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On the Road with BBQ Pitmasters: Tips from a Top Grill Master

BBQ Pitmasters hosts/judges (from left to right) Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon, and Melissa Cookston.

BBQ Pitmasters hosts/judges (from left to right) Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon, and Melissa Cookston. Photo courtesy of Destination America.

Think you know a lot about barbecue? Here’s your chance to find out. Rand McNally recently interviewed one of America’s top grill masters, Melissa Cookston, who—along with Myron Mixon and Tuffy Stone—also happens to be a host/judge on the show, BBQ Pitmasters. Check out Melissa’s tips and takes, and then pick up a few more while watching the best in the barbecue business compete for cash prizes on the next episode, filmed at the Bixby BBQ ‘N Blues Festival in Bixby, OK, and airing Sunday, July 28 at 9 pm E/P on Destination America.

Rand McNally (RM): What are the key U.S. barbecue “regions,” and what makes each of them unique?

Melissa Cookston: In my opinion, the key regions in America are Memphis, Texas, the Carolinas, and Kansas City.  Of these, Kansas City is a kissing cousin to the Memphis style, with a little bit of Texas mixed in with it.

Both Memphis and the Carolinas feature pork: pulled from butts or the whole hog in Memphis and from whole shoulders in the Carolinas. Texas is more beef oriented, and Kansas City showcases a mix of pork and beef and is known for “burnt ends”—cubed pieces of beef from the “point” of a brisket.  In terms of pork ribs, Memphis is predominately a “baby back,” (loin ribs) area, while the others feature “spare ribs” (ribs cut closer to the belly area).

In terms of flavor profile, there’s a significant difference to these areas. The Carolinas feature pork with a vinegar “dip” poured onto the meat . . . some areas (especially South Carolina) also use a mustard-based sauce. Their predominate wood is oak or hickory, which gives the meat a neutral smoke flavor.

Memphis sauces are slightly sweeter, with significantly less vinegar than those of the Carolinas. Memphis is also known for “dry” ribs, where the “rub” or seasoning blend is sprinkled onto the meat after cooking instead of using a finishing sauce. Memphis barbecue uses fruit wood, hickory, or pecan, and the smoke flavor is more predominent, as cooking times are longer at lower temperatures.

Texas is known for using very little sauce and smoking over mesquite wood, which gives the meat quite a unique flavor. Kansas City barbecue woods are similar to those used in Memphis, and the sauces are generally thicker and sweeter than other areas.

Just as important as the sauces and woods is the texture of the meat. In the Carolinas, pork is typically finely chopped or sliced, as the meat is generally cooked quickly (e.g., 9 to 12 hours for a pork shoulder) and has the texture of roasted pork. Memphis-style barbecue is cooked more slowly (14 to 16 hours for a pork shoulder), and the meat is typically pulled apart by hand, yielding a leaner, more tender product.  Texas barbecue is typically cooked slowly as well but has a different texture given that the main meat is beef. Kansas City barbecue is very close to that of Memphis in terms of finished textures and cooking time.

Side dishes are similar in all areas: cole slaw, baked beans, potato salad, corn, etc. In Memphis and the Carolinas, cole slaw is typically served on the sandwich. However, Memphis usually features mayonnaise-based coleslaw while slaw in the Carolinas is made with a vinegar dressing.

RM: What’s the best way to find a great barbecue restaurant when traveling to a new place?

Melissa: . . . First, consult locals, such as hotel clerks or concierges. Friends and family are also great sources, as are online reviews from sites such as Trip Advisor or Urbanspoon.

Although many people romanticize the idea of a “barbecue joint,” as being a small, worn spot, generally the opposite is true. Many small restaurants don’t have the volume of sales to keep fresh barbecue moving through the restaurant, and they end up occasionally serving less-than-perfect barbecue.  Furthermore, if the restaurant looks worn down, the ownership probably isn’t putting any more emphasis on the food than they are on their restaurant’s appearance.  This is definitely a style of restaurant where busier is better.

RM: What are the top grilling mistakes, and how do you avoid them?

Melissa: The most common mistake is too much of a smoke flavor. Many people assume that because they’re “smoking” meat, they need to really make sure it tastes like it! Smoke should be looked at just like any other ingredient, such as salt: use it in moderation.

Also, remember that our sense of smell is intricately tied to our sense of taste. When you’ve been tending a pit for hours, your sense of smell shuts down from the smoke, and you also have a much harder time tasting the smoke flavor. Your guests, however, won’t have this problem! To avoid [having too much of a smoke flavor], utilize fruit woods. They impart a lighter flavor than a wood such as hickory, which, when used too long, can turn your product bitter. Wrapping the product in aluminum foil halfway through the cook will also help. Most competition cooks use foil to aid in the final texture of the product as well.

Relative to grilling . . . many people think they have to have an inferno, and end up with barbecue that’s charred outside and raw or undercooked inside. Set up hot and cool zones, either by adjusting the gas or by using greater or lesser amounts of charcoal. This lets you have a “searing zone” and a “cooking zone” and yields much better results.

RM: Any tips for pairing beverages with barbecue?

Melissa: . . . There’s always one beverage that goes with any barbecue meal: sweet iced tea! I also look for beers that have a caramel tone to them to play off the smokiness of the meats. Depending on the meat, I like to serve a lighter flavored wine, such as a pinot noir. But the most important thing is to drink what you like. As there are so many differences in the flavor of barbecue, there’s really no hard-and-fast rule of beer or wine selection.

RM: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever grilled? The most unusual thing?

Melissa: The most challenging item to cook is definitely the whole hog (generally, I cook 180- to 230-pound hogs). You have to cook it to get all of the different meats perfect. Shoulders need to cook to a different temperature than the loins, for example. It’s a very tough task to get right.

The most unusual thing I’ve grilled is rattlesnake. Not fun.

Melissa Cookston is the only person to have won the Memphis in May World Championship Whole Hog Category three times in a row (2010 through 2012). She’s also won the World Grand Championship two times (2010, 2012) and is the only woman to hold that title. In addition to being featured as a judge on Destination America’s hit series, BBQ Pitmasters, she’s also the owner of Memphis Barbecue Company in Horn Lake, MS. Since opening in 2011, the restaurant has been selected as one of Relish.com’s three “Must Eat BBQ Places in Memphis” and as one of Southern Living’s three best places for a barbecue sandwich in the South. Melissa recently opened a second location in Fayetteville, NC, and is selecting sites for more restaurants. She also serves as a contest organizer, teaches competitive cooking classes, consults with several publications, and pretty much preaches the gospel of true Memphis-style barbecue to anyone who will listen.