Barbecued pizza

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ANDREW BAKER,  – September 17, 2004

You name it, Sunset has grilled it.

From barracuda to banana splits and beyond, if we can get it in our hands, it’ll end up on the barbecue. On our patio, a battalion of barbecues stand at attention, ready to fire. It’s a rare day of recipe testing when they aren’t in action. (See Sunset barbecues through the decades, below).

Why all this pyromania? We’re just doing what comes naturally in the West. Eight of the nation’s 10 sunniest cities are here ― prime turf for outdoor cooking. But even snow and rain don’t stop Westerners from grilling year-round. In fact, most have a wardrobe of barbecues ― big, small, built-in, portable, charcoal, gas, or electric. Barbecuing is to a Western cook what John Wayne is to a Western movie: vital.

At fiestas on grand ranchos, Spanish and Mexican settlers roasted beef, pigs, and lambs over ― or under ― hot coals. In fact, barbecue comes from the Spanish word barbacoa, wrapped meats buried under hot coals to cook. At Pacific Northwest potlatches, Native Americans celebrated tribal wealth with salmon cooked on wood frames in front of flames. On the range, cowboy “cookies” seared steaks over campfires.

Sunset inherited barbecuing as a Western right, and codified every aspect to make it a predictable art, telling readers how to build, buy, and cook on barbecues.

Since the 1920s, Sunset has reported on gracious patios with barbecues. City folks who were required to burn their own trash often incorporated barbecues into handsome backyard incinerators built of stone or brick. Sunset gave plans for these solid structures, as well as other, less demanding ones. Inventiveness ran rampant. Some ideas were simple, some were simply silly. Barbecues and smokers were made from woks, wine barrels, wheelbarrows, metal roofing, water heater tanks, water pipes, oil drums, trash cans, flowerpots, and steel plow disks. A 1942 design from a Hollywood home featured flame-shaped lights and a waterwheel-turned spit, à la Rube Goldberg.

Sunset has explored barbecue techniques and dishes from every continent except Antarctica. For this retrospective of barbecue classics, we’ve updated old favorites using the foods and flavor combinations that reappear decade after decade ― and remain fresh today.

 Sunset barbecues through the decades

The ashes of the past reveal landmarks, of sorts, that fueled the West’s barbecue frenzy.

1911 Sunset’s first barbecue story by Bertha H. Smith actually involves pit-cooked bulls’ heads.

1921 A division of Ford Motors produces charcoal briquets, widely available by 1935 under the Kingsford label.

1931 Sunset gives how-to steps for barbecues built from old bricks, steel doormats.

1934 We offer plans that “the family patriarch can knock together of a Sunday morning” using cement blocks.

1938 Wood-covered Sunset Barbecue Book published.

1942 Wine barrel barbecue construction is a seasoned subject.

1943 Trader Vic restaurateur Victor Bergeron shows us how to build a Chinese oven; shares many recipes through the years.

1948 Wok (we call it a “chop suey bowl”) on a war surplus metal stand makes a barbecue.

1951 Electric barbecue wagon, a Sunset-GE project, has power outlets, holds an electric roaster.

1952 George Stephen introduces precursor of the Weber-Stephen Weber Kettle, which lists for $46.95 in the first catalog ― pricey for the time; it becomes a classic.

1956 We introduce how to judge cooking heat with your hand at grill level.

1957 Hibachis and portable grills soar in popularity; we show 15 models priced from $3 to $16.

1967 Barbecued turkey, a Sunset Thanksgiving trademark, is explored in encyclopedic depth.

1970 Our writers build a rack to grill a whole lamb and dig a pit to roast a pig. First test brings fire department.

1973 A $5 garbage can, an electric hot plate, and a grill make a slow-cook smoker.

1985 Mesquite charcoal is the hot fuel; Sunset demystifies the fables.

1986 Outdoor kitchens even include built-in Japanese teppan griddles.

1989 Gas barbecues profiled; cooking techniques honed.

1995 Barbecue Industry Association reports gas grills are outselling charcoal models.