Tips, trends and techniques to help with backyard barbecuing

The face of barbecue is changing. Backyard cooks are taking liberties with traditional flavors and fusing old-school techniques with new approaches.

Cookouts are getting fancier, more technical and even competitive.

“Barbecue is now a full-fledged sport in America,” says Jamie Purviance, author of “Weber's New American Barbecue,” which hit the bookstores May 3.

Weber-Stephen Products LLC, based in Palatine, is the world's premier manufacturer of grills, accessories, cookbooks and mobile applications. Purviance has written more than a dozen cookbooks for Weber and traveled all over the country exploring how chefs and pitmasters experiment with barbecue.

He's discovered that barbecue is “getting personal.” Young chefs and backyard cooks are much more creative and free-spirited. In addition, American palates are moving away from vinegar-based barbecue toward sweeter sauces. The top-selling barbecue sauces found in supermarkets today contain more than 50 percent corn syrup or sugar, Purviance says.

Cooking with gas is another growing trend. Many of today's barbecue chefs use gas-powered, thermostat-controlled smokers with electric rotisseries. Also, grill manufacturers are integrating digital technology into their products. Many newer grills feature remote systems that allow cooks to monitor and control cooking from their smartphones and tablets.

Even cooks that own grills without integrated technology now have the option to go high-tech. Bluetooth food thermometers will notify a smartphone or tablet when meat reaches a desired temperature.

“Cooks are relying more on technology,” Purviance says. “That's a big change.”

What doesn't change, however, is the desire to turn out flavorful dishes with a minimum of mess.

Adding sauce too soon can cause ribs to burn. Courtesy of Weber Grill

Smoking up a storm

Classic barbecue involves smoking meat. And while grilling a burger over direct heat is fast and fun, more backyard cooks are going back to cooking meat for a longer period of time at low temperatures, and adding wood to give it a smoky taste.

In April, Weber unveiled its new Summit charcoal grill and Summit charcoal grilling center. Among its many features are multi-zone heat options, a hinged diffuser plate, a two-position fuel grate, an insulated lid and bowl for better heat retention and a slow cook/smoke bowl damper that allows for three bottom vent positions. It also has a built-in thermometer, a bottom wire rack for additional storage and a “one-touch” cleaning system for easy ash removal. It costs around $1,700. For an extra cost, the grill can be purchased with a grilling center that includes a stainless steel tabletop, wire basket and tool hook, along with a CharBin storage container. That brings up the price to about $2,300.

But not everyone can afford to spend that kind of cash on a grill. Fortunately, that smoky taste can be accomplished on almost any grill - with a bit of tweaking.

For about $25, an old gas grill can be turned into a smoker. Most home improvement stores sell portable stainless steel smoker boxes that can be placed on top of a grill's cooking grate. The metal conducts heat from the grill to the soaked wood chips inside the box and produces smoke.

“If you want to add a touch of smoke to your food, that's an easy way to go,” says Purviance. “It's the same type of smoke you get from those big smokers at a barbecue restaurant. It just won't last for hours and hours.”

For those with charcoal grills, it's even easier to get that smoky taste. Simply scatter wood chips, soaked in water for about 30 minutes, on top of already burning charcoal. Another trick, which works for both charcoal and gas grills, is to cook food on wood planks.

“You soak it for about a half-hour to an hour, put it on the grill and wait until it starts to smoke, maybe 10 to 15 minutes, and then put your meat on top of the plank,” says Purviance.

  Brian Sharko, the owner of Sharko's BBQ in Naperville, smokes chicken in a large smoker. He recommends starting by smoking chicken because few people have the time or patience to smoke a brisket for 30 hours. Paul Michna/

Brian Sharko, owner of Sharko's BBQ in Naperville, is a big fan of smoking meat. His kitchen produces meats that are rubbed and then smoked for four to 30 hours to naturally render the fat and provide flavoring.

Because not everyone has the time or patience to smoke brisket for 30 hours, Sharko suggests trying chicken.

His recipe - used at his restaurant - calls for a bone-in half chicken brined for about two hours in one gallon of water, 1 cup of brown sugar and 1 to 1½ cups of kosher salt.

The grill should be fired up to a temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Sharko favors using Michigan apple wood chips to smoke chicken, but any type of fruity wood chips works well. The chicken should then be placed over indirect heat for about four hours - and checked on sporadically. When the internal temperature of the meat reaches about 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it's done.

“The key is to maintain that heat at 200 degrees Fahrenheit at all times,” Sharko says.

After the chicken is cooked, Sharko likes to dust it with a mixture of garlic and onion powder and smoked paprika. He then cuts it up and serves it with his homemade barbecue sauce on the side.

  Brian Sharko, owner of Sharko's BBQ in Naperville, smokes chicken in a large smoker. Paul Michna/

“Don't apply sauce while smoking the meat,” he says. “You don't want to hide its flavor.”

That seems to be a key tip from many barbecue experts. Most classic barbecue establishments serve the sauce as a condiment and not necessarily as an ingredient. Barbecue sauce contains lots of sugar, which tends to burn at temperatures higher than 265 degrees.

“I see a lot of recipes that tell you to baste the chicken with barbecue sauce before you cook it,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive editor for the cookbook department of America's Test Kitchen and one of the TV show's hosts. “(But) it is usually best to add the sauce toward the end of cooking because the sauce has a tendency to burn, to drip down on the fire and cause flare-ups, and prevent the skin/fat on the meat from rendering.”

Spicing it up

Most cooks have favorite marinades and spices. If the recipe works, there's no need to change it. But some marinades can actually make the meat less tasty. Many call for acidic elements such as lime, lemon or vinegar to break down proteins in meat. America's Test Kitchen, which released the book “Master of the Grill” in April, has tested a variety of different marinades and recommends avoiding those with acidic contents.

“The acid will make your food mushy,” says Davison. “If you want that tenderness, you're better off using soy sauce or salt.”

If lemon or lime flavors are desired, Davison recommends serving them on the side. For those who prefer rubs instead of marinade, the experts at America's Test Kitchen have a few tips. Since most spices are oil-soluble, one option is to mix them with a bit of oil and heat them up in the microwave before applying them to the meat. Another option is to apply rub and then spray the meat with a vegetable oil spray. That will help the rub stick, says Davison.

When grilling steak, Purviance recommends using a method he calls “reverse sear.” Traditionally, most cooks sear the steak over direct heat and then cook it at a lower temperature.

“The downside is that because the fire is so hot, you are overcooking the outside of the steak,” he says.

He prefers the method in reverse. For example, he roasts an inch-and-a-half thick steak over indirect heat at about 300 degrees for roughly 30 minutes. That way, the steak cooks evenly, he says. Then he takes the steaks off the grill.

“Then you turn up the heat and sear it over direct high heat for just a few minutes. It really makes a wonderful steak. It's a fun and different way to do it,” Purviance says.

For fish and poultry, a lot of cooks swear by brining to tenderize the meat and keep it moist. Sharko likes to soak meat in a solution of salt, sugar and water for a few hours before grilling.

“Especially with chicken, you can season the skin, but it will never absorb the flavor,” says Sharko. “That's why brining is important.”

Home cooks are experimenting with ingredients and techniques to personalize what's sizzling on their backyard grill. Courtesy of Weber Grill

Sticky situations

One of the most frustrating situations for any backyard cook is when food sticks to the grill. Probably the most basic, but essential, tip is to start with a clean grill.

“The best time to clean your grill is after you heated it and before you cook,” says Davison. “It's hot and easier to scrape off.”

The interior basin of a grill, whether gas or charcoal, should be cleaned a few times each season. Built-up food matter can ignite and lend an unwanted flavor to food. Empty dripping pans and ash-catchers frequently to reduce mess. Davison also rubs the grates with tongs and a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil.

“It seasons your grill grates so that, over time, they will become nonstick,” she says.

Finally, the grill needs to be hot before adding food. Hot grates sear the food and help it release better. Also, most cooks tend to flip meat over before it's ready, which can cause it to stick.

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