Across America there are strict geographic rules for BBQ that you'd be brave to ignore. In South Carolina, the BBQ sauces are mustard-based and yellow "Carolina Gold" in contrast to the the ancho chilli-spiced tomato red of West Texas, nearly 1500 miles away. In more northerly Kentucky the meat is hickory smoked mutton brushed with Worcestershire based sauce or 'dip'. Lexington in North Carolina calls itself the BBQ capital of the world, with hickory-smoked whole hogs, mixed with a thin vinegar, ketchup, pepper and chilli based sauce. Yet in Central Texas there is no sauce at all, relying on a purist's oak smoke and savoury, spiced rubs. But the thing they'd all agree on is for the meat to be cooked low 'n' slow cooking - no flipping of burgers on a grill - and it must be be moist, tender and taste darn good.
See the article Getting started with American BBQ for an introduction to hot smoking and American BBQ and equipment
From competing ourselves, cooking for scores of friends, and speaking to experts, we've pulled together our top 10 American BBQ tips to get the most out of this unique cooking style.
1. Choose your flavours
When hot smoking you need to plan for three key things: what flavours to add to the meat before cooking, which wood chips to use, and what sauce to brush on at the end. A standard rub is 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup kosher salt, 1/2 cup paprika, 1/4 cup garlic powder, 1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper, 1-2 tsp cayenne pepper. Celery seeds and celery salt are popular additions. BBQ competition judges favour classic sweet-spice flavours, but for home cooking play around a little more: add dried rosemary, and oregano for Mediterranean flavours; five spice, pink peppercorns, and sesame for a hint of the Orient. The length of time the rub is left on will depend on the size of the piece of meat. For brisket and pork shoulder leave for at least four hours or overnight. Ribs just an hour or two, and chicken thighs a mere 20-30 minutes. Wood chips affect the flavour too - hickory and oak are good all-rounders, and adding a little fruit wood (apple or cherry) brings out sweeter more complex flavours. And sauce should harmonize with the rub - a sweet rub is good with a sweet sauce, a savoury rub with a savoury sauce.
Chicken thighs covered in a rub with a hot Chilean spice base
2. Go deep inside meat
Lean brisket is a difficult cut to BBQ - there's not much fat in the meat, so it can taste dry, and the meat is high in collagen, making the meat tough. If the BBQ is even a little too hot, the meat may not tenderise. However, you can help things along a little. Wet marinades and brines tenderise and flavour the meat: salt alters the protein structure, helping the muscle fibres swell and retain more water when cooked, and sugars add sweetness, along with spices and herbs for additional flavour. A brine will penetrate meat just from soaking, but it takes a long time, and often there will be a gradation in saltiness from the outside to the centre of the meat. A marinade injector speeds things along, injecting brine all the way into the meat. Some even mix oil into their brine for brisket, adding more fat into the centre of the meat. It is common to see brines of beef stock (including a little MSG), as well as Coca Cola or Dr Pepper - the phosphoric acid is thought to help tenderize the meat, and the sugar adds flavour.
3. Keeping the burn going - learn from Jim Minion
The "Minion" method, developed by American BBQ competitor and enthusiast Jim Minion, is perfect for a long slow smoke. Light all the coals at once, and the BBQ only lasts a few hours. Instead, pour unlit coals into the BBQ coal basket, and arrange in a horseshoe shape. Tuck or sprinkle wood chips around the unlit coals. Then pour a small number of lit coals into the gap. The fire will steadily burn through, generating smoke, and keeping the smoker going for 6 to 18 hours. The constant slow burn also helps to keep the hot smoking temperatures more stable.
4. Get the temperature right
American BBQ or hot smoking is called low 'n' slow for a reason. Cooking meat slowly at a low temperature and in a moist environment converts the meat's tough water-soluble collagen into gelatin, that is soft and tender with unctuous mouthfeel. American BBQ is particularly good for traditionally tough cuts of meat - the parts of the animal that would do most work: shoulders, ribs, and chest (brisket). Pork butt and brisket are usually cooked at 110°C to 120°C, with pork ribs and chicken slightly hotter, around 120°C to 130°C.
The 'insertion test' - is the pulled pork ready to pull?
5. Keep that temperature up - replace water with terracotta... or sand
The jury is out on whether to put a pan of water at the base of the smoker during cooking. Most bullet smokers have a water pan that sits above the lit coal basket. The body of water helps to keep the temperature stable during cooking, but some people feel it can be difficult to get the smoker up to temperature, and conversely if you're smoking a little high, it's tough to prevent the water from evaporating straight away. Instead, you can fill the pan with terracotta (a large flower pot base, wrapped in aluminium foil), sand or even gravel. Water is also important in keeping a moist environment inside the smoker. Too dry, and the smoke molecules won't be able to penetrate the meat; too wet, and the smoke flavours drips off the meat. The meat will form a slightly tacky outer layer - the pellicle - for perfect smoke absorption. Neither dry, nor wet. If you choose terracotta or sand over water, then additional moisture needs to be introduced through spraying (see next tip).
6. Spray dem ribs!
Meat needs moisture during hot smoking - and - if you're not using a water pan, spraying water around the inside of the smoker every 30 minutes to 2 hours helps to keep up the humidity. Some people spray beer, wine, apple juice, or even a mix of apple and soy sauce into the smoking chamber (using the type of spray bottle you might use to water house plants) every 30 mins to two hours. The apple juice and soy mixture is used to enhance flavour and colour. It is also sometimes called the 'mop' - dabbed or 'mopped' directly onto the meat. However, if you're going to add sauce to the meats after cooking, there won't be much difference in taste. We just spray water.
7. Wrap 'em up: The Texas Crutch
Around 2-4 hours into cooking, depending on joint size, the temperature of uncovered meat stops rising, and can even fall. This is called the BBQ "stall", and happens as any extra heat is used to evaporating more water from the meat, and there is no increase in internal temperature. Pro BBQ competitors avoid this by wrapping a brisket, pulled pork or ribs in plenty of aluminium foil when the internal temperature reaches 70 to 75°C. A little stock (for beef) or apple juice (for pork) can be added before the foil is sealed. The aluminium wrapped meat parcel is placed back in the BBQ smoker and cooked until it reaches the desired final internal temperature - giving moister meat and shorter cooking times. The Texas origins of the technique - particularly its popularity with brisket - have given its name the Texas Crutch.
8. A Long Slow Rest
Rest brisket and pulled pork for 30 mins to 3 or 4 hours if you can - ideally in an insulated container, like a cool box. Any juices that come out that should be added to the BBQ sauce - they will be delicious! With sweet rib rubs, brush the foil with butter and sprinkle over demerara sugar before wrapping up the hot smoked ribs for an extra glossy shine.
9. Rub first, sauce after
You will often see people slathering sugary sauces onto their meat over hot coals. This is a recipe for a very sticky and messy BBQ. Sauce is best added at the very end of cooking - just brushed on in the last 20 minutes before serving, while the meat is resting. Warm the sauce before brushing it over the meat.
10. In competitions, polystyrene is best... and perfect your parsley!
Presentation is king - and gets you a whole third of the marks in a BBQ competition. You may be surprised to see polystyrene boxes throughout this post - redolent of queasy feelings after fun nights out and the kebab mouth the next morning. Yet, we kid you not. In contests, every competitor is expected to be judged equally - and so the polystyrene 'blind box' was chosen. An identikit polystyrene container for every round of the competition, for every competitor. And if that isn't enough craziness for your 12-hour tended pinnacle of smoky BBQ perfection - it should be arranged on a perfectly flat putting green of parsley. There are tales of competitors trimming and preening with nail scissors for hours to get the perfect even balance of greenery, with no wisps or tendrils creeping up the sites.
We are converts. There aren't many chicken thighs that look more appetising than this.
Ready to get cracking with American BBQ? If so then find everything you'll need on our hot smoking and BBQ pages here. And if you want some help choosing the best smoker for you, then read our smoking buyer's guide: How to Choose A Food Smoker.
Or why not try some flavours south of the border, like these ancho chillies from Mexico.