A journey into what has gone from a fun, part time hobby to a fulfilling and rewarding obsession.. Culminating in a style I like to call "Authentic Southern (Utah) Barbecue"

Sunday, December 12, 2010

So let's cook........something.

Once I felt like I wanted to try getting started I figured the first thing was to try some different types of woods and see what types gave me the flavor I was looking for. Throughout all the information I had acquired I read in numerous places that many were just using their old gas grill in the backyard. I knew through my own experiences that by cooking things low and slow would net a tender piece of meat. Being a single parent with not much money I was no stranger to buying lesser cuts and cooking them to where they were edible. The crock-pot and slow cooker had on more than one occasion been my friend when it came to making something good from something bad so the premise of low and slow made perfect sense.

Since I needed to find out what direction I wanted to go, I went to the store one afternoon and found a couple of decent steaks. I don’t exactly remember what cut it was, but I figured since it was steak it would be hard to mess up and would give me a small sampling of the flavor of whatever wood I was going to use. On the way home I stopped at a hardware store that also sold camping and outdoor cooking supplies. I knew they had small bags of wood chips so I picked up some hickory since that seemed to be the wood of choice.

Reading the bag of chips it recommended that the chips be soaked in water for a time so I put some in a bowl and let them set. While that was happening I started the grill and got it set up. I had read on many threads of how wood chips were placed in a piece of folded aluminum foil with holes poked in the top and placed directly on the burner and since I was not sure how deep I wanted to get right off the bat it seemed like a good way to start. Once the chips had soaked for the prescribed time I pulled them from the bowl and made up my little foil pack of flavor. I turned off one of the burners and placed the foil directly on top of the still lit burner and turned it down to low. I waited until I could see small wisps of smoke coming from the foil and then it was time to put the meat on. My gas grill has an upper rack so I put the meat there, opposite of the side of the hot burner and wood chips.

It took about 30 minutes for the meat to cook and once I pulled it off the smell of the smoke and cooking meat filled the air in my backyard, it was very nice. Cutting into the meat and tasting it gave me my first taste of what cooking over a flavored wood could do. I have always been an “outdoor” cook, the use of a Dutch oven and charcoal and gas grills had always been a part of summers for me, but the use of real wood was something completely different. Other than fruit trees, the majority of wood here is all evergreens and aspens, both of which are anything but good cooking woods.

I was amazed at how the taste has been enhanced, even though other than a little pepper I had added no seasoning. Once I had finished eating the first one I jumped right into the other piece, I was completely hooked.

Over the course of the next several months I continued with testing different woods and began to delve more into different spices and such. The hickory worked okay and tried everything I could get my hands on. Mesquite was a waste of time, fruit woods worked well and nut trees worked really well.

I used the foil pouch method for quite some time but it got to the point that I wanted to get more smoke during my cooks so I bought a chip pan. This was a great investment and it made it much better to test different woods as well as making it nice to be able to mix different types of woods. I am lucky enough to have a couple of nice apple trees in my yard so every once in awhile I would go out and cut a piece off of a limb and use it. I also have a friend that works for the city and every once in awhile he would send me pieces of trees that had been trimmed. One day he sent me some Pecan and I gotta tell ya, it worked wonders.

Along the way I began to experiment with different spices and such trying to find a combination that I really liked. It started with the basic salt and pepper along with things that were sweet and hot and spicy. I searched endlessly through sites on the Internet trying brands and recipes that were common to different areas of the country trying certain spices and mixes combined with certain woods. After several tries I finally settled on a mix of about 1/3 apple and 2/3 Pecan to get the kind of flavor that I really liked that went well with the many spices that were tried.

I never really could settle on a “style” for the rub that I liked best. The thing about people from Utah is that pretty much everyone knows how to cook. I don’t mean that everyone is a culinary genius, but keep in mind that there are large families here. I personally come from a family of 5 children, there were 6 kids in my wife’s family and I had 3 of my own. Everyone here has that special recipe that grandma used for a number of things and those types of cooking were passed down. But, since there weren’t a lot of fine restaurants people here have very specific tastes. Basically if it is hot and brown, the people of this area are connoisseurs.

At this point I decided it was time to take a step back. I had spent plenty of time working with different types of meats; beef, pork and chicken when it came to cooking for my kids, so I went back to what I knew as far as what I liked as far as tastes. Starting with a base of Salt and Pepper and adding brown sugar in varying amounts, I used this as a base and little by little I developed a couple of different rubs that I am very proud of. I am still working on getting the chicken rub where I want it, but I have put together a sweet pork rub and a spicy rub that works really well on beef.

From this point the grill was becoming too small for the things I wanted to cook so it was time to go a little bigger.

Friday, December 10, 2010

And so the journey began...

It all began innocently enough. The internet has time and time again proven to be a wealth of information anytime I have a question and this time proved to be no different. I should have been paying better attention and come to the realization as to what I was in for when a quick Google search for “competition BBQ” yielded well over 3 million results. Now the question was, where to begin.

I began reading and reading and searching and reading some more which only led to more questions. I was amazed at the complete and total diversity that could be found from such a small inquiry. The amount of information was endless. There were the types of smokers and cookers used, the ingredients to the countless numbers of rubs, sauces, mops, bases, injections, and let’s not forget the many different spellings that can be associated with it, (i.e., Barbecue, Barbeque, Barbeq, BBQ, BBCue, Q), etc., etc., etc….. and don't even get me started on the whole wood vs. gas vs. charcoal vs. pellet debate, it is worse than the  Dodge, Chevy, Ford debate. It went on and on. So much so that I figured it probably wouldn’t even be worth it to continue. From all accounts it appeared that to even be a good “Backyard Bum” as I liken myself to would take thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

I continued to pour over the information and little by little began to whittle down the basics. There are many sites that are more of a clearing house for the information that can be deemed all things barbecue so I began to focus more on the grass roots versions of sites that were loaded with input from many and had the forums that contained huge numbers of posts and replies.

Searching through these sites and threads became an interesting adventure in itself. Once I got to a point where some of this information began to make sense I took a page from my wife’s philosophy and started with what I could find about the history. Foregoing a lesson on whether it came from an ancient people from somewhere in South America or wherever, it was interesting to find out about the beginnings of what has been deemed on more than one occasion as North American barbecue. As always there are differences of opinions as to the actual origins but the consensus is that it may have really been developed around the Carolina’s or that part of the South.

More research brought forth the many varying styles of cooking, some of which are separated by nothing more than an old dirt road or fence line.  One thing I found most intriguing is that North Carolina has two distinct styles just by itself between the East and West, (it’s funny to hear it described as Eastern North Carolina and Western North Carolina Barbecue even on the websites of restaurants that are no more than a couple miles apart).

For the most part while I was delving into the where and what was what, it was clear that there are just a few “recognized” styles that just about anyone involved will accept or recognize, (North Carolina; both East and West, Memphis style, Kansas City and Texas plus a few others).

Once I got more comfortable with the information I began thinking of what style I would want to incorporate into what I was doing. I already considered myself an accomplished outdoor cook, both with charcoal or gas on a grill and of course with a Dutch Oven, (no self respecting native Utahn would be caught dead without at least 2 Dutch Ovens in their arsenal, hell, it’s even recognized as our state cooking pot). What I was looking for was a style that I could embrace and easily tweak that would not be a huge change from the ingredients or tastes that I was accustomed to. First things first though, I had to figure out how to get rolling….And what the hell I was going to get started with…

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why "The Sinder Pit"?

Well, I have always been a fan of dogs and the one breed I have always wanted is a German Shepherd. My wife also is a big animal person so after we had been married for about 4 years or so we decided we would get a dog. I have had them all my life but I was a little concerned about getting a big dog right away since my wife had never really had pets. We settled on a Shetland Sheepdog since, by all accounts, they are easy to train and are highly intelligent. We were not disappointed in our choice and she is and has been a great companion. A few years passed and we decided to get another dog. We both felt that we were comfortable enough now to get a bigger dog so we sought out a breeder that is close and picked our new family member. I chose him because it appeared he was going to be big and that is what I wanted, not knowing that “big” was exactly what we got.

All of our pets, (cats, dogs, ferrets, turtles), all had names that began with an “S” so we figured there was no reason to break tradition. We thought long about it and I remembered as a youngster my uncle had a Border Collie named “Sparky” and once he was gone he got another one and named him “Cinder”, I guess a play on the notion that they had a Spark, which eventually becomes a Cinder. The name “Sinder” was chosen and the spelling done as such to keep the integrity of the “S” names.

He grew into a beautiful animal, but there came a point when it seems he would not stop growing and as it stands at the time of this post he is about 5 weeks removed from turning 4 years old and weighs right around 120 lbs. and stands 28” at the shoulder.

Once he got a little older I began training him for Search and Rescue. He was doing very well but after some time I could see that he was becoming a little aggressive. This concerned me and the others involved with the group and I did what I could to calm him down but it continued to get worse. I stayed home one day from work and while I was in the other room I could hear him suddenly start going berserk in the kitchen. I walked in to find a group of young boys that meet the school bus near our house knocking on the window and pulling faces and teasing him. It was all making sense now as to why he was becoming aggressive and since that time, he has a real hard time with younger boys. I had a nice talk with the leader of the Search and Rescue group and we concluded that since a good majority of people that get lost are young children, it may not be good to have him looking for them for fear of him injuring them. So, as such, he is now just a really big couch potato. He is a great dog and he is a lot of fun.

Anyway, as I got more involved with barbecuing, Sinder became a good companion while I was running in and out of the house and he always knows when the food is about done. I decided to call my cooking equipment “The Sinder Pit” since it became apparent that as long as I was cooking, he was always under foot. The area where I live had alot of volcanic activity however many millions of years ago so there are alot of places to find Cinders, you know, those little pieces of red or black porous rocks used for landscaping and such that get stuck to the bottom of your shoe and you bring them in the house only to step on one in bare feet later and make you scream like a little girl. There are places that excavate these little pieces of excrutiating pain and we call them cinder pits. Therefore, it seemed fitting that since my dog is such a big part of my cooking AND he can be a royal pain, the name just kinda had a nice ring to it...

A Little Background....

So, I have what I like to call a self-induced form of OCD. This stems from the fact that I found myself as a single parent to 3 of the greatest kids in the whole world during my early 30’s. My day started before 6:00 a.m. pretty much every day, then get the kids off to school, then to a full time job, then home in time to meet the kids as they got home from school, then take the kids to whatever activity they had that day, then home, dinner, homework, bed and finally getting myself settled at around 11:00 p.m.

As the kids got older and began moving out on their own, the chaos slowly calmed down but I found that I always had the need to be doing “something”…Nothing really in particular, just that for such a long time there was always something that needed to be done, my mind couldn’t stop feeling like it had to be moving. As such, if I don’t find something to focus on I kinda go a little nuts.

Anyway, I have always been a competitor, (not to be confused with being a competitive person, just that I like to test myself). I have played racquetball since I was 15 and finally quit playing competitively in 2008. My body started telling me several years ago that I am not 18 anymore so I needed to find other things to occupy my mind. I started flying radio-controlled airplanes about 10 years ago, which has turned into another huge obsession but I find that I am limited by time and weather and such. I play golf often as well as fish and try to get outdoors as much as possible. But, as time went by I realized that the things I enjoyed take me away from home too much and are too dependent on other factors.

I remarried to a wonderful woman in 2001 and after some time I found that I missed cooking. When it was just me and the kids I did not have a lot of money nor the time to go out to eat so I HAD to learn to cook. At that point I was cooking to feed my family but along the way I realized that I was actually having fun trying to come up with new and inventive ideas to keep the kids interested.

About 3 years ago I caught the cooking bug again and went through a few phases as far as styles and types of food, Mexican, Italian, Americana and fusions of anything I could think of. Then, about 2 years ago I found an article about “competitive barbecue”. I was mildly intrigued that there were people out there, people who for the most part had no formal culinary training, “competing” in barbecue. I began reading as much as I could and discovered that this was something I really wanted to try.

The rest, as they say, is history…