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King of the grill: Embracing the American barbecue

Barbecued slow-cooked pork

Want to be king of the grill? You can now take the experience to new heights of taste.

Instead of charring steaks, burgers and sausages, outdoor cooking fans can instead try an American-style super barbecue.

The American barbeque is all about the "low-and-slow": smoky, tender, unctuous meat cooked slowly at low temperatures, served with simple side dishes of beans, slaw or cornbread.

Classic BBQ and sides:

Cornbread muffins

Popularised as part of the street food movement, the style is quickly catching on in the UK.

In only its third year, May's annual Grillstock festival - where competitors literally show off their chops in a traditional barbecue cook-off - attracted over 10,000 people to its Bristol event.

Another 7,500 people attended the inaugural Manchester spin-off. Its popularity has encouraged the organisers to transfer business from its regular market stall to a new full-fledged restaurant.

Meanwhile, the team behind the successful Pitt Cue restaurant in Soho, London have just published their barbecue cookbook, only a year since opening the establishment. Later this month, TweatUp's Ribstock returns to London, selling all 500 tickets in a few days.

According to Chicago-born barbecue expert Ray Lampe, the self-styled "Dr BBQ" who is a judge at Grillstock and veteran of many American TV programmes, it is clear why the British are embracing barbecue culture.

Dr BBQ at Bristol Grillstock Dr BBQ congratulates a King of the Q competitor at Bristol Grillstock 2013

"Maybe you like the same things that we like about it? Big pieces of meat cooked for many hours with fire and beer? Sound like fun?"

If you're shouting, "Hell, yeah!", then here's how to get started.

Meat + smoke + seasoning

"Barbecue is the art of taking tough, unloved cuts of meat and through an alchemy of rubs, fire, smoke and love, turning them into the most delicious, juicy morsels of meat a man can eat," say Ben Merrington and Jon Finch, the organisers of Grillstock.

Each serving is a mixture of tastes and textures: savoury, caramelised, crisp exteriors, combined with tender, unctuous inner shreds, chopped together and served informally.

Eating in the open:

Squid and garlic cooking on an open fire

"Good raw products are essential if the end results are going to be any good," add the men of Pitt Cue. "We ate in some revered places [in America] but the quality of the meat was poor and it shows."

If you aren't equipped to go the whole hog, popular joints for barbecue include the neck end of a pork shoulder - or Boston butt. But brisket, feather blade, pork belly and, of course, ribs are all specialities that are relatively cheap to buy.

The meat is rubbed with salt, sugar and spices and left to cure overnight. Curing draws the flavour of the spices deeper into the meat by the process of osmosis, while the sugar caramelises in the gentle heat, creating the "bark".

While some purists still only cook over wood embers, the collective at Pitt Cue give their blessing to using charcoal. "Charcoal, if good wood is hard to come by, is a great base for your barbecue and it burns well for a long time."

Sam Jones slow-cooks a whole hog on the barbecu Sam Jones of the Skylight Inn barbecues whole hog at New York's Big Apple barbecue cook-off

The smoke at Pitt Cue comes from oak, sweet chestnut and cherry wood and acts as a seasoning delivered by the smoke.

When Dr BBQ judges competition barbecues, he's looking for pure smoky flavour and tender texture.

The flavour should be "a little smoky and a little salty, maybe a little sweet if the cook desires. But perfect texture is what I look for. It should be tender but not 'falling off the bone' tender. It needs a little bite, and that is much harder to accomplish than tasting good."

Be patient

"Turn the temperature down, keep the meat away from the direct flame, sit down and wait it out. You quickly begin to understand the culture of barbecue," says Dr BBQ.

Barbecue primer:

Competitors at Bristol Grillstock cook through the night
  • You need a solid barbecue with a lid - some pitmasters build this from concrete blocks, a metal grill and plywood.
  • The ideal temperature for slow cooking is between 90C-110C.
  • Cook indirectly by positioning your meat away from (not over) the coals.
  • Keep the atmosphere moist by sitting an aluminium tray full of water, cider or beer under the meat.
  • Add charcoal slowly, about six pieces per hour for a standard barbecue. Light it separately and transfer it when covered with grey ash.
  • Have two thermometers on hand, one for inside the barbecue, and one for inside the meat. Ideally, both should be readable without lifting the lid.
  • Sauce is optional, but should only be mopped onto the meat at the end of cooking so it doesn't burn.

Low-and-slow cooked barbecues originated in the American South. They are a step apart from the popular grilled barbeques many outdoor cooks are comfortable with.

"Grilling for me was taking a fillet, which is usually an expensive piece of meat, cooking it very quickly, searing it, and that was it, 20 minutes," says food writer Michael Pollan, who investigated barbecue at length in his recent book, Cooked.

But when cooking slowly, "this amazing transformation happens to the meat, the collagen breaks down into gelatin and it gets so tender you can pull it apart with a fork."

This transformation happens at an internal temperature of 70°C. But cooks must keep everything under 125°C to prevent the outside of the meat from drying and over-cooking.

Thermostatically-controlled cookers and gadgets can help meet these requirements, but nothing beats patience and a watchful eye, says Dr BBQ.

"Patience is the number one thing you need to cook good barbecue. It can be done at home on just about anything with a fire and a cover."

Sausages and chicken pieces can be done in an hour or so, if you don't have the time to tend the coals all day. But don't be afraid to commit some quality time, says the Pitt Cue collective. "There is something very satisfying in putting something in the smoker, waiting and nurturing it for a whole day to create something delicious."

Keep it social

"Barbeque brings everyone together. The fire and smell of the food wafting over naturally draw people in to help cook or just watch the coals," say Merrington and Finch from Grillstock.

"It's all about sharing a meal together, everyone at the same table bumping elbows, eating with their hands and with sauce on their chin."

Michael Pollan in his book Cooked:

"Even during the darkest days of segregation, blacks and whites patronized the same barbecue joints, despite the fact that, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, they could not eat their barbecue in the same dining room.

If the best barbecue in town happened to be at a black establishment, whites would line up at the take-out window; if it happened to be at a white joint, then blacks would line up at the window.

Nowadays, barbecue restaurants are, in the words of John Shelton Reed and Dale Voldberg Reed, the preeminent historians of North Carolina barbecue, 'a good deal more integrated than most other places of worship'.

Read Michael Pollan's thoughts on re-connecting with cooking

The US tradition of big social barbecues is hundreds of years old. Even George Washington, before his military and presidential career, records in his diary of 1769: "went in to Alexandria (Virginia) to a Barbecue and stayed all Night…"

Cook-outs became cook-offs in America in the 1950s. Self-professed barbecue historian Dr BBQ credits the tradition to "all-nighters with fire and danger and big pieces of meat and secret sauces and often a lot of beer. All very manly, so it isn't hard to imagine that it became competitive..."

But even with today's competitive framework, the overall aim is still to be social. In research for their cookbook, the Pitt Cue team "found the competitions in Kansas quite bizarre, but they are great fun events. We saw more drinking and partying than fierce competition."

Do it your way (but don't expect everyone to agree)

The famous Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina has a motto writ large on the billboard outside its doors: "If it's not cooked with wood it's not Bar-B-Q"

The barbecue belt:

Burnt ends
  • The coastal plains of the Carolinas traditionally cook whole pigs over wood, not charcoal. The pigs are quartered and chopped up into shreds combining crisp and tender parts. Sauces are a blend of pepper and vinegar.
  • In the piedmont, or foothills of the Appalachian mountains, the Carolingians like a pork shoulder with a more tomato-vinegar based sauce. The German immigrants to this area also brought a dish called schaufele - slow-cooked shoulder with coleslaw.
  • Tennessee barbecue is smoky and sweet, with hams, pork shoulder and whole hogs getting 12-24 hours of smoke treatment.
  • Texas is all about the beef. Brisket is notoriously difficult to get tender and juicy, while the burnt ends (pictured) are also a speciality.

Variations in the regional styles of barbecue and its traditions border on fundamentalism in America. Everyone has their own opinion of the right cuts, the right cooking methods, the right sauces.

"There are many regional differences throughout the southern US and everyone thinks theirs is the best," says Dr BBQ.

"I do believe you need to understand the roots of any subject before you can begin tweaking it, so I always recommend visiting the old places and cooking some meat in a simple fashion to get started.

"I have great respect and honour for the old ways, and some of the old places are truly like museums."

The pitmasters of Britain are more relaxed about the rules.

"As long as there is meat, fire and smoke involved and ideally you are cooking outdoors, we'd call it barbecue," say Merrington and Finch.

But Dr BBQ understands why some pitmasters are so touchy: "After a few 15-hour cooks you sort of feel a bit of ownership of the whole barbecue culture and you don't want anyone to mess with it!"

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