Wild NZ: Low'n'Slow BBQ

Wild NZ: Low'n'Slow BBQ

TIME: This is the other major component of low’n’slow. If you’re in a rush, then forget it. This is a job that requires plenty of patience. I have a theory that part of the surge in popularity enjoyed by this type of BBQ is the fact that it’s the complete opposite of nearly all other aspects of modern life.

(harnessing your inner pitmaster)

by Mike Cooney

Some of you may be wondering why an article on barbecues is featuring in a column that traditionally delves into the many magnificent facets of wild-ness, nature, and adventure. Surely, it would find a better fit in our FOOD section? Well, let me stop you right there! For your information, anything that has something to do with fire (in my humble opinion) automatically makes the cut. Fire is wild, it can cook nature, and it can definitely make an adventure out of your evening meal!

With summer just around the corner, we’ll soon be firing up the barbies and enjoying long warm evenings chewing on a burnt sausage or two. And this, my friends, is the reason for the article. The good-ole-Kiwi-tradition of ‘whacking a few snarlers on the barbie’ is, simply put, a gastronomic atrocity. That is NOT barbecue. Well, okay … I guess it is barbecue, but it’s bad barbecue! 

I might be sounding a little snobbish in my rant, but can I suggest that (as thousands of Kiwis are now discovering), it might be time to … s l o w d o w n!

SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS BARBECUE?
Barbecue is probably the world’s oldest cooking method – but it’s also the world’s most controversial in terms of defining. I mean, we can’t even get the spelling right! Is it barbecue, barbeque, barbacue, BBQ, a barbie, a barby, B-B-Que, or Bar-B-Cue? 

For the record, linguists generally agree that the proper spelling of the word is barbecue … which has its origins amongst the Caribbean natives who called a style of cooking with food on a framework of sticks over fire, barabicu. The Spanish explorers then came along and utilised the method, calling it barbacoa. With their influence in the Americas, it wasn’t long before barbecue became a staple of the USA – particularly in the southern states, where the slaves perfected cooking meat above pits containing glowing embers.

The term ‘barbecue’ soon spread throughout the world – each region having a slightly different take on what it is. For we Kiwis, our traditional BBQ is a fast cooking process that’s done directly over a high heat – what Americans call grilling. American BBQ – or, more specifically, Southern American low’n’slow barbecue – is a totally different beast, and its popularity in Aotearoa is soaring. People all over the country are giving up the gas, and embracing the challenge of this relative new-comer to outdoor cooking.

AMERICAN BBQ – IT’S A MATTER OF TIME & TEMPERATURE!
Without a doubt, Americans do barbecue a lot better than Kiwis – generally speaking, of course. While it’s possible to turn out an okay product using our chain-store-bought gas barbies, to take our meat to the next level and really impress our mates (and who doesn’t want to impress mates?), it’s well worth learning the intricacies of American ‘Q. 

Sure, it requires much more than the quick turn-and-click of a gasser. And there are plenty of variables to get sorted, like the wood, the meat, the rub, the temperature and the time, to name a few! But the results … oh, the results … are so worth it!

The phrase ‘low’n’slow’ pretty much gives away what this style of cooking is all about. Simply put, it’s about low temperatures and long cooking times – often 12 hours or more! It involves big clods of meat – traditional cuts like pork shoulder (aka pork butt – which isn’t from the pig’s backside!), brisket, ribs etc – cooked over an indirect heat usually created from charcoal and/or wood. 

The incredible flavour produced by this style of cooking originates from the combination of wood-smoke plus the spicy mix (known as the ‘rub’) that covers the meat prior to cooking. You can buy a good rub from most supermarkets, although I like to make my own … using secret herbs and spices.

So, what makes good barbecue?

SMOKIN’, BABY: The flavour from a charcoal and wood BBQ is, I reckon, hard to beat. Good smoke, and therefore good flavour, comes from good wood. And the best woods to use here in New Zealand are well-seasoned native hardwoods, like mānuka or pōhutukawa – or, for a milder, sweeter flavour, fruit woods like apple or plum. Charcoal is great for cooking with, because it’s easy to light, provides consistent heat, and burns for a long time. However, it doesn’t provide much smoke – which is why wood is always added.  

This is especially important for the first couple of hours of a cook, where the smoke imparts its distinctive scent and flavours into the meat. Oh, and on that note, NEVER use treated timber. Arsenic is not really one of the flavour profiles you’re after. 

TEMPERATURE: As mentioned, low cooking temperatures are what makes this style of BBQ unique. And temperature control is vital for getting it right – especially when starting out. A good digital thermometer is worth its weight in gold – especially one with two probes – one for the BBQ temp, and the other for the meat. I’ve learnt to embrace F° (Fahrenheit) for BBQ, since the majority of good information about this type of cooking comes from the US. Most other keen pitmasters do the same.

So, what temperatures are recommended for southern-style barbecue? For most cooks, keeping your pit temperature around 225°F or 105°C is a great starting point and should guarantee great results! 

TIME: This is the other major component of low’n’slow. If you’re in a rush, then forget it. This is a job that requires plenty of patience. I have a theory that part of the surge in popularity enjoyed by this type of BBQ is the fact that it’s the complete opposite of nearly all other aspects of modern life.

Everything else is instant – instant messaging, fast food, on-demand entertainment, etc – and I think that, deep-down, we realise that this lifestyle isn’t that great for our souls. American BBQ forces you to slow down and wait … and the benefits, I’m convinced, are more than just great food.What lengths of time are we talking about? A pork shoulder, which needs loads of time for the connective tissue and collagen to break down, could take up to 12 hours to cook. Ribs can take four to five hours, and some big briskets upwards of 16! It all depends what you’re cooking as to how long you’re cooking for. 

In other words, there’s no rush. And it makes for a relaxing day, sitting in a comfy chair, brew in hand, chatting with a couple of mates or reading a good book! It may even add years to your life …

EQUIPMENT: While it’s true you can spend thousands on a quality offset smoker or ceramic cooker, it’s also true you can make an excellent low’n’slow BBQ out of a 44-gallon drum, using a few tools in the shed. With the Kiwi ‘can-do’ mentality the options are almost endless. Heck, I’ve even seen old fridges and filing cabinets turned into awesome low’n’slow smokers!

For those lacking the skills or the budget, one of the best BBQs/smokers for beginners and experts alike is the humble Weber charcoal kettle. You can pick a second-hand one up for under a $100, or buy one of the many Chinese copies for even less! But if you are keen on a kettle, it is hard to beat the original. I do most of my cooking on one of these and have done everything from brisket to pulled pork, venison to lamb and even smoked fish! And once you learn a few techniques – like the charcoal snake (Google it!) – you can keep your kettle running for hours at a consistent temperature … perfect for American ‘Q!

This coming season, then, why don’t you take up the challenge of going low’n’slow … harness your inner pitmaster … and leave burnt pre-cooked sausages in the past where they belong? And those rapidly-approaching warm summer evenings? Well, imagine them filled with the sumptuous smells of
heavenly hog that will wow friends and relatives alike. Now that’s barbecue!

Amen.


RESOURCES

Hopefully you’ve been inspired to explore this style of BBQ further. As for where-to-next, here are some fantastic websites that’ll get you cooking like a pro in no time!

  • NZ Barbecue Pitmasters on Facebook. There are nearly 20,000 members, Kiwis who love going low’n’slow. A great community who’re more than willing to help newbies get going. Check it out!
  • Amazing Ribs – www.amazingribs.com. Pretty much has everything you ever need to know about BBQ. Techniques, recipes, reviews. Awesome website!
  • BBQ Pit Boys – www.bbqpitboys.com. A hilarious bunch of redneck BBQ lovers with heaps of YouTube videos showing their mouth-watering style of ‘Q.