By Dan Domanko
Three sweeter words have never been spoken on a sunny summer afternoon: I’m barbecuing today. You know you’re in for a delicious meal, but did you know that what you’re probably eating on your back deck isn’t barbecue? Most people lump the act of cooking meat or vegetables outside on a fire breathing device as barbecue. But chances are that what you’re doing out on your back deck is grilling. Barbecue is but one subset of that cooking style, and it is one that is rooted in tradition and celebrated with cult fanaticism. Here in Canada, the generally accepted nomenclature for an outdoor cooking device is a barbecue. To set the record straight, when someone cooks a steak or chicken breasts on a propane or natural gas “barbecue,” they are actually using a “grill.” Americans have this vocabulary distinction. If you were to tell a Texan, “I’m barbecuing a T-bone tonight,” they would look at you like you are nuts. No one barbecues T-bones, they grill them!
Respect the ingredients, respect the tradition, and eat well my friends.
This is part one in a four-part series on the basics of barbecue. Also see: Barbecue 102: Tools of the Trade, Barbecue 103: Wood and Spices and Barbecue 104: The Technique.
Grill vs Barbecue
A grill is a cast iron or steel group of parallel bars used to cook food over a direct source of heat. The heat source can be electric, propane, natural gas, charcoal, or even infrared radiation. The key is that the food is cooked in a relatively short amount of time with high and direct applications of heat.
Barbecue is the exact opposite. Barbecue is the transformation of any ingredient (flora or fauna) from the mundane to the sublime via heat and time. Now that we have that distinction out of the way, let us sink our teeth in a little deeper.
Variety is the Spice of Life
There are five meaty pillars of barbecue. Brisket, ribs, chicken, sausage and pulled pork. Each gets perfected and regionalized to near obsessive levels throughout the southern US… or anywhere barbecue is made. You could ask a pit master in Texas, and one in Saint Louis what makes their barbecue special, and they would have shockingly differing answers. You can even drive from one barbecue spot to another in the same town and they could be as different as burgers are from sushi. Why? The simple answer is, tradition. Each region, each city, each pit master takes the experience of those who went before them and adds a little something of their own and regional differences become more and more pronounced.