MARY and I aren’t barbecue freaks, but we like it once in a while. For years we used the recipe in the American Heritage Cookbook; their sauce is strong and maybe a bit too acidic, but it’s more satisfying than the bland anonymous stuff you usually get in restaurants or out of bottles. Followed exactly, their cooking instructions more or less reproduce in the oven what you get in the back yard: black chewy ribs, with lots of carcinogenic bits around the edges. (Tired of all those bones and no meat, we eventually switched to separate English spare-rib chops.)
And then I read Jeffrey Steingarten’s “Going Whole Hog” in The Man Who Ate Everything. He is just as amusing on the subject as Calvin Trillin in Alice, Let’s Eat, and a great deal more informative. Analyzing Memphis barbecue, he writes,
Backyard grilling (which nearly everybody outside the South calls barbecuing) is quick cooking over intense dry heat (often 500 degrees [F] or higher). Real barbecue has absolutely nothing to do with grilling. . . . Real barbecue is slow, enclosed cooking at gentle temperatures in moist hardwood smoke. A whole hog typically takes twenty-four hours to cook, a shoulder takes twelve to fourteen hours, and ribs average five or six. Most people grill their meat to rare and juicy. Real barbecue is always well done. Any sign of blood, any trace of unrendered fat, is a serious flaw. All the tough connective tissue must be dissolved. The meat must pull cleanly away from the bone and separate in long moist shreds. Real barbecue never sizzles. . .
The cooker. . . must be covered, and the atmosphere inside must be moist. The temperature should range between 170 and 250 degrees [F]. . . The heat is usually indirect. . . A water pan can be used to humidify the air inside the cooker and catch the drippings, but the meat inside a well-sealed cooker will generate its own moisture.
LIGHTS flashed and bells rang. This method is much closer to what can be done in a domestic oven as opposed to the primitive outdoor apparatus of the sort which, in England, is purchased by incurable optimists and incorrigible sado-masochists. I vowed to try a modified version immediately.
Lacking a traditional Southern barbecue oven, the nearest thing we had was an old-fashioned covered roasting tin with a rack, well blackened from generations of use. (Any tight-lidded oven-proof utensil would probably do.) Assuming that its interior temperature would be slightly lower than the oven temperature, I selected the upper extreme of 250F (112C), or Mark 1/2 in a British gas oven. To give the pork a head start towards tenderness and thorough absorption of the sauce’s flavor, I marinated the chops in the sauce for half a day, then roughly scraped them clean for the first stage of cooking. Target time for dinner was 7:30 so, opting for the maximum cooking time, I put the meat in at 1:30, on the oven’s middle shelf.
Taking Steingarten’s advice, I didn’t put any water in the pan, but kept a frequent eye on the meat for the first couple of hours in case it started to dry out. No problem; moisture started to accumulate immediately and at every stage the atmosphere when I took off the lid was steamy.
After a couple of hours I gave the pork chops a liberal brushing of the sauce; two hours later I turned them over and brushed them again. By this time they were fairly well done, but I let them go for the full six hours, at the same low temperature. (Note that this long slow cooking means that the time during which the meat is at its best is much longer than with a quick roast. At a dinner party with late-arriving guests, this can spell the difference between success and disaster.)
WHEN we sat down to dinner, the ribs were as close to perfect as I’ve experienced. The meat almost fell off the bone, and it wasn’t remotely dried out. Sauce, fat, lean meat, and connective tissue had all blended into a uniformly moist, rich, succulent flavor and texture. And the strongly acidic sauce had been thoroughly tamed, the vinegar being absorbed into the meat as a tenderizing agent. Some time I must try the same approach with a boned/rolled pork roast, giving it an overnight marination unrolled; then, re-tied, a full day in the oven.
Warning: The pork we buy is free range, from Graham, our local butcher. If you start with the usual supermarket stuff, which oozes water and goo, no guarantees.
HERE is (approximately) the American Heritage barbecue sauce recipe. Quantities, which are in American measures, aren’t at all critical and can be altered freely to taste.
1 can (1 lb 3 oz) tomatoes
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 (or more!) cloves garlic, chopped or pressed
1 dessertspoon brown sugar (or white sugar plus molasses)
1/2 oz butter
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup Worcester sauce
1/2 cup vinegar
1 teaspoon salt (see below)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Dash of cayenne
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
In a large (enough) saucepan, soften the onion in the butter, break up the tomatoes, add everything, and simmer slowly for about 45 minutes. If you want it smooth, you can put it through a food processor.
ALL well and good, you say, but ribs just aren’t ribs without hickory smoke. Agreed— Spice Islands to the rescue. Their Hickory Smoked Salt, substituted for the salt in the above recipe, just about gets there. (And it lasts forever; we’ve still got a jar we bought thirty years ago.) I’ve not had better barbecue north of the Mason/Dixon Line.
NOW, here’s a big bonus, compliments of Mary. It’s the perfect salad to go with barbecue, and it comes from her book, Entertaining Single Handed. Mixed up with the barbecue sauce, it’s nectar and ambrosia. (Measures are metric/English.)
Pineapple Rice Salad
6-8 tinned pineapple rings in syrup
2 bunches spring onions
3 cloves garlic
350g (12oz) white or brown rice
900ml (1 1/2pints) sour cream, Greek yoghurt, or smatana
salt and fresh black pepper
Cook the rice, drain, mix with the juice from the pineapple, season and leave it to cool.
Crush the garlic, chop the pineapple rings into medium-sized pieces and stir into the rice along with the garlic. When the rice has cooled, stir in the sour cream. Season to taste. Chop the white part of the onions and stir in. Chop and stir in some of the green part, but save some to scatter over the top.
©1999 John Whiting
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