THE GRILL OF MY DREAMS
A backyard barbecue fanatic gives you the benefit of two decades of experience.
When I was seven years old, my best friend Scott asked for an electric train for Christmas. He didn’t get it. I asked for my own Junior Fire-King Outdoor Charcoal Grill. I got an electric train. We were both depressed. My friends laugh scornfully when I tell them, proudly, "I began barbecuing at a very early age." But it’s true. Barbecue is in my blood. My grandfather was a master of the char-broiled hamburger, my father a wizard with barbecued chicken. My barbecue heritage runs long and deep. I’ve now been tending backyard grill for twenty-two years.
On that basis, you’re probably expecting to encounter a treasury of time-tested barbecue tips and grillside secrets. Things like controlling your charcoal by using a plant sprayer. Soaking your hickory chips in pineapple. Cooking dill pickles inside your hamburgers. Basting your hot dogs in Southern Comfort. Advice on how to start your charcoal using only the Sunday comics and two bobby pins. How to barbecue strawberries Romanoff. Things like that.
Well, not here. I’m a lifelong believer in simplicity barbecue. I don’t like to cook; I only like to cook out. And I don’t like to spend a great deal of time cooking out; the easier the better.
Equipment. You don’t need much. I operate from a 13-year-old olive green Char-Champ manufactured by the Char-O Corporation of Houston, a firm which may or may not be defunct. The Champ has a top on it, the only feature really necessary to a barbecue grill (on the topless models, regulating heat and flame is too difficult and they don’t have heavy smoking capabilities). The Char-Champ also has an attached wooden side table - some kind of table is also absolutely necessary for barbecuing - but that can hardly be considered a luxury extra. The only other feature my Char-Champ once boasted was plastic wheels, but my dog chewed them off.
I’m not a fan of the built-in gas grill, so prevalent now in the backyards of America. A gas flame and those permanent glowing rocks just can’t take the place of real charcoal. This is not to say that there’s a flavor loss with gas, because the charcoal itself provides little real flavor - the smoky, char-broiled taste is achieved by the burning of the meat drippings, not the burning of the charcoal. My objection to gas is that it spoils the whole idea of the thing. The building of the fire is a significant part of the art. (I do allow one concession to gas: the built-in indoor gas grill, a real boon in winter and in rain, a luxury I’ll covet until the day I can afford one.)
Starting the Fire. The key here is overkill. Always start with more charcoal than is probably necessary. Too much charcoal can’t hurt you - it can always be spread to the sides. (The only time to be careful is when you plan to cook a vegetable or a mixed-meat smorgasbord; then you need a cooler area to one side of the grill.) Too little charcoal, on the other hand, can be disastrous to maintaining an even fire.
Let the coals burn until the flame dies, the corners turn white, and the center of the mound glows red, then begins showing flames of its own accord. No need to disrupt the pyramid too soon; this process will take less than half an hour. Spread the coals and allow them to heat the bars of the grill very, very hot before you lay the meat on. This will ensure that you get those nifty black stripes on your meat, an important aesthetic consideration.
Cooking the Meat. Hamburgers: Don’t bother. Charcoaled hamburgers taste great, but once you’ve got a grill ready, there are so many better things to cook. Hamburgers are a nuisance to make; if the patties are formed poorly they tend to crumble into the fire; and they’re actually among the most difficult things to cook right - an overcooked hamburger is a travesty. Besides, we all eat too many hamburgers anyway.
Steak: A charcoaled steak is only as good as the meat you buy, so select the best. Go for the thickest available rib eyes, strips, or T-bones. Avoid those steaks tagged "Excellent For Cookouts" - that’s usually the butcher’s ploy for unloading his lesser cuts, on the premise that a steak cooked outdoors is going to taste great anyway so it doesn’t matter how tough it is. The only key to cooking steak is to have your fire at peak heat and preferably flaming so you can sear the meat for one minute on each side and seal in the juices. Then try to flip the steak only once after searing. When the juices begin accumulating on the second side, the steak is generally done at medium. Variations toward rare or well-done are learned only by experience. And don’t use any barbecue sauce - anyone who plasters a perfectly good steak with barbecue sauce (or any other steak sauce) doesn’t deserve his grill. A nice touch, though (which I learned at the Ranchman’s Cafe in Ponder, Texas), is to place a large pat of butter on each steak immediately after it’s removed from the grill.
Chicken: The easiest way to cook chicken is to buy half-chicken broilers - that way you get four pieces in one and save flipping time (the cheapest way is to buy a whole chicken and cut it in half yourself). First baste the chicken with melted butter and sear on both sides; then begin applying barbecue sauce liberally. Cook with the top closed but with plenty of draft to maintain high heat. Baste with barbecue sauce often. Chicken takes a long time to cook - at least 40 minutes for an average sized half-broiler, depending on your fire. Play it safe. It’s hard to overcook chicken and there’s nothing worse than biting into a plump chicken breast and finding the white meat is still translucent.
Ribs: Ribs are the pinnacle of the barbecuing art. And they’re not difficult. Buy pork spareribs - they’re the simplest to cook and the most fun to eat. Individual pork loin ribs are simply a weak version of pork chops, and beef ribs, to my mind, aren’t ribs at all. Cook ribs slowly and evenly with the top closed as much of the time as possible. High, flaming heat will only parch them; eating parched spareribs is somewhat like eating barbecued pencils. The ribs should be drowned in barbecue sauce, and basted again and again. You can’t possibly use too much. Don’t worry about blackening - a bit of the black enhances the final flavor. In most packages of spareribs, there’s a bony, triangular piece. This is a nice piece to feed your dog.
The Mixed Grill: The finest in home barbecue is the mixed grill, a combination of meats. Any combination will do, but my personal favorite in terms of cooking compatibility and taste variety is chicken, pork chops, and sausage. For mixed grill chicken, use thighs only; the small pieces keep pace with the other meats and they stay juicy. The pork chops should be the thick pork loin chops (the butterfly chops are an unnecessary expense and the thin little "breakfast chops" are a joke). Buy a big curl of sausage and cook it in two equal pieces. The chicken and chops should go to the hotter part of the fire, the sausage to the cooler part so everything will be ready at the same time. Drench everything in barbecue sauce continually.
The Sauce. Every barbecuer worth his tongs has his own special recipe for barbecue sauce. Mine is this: Go to grocery store. Find barbecue sauce shelf. Get jar of Woody’s Cook-in’ Sauce Concentrate. Buy. Take home. Pour in saucepan. Use. Woody’s, as its slogan says, is "Not Another Barbecue Sauce." It’s thicker, spicier, and, to my taste, better. I also admire Woody’s simplicity of style. On the label on the back of the jar are "Recipes" such as "Barbecue Steaks and Chops: Apply Cook-in’ Sauce to both sides. Grill outdoors." The label says it’s a concentrate but use it full strength. 1 used to like to mix in Heinz Barbecue Sauce with Jalapeno Flavor for a touch of extra spice, but it’s been difficult to find lately, leading me to think they don’t make it anymore. If you can find it, use it.
Random Tips. Certain vegetables, of course, can be cooked on an outdoor grill. But vegetables tend to complicate matters, so I generally avoid them. The easiest, though, is corn on the cob. Soak the corn in water for 15-20 minutes, wrap the ears in aluminum foil with a little coating of butter, place on the grill away from direct hot coals or high over the fire and cook for 20 minutes, rotating often. If possible, let someone else cook them inside instead.
One last tip - and my only original discovery in 22 years at the grill: charcoal broiled jalapeno peppers. Buy the largest jalapenos you can find (in jars so you can see them, not in blind cans) because the small ones tend to slip between the bars of the grill. Roast at the cooler edges of the fire, turning occasionally, until they’re very slightly charred. Serve with the meat as a side treat. On your first try, remove all the seeds before eating, or you won’t taste the rest of your meal.
There’s no barbecue like your own barbecue, but if you just don’t want to cook it yourself, Dallas has a good barbecue joint around every corner. Who has the best barbecue? It’s everybody’s guess. Here is a list of several of the best, scattered geographically around Dallas/Fort Worth -one of them should be close to you.
Sonny Bryan’s. 2202 Inwood/Dallas. 357-7120.
Angelo’s. 2533 White Settlement Rd./Fort Worth. (817) 332-0357.
Galen’s. 826 N. Collins Rd./Arlington. (817) 275-9422.
Joe’s. 1022 Pacific Ave./Dallas. 742-1891.
Dickey’s. 4610 N. Central Expwy./ Dallas. 823-0240.
Bill’s Blue Ribbon. 3406 MckinneyAve./Dallas. 521-6030.