It's hard to imagine a more fitting summer-in-the-West style of cooking than barbecuing. You get to relax on the patio, cold drink in hand, with a hint of smoke in the air and a tantalizing whiff of meat and spice. And yet barbecuing isn't quite as simple as it seems. Cooking directly over a live flame is primal and sometimes unpredictable, and every master of the grill has his or her own secrets and techniques for taming the fire.
Bill Jamison and Cheryl Alters Jamison, the James Beard award-winning authors of Smoke & Spice (Harvard Common Press, 2003; $17) and The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining (Morrow Cookbooks, 2006; $25), among other titles, have spent years developing recipes that reward diligence with delicious flavor. Like all good teachers, they remember how it feels to approach the grill for the first time. "We were both home cooks," Cheryl says in her reassuring "you-can-do-this" tone. "We learned like everyone else: through trial and error." Their research lab is the sunny patio behind the converted adobe barn they share in the hills outside Santa Fe.
It has long been Sunset's style to refer to all live-fire cooking as "barbecuing." This is common practice around the West, but the Jamisons, like many pros, use specific terms to describe the primary types of live-fire cooking. "These are different techniques using different cuts of meat, so it seems important to make the distinction," Cheryl explains.
First there's direct grilling, in which smaller cuts of meat (and vegetables) are cooked quickly, right over a hot fire. It's ideal for boneless chicken breasts, fish fillets, or meats that need a good sear, such as steak.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is barbecuing, the "low and slow" indirect-heat method that turns large cuts like pork shoulder and brisket into tender, smoky piles of meat.
In between these approaches is a hybrid one called two-level grilling, which allows you to cook medium-size pieces of meat (such as pork tenderloin or ribs) all the way through without burning the exterior. For this you need two temperature zones: one hot, one cooler. The meat is first browned in the hot zone, then moved to the cooler area to cook through. If all these categories seem overwhelming, just remember one rule of thumb: The bigger and denser the cut of meat, the more slowly you'll need to cook it. And by "slowly," we mean cooked at a lower temperature over a longer time.
Staying true to their fresh, uncomplicated cooking style, the Jamisons created the recipes for each technique below.
METHOD 1: DIRECT GRILLING
On charcoal: Ignite 75 to 85 briquets in a chimney starter (or on the fuel grate); open grill vents. When coals are coated with ash, spread into an even layer (if you like, leave a small area empty to create a cooler zone). Check heat: If you can hold your hand 1 or 2 in. above cooking-grate level only 1 to 2 seconds, that's high heat. For medium-high heat, wait until you can hold your hand there only 2 to 3 seconds.
On gas: Turn all burners to high, close lid, and heat for 15 minutes. Then adjust to desired heat.
Recipe: Grilled Skirt Steak (Arracheras)
Mexican arracheras, like Tex-Mex fajitas, are marinated skirt steaks cooked quickly over high heat to produce a nicely browned crust and pink interior.
Side dish: Spicy Baked Beans
Making baked beans from scratch is a noble but time-consuming effort. The Jamisons offer a simpler alternative with dressed-up store-bought beans. It's also a good accompaniment to grilled burgers, hot dogs, and sausages.
METHOD 2: TWO-LEVEL GRILLING
On charcoal: Following instructions for direct grilling, light briquets. When they're coated with ash, mound against one side of the grate into a slope. Allow coals to burn down until they reach desired heat level.
On gas: Following instructions for direct grilling, pre-heat burners. If you have three or more burners, leave two adjacent burners on high and turn the remaining burners anywhere from medium to low, depending on recipe. If you have two burners, leave one burner on high and turn the other on medium to low.
Recipe: Sage-rubbed Pork Tenderloins with Sage Butter
Brown these tenderloins over high heat, then finish cooking on a cooler part of the grill. Drizzle with a simple sage-scented sauce.
Side dish: Santa Fe Corn Pudding
This savory, custardy pudding is best when corn is at its ripest ― but we'd never turn down a batch made with frozen corn.
METHOD 3: BARBECUING
On charcoal: Light 75 to 85 briquets in a chimney starter. Fill a drip pan (roughly 8 by 6 in.) to the brim with water and set in center of fuel grate. When coals are coated with ash, use tongs to arrange in a ring around drip pan. Set cooking grate in place. Cover grill and use a heatproof long-stemmed thermometer to take interior temperature through lid vent. Close grill vents as needed to bring temperature down to 300° (do not close vents all the way; the fire will go out). Scatter 2/3 cup drained soaked wood chips over coals just before adding meat.
On gas: If you have three or more burners, put drip pan in center under cooking grate, set grate over it, and turn outer burners to high. If you have two burners, put drip pan to one side and turn opposite burner to medium-high. Put 2 cups soaked wood chips in grill's smoker box or wrap chips loosely in foil, pierce in a dozen spots, and put directly on one of the hot burners. After about 20 minutes of preheating, reduce heat as needed to bring grill temperature to 300°.
Recipe: Achiote-and-Orange Pulled Pork
Real, slow-cooked barbecue takes time, but this dish is truly worth it. The Jamisons pile the succulent meat on bolillos or other small rolls that they've smeared with mayonnaise, then top with queso fresco, avocado slices, and a squeeze of lime. We also like layering the sandwiches with Chipotle Coleslaw.
Side dish: Chipotle Coleslaw
This may look like your grandma's coleslaw, but it sure doesn't taste like it.
HOW TO CONTROL YOUR HEAT
On charcoal: Once the briquets are burning, you can open the grill's vents to raise the heat, or close them to lower it (air feeds the fire). If you're grilling over a two-level fire, you can move the food around from hotter areas to cooler areas as needed. In fact, it's often a good idea to keep a small corner of your fuel grate free of coals, even when direct grilling. Invariably one steak or burger or sausage will cook faster than the others, and you'll want a small warming zone to stash it in while you finish the rest of the batch.
On gas: The beauty of a gas grill is ease of use: "You can operate it more like a cooktop, turning it down to reduce heat as needed," Cheryl Jamison says.
TIPS FOR PERFECT BBQ
Plan ahead to be spontaneous. To pull off a grilled meal, map out your menu. "Think of foods, like grilled vegetables, that can be served at room temperature," Cheryl says. "Keep in mind how much grill space you have." Also, budget an extra hour when barbecuing. Sometimes it just takes longer than planned.
Keep your cooking grate clean and oiled. "A lot of people forget that step," says Bill. To help prevent sticking, scrub your preheated grate with a grill brush, then quickly wipe the grate with an oiled paper towel just before adding the food. The Jamisons are also fans of Pam for Grilling nonstick spray (apply it before lighting the grill).
Don't walk away when grilling. "People sometimes forget that they're cooking," says Cheryl. "They'll throw food on a fire, then come back after a while. That's like putting a pie in the oven, spinning the dial to any temperature, and coming back when you're in the mood for dessert." You don't need to hover over the grill, but do monitor the heat and check your food periodically.