Slow and steady works when smoking meat, too

Three full racks of ribs smoking on a Weber One-Touch charcoal grill. Indirect heat and wood-fueled smoke are key.
Three full racks of ribs smoking on a Weber One-Touch charcoal grill. Indirect heat and wood-fueled smoke are key. (BARRY ZUKERMAN / Staff)
Posted: July 05, 2013

Southern-style barbecue has long been a passion of mine. On vacation, I've been known to detour for miles for a taste of smoked brisket or pulled pork.

But for 15 years, I was forced to live in a state of DIY barbecue denial. There were "no grilling" clauses written into all my Center City leases.

The break came when we moved to the suburbs last year. Though the move was too late in the year to start barbecuing right away, I spent the autumn and winter researching how to make authentic barbecue and purchasing the tools I'd need when the weather turned warm. When April arrived, I was ready to start experimenting with the art of smoking meat over low heat.

Over the last six weeks, working my way through a fair quantity of pork and beef, I learned that with a lot of patience, indirect heat, and wood-fueled smoke, I can impress my friends and family with authentic-tasting barbecue.

If you are the do-it-yourself type, you won't need a pricey smoker, either. I cooked on the inexpensive and widely available Weber One-Touch kettle charcoal grill.

I stuck with the classic southern barbecue meats: brisket, ribs, and the butt portion of the pork shoulder, which is generally used to make pulled pork. But this method can be used for smoking fish, fowl, or whatever else strikes your fancy.

Setting up your charcoal kettle grill for smoking is fairly easy. Keep all of the charcoal on the lower grate to one side of the grill, banked up against the inside wall. Wrap the charcoal about a third of the way around the inside of the grill. On the other side of the lower grate, beneath where you will place your meat, place a foil baking pan and fill it roughly halfway with water. This will act as both a steam source for moisture during the long cook and a pan to catch the drippings from the meat.

Do not use lighter fluid to ignite your charcoal. Lighter fluid has a negative effect on the taste of the meat. After trying newspaper and making a bit of a mess, I discovered Weber odorless fire starters. They work wonderfully and cost very little.

By placing eight to 12 white-hot briquettes or decent-sized pieces of lump charcoal on top of one end of your pile of unlit charcoal in the grill, you will enable the lit coals to gradually ignite the unlit coals. This should allow you to maintain the grill temperature in the range of 225 to 275 degrees for low and slow cooking without opening the lid to add more charcoal for the first several hours of your barbecue session.

After getting to that target temperature, take a wood chunk or two (or a handful of wood chips if using those) out of the water they are soaking in and throw them on top of the lit charcoal. At this point, you should also place your meat, fat side up, on the upper grate on the opposite side of the grill from the charcoal. As long as you are able to maintain your target grill temperature, you should leave the lid on the grill with the vent holes directly above the meat for three to four hours for a brisket or pork shoulder and one-and-a-half to two hours for spare ribs. After this amount of time has elapsed, lift the lid and spray your meat with a mixture of three parts apple juice to one part cider vinegar for pork, and straight beef broth for beef. This both prevents the meat from drying out and adds flavor. Spray the meat every half hour for spare ribs and every hour for a brisket or pork shoulder. While you're spraying the meat, you should also check your charcoal and wood to see if more is needed. Always have a couple of chunks of wood soaking in water in case they are needed.

Don't be alarmed if the surface of your meat has turned black when you go to spray it. The meat is not burned. This is what happens to the layer of dry rub you applied to the meat when it is exposed to heat for a long time. The barbecue term for it is "bark." This outer coating helps keep the juices in and adds flavor and texture to your finished product.

For ribs, there are a couple of ways to check whether they are done. One is to pick up the rack right at the center with a pair of tongs. If the rack bends almost straight down on both sides without breaking apart, it's ready. If it bends only a little, place the rack back on the grill for more cooking. If you're concerned that your rib rack may fall apart if you pick it up that way, you can play it safe by simply inserting a toothpick into a section of the meat close to the center of the rack. If it goes in and out without much resistance, your ribs are probably ready. For pork shoulder and brisket, you should remove the meat from the grill when the meat reaches an internal temperature of 195 degrees. Regardless of whether you're cooking ribs or a roast, you should let it rest in two or three layers of heavy-duty foil for an hour after removing it from the grill.

When you carve into or pull apart your meat, don't be the least bit alarmed if you see a layer of pink just inside of the bark. This is a smoke ring, and it means the smoke your wood produced penetrated the meat with its flavor.

And, in the barbecue realm, it means you have achieved success!

All-Purpose Southern Barbecue Rub

Makes a little more than 11/2 cups (8-10 servings)

1/4 cup salt

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup ground black pepper

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons onion powder

2 tablespoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1. Break down the brown sugar so that it is not so lumpy.

2. Mix all ingredients thoroughly.

Note: You may want to reduce or even eliminate the sugar and brown sugar for beef. Pork rubs tend to be a bit sweeter.

Per serving: 61 calories, 1 gram protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 2,850 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Barbecue Sauce

Makes about 2 cups of sauce (8 to 10 servings)

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup apple juice

1 cup ketchup

1 teaspoon hot sauce

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon black pepper

1. Whisk together all the ingredients.

2. Heat the sauce until it boils lightly.

3. Place the sauce in a jar or sealed container.

Note: For best results, make at least several hours before using. The day before is better still.

Per serving: 43 calories, trace protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 631 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Smoked Pork Butt (for pulled pork)

Makes 8-10 servings

One 8-pound pork butt (upper portion of  the shoulder, also known as a Boston butt)

1/4 cup prepared yellow mustard

1-1 1/2 cups dry rub (see recipe)

1 cup barbecue sauce or to taste, plus more for the table (see recipe)

For the marinade spray:

1 spray bottle

1 1/2 cups apple juice

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1. After rinsing and drying the pork butt, rub a thin layer of prepared yellow mustard over the entire surface of the meat. This will act as a sticking agent for your dry rub, which you should then spread generously and evenly over the entire surface of the pork. Place the pork in a sealed plastic bag and refrigerate overnight or for at least several hours.

2. Set up your grill as detailed in the accompanying article. When the temperature reaches 225 to 275 degrees, put your pork butt on the upper grate of the grill across from the charcoal and directly over the steam pan, with the fatty side facing up. Replace the lid and leave closed for 3 to 4 hours.

3. After several hours have elapsed, remove the lid and spray the meat well with the apple juice-cider vinegar mixture. Repeat this hourly and check whether more charcoal is needed for the grill while the lid is off.

4. When the meat reaches an internal temperature of 195 degrees, remove it from the grill and let it rest, wrapped in two or three layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, for an hour. After the rest period, unwrap the meat and pull it apart with two forks. Mix about a cup of sauce in with the meat so that it has a light coating. Provide your guests with additional sauce in a serving bowl at the table.

Notes: An optional step to give additional moisture to your meat is to wrap the pork butt in two layers of heavy duty foil with about a third of a cup of the apple juice-cider vinegar mixture when the internal temperature is at 165-170 degrees. Place it back on the grill until the temperature reaches 195. Some barbecue mavens don't use this step because it softens the bark, detracting from the texture of the final product.

(To monitor the temperature of your grill, there are many specialized thermometers available. I purchased a Maverick ET732 digital remote thermometer ($59.99 from Amazon). The Maverick has two probes; one for the grill temperature and one for the meat. It also has a remote receiver so you can monitor both temperatures from inside your house or across the yard.)

Per serving (based on 10): 658 calories, 44 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams sugar, 41 grams fat, 163 milligrams cholesterol, 3,672 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Contact Barry Zukerman at

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