This primarily applies to eating at a barbecue restaurant, versus professional barbecue contest judging. There is a difference between competition barbecue and restaurant barbecue. In competition, the pit masters/cooks are trying to produce the very best and highest quality product for a single entry at one time. In restaurant barbecue, the pit masters/cooks are trying to produce a high degree of quality that has to be maintained for many orders and indefinitely; while there are other items on menu that also need to be produced and customer needs to be attended to. So, the quality of restaurant barbecue is sometimes lower due to the lack of undivided focus. However, I can afford to be just as critical of restaurant barbecue as when I’m judging because I’m paying for it.
And, I know this too is going to open a whole can of worms, as what is considered as quality, or good, or great barbecue is subjective. However, there have to be some standards or points of differentiation that come into play, or else all barbecue could be considered the same. And that would be a sacrilege to America and all that is holy in barbecue.
First, I’ll begin my explanation of quality barbecue with the word Barbecue itself. I consider it to mean ‘meat that is cooked low and slow with smoke’. Yes, this is the most basic definition, but it’s accurate and the most logical starting point.
Second, I’ll explain the word Quality in my eyes. Its barbecued meat that when I look at it, makes me want to immediately devour it in large quantities until I’m full AND take some home to eat again later. Then, once I taste it, I know I definitely want to eat it in large quantities and get a “piggy bag”. So, its both the initial look and the all-important taste and texture.
Third, there are certain things that can never be part of the overall barbecue cooking process in order for it to be quality. They devalue the good name and lineage of barbecue. They are nothing more than shortcuts. In a word, it’s CHEATING!
- #1 is parboiling. As a matter of fact, that is my #1 rule of barbecue (a primary Marc Axiom), "never, ever, ever, ever parboil your meat”! It drains the meat of its natural flavor, and destroys the cell structure at the molecular level rendering the meat mushy or mealy. These are things that can’t be repaired, even with smoke & slow cooking.
- #2 is grilling after the meat has finished cooking. Some restaurants put the meat, like ribs in particular, on the grill to add char marks or to heat it up after it’s been fully cooked. The grilling uses high heat and often dries out the meat.
- #3 is initially baking the meat and then putting it on the grill to cook the rest of the way. This devalues the potential of the meat as you don’t get that great smoky taste associated with qualitybarbecue. Smoke mainly infuses in meat at the beginning of the cooking process, in a grill or smoker. Therefore, you lose the opportunity to properly flavor when using an oven.
- #4 is using liquid smoke as the primary means of generating a smoke flavor. If this is done, then true barbecue hasn’t been prepared. You must use real smoke generated in a grill or smoker. Also, I’d have to question their overall cooking methods - referring back to #1, #2 and #3 on this list.
There are certain things that I have no preference over when it comes to quality:
Sauces: I also have my favorite types of sauces, but am very often pleasantly surprised when I branch out and try some thing new.
Reputation: I don't gauge quality barbecue by what is presented the cooking channels shows. The media exposure may get me in the door, but the food is the star of my experience. There are a few famous barbecue restaurants that have been touted on the "best of" shows that I have been highly disappointed with.
What do I consider quality barbecue? This entails a number of elements, and they all have to be present:
Good smoke taste - mild to medium smokiness complimenting the meat & spice flavors, smoke ring on ribs. I love smoke on meat!
Nice spice taste - a nice overall flavor from a variety of spices without being too hot or too bland, complimenting the meat and smoke flavors. The rub needs to standout.
Good sauce – when sauce is provided, either already on the meat or on the side, it should have a pleasing aroma and be in a small amount. Too much sauce and you can’t taste the flavor of the meat (or can be covering up improperly cooked meat), and too little sauce and the meat can dry out or not have it optimal flavor potential.
Good Sides - quality barbecue meat needs quality tasting side dishes to compliment the overall meal. This is too wide of area to explore. However, I like cole slaw, barbecued beans & collard or mustard greens with my meal.
However, it is important for every barbecue lover to have some high standards for the barbecue they choose. It is also important to provide positive and constructive feedback to the establishments they have chosen. The feedback can only help the barbecue community stay focused on providing true, great tasting barbecue fare to their customers. That’s us!
Always look for ‘”quality” barbecue, whatever your definition, and except nothing less!
"Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!"