Everyone knows that to get the best BBQ you’ve got to drive south. From the Carolinas' barbecued pork to authentic Texas brisket, there's something about those lower latitudes that makes smoked meat taste better.
The good news, for those of us that live in the north but still demand a decent rack of ribs, is that the internet is quickly leveling the BBQ playing field. With a little time (and a few online tutorials), even a lifetime Mainer can learn the BBQ basics.
You'll also need the right tools. So let’s make sure you’re ready to embark on a long life of smoked meat, and do so with the right gear to make the job easy and the results delicious.
Whether you’re going to be using a smoker or a grill, no back yard chef should so much as strike their first match without a good set of grill gloves. An oversized oven mitt may work in a pinch, but to make sure you don’t singe yourself on hot metal surfaces and even hotter charcoal, an actual set of grill mitts is a must.
I prefer the silicone kind because they’re easier to rinse off when they get dirty, and if I accidentally leave them outside over night they won’t end up damp and useless.
Next on your shopping list should be a decent grill brush. You’ll actually need one of these whether you’re grilling or BBQing, but the rendered fat that can result from the longer process of BBQing can really gunk up the inside of your smoker if you don’t stay on top of it. That’s where a decent grill brush is worth it’s weight.
A bad brush will just push the mess around, smearing it all over the place. A good one will make quick work of a dirty job and leave you ready to cook again in minutes. This is the brush that I use at home, and I love it.
Tongs & Spatula
Next in your arsenal should be a sturdy set of tongs and a spatula that can support a reasonable amount of weight. Your cooked meats will probably weigh slightly more than the average burger or bratwurst. A smoked pork shoulder for pulled pork can easily run eight or nine pounds fully cooked, and the last thing you want is all that delicious pork end up on the lawn.
This set is both strong and made out of stainless steel, so when it's covered in sauce it's still super easy to rinse off.
While people that grill live in one of two camps: propane lovers in one and charcoal fans in the other, smoking meats is a different game. There are some electric and pellet smoker options available but the majority of smokers use good old wood chunks and charcoal.
Now, Texans insist on oak chunks to fuel smokers, but the rest of the country still relies on a mix of charcoal and wood chunks, both of which you can find at a store instead of, say, roaming the ranch until you find some. Charcoal comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but honestly why mess with tradition? Your dad used Kingsford and it was good enough for him, so who are we to argue?
Charcoal without a charcoal chimney is like cake without frosting. It’s like strawberries and no cream. Milk but no cookies.
Charcoal is great, but if you start by dousing it in lighter fluid, no self-respecting BBQ fan is going to take you seriously. You want to taste the smoky charcoal flavor, not petrochemicals. So, please, just buy a chimney already. These will take a bit longer to start your grill, but the flavor is much better and your dinner guests will thank you. This chimney gets your coals ready the fastest thanks to those convenient holes punched in the side.
You can grill with charcoal but you need wood smoke to barbecue, and not just any smoke will do.
Different types of wood result in distinct types of smokey flavor. Pork, for example, is best with a fruity wood like cherry, apple, or even pecan. Beef calls for something more bitter, like hickory or oak. Mesquite, while popular, is the super smoky option. Unless you really know what you’re doing, I’d actually advise against mesquite since it’s easier to ruin a good piece of meat this way.
For general purposes, apple or cherry are probably all you’ll really need. They’re not perfect for beef, but they'll work. I also tend to recommend chunks over chips for a smoker. Chips are fine if you have a few things you’re throwing on the grill, but chunks are what you want if you’re smoking something for hours at a time.
If you buy just one item on the list, it should be this instant-read thermometer.
The difference between good BBQ and great BBQ is perfect doneness. Overcooked barbecue is messy and falls apart, while undercooked meat is tough and can be unsafe. The difference between a 190°F and 203°F pork shoulder is vast, and you really don’t want to be guessing here. This digital thermometer has a light so you can read it at night, and it displays an accurate reading in about six seconds.
After shredding your first pork shoulder with nothing but a couple of forks and your steely resolve, you may find yourself wondering “Is there an easier, and dare I say more fun, way of going about this?” The answer is yes, and they’re called bear claws.
No, not those delicious donuts by the same name, these things actually turn your puny hands into bear claws. They make shredding large portions of meat much, much easier and also—as a side benefit—much more fun, too. (Try really getting into it with the roaring sounds.) I also tend to use mine with my grill gloves to lift bigger hunks of meat onto or off of the cooking surface.
Some smokers are the size of small RVs, but if you’re just starting out, chances are you've got a smaller backyard setup. That's fine of course, but it means getting creative with, say, full racks of ribs.
Instead of cutting full racks in half to make sure they fits, why not get a rib rack and set them up sideways instead? They’ll cook more evenly on both sides, and you’ll actually be able to fit more ribs than you would be able to without a rack. I’ve used my rib rack to cook up to four individual racks of ribs at once on an 18-inch surface. They’re super useful.
Veggie Grill Basket
Once you’ve mastered the art of the perfect brisket or pork shoulder, you’re going to want to branch out and start smoking some sides as well. After all, what goes down better with some fresh pulled pork than a bunch of homemade jalapeño poppers? The answer is actually beer, but poppers are a close and worthy second.
Fitting smaller items like jalapeños or other veggies on a regular sized grill rack can get tricky though. You could probably slum it with a sheet of tinfoil, but if you want the best results then you should consider a veggie pan. I have a circular one that I love, but really any shape will work. Just be sure you measure before you buy: I ended up returning my first choice because it didn’t fit quite right.
Beyond the basics...
So, now you can confidently go forth into the world and smoke all the meats. Let me be the first to welcome you into this delicious club. We trade sauce recipes on Sundays.
But before you leave the hardware store, there’s a few things you should know about that have made my BBQing addic—er... "hobby" much more enjoyable.
I know it sounds silly, but I’d highly recommend a charcoal caddy.
"Charcoal comes in a bag! Why would I take it out of the bag and store it in something else?"
Let me tell you why. You’re going to be going through a lot of charcoal. Like, possibly a whole bag in one go if you’re fueling a smoker for 12 hours or more. A charcoal caddy holds more than one bag, outside next to your grill, in a waterproof container that makes it much easier to add coals to the fire. Instead of two or three bags of charcoal taking up space in my back stairwell, now I just buy three bags at once and put them all in the caddy. Problem solved.
I would also strongly suggest you invest in a decent, battery powered LED camping lantern.
More often than not, smoking a large hunk of beef or multiple pork shoulders will mean you're up before dawn and cooking past dusk. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to set up your smoker at 5am, in the dark, while also holding a flashlight underneath one of your armpits. A decent LED lantern solves all of these problems for you. It’s one of those things you don’t realize you need until it’s far too late. (See also: plungers.)