BBQ season in the UK and Ireland usually consists of cowering beneath an umbrella, turning meat on the grill, sipping lukewarm beer while imagining living somewhere sunny. Across the pond, in the USA BBQ has no season, particularly in the southern states where the category has a rich heritage. Recipes, methods and traditions are reverentially passed from generation to generation.
Speaking with American pitt-masters, some very specific and regional definitions of BBQ emerge. In North Carolina the favoured meat is pork, mopped with spicy vinegar while cooking then served beneath a tomato based sauce, while in east Texas beef is ubiquitous, slowly cooked over hickory wood and marinated in a sweet ketchup. The Germanic influences in Central Texas characterise a different style, with massive portions of brisket rubbed with spices cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood. Meat gets star billing in central Texas, with sauces and sides playing a supporting, if not cameo role.
Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, Texas follows the central Texan tradition. If you are a fan of the addictive Food Network program, Diner, Drive-Ins and Dives
you may have heard of them. In 2006 the restaurant, housed in a former basketball court, won a prestigious James Beard award. I chatted with owner Wayne Mueller about what makes great BBQ and the possibility of pairing the cuisine with whisky. Wayne is the third generation of his family to stand behind the 50 year old horizontal brick and steel pit, churning out delicious brisket, sausage and ribs smoked over chunks of oak, known locally as post oak for its long ungnarled growth pattern.
Wayne explains the fierce regionality of BBQ as a consequence of historical practicality. 'The first people to move to these regions and do BBQ used what was available to them. My grandfather opened here in 1946 as grocer selling fresh produce and meat. The first BBQ joints out here grew out of the meat markets of that time. There is a large Prussian influence where every part of the animal is used.' He describes how BBQ developed from a desire to avoid wastage in these meat markets. 'So you have three options with fresh meat that might otherwise spoil within a few days due to lack of refrigeration: grind it and stuff it into sausages, slice it and dry it as jerky, or rub it and cook it either over direct heat or via cold or hot smoking.' The latter is what has emerged as the calling card of modern central Texan BBQ.
Listening to Wayne speak with passion and authority about BBQ I am struck by how much of what he is saying accords with the development of various whisky traditions: the use of what is available and plentiful. There is a strong message of terroir in his narrative. 'Just north of here we have vast expanses of grasslands and waterways. The ranchers watched the seasonal ebb and flow of the native buffalo and realised that they could mimic that ebb and flow with cattle by herding. BBQ has always been about taking the natural resources available to you. Here in Central Texas it is beef and oak. Further South since there is little arable pasture land they use pork, and hickory. Up North it is more cherry and apple wood.'
The discussion turns to whisky and we discuss the craft whisky industry growing in the US. Wayne has plans to open a second place in Houston with a strong craft whisky and craft beer offering. While he doesn't use whisky in marinades, preferring to allow the meat to speak for itself under a liberal seasoning of salt and pepper, he is keen on experimenting with mixology and whisky pairings. 'In a similar way as we don't use a lot of sauces, I see the future in pairing whiskies with the meat, complimenting it, not covering it.' I muse that a bold and peppy Bourbon would work well with smoked beef sausage, while an aged Rye would stand up well to the robust flavours of brisket.
While loath to call himself a chef, Wayne emphasises the skill and care involved in great BBQ. 'The pit is a kind of alchemy, it is like my philosopher's stone. It takes this offcut and turns it into gold. There is a magic in that.'
Some easy alternatives to incorporate whisky into your next BBQ.
Soften 100g unsalted butter and then blend in half a measure of whisky of your choice, a pinch of sea salt and some soft herbs. My favourite combination at the moment is Connemara peated and chervil. Smother onto grilled corn or baste onto pork chops.
Popularised by bar tenders in New York, this is a perfect pick-me-up for BBQ marathons and simply involves one measure of Jameson, chased
by a measure of pickle juice. Experiment with different whisky/pickle combinations.
In the spirit of using what is available, I have used some old whisky barrel cask ends and a rack of pork ribs recently delivered from a local farmer. Wayne does concede that sauce is necessary for what he calls ‘white meat’ (pork and fowl) but I have held true to the notion of seasoning only with salt and pepper.EQUIPMENT
- Charcoal BBQ
- Non treated charcoal
- 200g hard wood chips (I used wood from recycled whiskey casks)
- BBQ tongs
- Pastry brush
- 500g meaty pork ribs per person. Ask your butcher to remove the membrane from the back side.
- Sea or kosher salt
- Cracked black pepper
- Rapeseed oil
- 50mL oil
- 25mL soy sauce
- 100mL honey
- 50mL apple cider vinegar
- 10mL english mustard
- 5g sea salt (about a teaspoonful)
- 15mL of whisky (I used Pikesville Rye)
Rub the pork ribs all over with a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper at least 10 hours before cooking and refrigerate, covered. Remove from fridge half an hour before cooking and drizzle with a tablespoon of oil all over.2.
Set up your BBQ up for indirect grilling. There are some brilliant Youtube clips on the best method. Scatter 100g wood chips over the charcoal. Cover the BBQ and monitor the temperature with a thermometer. We are aiming for 130 C.3.
Once at temperature place ribs meaty side up (not directly over the heat). Cover BBQ. After about 1 hour add another 100g of wood chips and Cover BBQ. Monitor the BBQ to maintain temperature, adding more coal if necessary. After about 2 hours, check the ribs, which should bend easily when picked up with tongs. If not, leave for another half an hour to 45 minutes. 4.
Whiz up all the basting ingredients in a food processor. 5.
Brush liberally onto ribs and place meaty side down over direct heat. Keep an eye on them so the baste doesn’t burn, about 5 minutes. Re-baste again if you like saucy ribs. Serve with charred corn and slaw.