You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who knows more about barbecue than Steven Raichlen.
The award-winning author, journalist, cooking teacher and TV host has penned 29 books, won five James Beard awards and three IACP awards, founded Barbecue University, designed his own line of grilling accessories and traveled the world studying the art of cooking with fire.
He even defeated Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba in a barbecue battle on Japanese television.
Photo courtesy of Roger Proulx
10Best spoke with Raichlen about barbecue, his new book, getting started with backyard smoking, travel and what lies ahead.
Love to barbecue? Add some smoke!
10Best: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, Project Smoke?
Photo courtesy of Project Smoke
Steven Raichlen: Project Smoke is a book about smoking foods, and it includes barbecue which is the best known and most popular form of smoking in the United States. But it also includes smoking other foods that are not barbecue – foods that range from bacon to Nova Scotia-style kippered salmon, cold smoked salmon, smoked cheese and, widening the net even further, many foods you would never dream you could smoke, like vegetables – a smoked potato salad for example, smoked soups (like a smoked gazpacho), smoked desserts and even smoked cocktails.
10Best: So why smoking? Why not grilling?
Raichlen: Smoking is the new grilling. After 10 or 15 years in the wake of The Barbecue! Bible and How to Grill, people are comfortable grilling, and we've become very sophisticated in our grilling. So obviously this is the next frontier – once you've mastered grilling, smoking is what you're going to want to do.
10Best: Do you have any advice for someone just starting out with smoking at home?
Raichlen: If you own a simple Weber kettle grill, you own a smoker. You don't have to spend an enormous amount of money or even buy an extra piece of equipment. If you have that kettle grill, the whole secret to getting a lower temperature is to set up your grill for indirect grilling and use only half as much charcoal.
Otherwise, if you're looking for an inexpensive smoker to start with, a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, an electric Bradley Smoker or a Pit Barrel Cooker are all great entry-level smokers.
10Best: What's a good recipe to start with?
Raichlen: If you're new to the smoking game, the first dish I suggest you smoke would be a pork shoulder. Unlike brisket or ribs, the meat is intrinsically tender. It's very well marbled both on the outside of the shoulder and throughout the meat, so even if you overcook it, even if you get a spike in temperature, it's very hard to screw up. It usually comes out moist, crispy and delicious no matter what you do to it.
10Best: And what's your favorite thing to smoke?
Raichlen: Probably it would be beef plate ribs – those are the ribs on the cover of the book. These are often cut crosswise into short ribs, but in the last three or four years people have begun to cook and serve the whole plate rib itself. Each of those ribs weighs about 2 pounds, and it gives you the best of brisket and the best of a rib. Like brisket, it's incredibly well marbled. It has deep, rich, meaty, beefy flavors, but you get to eat it off a bone; one of the joys of barbecue is you get to eat it with your hands, right?
In terms of a flavoring, I really like lemon zest – it adds a brightness to food. I add that to barbecue sauces. I add it to marinades. On the show we do a lemon sesame smoked chicken wing with the two flavors of sesame oil and lemon zest.
It's not all about meats: smoked cocktails, desserts and veggies
10Best: One of the great things about Project Smoke is the variety of recipes that don't involve meat at all. What's your favorite offbeat recipe from the book?
Raichlen: I really love the smoked ice cream because it's so unexpected. Yet when you taste it, it's sort of familiar and otherworldly at the same time. I guess that's what I really like about what smoke does to food.
10Best: You mentioned the book even has recipes for smoked cocktails. Can you tell us a little more about those?
Raichlen: There's such a natural affinity with spirits and smoke. The barrels of many spirits are charred with fire first before the spirit goes in for aging, so you've got that natural wood and char flavor implicit in the spirit already. Then you just add an extra blast of wood smoke. Wow. Amazing!
One of the ones I've been making a lot lately is the Mezcalini. I actually first tasted it in Oaxaca, Mexico, and it gets its smoke from dual sources. You use mescal, which is a smoky cousin of tequila. That derives its smoky flavor from the fact that the piñas – the hearts of the agave cactus – are roasted in a wood-burning pit. You put the drink in a pitcher and you cover the top with plastic wrap and fire smoke in with a smoking gun, and it looks really cool. I love to do it when people are watching. It tastes really amazing.
Mezcalini from the book Project Smoke — Photo courtesy of Matthew Benson
Great American barbecue
10Best: What are some of your favorite barbecue restaurants that you find yourself going back to again and again?
Raichlen: Where do I begin? There's Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook, Mighty Quinn's BBQ in Manhattan. In Boston there's a new place opening – brand new – it's called The Smoke Shop. There's a place called Sweet Cheeks. I was just in Austin, where you almost have to dodge to avoid great barbecue at every turn. Aaron Franklin's barbecue is the landmark of barbecue, and the fact that it won a James Beard award for Best Regional American Restaurant is so extraordinary and indicative of what's happening to barbecue. Another place I like a lot in Austin in Micklethwait's.
10Best: What do you think sets apart this new generation of pit masters, like Aaron Franklin, from the old school?
Raichlen: In a single sentence: where your food comes from is as important as how you smoke it. That whole quality notion was completely missing 15 years ago from any discussion of barbecue. Guys like Franklin? No hormones in his meat. All those places I mentioned, they're really paying attention to where the meat and the food comes from. My message is use grass-fed beef, use heirloom pork varieties, use organic chickens, wait until wild salmon or wild seafood are in season, smoke organic vegetables.
10Best: What kind of impact has all this had on barbecue at a global level?
Raichlen: One thing that has been fascinating to me is the exploding interest in traditional American barbecue in Europe. We Americans have historically always imported food ideas from other places, and now we are exporting this gastronomic treasure called barbecue.
I was working on a story in Paris in the fall for the Montreal Journal, and I found a barbecue restaurant run by a Frenchman who had lived in New York, fell in love with Texas barbecue and had a J&R pit brought over to Paris. It was damn good barbecue.
Barbecue: a global perspective
10Best: You went all over the world studying barbecue for your book Planet Barbecue! What are your favorite international styles of barbecue?
Raichlen: I've always maintained that a culture turns to the natural resources available to it for smoking. I don't think, for example, that Texans set out to smoke beef with oak or that North Carolinians set out to smoke pork with hickory because they liked the flavor profile. They used the wood that was available.
In China, tea and smoke have a long association. There's a tea called lapsang souchong which is smoked over pine wood. The combination of tea, rice, brown sugar and the aromatics like tangerine peel, star anise, cinnamon sticks – it makes a wonderful smoking fuel, and it's a very different flavored smoke than the kind we're used to.
Another of my favorite international dishes would be the mozzarella affumicata of Italy which is actually smoked with hay, not with wood. One advantage of hay smoking is it's super fast. You can smoke a cheese in about five minutes.
10Best: What's your favorite memory from your barbecue-centric travels around the world?
Raichlen: In Indonesia – in particular in Bali – there's a dish called Babi gooling. It's a whole pig stuffed with lemongrass, galangal, chilies, ginger and shrimp paste – an incredibly fragrant mixture. It's spit-roasted over a wood fire, so it does get a bit of smokiness to it. The skin gets crackling crisp. The spit is turned by hand, which is interesting and probably less exciting for the guy doing the turning than the people eating it.
When I went to learn about that for my book Planet Barbecue!, the particular Babi gooling master I went out with woke me up at dawn, put a knife in my hand and asked me if I'd like to kill the pig. And I did, because, when in Rome. What was extraordinary about it was he laid his hands on the pig and almost got it into a very calm state. It was almost like he put it to sleep. When you think about that as opposed to the violence associated with an American slaughterhouse ... it was just a really eye-opening moment.
10Best: So now that Project Smoke is on the shelves, what's next on the horizon for you?
Raichlen: Aside from getting that sailboat that I've always been dreaming about, which is my project for the fall, I'm working on a history of barbecue. Live fire cooking and barbecue have been so intimately linked with human evolution and history and politics. Everything we do, barbecue informs it in some way, so I think that's going to be the next project.
10Best: Will you be traveling for that book as well?
Raichlen: I sure hope so. My dream on that is to locate every chapter in a particular region. When I talk about the discovery of fire by Homo erectus about 1.8 million years ago, I'd like to go to South Africa – specifically to Langebaan, which is a city on the cape. Langebaan is where they found the oldest human footprint. But they've also found the remains of the oldest fire pit. It's about a million years old. It'd be fun to do the historical note and then flash forward to the present, with the South African braai.
To learn more about all things barbecue and smoking, visit Steven's website, BarbecueBible.com.