Barbecue Tips from the Pit
The U.S.’s top pit masters share stories and barbecue best practices
Ed Mitchell (The Pit, Raleigh, NC)
Ed Mitchell’s stand to try some Carolina style BBQ. Mitchell grew up on a farm in Wilson, NC where he learned his family’s 150-year-old method for cooking whole hog at an early age. Mitchell believes true, authentic barbecue requires cooking a whole animal.
Head-to-toe cooking and a vinegar-based sauce are two factors that really distinguish Carolina barbecue. Mitchell is a proponent of the hot and fast barbecue cooking technique, and he cooks his hogs at temperatures reaching up to 450°.
Mike Mills (17th Street Bar & Grill, Murphysburo, IL)
Pit master Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar & Grill prepares Memphis-style barbecue. Mills learned to barbecue from his dad. He assesses good barbecue based on the harmonious convergence of four factors which he refers to as a “rodeo in your mouth”: juicy pork, spicy rub, tangy sauce and the slight presence of smoke.
Mills is adamant that he does not like “sloppy barbecue,” which has too much sauce and loses the texture of the pork. He serves his ribs with sweet, tomato-based Memphis style sauce.
Contrary to my assumption that barbecue is an imprecise process, Mills said the entire process is, in fact, measured and precise. He pulled out a shaker full of his secret dry rub and told me it was enough for exactly 18 racks of ribs. If he doesn’t have enough to get all 18 racks, he has used too much rub, and if he has some left over, he didn’t use enough.
“We just make it look easy, “ said Mills.
Drew Robinson (Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, Birmingham, Ala.)
Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q served up sausages with hot pimento cheese. Jim ‘N Nick’s strategy for making these sausages juicy, smoky and crispy is to smoke them first, then grill them to make sure the casing gets extra crispy.
Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q pit master Drew Robinson, like all the other pit masters I spoke with, also learned how to barbecue from his family. More internationally influenced than many pit masters, Drew described a trip to Uruguay that he took with his competition team, the Fatback Collective.
The group visited Chef Francis Mallmann, ate at his restaurant El Garzón and had the opportunity to cook with several of Mallmann’s cooks in Uruguay. He enjoyed tasting and learning about Asado style barbecue. Experiencing another culture’s way of cooking barbecue made Drew realize how all barbecue has the same starting point - a whole animal – and then different techniques to give the meat totally different textures and flavors.
The Fatback Collective used some of their newly learned techniques to cook a whole lamb over an open flame for the exotic category in the Memphis in May competition this year.
Gary Roark (Ubon’s Yazoo City, Miss.)
I had the opportunity to chat with Garry Roark and his daughter Leslie, the “Barbecue Princess.” Roark’s father, Ubon, passed down the secret recipe for their famous sauce that has been handed down for five generations.
Ubon’s sauce gained national acclaim in the mid 80’s when Garry started competing in the barbecue circuit and producing the sauce on a large scale. The recipe is made in southeastern Missouri so it has “a Memphis flare with a nod to Kansas City.”
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