This Fourth of July weekend, flames and smoke will rise over backyards across the country. And that means grilling. In the best-case scenario, you get a tasty meal. In the worst case, you get an awesome story of how you turned hamburger into charcoal briquettes — or maybe how you got grill marks on your hand.
Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue! Bible, wants to help you stay on the right side of that line.
Testing out a holiday menu on a recent morning, Raichlen fired up three grills in a backyard, then slipped back inside to the kitchen.
"So what we're going to do," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, "is an entire meal on the grill, from appetizer to dessert. And we're going to do a celebration of regional American barbecue."
Raichlen surveys his ingredients on the kitchen island: a slab of Alaskan salmon, and a cedar plank to grill it on; spices for Mexican corn on the cob; and poblano peppers, to be stuffed with onions, spices, beans and pepper jack cheese.
He's brought in bread and butter and garlic, to grill Texas toast. Off to the side, several pounds of uncooked pork sat, waiting for the grill to heat up.
Raichlen describes the main course: "pulled pork sliders, with a nod to South Carolina: spice-rubbed, smoke-roasted pork shoulder, that will be chopped and served on soft buns, with mustard slaw and mustard sauce."
The recipe reflects a specialty in South Carolina, where barbecue sauce is often mustard-based.
"To finish up, from Georgia," Raichlen says, "cinnamon-grilled peaches, with a vitamin B3 glaze. And those three vitamins are brown sugar, butter and bourbon."
Taking It Outside
Three factors will affect this meal. The first is the food itself — in this case, a cut of pork shoulder, often called a Boston butt.
The next factor is what you put on the food, the rub and sauce you use before it's cooking and while it cooks.
Using a miniature mop, Raichlen applies his "mop sauce" — vinegar, mustard, and spices — "after the first hour and every hour thereafter."
Swabbing the sauce onto the cooking meat, he explains that it "adds an extra layer of flavor, it helps keep the meat moist, and it looks really cool."
But of course, the biggest factor in barbecuing is the star of the show: the fire.
One of our test gills runs on gas. The others are simple kettle grills, which Raichlen gradually fills with charcoal.
"Remember, there is a difference between grilling and burning," he says.
He carefully measures the charcoal out, dropping in a bit at a time from a container.
"You know when people start out, they kind of build a raging fire, and throw the food on," Raichlen says, "and then somehow hope by some divine miracle that it will come out grilled. But you want to control the fire. That's why we work with multiple heat zones."
He splits his grilling area into three regions: "a hot zone for searing, medium zone for cooking, and a safety zone, with no fire whatsoever," he says.
Raichlen analyzes where each new batch of coals should go — and what part of the grill is best for each type of food, especially tricky items like stuffed peppers.
Direct And Indirect Grilling
As the food goes on, Raichlen uses one of two cooking styles: direct grilling, with the food right over the flame, and indirect grilling, where the coals have been pushed off to either side.
"Any time you grill something that is either big or fatty, or needs a prolonged cooking time," he says, "you use indirect grilling. Because if we direct grilled, we'd char the peppers, but the filling wouldn't be done."
Raichlen also uses indirect grilling on that slab of pork shoulder. He drops a few water-soaked wood chips down among the charcoal to produce a smoked flavor. Then he covers the grill.
And then, the wait would begin, for the next saucing in an hour's time. But in the miraculous tradition of professional test chefs everywhere, Raichlen has a finished pork shoulder on hand, one he started hours earlier.
"Cooking time on this is about three hours," he says. "And you can see it's a beautiful crusty golden brown. It's so tender. I can just pull little pieces of pulled pork, right off the meat."
Summing up his method, Raichlen says, "indirect grilling, about 3 hours, adding wood chips every hour — but not the last hour."
For any amateur grillers who might worry that they've overcooked their meat, Raichlen offers some reassurance. "There's a difference between black and very dark brown," he says.
Serving Up A Barbecued Feast
Slaving for hours in the smoke under the sun, Steven Raichlen has grilled a perfect slab of meat. And now, he takes it back into the kitchen, and destroys it.
Using a cleaver, he chops the meat into a fairly fine hash, turning it into the filling for a pulled-pork slider. Then, you drop it on a soft roll with some slaw, and eat.
The small sandwich packs "a very complex set of flavors and textures," Raichlen says.
The sliders are followed by grilled peaches — speared on cinnamon sticks, and basted with that brown sugar, butter, and bourbon mix, directly over the flame of the grill.
"You see how the ends of the cinnamon sticks are burning," Raichlen says. "That releases all of those cinnamon oils. It's all about flavor."
Actually, out by the grill, not everything is about flavor. For Steve Raichlen, it's also a kind of performance art.
"One of the extraordinary things about grilling — it's a public event, it's a theatrical event, it's a social event" he says. "People do not gather around a stove to watch a pot of soup simmer, or an oven to watch a cake bake. But when you grill, instantly, you have a crowd."