Thou shalt not overcook thy meat. This is, as I was saying in my last epistle, one of the most fundamental commandments of the Barbecue God, and probably the one that man in his ignorance and imperfection has broken most often. When you're a guest at a barbecue, and your host asks you how you would like your steak cooked, do not answer, "medium," "medium well," or, God forbid, "well done." This is blasphemy, pure and simple. The meet and right response is: "Medium rare, of course," or, "Bloody, please." And if you are the host and one of your guests asks you to overcook his steak, do not compound blasphemy with heresy by acceding to his request. Simply follow the time-honored example of master chefs the world over and serve the steak medium rare.
The question of how long to cook other meats is a thornier one, particularly with respect to poultry. It saddens me to think how much of the chicken I've eaten in my life has been overcooked. The desire to avoid hospitalization for salmonella poisoning, while understandable, is no excuse for heresy. Get an electronic meat thermometer with a transmitter that allows you to monitor the chicken's progress. Stick the thermometer in the meaty part of the thigh, making sure it's not touching the bone. A whole chicken will need to cook between two and three hours, depending on the temperature inside and outside the cooker; pieces vary and will need to be closely watched. Which brings me to another commandment: Thou shalt remove the chicken 5 degrees before it reaches its indicated doneness. Have faith and resist the temptation to cook it longer — it will keep cooking after you remove it from the grill, and it will be perfectly done when you serve it. This commandment applies not just to chicken, but to all meats.
Think of the meat as the sacrament. This will guide you in many ways, beginning with your trip to the grocery store or butcher. Whenever possible, buy all-natural or organic meats. The difference in quality, and the absence of mystery hormones and antibiotics floating around in the temple of your body, is well worth the higher price. One of the blessings of barbecue is that you can make cheaper cuts — e.g., beef brisket — taste ambrosial by slow-cooking and smoking them.
There are a multitude of different sacraments in the Church of Barbecue and infinite ways to prepare them. Here, I will briefly touch on the holy trinity of smoked brisket, pork ribs and chicken.
Let us begin with brisket, which is surely one of the greatest gifts the Barbecue God has seen fit to bestow on us. You will know it by its fattiness, by the way the meat seems to dissolve in your mouth and by the ecstatic cries it produces in your guests. When purchasing it, ask your butcher for a packer's brisket, untrimmed. It will weigh on average about 13 pounds. Trim it yourself at home, removing only the very hard fat and any shiny connective tissue. Be warned: if you cut off too much of the fat, your brisket will be dry and tasteless. Rub it generously with kosher salt and coarse pepper and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours. Smoke fat side down for 8 hours with pecan wood, at the lowest possible temperature, making sure the meat is shielded from the heat source. Then put it in a tightly sealed aluminum roasting pan and bake at 170 degrees overnight. Chop with a cleaver and serve on white bread or, as I like to do, fresh tortillas. Do not desecrate the sacrament with sauce of any kind; it is perfect as it is. If someone asks for sauce, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Pork ribs are the second of our church's great wonders. Some people prefer baby backs, but I like spare ribs; they're juicier and have more meat on them. Whichever you choose, always buy ribs in racks. Get thee away from pre-cut "country style" ribs and especially boneless ribs, those mutilated remnants of their former glory. Gnawing on the bone is an act of worship, pleasing in the Barbecue God's sight. Like brisket, ribs should be smoked slowly at low temperatures. I rub mine with Lawry's Season Salt and pepper, then smoke them for three hours in pecan or apple wood, meat side up. I then baste them with a mixture of 2 parts honey and 1 part soy sauce, wait 15 minutes, then baste again and cook 15 more minutes, for a total cooking time of 3 1/2 hours.
Finally we come to whole smoked chicken, otherwise known as the Rapture. I prepare for it by peppering the cavity and the exterior. From there, there are many paths to glory. The cavity can be stuffed with onion or fruit. Pears are especially tasty, and if you have pear wood for smoking, all the better. The exterior can be rubbed with kosher salt, Lawry's, Tony Cachere's, or other spice mixtures. The chicken can be glazed at the end with everything from mango sauce to maple syrup, or left unadorned. Our God delights in many forms of worship.
May His blessings be upon you, and His divine light shine always upon your patio. And now I say unto thee: Go forth and barbecue! Do I hear a hallelujah?
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Hillary Jordan grew up in Dallas, Texas, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, and received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Mudbound, her first novel, was awarded the 2006 Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. It was also the second title in Powells.com's new Indiespensable subscription club.
Books mentioned in this post
Hillary Jordan is the author of Mudbound: A Novel