Barbecue sizzles in all corners of the country and in plenty of variations nowadays, with Kansas City sweetness slathered beyond the Midwest and Texas smoke rising out of the Lone Star State, tailgates have made a homecoming to America’s backyards.
The ease and accessibility of barbecuing a good meal outside is its best appeal. Whoever is handling the grill can keep it simple, spice it up with some complexity or find a middle ground. According to former Top Chef contestant and Atlanta-based restaurateur Kevin Gillespie, a chef should always focus on their own grilling approach and their guests’ preferences, before they try to replicate any trends. There is no set way to barbecue, and the most important trend is the one that your taste buds follow.
“Barbecue means so many different things to so many different people,” Gillespie said. “The great thing about it is you don’t have to be a pit master to make good barbecue. People make their worst food when they don’t follow their intuition.”
About.com barbecue and grilling expert Derrick Riches said that good barbecue can be found anywhere nowadays and every region has its own tastes. But he’s seen a return to old style taste of smoky Texas barbecue around the country.
Riches said that the sweet Kansas City style had been the favorite barbecue flavor just a couple years ago, but smoky, spicy Texas rubs and sauces are making a resurgence in popularity. Classic Texas style differs from Kansas City style in the preference for spicier, smoky rubs and sauces. Riches also said that popular sides from Texas have also made a significant return to popularity. Those styles stem from the German immigrants that settled in the Austin and San Antonio regions of Texas during the 19th century.
“A lot of German immigrants brought ‘old world’ styles that were beef-oriented. Gravy-style brisket, chicken, sausage, sauerkraut and potato salads,” Riches explained.
Seriously smoked meat needs a serious smoker, and the advances in cooking technology have made using a smoker easier than ever.
“Smokers have become easier to control and more accessible. You
can just set the temperature and leave it with some of the more advanced ones,” Riches said. “You don’t need to know a lot but it’s still a commitment because by its nature it is a long process.”
While that technology is expensive, grills are coming with more and more options nowadays. Jeff Dockeray of Tailgate Media Network said that the market for grill attachments has grown, with grill plates, smokers and other accessories coming along with the grill in some cases.
“Bluetooth technologies are really growing, and so are the products that go over or above the grill,” Dockeray explained. “There are so many high-end barbecue utensils now, as well as the furniture you surround your grill with. For me, that is all-important to the experience.”
Still, a classic charcoal grill can do the trick if you are willing to take the time, Riches and Gillespie said. But even those grills are changing. Dockeray said that eco-friendly charcoal and hardwood “natural” charcoal are growing in popularity. While briquettes and instant light charcoal are still the most popular styles on the market, the natural and eco-friendly brands are becoming a bigger niche in the market.
While the high-tech grills make it easier, Gillespie said that mastering temperature is one of the hardest and most important parts of barbecue. Ideally, the meat is showing off brown grill marks when it is taken off the grill, not black.
The grill cooks the meat, but the chef makes the flavor, and the options for sauces and rubs are more bountiful than ever. Sauces are associated with the Kansas City sweet style, but good barbecue needs rubs and sauces, regardless of the style.
Riches said that he once tried researching how many varieties of sauce were available, but he had to stop when he reached 2,000 and still had more to go. Riches said everyone is coming up with their own sauces now and the brands are innumerable. He thinks some have become too sweet, but as with anything involving cooking, if the person eating it likes it, then it is good.
“People are using alternative sauces and making their own a lot,” Gillespie said. “People like to do something unique and making your own sauce can do that.”
Gillespie said that the average griller overlooks the rubs, or seasoning, they put on their meat. While there are options on the market to buy ready-made rubs, he suggested that people make their own with the everyday salts, sugars and spices in the cupboard. Gillespie said that a popular ingredient being used now on meats is hard cider, an ingredient that adds a fresh, crisp citrus flavor.
“[With] anything cooked outdoors on the grill, people don’t notice that the seasoning is going to fall off through the grates. Home cooks should be more aggressive with their seasoning,” he added.
All three of the barbecue experts emphasized that the most important thing is creating a casual, fun atmosphere outside and making food that people like, regardless of the recipe’s complexity or the price of the ingredients.