Oh, you Weber masters, drinkers of Bud, and sprayers of lighter fluid — it’s barbecue time again. There are a thousand and one theories about how to grill it up right and at least two-thirds of them are half-baked. On your behalf, then, I called some of the East Bay’s most talented professional pitmasters to ask if they had tips for helping home ‘cuers avoid blackened, napalm-scented, gristly meat.
Tip one: Use top-quality ingredients. “People should start with really good meat, the best they can find — organic and range-fed,” recommends Bo McSwine of Bo’s Barbecue in Lafayette. Bobby Gradney, of Bobby’s Backdoor Barbecue in Richmond, prepares the raw meat with a good rub before it even hits the fire: “Put some seasoned salt and pepper and paprika, a little garlic powder to your taste. You don’t want to put too much spice on chicken, though, because it will burn.”
Tip two: Build the right fire and build it right. “[You] have to use good wood,” McSwine says. “Otherwise, it’s like having a good stereo and a bad needle.” Contra Costa County is filled with fruit trees and old grapevines, and he thinks they’re the best grilling material around. “I make sure I have enough things in my yard that I can eat — apples, plum, pear, peach. We prune the trees and keep the cuttings in a box in a dark storage area until they dry.” (He warns that citrus wood produces a bitter smoke.) He also stops by apple orchards and vineyards and asks for the wood from old, nonproducing plants. “They just burn it otherwise.”
Next, “you need to light the fire properly,” says Chef Edwards, owner of Chef Edwards Barbecue in downtown Oakland. “You may see people shooting a lot of fluid on the fire. That’s not right. The idea is to put the charcoal in a mound, put the fluid on the bottom, and then let the charcoal burn until it turns white.” He uses either old-fashioned charcoal or mesquite — not the self-starting briquettes.
Tip three: Cook it slowly. “Take your time, take your time, take your time — and prepare properly,” McSwine says.
“Most people put their meat on the grill too soon or when the fire is too hot. It you put the meat on too soon, the charcoals can’t get enough air. If the fire’s too hot, the meat gets burned before it gets cooked,” Edwards says.
Once you’ve got the coals going, Gradney advises, “You put your fire on one side, or if it’s big enough, you can put the coals in the center. You can brown your meat on both sides, and then put it to the side.”
Tip four: Sauce it late. “Wait until the meat’s about 98 percent cooked. Then you can put sauce on both sides, leave it for a minute or two, and that seals the seasonings inside,” Gradney says. “If you put the sauce on too early, it’s going to get black and won’t taste good,” Edwards warns.