There's a certain wizardry about grilling. The magic of a low, slow fire — and a heady touch of smoke — transforms a simple rib-eye or portobello mushroom into mouthwatering fare.
It's such a straightforward trick, yet there are so many tools and gadgets out there that what was once a simple act of barbecuing has become a tad intimidating. These days not only are there are smokers, gas grills and Weber kettles, but also wood planks, chips. charcoal chimneys, grill racks, salt plates, slider molds, asparagus grabbers and, of course, jalapeno racks to keep your peppers erect.
So there you are at the supermarket, hefting a baggie of apple wood chips and wondering, can you put wood chips in a gas grill? And how important are erect jalapenos, anyway?
You'd ask your neighbor, the barbecue king with his own professional-grade smoker, but that would be like asking Tim Lincecum for T-ball tips.
Fortunately, we've got someone better — because Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe is all about demystifying the art of the 'cue. The Florida-based barbecue guru and serial cook-off champion has a new book out. And "Slow Fire: The Beginner's Guide to Barbecue" (Chronicle Books, $22.95, 176 pages) answers nearly all those questions (though you're on your own for proper pepper posture).
The new book is a deliberate departure from the classic barbecue how-to's, which are typically penned by heroes of the pitmaster circuit with "brash personalities, huge egos and a room full of trophies, " Lampe says. "By the time you get through the ridiculous pieces of equipment that cost more than your car, it's intimidating."
The bottom line, he says, is that newbies shouldn't run out and spend a lot of money on equipment they may end up using once. Use what you have, he suggests, experiment and then see if it's a cooking technique you want to pursue with something more suitable — and more easily temperature-controlled — than the ubiquitous backyard gas grill, such as an old-school kettle barbecue, a smoker or even a stove-top smoker.
Many tend to describe any kind of grilling as "barbecue, " but real barbecue is cooked low and slow — with indirect heat and a bit of culinary restraint. "It's not 'if a little smoke is good, a whole lot should be better,'" Lampe says. "You can easily oversmoke food."
Indirect heat means putting the fire on one side of the grill and placing the meat on the other, with a drip pan underneath. Temperature is key, 230 to 250 degrees is ideal — and the thermometer on the top of your shiny barbecue lid is useless. It reads the heat at the top of the lid, not an inch or two above the grate, where you're cooking dinner.
"If you have it 240 on top, but the heat has risen, you might be trying to cook that meat at 160 degrees," Lampe says. "You can cook on just about anything but you gotta learn the tricks."
Some grills have a built-in drawer to hold wood chips, but the tried-and-true foil pouch works just as well, Lampe says.
That's something about which Denis Kelly, the James Beard award-winning cookbook author and a St. Mary's College professor in the integral studies program, fully agrees. Kelly has written three meat-related books for Williams-Sonoma, including "Williams-Sonoma Grilling," and several cookbooks co-authored with Berkeley sausage king Bruce Aidells.
Kelly puts a handful of wood chips in the center of a 10-inch square sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil, folds the foil around it and crimps the edges tightly. He then pokes holes in it with a skewer — Lampe's a fork man — and drops it into the barbecue. You can soak the wood chips for an hour first, which slows the burning time, but just be aware that all that "smoke" pouring out is going to be steam for a while.
Don't get too obsessed with the wood aspect, Lampe says: "The smoke is part of it, but the long slow cooking is it."
And don't — pardon the pun — bite off more than you can chew. The trick, Lampe says, is not to tackle a project that's simply too big.
"Don't try to cook a brisket for 14 hours the first time," he says. "Do chicken quarters or pork chops, smoked fajitas where you use skirt steak. Stuff that takes one hour versus 12 hours."
The shorter the project and the less intimidating, the more likely that you'll do it again.
THE LOWDOWN ON WOOD
Apple or cherry wood: These fruit tree woods are a great choice because they'll add a little smokiness to your barbecue without overwhelming the meat. Pecan is a little stronger, but not too bad, Ray Lampe says, "if you don't abuse it and put too much in there."
Hickory or oak: These woods will give you that classic, smoked barbecue flavor, but if you're not careful, the flavor can be overwhelming. Use two parts apple wood to one part hickory or oak, Lampe suggests. Too little smoke is still going to be good, he says, but too much smoke renders meat inedible. And standing in the smoke, tending the fire all day, desensitizes the cook to what constitutes too much.
Mesquite: Unless you're a pro, mesquite or red oak is too strong for a smoker or closed grill.
SMOKED STUFFED BABY BELLAS
Note: Cremini mushrooms are known as baby bellas.
1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese
2 slices bacon, cooked and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon panko breadcrumbs
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 pound baby bella mushrooms or cremini
Prepare your cooker to cook indirectly at 235 degrees, using light apple wood for smoke flavor.
In a small bowl, mix blue cheese, bacon, garlic, breadcrumbs and pepper.
Twist the stems out of the mushrooms and scrape out the gills. Place the mushroom caps on a grill topper with the bottoms facing up. Spoon the blue cheese mixture into them.
Put the stuffed mushrooms in the cooker and cook for 1 hour, or until the mushrooms are tender. Serve hot.
SMOKY SKIRT STEAK FAJITAS
2 pounds skirt steak
2 limes, divided
Dr. BBQ's Fired-Up Fajita Rub (see recipe)
1 large red onion, halved and sliced
1 green and 1 red bell pepper, halved and sliced
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
10 8-inch flour tortillas
Sour cream, salsa, garnish
Cut the steak into 6 pieces. With a heavy meat mallet, pound the steak well to tenderize it. Squeeze the juice of 1 lime over 1 side of the meat. Season with fajita rub — heavily for rich, spicy meat, or lightly for milder meat. Let rest 5 minutes.
Flip the steaks and repeat with the second lime and the rub. Place steaks on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and chill up to 2 hours.
Prepare your cooker to cook indirectly at 235 degrees, using medium oak wood for smoke flavor.
In a medium aluminum foil pan, combine onion, bell peppers and jalapeno. Drizzle with olive oil. Toss with salt and 1 tablespoon fajita rub. Put the pan in the cooker and cook for 1 hour.
Wrap the tortillas tightly in foil and set aside.
Toss onions and peppers with tongs. Add the steak to the cooker in one layer. Cook 30 minutes more.
Toss the onion-pepper mixture again and flip the steaks. Put the tortilla package in the cooker. Cook for 30 minutes more.
Remove everything from the cooker. Tent steaks loosely with foil and let rest 5 minutes. Slice steaks thinly, against the grain, and add to the onion-pepper mixture. Toss well and serve with the warm tortillas, sour cream and salsa.
—Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe
DR. BBQ'S FIRED-UP FAJITA RUB
Makes about 1 cup.
Note: This big, bold, spicy rub is great for fajita and taco meat, where the tortillas will help mellow things out.
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup chili powder
1 teaspoon ground chipotle
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne
Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. The rub may be stored in an airtight container in a cool place for up to 6 months.
—Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe