Northerners don't know good barbecue.
Eric Kaiser doesn't mean any disrespect when he says that. It's just that after a decade of living in the Northeast, the Sun Journal's director of New Media Development has yet to find what he considers real Southern barbecue, though he says he's sure there's at least one Yankee who can barbecue.
So what's a guy who loves Southern-style — typically slow-cooked, smoked and secretly rubbed — to do? Bring the South north, to his own New Auburn, Maine, backyard, of course.
Kaiser, who grew up in Virginia, recently held his annual barbecue and was happy to share tips and techniques for Southern-style barbecue straight from his kitchen. On the menu for the 15 to 20 people expected for this occasion: two pork roasts (Boston butts), two racks of ribs, three
four-pound chickens (split) and a 17-pound beef brisket, cut in half. Our focus: the pork roasts and the pulled pork they promise to yield.
It began at an hour normally reserved for late-night snacking: 10 p.m. A gloved Kaiser placed two 6-pound pork roasts on cookie sheets, then scooped up a handful of rub and coated each slab of meat with the reddish mixture. The cookie sheets are simply to keep your work area clean, he said.
"Massage it in and be sure to get all the surfaces of the meat," said Kaiser, noting that his rub — a mixture of sugar, salt, various peppers, chili powder and cumin — is also good for beef brisket and chicken. (See Kaiser's recipe.)
The roots of barbecue reach back to a time when those of modest means sought ways to tenderize and improve the flavor of inexpensive cuts of meat, so the cuts you choose don't have to be pricey. But moisture is essential, said Kaiser; slow cooking, water — more about that soon — and marinading or basting are the keys to getting the most flavor out of your barbecue. Meanwhile, the rub not only provides flavor, but the salt in the rub draws out some of the moisture to the skin, which, under heat, firms up and seals in the rest of the moisture.
"Which is very important for the caramelization that is going to happen as we slow cook it," said Kaiser.
Roasts coated, Kaiser headed out to the backyard deck where the long night began. He lifted the lid off his basic Weber charcoal grill to reveal another secret for successful slow-cooking barbecue: ordinary charcoal briquettes banked up on one side of the grill, taking up only about one-quarter of the space. The rest of the space was taken up by a large pan of water. The briquettes were hot and ready to go.
"Since we have such a long cooking time, moisture is important," said
Kaiser. "This creates a steam environment so your meat doesn't get
For the next 12 hours Kaiser basted — mopped really — the roasts hourly, stoking the small fire with more charcoal briquettes and occasionally adding small pieces of hickory, apple or mesquite woods. He used a 10-pound bag of hickory wood that he bought at Home Depot and some apple wood that he got from a friend who has apple trees, using a few small pieces at a time to maintain temperature.
Another method of keeping meat moist is to inject marinade with a syringe. Though this is not how Kaiser approached this barbecue, he says he injects on occasion, and when he does he likes to use apple juice or apple cider with pork during this time of year.
Slow cooking should be done in a temperature range of 180 to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Kaiser's grill was a little on the hot side to begin with, at 250, but he expected that to level out as outside temperatures dropped during the night. A word of caution: Don't oversmoke the meat — heat it too high or use too much wood — or it will taste overwhelmingly like smoke, Kaiser warned.
He positioned the pork roasts away from the coals — over the pan of water — and placed the lid back on the grill: The barbecue was officially under way.
"We'll check back in two hours, see what our temperature is doing, and also mop it with a little vinegar and sugar mixture we made earlier," said Kaiser. The basting sauce Kaiser used was made with apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, sugar, Tabasco sauce and hot pepper flakes.
Kaiser was introduced to barbecue as a child going to "pig pickin's" in his home state of Virginia. These barbecues consisted of pits carved into the ground with an entire hog cooking above the heat for 24 hours straight. During that time, coals were shoveled into the pit and the pig was mopped with a basting sauce frequently.
"These guys were up all night," said Kaiser. "They called it pig picking because no one was there carving it up for you, you just walk up and take what you want and move along. It's awesome, the skin is so crispy and the meat is so tender."
It was when he was in college in North Carolina, he said, when he truly "got the bug" for barbecue. Becoming a connoisseur of sorts, he eventually turned his love of the style into a tried-and-true pastime, experimenting with various ingredients and techniques to get it ever better.
At 10:30 the next morning, Kaiser removed the roasts from the grill and shredded them using two forks. He placed the foil-covered pulled pork with the beef brisket, which took about two more hours to cook, in a pre-heated oven while he checked the ribs and chicken.
By mid-afternoon, the lucky people invited to try the fruits of Kaiser's labor were confirming that he is closing in on perfection. Maybe — maybe! — northerners don't know good barbecue, but they know good eating.
"It's so good," said Kaiser. "Twelve hours of lovin' on the grill. It's worth it."