This post was originally posted last winter, but with the Holiday weekend upon us I decided to pull it back out of the archives in honor of the busiest bbq weekend of the year as millions enjoy bbq in backyards across the nation.
At the risk of boring some of my readers, I'm going to start out with some barbecue basics in the first installment of this 31-day series of articles discussing how-to-improve-your-bbq.
Barbecue = low and slow cooking (think pulled pork, beef brisket, tender and juicy pork ribs)
Grilling = hot and fast cooking (think steaks, pork chops, hamburger and various kinds of kabobs)
Generally speaking, barbecue refers to cooking with wood over a low heat in order to bring the internal temperature of the meat being cooked up to edible temperature slowly so as to avoid losing moisture (i.e. tenderness) from large cuts of meat. For example, cooking a 14 lb beef brisket using the hot and fast method will most likely leave you with meat that is burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. Many barbecue cooks use indirect heat (i.e. fire source is offset from the cooking chamber) versus direct heat (i.e. first source is located in direct proximity to the cooking chamber) to help combat this issue. However, you can definitely cook low and slow using a direct-type cooker. You just modify your method a little bit.
Some examples of indirect-style barbecue cookers versus direct style barbecue cookers are the ever-popular "tank-style" cookers, such as those made by Ben Lang and David Kose; compared to the increasingly popular style of direct-style barbecue cookers like the Primo, Kamado and Big Green Egg, or simply BGE for short. There are many variations and options for cookers other than, these specific manufacturers. I'll be discussing various other cooker options throughout this series of articles, but let's move on for now.
For most folks, the choice of cookers is highly-dependent upon several factors including: 1) availability of wood and the cost of buying wood, versus availability of charcoal (lump or briquettes), 2) room for storing the cooker when not in use, 3) budget, 4) experience, and 5) personal preference, or some might call it "ego".
Someone living in an apartment might find it difficult to justify the purchase of a big offset cooker, not only due to a lack of wood supply, but also for a lack of inside storage space when the cooker is not being used. Offset cookers range in price from the typical $150-hardware store budget conscious variety, to the top-of-the-line pits manufacturered by Jamie Geer that can get real expensive, real fast. Typically, someone with a single-family home with a garage for storage, or a storage shed of some type, would be more likely to own an offset cooker versus someone living in an efficiency-sized apartment in the heart of a downtown metropolitan area.
The compact size of a BGE and ready availability of charcoal might suit someone living in an apartment better. Also, if portability is a consideration, the offset is less of an option, since it takes usually takes two or more people to comfortably move a small offset (without wheels), or even a vehicle to move some of the larger ones with wheels that can weigh upwards of 3,000 lbs.
Anyone can learn to cook some real fine bbq using any of the cookers mentioned above. The ever-popular "kettle" grill can turn-out some good 'que also, with some patience and understanding of proper fire control techiniques. I've eaten some excellent bbq made by cooking a whole hog using a chicken wire framed up with meatal rods and then perched on top of concrete blocks.
Some obvious advantages of using an offset smoker: 1) larger cooking area (generally speaking), 2) horizontal cooking surface and the ability to cook multiple meats at the same time, 3) bigger physical size creates a feeling of "machissimo", 4) "traditional" method keeps you highly involved in the cooking process because you have to constantly stoke the fire (some might also call this a disadvantage).
Advantages of the ceramic-type grills like the BGE, Primo, and Kamado: 1) easy to store, 2) ceramic construction holds heat very well, 3) ability to maintain higher temperatures allow use as a grill or smoker, 4) a little charcoal goes a long way, 5) with a little practice, temperature control requires very little effort/monitoring.
Which cooker you choose is really a matter of personal choice and largely a factor of one's individual personality.
If you would like to share a picture of your personal cooker, whether it's an offset or direct-style cooker, BGE, WSM, Lang, Kose, Geer, or whatever else you may have, please feel free to e-mail me and I'll post it here.
Stay tuned for the next installment.
Read the previous post in the series.
And for those that want to "roast" rather than "bbq", here's an alternative cooking box from La Caja China.