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Talking grilling with Steven Raichlen, the Bob Ross of barbecue

Master's in meat


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You can consume Steven Raichlen pretty much any way you want — he's got articles, cookbooks, scholarly papers, appearances at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, radio interviews and a handful of websites — but it's something of a unique experience to watch him work on TV. The blogger bmarbles summed it up best when he wrote in 2009 that he'd come across a "pretty cool" program called Barbecue University, but that "the host was this guy trapped in some era that wasn't quite the present but it wasn't quite any other era that I was familiar with either. Kinda weird, that. He was like the Bob Ross of BBQ."

It's just that Raichlen's got his own way of doing things. Recently turned 60, the polymath with a degree in French literature splits his time between Miami and Chappaquiddick Island, which is also the setting for his novel Island Apart, a food-centric love story released last year. He'll often tread the verbal road less traveled — "cilantro" becomes "cee-lantro" with a rolled "r"; "basil" gets pronounced like "frazzle" — and he does it while rocking his distinctive round glasses, graying, poofed hair, and a fondness for fire that's led him to become the preeminent expert on low-and-slow.

Maybe his flair comes from traveling the world; Raichlen's as interested in grilling mussels over pine needles, like the French do, as he is in making Red, White and Blue Potato Salad. "I've been called the king, the guru, the gladiator of barbecue," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2002, shortly after the release of his book Beer-Can Chicken: And 74 Other Offbeat Recipes for the Grill and a year before Barbecue U debuted on PBS. "But I'd like to think of myself as a student of barbecue."

But it's the role of professor that Raichlen will assume next month when the sixth annual BBQ University event kicks off at the Broadmoor. Sessions will run June 5 to 8, and 9 to 12, and cost a pretty penny, too — $1,996.50, which gets you three nights in the hotel and all the meat you can manage.

Ultimately, though, grilling's a backyard pursuit, best accomplished with a beverage of choice and a crowd of people who don't annoy you. That's why we spoke with Raichlen from his Florida home about his best tips on getting it done. After all, as bmarbles wrote, "Like Bob Ross knows painting, this guy knows BBQ."

Indy: Catch me up on the status of your shows.

Steven Raichlen: Both Primal Grill and Barbecue University are still on the air; they are actually in reruns now. And we are working on developing a new show, but we don't have an air date, yet, for it.

Indy: Is that barbecue-related as well?

SR: Yeah, it's barbecue-related. The working title, well, actually, I prefer not to say the working title. But it will be a show that involves guests and people grilling with me; a little bit more lifestyle-y.

Indy: Are you tired of eating [barbecue] yet?

SR: No, absolutely not, but I want to say that that's not all I eat, by a long stretch. And, in fact, when I'm on book tour — sometimes I go out on book tour for four to six weeks at a time — often after a day of doing demonstrations and interviews about barbecue, what I really crave is sushi.

But, you know, there's also the pleasure of new discovery: I was just in New York a couple weeks ago and found a new barbecue restaurant called Mighty Quinn that was just, sort of, breathtaking; and good barbecue still takes my breath away.

Indy: Is buying it in the restaurant comparable to making it at home, for you?

SR: Well, first of all we have to distinguish between barbecuing and grilling, right? OK. I would say that it's pretty easy to grill at home and produce results that are comparable to what you would get at a great restaurant. [But] I would say, in general, with true barbecue, like with an amazing brisket, that when you find a really good barbecue joint, they will turn out a better product than what you make at home. And I think that has something to do with a big smoker, as opposed to a small smoker; with smoking 20 briskets at a time, as opposed to doing one at a time.

Indy: The ability to do more adds to it?

SR: I think it does. For example, and the physics of this was explained to me by a guy named Nathan Myhrvold, who's of the modernist-, futurist-cuisine [school of cooking]. He pointed out that when you're working — and barbecue pit-masters have confirmed this, too — when you're cooking 20 briskets at a time in a large smoker, a large pit, the ratio of meat to dry air is much higher than when you're cooking one brisket in a smoker at home. So, it's that sort of luscious, like, just press it with a fork and it squirts fat, that's harder to do at home.

However, that's part of what we do at Barbecue University, is teach you how to get as close to that as possible.

Indy: Now, correct me if I have this wrong, but it seems like barbecuing, grilling and smoking all get put under one header in [the show] Barbecue U. Do you catch any heat for that from the zealots out there?

SR: Uh, you know, I've been pretty clear since my first book, and in everything I do, to say that when I say the word "barbecue" I'm using it in the East Coast-Yankee sense, which means anything cooked with live fire. So it means the low-and-slow, smoky, true, traditional barbecue of the South; it means grilling, which is sort of what 95 percent of the world means when it turns on a grill.

It refers to a piece of equipment, the barbecue grill; it refers to a process, the low-and-slow smoking; it refers to any of a dozen dishes that, depending on where you are in the country, means barbecue.

I mean, if you're in the Carolinas, barbecue is pork. And if you're in the eastern part of North Carolina it's a whole hog, and if you're in the western part of North Carolina it's a pork shoulder; and if you're in Texas [barbecue means] brisket, you know. So, I take a global approach.

Indy: OK. So, of course we know the three commandments: to keep [the grill] hot, clean and lubricated. Other than those, could you talk about the essentials for the average grill master?

SR: Well, number one, I mean, good grill hygiene: keep it hot, clean and lubricated.

Number two, I guess, is to understand the differences between grilling and barbecuing. And grilling is a direct, high-heat method done for small, quick cooking [of] tender pieces of food like steak, fish filets [and] vegetables. True barbecue is done for large, fatty, tough cuts of meat like brisket, pork shoulders, ribs, et cetera. One is direct, one is indirect; one is high-temperature, one is low-temperature. So, that's worth keeping in mind.

A third rule is, when you're grilling, build a three-zone fire. And that is, you know, one part of the grill hot, one part of the grill medium, and one part of the grill fire-free, so that if you get flare-ups, you can move the food. And on a stove, you control the heat by turning the burner up or down, and you can't do that on a grill, especially if you're on a charcoal or wood. So, on a grill what you do is you move the food closer to the fire, [and] further away from the fire.

Number four is, don't overcrowd your grill — that's really important. I always leave 30-percent of the grill food free, so that if you get flare-ups, you've got a safety zone where you move the food. It's a very "guy" impulse to cover every square inch of the grill with food; then it turns into a raging inferno and you have no place to go.

Number five might be something like, give it a rest. This is especially true for meat: A steak hot-off-the-grill is not how you want to eat it. You wanna eat a steak hot-off-the-grill that's rested a minute or two on a platter, and then serve, because there's a process whereby the meat sort of relaxes and it becomes more juicy.

Indy: What's an easy thing to make in the backyard that maybe everybody assumes is hard?

SR: Well, ribs — I mean, ribs are very easy to make. But I think there's a lot of fear and mysticism surrounding ribs.

Indy: Would you start with a rub?

SR: For ribs I'm more likely to use a rub. ... But, you know, a simple rub: equal parts salt, pepper, paprika [and] brown sugar on the ribs.

The whole key to ribs is either indirect grilling or smoking. Baby-backs I tend to indirect grill at a higher temperature; spare ribs I tend to smoke at a lower temperature.

Indy: Could you talk about barbecuing at altitude a little bit?

SR: You're gonna find that it takes a little longer — actually, it probably takes 20 or 25, 30 percent longer. Two things happen: One is that all food takes longer to cook at a higher altitude. And two is, let's see, water boils at a lower temperature, right, at higher altitude. So, that's gonna require longer cooking — I mean, with meats you can usually just control the time, but [with] something like grilled pizza, that's really tricky because you've got to reformulate the dough to work at a higher altitude.

Indy: I don't know if you were the first, but you've certainly opened up the grill to cook a lot of different things.

SR: Well, everybody has a different approach, you know, and there are guys that specialize in brisket and do nothing but, and they're the ones that win the barbecue festivals. For me, my beat is sort of global grilling. And what I've tried to do is introduce people to as many different foods, that you can cook on the grill, that sort of have cultural roots elsewhere.

Indy: Are there any trends in the barbecue industry, over the last couple years, or does [the method's simplicity] defy that kind of thing?

SR: No, I think that there definitely are trends that come and go. I think in terms of grills now, on the mainstream end, I would say that pellet smokers, à la Traeger, and kamado grills, à la Big Green Egg, are very hot. And then in terms of really high-end [stuff], wood grilling is popular; and there's a whole new generation of wood-burning grills, or wood-adapted grills, that sort of start at $5,000 and go up from there.

Indy: If it was your last chance to make barbecue, what would you make?

SR: Well, I'll tell you what: For my last meal, I would probably do something called a Caveman T-Bone, and it's a dish that I sort of popularized. You cook a honking thick T-bone steak, you lay it directly on the embers of a grill — no grill grate needed — and you kind of roast it right in the coals.

We did it in Primal Grill Season 3. It's about four to six minutes per side, and then you pull it off, and you dust it off to get rid of any embers or ash. And then to serve with it, I do what I call a hellfire hot sauce, and it's a skillet fry of jalapeños, garlic and cilantro, fried in olive oil. Yeah, it's really good.

Indy: All right, so some recommendations for the person buying at home: What's your go-to grill?

SR: Well, I think probably the most versatile grill that you can also use for smoking is the Weber Performer. And what it is, is, it's a charcoal kettle grill built into a cart, with a propane ignition burner — you know, for that person that always bellyaches that they don't have time to use charcoal, which is silly, because you can use a chimney starter and that works very well. But, any rate, with push-button convenience you light your charcoal in 15 minutes with a little propane canister — it's the same sort of canister you put on a blowtorch.

What I like about that grill is, I like grilling over charcoal, actually, better than gas. And it's well-suited to smoking, as well as grilling, and smoking is something that's very difficult to do in a gas grill. And, of course, the ignition system I like; and I like the fact that it's built into a cart, because you can never have enough workspace on a grill, and that gives you plenty of workspace.

Indy: Is there a brand of charcoal you've found that works better?

SR: Um, well, there's a category of charcoal I like, which is natural lump charcoal, as opposed to briquettes. And the personal brand I like is something called Nature's Own, which is made out of maple and comes out of Quebec. But I don't know if that's available in your area or not.

[Note: It's not.]

Indy: Lastly, what about a store-bought sauce?

SR: Well, you know, I have a line of barbecue sauces [available at grilling4all.com], so I'm gonna recommend one of mine. And it's my lemon-brown-sugar barbecue sauce. You know KC Masterpiece, that kind of sweet and smoky [sauce]? Well, this is sort of my updated version for a new millennium.

Indy: All right, well, just one last question: What can somebody who's attending your sessions at the Broadmoor expect?

SR: What they will get is a, sort of, very intensive crash course on the arts of barbecuing and grilling. And they'll learn the five methods of live-fire cooking; they'll learn all the iconic foods, like ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, burgers [and] steaks; they'll learn how to cook a whole meal on the grill, from appetizer to dessert; they'll learn how to use about 30 different grills and smokers, which we have in our collection. So, it's a pretty comprehensive course.



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