Michigan's own Billy Bones knows just about everything there is to know about barbecue according to me, not to him. When he's not talking trash, as all barbecue chefs do, he's remarkably modest for a guy who has won 200 barbecue competitions throughout the United States and Canada. He does catering for hundreds of people. He is featured in Peace, Love, and Barbecue, a new cookbook, one of the best ever on the subject. He also sells sauces, charcoal and a dry rub on his Web site, billybonesbbq.com
MT: How do you cook a brisket?
Bones: You started out with the toughest item out there. People always ask me what should I learn to do first. I tell them a pork butt. It has the greatest idiot factor. You could mess up pretty bad and still come out with a pretty good butt. When you get down to cooking brisket, you're dealing with a multiple-muscled piece of meat that has every problem you're ever going to run into in a low-grade cut of meat. But the old-timers pretty much cooked it over a pit, like the Hawaiians cook pigs over an open pit. They'd cover them with a canvas or something to keep the heat in and cook them at 225 to 275 degrees until the fire burned out. It takes some skill to cook 12 or 14 pounds of beef and throw it on a fire that's got some heat to it and get to the intersection of done meat and low heat. It's still the same thing today with gas-fired smokehouses, even the wood-fired are propane-assisted to give you a consistent heat. The Southern Pride and the Ole Hickory, you can run 'em strictly with wood. They're airtight and are pretty good at holding the temperature, but if you do the type of competition I do, you've got to knock out a thousand slabs of ribs a day, you can't wait for that smokehouse to give a five-, six-hour finish to those ribs.
MT: Can you cook a brisket uncovered?
Bones: Absolutely. We do them that way all the time. We do an old Texas thing. What you don't always see is some of us cook the briskets what we call upside down with the fat cap down towards the fire and throw their seasonings on the top. The reason they do that is so that the lean part of the meat will soak up the flavoring first. The fat actually percolates up into the muscle like a pot of coffee. As that fat heats, some of it cooks into the fire, but a lot of it percolates up into the muscle and makes it nice and juicy and tender. In barbecue competition there are very few secrets. Everyone talks about "low-and-slow" cooking. If you cook too low and too slow, you'll end up with beef jerky, not tender meat. You need some heat to break down the enzymes.
MT: Is the judging impartial at barbecue competitions?
Bones: There's a lot of people out there who take the judging very seriously, but it's very subjective. The thing I don't like is that somebody has a very narrow, defined standard so you get down to one blackened piece of meat, red and rosy on the inside that meets someone's standard in Kansas City, Mo. You cut out all the guys that want to use bay leaves or rosemary or blueberries. I think barbecue should be the other way. It's like cooking chili. A good chili recipe may have five ingredients, but yours might have two or three other items that make it your chili, that much more special.
MT: Can a non-wood-burning pit produce 'cue with good flavor?
Bones: Absolutely. The propane helps to control the heat and the wood gives it the flavor. Just don't boil the meat. When you do you lose about 50 percent of the flavor. People used to boil pork due to health concerns that we no longer have to worry about. I love to go to a restaurant and order a big old inch-and-a-half thick pork chop and find it served pink in the center. The flavor is there and it's tender. Let me give you another tip that will save you some time and labor. Do you peel your spare ribs, that is, the membrane on the bottom of the rack? Well, not only does it take a lot of time especially if you're doing a few hundred slabs like we do but it also removes the flavor and the moisture. The membrane keeps the fat against the lean. When you pull the membrane off, you're pulling that very thin little bit of fat off that those ribs need. We do the Cleveland finish. We smoke them in the smokehouse with the membrane on and then finish them on a hot grill over hardwood lump charcoal. I love these guys who peel the membrane off, taking the fat off the meat, slow cook it so that it's drying out rather than cooking, and then the very last hour, they come up with this mysterious thing that they do, they wrap it in foil to save the moisture that they ripped off.
MT: Do you use a back rib or a spare rib?
Bones: For competition I like to use a spare rib, St. Louis cut, consistent side to side, end to end, with the brisket and the tips removed. They cook more evenly that way.
MT: Final question. What is the advantage of these pits that have rotating shelves?
Bones: My favorite meal to serve out of there is baked potatoes and chicken. We put 16 pieces of chicken on each shelf with 16 potatoes nestled in between the chicken on 32 shelves, each one basting the one below it. I guarantee you that you've never had anything better than a baked potato basted in my dry rub and chicken fat.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org