltingly soft pork, piquant wings and tangy cocktails to match make it the latest street-food sensation. The Red Dog Saloon, which opened four weeks ago in Hoxton Square, had a smoker shipped in from the States so it can recreate proper Southern American-style barbecue techniques.
"The Americans call what we call barbecuing grilling – that is when you cook the meat over a direct heat," co-owner Tom Berk says. "And what they call barbecuing is actually what we call smoking – when it's enclosed in a chamber and a long, slow cooking process on a low temperature is used using wood to flavour the meat."
He says he came across this technique when he met a British woman called Jackie Weight, who in 2004 became the first non-American to win the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Tennessee. "I went to meet her when I was researching opening the Red Dog Saloon and she cooked me a rack of baby ribs and some chicken in a smoker," Berk says. "When she got the chicken out, she put on a pair of gloves and literally pulled it apart. It was so moist and delicious the juice went everywhere. This type of meat never needs a carving knife. That was the moment I fell in love with it."
Now Berk carefully matches his cuts of meat with the woods he uses to fuel his smoker. "Pairing the meat with the smoke is quite similar to pairing foods with garnishes," he says. "Just like you'd have apple sauce with roast pork, the wood will give the meat a different flavour. If I was cooking duck I'd use a cherry blossom and if I was doing pork I'd use an apple blossom. We also use a lot of hickory and mesquite to give a more delicate smoke flavour."
A shoulder of pork could stay in Berk's smoker for up to 16 hours at a time, while a chicken might take three or four hours. "When you're dealing with fire, you can't set a time limit. When it's ready, it's ready. That's why smoking is much more of an art than a science."
Which is also why it is something that can be tricky to recreate in your own home – but even so, David Wright, of planetbarbecue.co.uk, one of the UK's biggest barbecue suppliers, reckons that sales of smokers have shot up 30 per cent in the past year.
"We are also selling more wood pellets and wood chips than ever before," he says. "People are clearly getting more interested and willing to experiment. I think we have finally realised that the old gas barbecue may be nice and clean but they definitely don't have any of that lovely barbecue flavour."
While 10 to 16 hours for a shoulder of pork may be asking a little too much in your own backyard, things such as fish and chicken work brilliantly. Wright says any conventional barbecue with a lid will work as a smoker as long as it's got vents in it. For a chicken he recommends you do a dry rub with your favourite spices, put it on to smoke (not over the direct heat) and then in the last hour of cooking open it up and baste it three times. "By doing that you are cooking on layers of smoke. It's beautiful," he says.
Wright imports various woods from America – flavours include apple, orange, plum, mesquite and even Jack Daniel's, made from the wood of old whiskey barrels. "Chicken works really well with cherry or sugar maple. We do a plum wood chip that is great for lamb, and stronger flavours like the Jack Daniel's or black walnut work really well with beef," he says.
Just beware of the danger of over-smoking, he says, as many first-timers, worrying that the fire will go out, pile in too much wood, and create something totally inedible. "Just add a small bit of wood to begin with just to get the flavour," he says. "Then you can experiment with sauces, bastes and wood chips. There's no end to the flavour combinations that you will come up with. We've done the roasting and the braising; this is a whole other way of cooking meat just waiting to be discovered."
Adam Perry Lang's barbecue tips
If you are marinating meat, combine the ingredients in a plastic bag first. Crush the ingredients directly through the bag to release maximum flavour.
Marinate meat for at least one hour and up to 24 hours. If marinating for longer than three hours, refrigerate.
Instead of oiling the grill, take a hunk of bacon and rub it, fat side down, all over the surface to add extra flavour.
Make a baste using a quarter of a cup of olive oil, 4 tbsp unsalted butter, 10 crushed garlic cloves, and finely chopped savoury herbs such as rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano, sage.
Apply the baste using a herb brush. I make mine by tying bunches of rosemary, thyme or marjoram together.
When cooking in foil, don't unwrap the parcel immediately after removing it from the heat. Let it rest to allow the heat to temper evenly.
Putting a glazed or foil-wrapped cooked item back on the grill gives it a fresh, sharp bite of smoky flavour.
Make a dressing on your cutting board to add extra flavour once the meat is done. Combine 6 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour on your chopping board and slice the steak on top, turning to coat well.
From 'BBQ25', a book containing 25 classic barbecue recipes by Adam Perry Lang (Morrow Cookbooks, £12.99)
Recipe for a successful steak
Use rib eye, T-bone or a strip of steak cut more than 1in thick
Generously season the steaks with salt and pepper. Press in the seasoning and dab the meat on to the board to collect any excess.
Glisten (apply a very thin coating of oil) the meat with canola oil, using the first steak to brush oil on to the others.
Heat the barbecue to medium high, put the meat on a well-oiled grill and cook until done to your desire.
Baste regularly with a regular brush or herb brush, stacking and flipping the meat if the flames get out of control.
When the steaks are nicely caramelised and charred on both sides, approximately 15-20 minutes in total, they are done.
Let the steaks rest for two minutes, then pour the board dressing on to a cutting board and slice the steaks, turning to coat the slices.
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