Any barbecue expert will tell you that true ’cue is smoked (never merely grilled) for hours or days, and that it takes on its deep, rich flavor from the wood’s smoke, not the sauce. But even if you’re just speed-searing some burgers on an old dometop grill, you can elevate the flavor of any backyard feast by putting the right kind of fuel on the fire. Lighter fluids and charcoal briquettes are big nono’s — they’re made with noxious chemicals, and they can add unpleasant tastes to your food. Instead, start with lump charcoal made from sustainably harvested wood, like Wicked Good Charcoal (wickedgoodcharcoal.com), or from recycled wood, like the house brand at Whole Foods. Mesquite charcoals (available at lazzari.com) are also a great choice, as they lend a light flavor to your food and are made from the fast-growing mesquite tree. Then amp up the smoky taste by throwing some wood chips on top of the charcoal; for a more oaky aroma, try Woodbridge Vintage Barrel Chips, or, for an intense Tex-Mex tang, use mesquite pods, which are harvested without any damage to the tree.
Sustainably farmed veggies cook no differently than conventional ones on the grill, but grilling and smoking eco-friendly meat is another story. Farm animals that have lived on a natural diet have different amounts of fat than their factory-farmed cousins, so you may need to tweak your cooking times to compensate. Free-range and heritage pigs are plumper and have more marbling, thus their meat stands up better to long hours in the smoker. But on the grill, be careful not to overcook your pork; the folks at Niman Ranch (nimanranch.com) recommend leaving it a little pink inside. Free-range chickens also typically have more evenly distributed fat (though not necessarily more of it) than conventional chickens, which are fattened quickly and killed younger; but free-range breasts are smaller, so they cook more rapidly (see heritagefoodsusa.com for two good chicken choices). Unlike pigs, grass-fed cows are actually leaner than their corn-fed kin, so take care not to overdo your pastured-meat burgers — they’re best served medium-rare to medium (see sustainabletable.org/features for more tips). Ditto for lamb and game meats like bison, venison, and ostrich (which you can buy online at brokenarrowranch.com and blackwing.com).
TIPS FROM THE TOP
For more in-depth barbecuing and grilling instructions, look to these pitmasters. In their newest ’cue-related read, The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining (Morrow Cookbooks, $24.95), Cheryl and Bill Jamison explain how to prepare an astounding number of dishes — among them barbecued baby-back ribs, grilled T-bone steak, rotisserie-roasted chicken, and smoked portobello burgers —plus sauces and rubs galore. To further hone your rib skills, check out barbecue guru Steven Raichlen’s new handbook, Raichlen on Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs (Workman Publishing, $12.95). For an in-depth education on barbecue sauces and seasonings (and we’re not just talking about the sweet, tomato-based stuff here), try Raichlen’s Barbecue! Bible: Sauces, Rubs and Marinades, Bastes, Butters, and Glazes (Workman Publishing, $12.95) and Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces (Harvard Common Press, $18.95). If you’re into grilling out of the back of your (hybrid) car, pick up Mario Batali’s Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style (Sporting News, $19.95) — it’s peppered with racing lore, but the easy-to-follow recipes work at baseball games and beaches too. Or sift through your local used bookstore for a copy of James Beard’s Barbecue Cookbook, an out-of-print classic.
Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.