Got to Kansas City on a Wednesday. By Thursday, I had learned a thing or two. Up until then, I didn't have an idea of the finer points of barbecue.
Oh, I knew ribs had to be skinned - peeling a membrane from their underside - and I knew they had to be cooked around 250 degrees for four to six hours. But until I had been in the presence of rib royalty, namely an outfit of fast-talkin', good-cookin' women who call themselves the Que Queens, I was ignorant of the butter-and-apple-juice treatment.
One Que Queen, Karen Putman, creator of Flower of the Flames barbecue sauce and a high-ranking member of the city's barbecue establishment, let me in on a few of her secrets. She said she smears a rack of ribs as they cook with a stick of butter or squirts them with Parkay Margarine, the kind that comes in a squeezable container. The butter, she said, gives the ribs a nice glaze and rich flavor notes.
She also "mists the ribs," spraying them with apple juice from a plastic spray bottle. This, she said, keeps the rib moist.
Of course I knew that real barbecue had to be cooked over wood, either wood coals or wetted wood chips. I already do that. But until I met Putman's sister in smoke, Que Queen Karen Adler, I didn't know that my wood choice was all wrong. Instead of the wetted hickory chips that I toss on my charcoal fire, the cognoscenti of Kansas City use fruitwood chips, either apple wood or a mix of apple and other fruitwoods. The fruitwoods give off a sweeter smoke than hickory, Adler said.
These were among the insights into the smoky craft that barbecue big shots passed on during an all-day seminar that was put on for the Association of Food Journalists, the nation's eating press, who were convening in Kansas City. Instead of the session being held in a hotel ballroom, this teach-in was conducted in Jacob Loose Park, a gorgeous greensward located a few blocks south of Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. The speakers, most of them moguls of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, not only discoursed on their favorite subject, they also served some, preparing a lunch of ribs, beef brisket, grilled peppers and a dynamite slaw.
That night, the gnawing continued. At a postgraduate session held at the American Jazz and Negro League museums, some of the city's reigning restaurants - Arthur Bryant's, Gates & Sons, Lil' Jakes, B. B.'s Lawnside and K. C. Masterpiece - put on a feed. As an enthusiastic participant in each event, I can say it was one of the most fulfilling days of my professional eating career.
At Loose Park, I learned a thing or two about beef brisket and pork shoulders. In Baltimore, brisket usually shows up as corned beef, in the middle of a sandwich. But in the Midwest and Texas, brisket means an 8-16 pound piece of beef chest muscle that is cooked for 10-16 hours over wood coals.
Paul Kirk, perhaps the biggest bubba on the brisket circuit as well as author of "Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue Sauce Cookbook"(Harvard Common Press, 1997), shared some, but not all, of his brisket-cooking tips with me.
First of all, he said, when buying a brisket, you look at the color and texture of the fat. This piece of meat has plenty of fat, one layer of fat running along one side and another, larger layer of fat extending inside the point, or wide end of the cut.
All brisket fat is not equal, Kirk said. What the artful brisket buyer looks for, he said, is "hard and white fat, the harder and whiter the better." Hard, white fat, he explained, is a sign that "the cow was fed on grain rather than grass."
Next you trim this fat until it is only about 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch thick. You clip this precious fat, Kirk said, because "no rub or sauce can penetrate a thick layer of fat." Before putting it on the fire, Kirk massages the meat with a unique mix of spices. He wouldn't give away that recipe, but he did pass along a basic rub recipe (see below), which plays the flavor of salt against the flavor of sugar.
You cook your brisket, fat side up, over a low fire, Kirk said. "I use a mixture of oak, hickory and apple wood," Kirk said, adding that he uses the indirect, or coals to the side, method. You plan on cooking your brisket for 10 to 16 hours, he said. The smaller your cooking apparatus, the faster the cooking time. If you cook a brisket in a covered kettle grill, your cooking time will be close to 10 hours, he said. Midway through the cooking process or, as Kirk puts it, "at half time," you turn the brisket over and rotate it.
When it is done, you let the meat rest 15-20 minutes. Then slice it against the grain and serve it with or without a table sauce. (Kirk sells his own, Baron of Barbecue sauce.)
One of the long-standing debates among barbecuers is whether the pig or the steer makes better eating. John Ross, who cooks both, said he sides with pig. In particular he likes the Boston butt, which is the upper portion of a pork shoulder. (The lower portion is the picnic.)
Ross, who is a board member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, said when he cooks, he rubs the piece of pork with a mixture of spices. (He, too, wouldn't cough up his real recipe but recommended the basic sugar-and-salt rub passed along by Kirk.) Then he cooks it over a mixture of fruitwoods, oak and a little bit of hickory. "If you use too much hickory, it will taste bitter."
Ross cooks the Boston butt at 230 to 250 degrees for six to eight hours. As it cooks, he mists the pork with apple juice from a sprayer. When it is done, he lets the meat rest, then pulls the meat apart with two sharp forks.
He prefers to pull the pork apart, as opposed to slicing it. "You got seven different muscles coming together in seven different directions, so it is hard to slice," Ross said. Moreover, pulled pork has excellent flavor. Or as Ross put it, "It is the tastiest piece of meat you will put in your mouth."
Basic Kansas City Rub
Makes 2 1/2 cups, enough for 4 briskets, 4-6 pork shoulders
1 cup white sugar
1 cup salt (mix of 1/3 garlic salt, 1/3 onion salt, 1/3 celery salt)
1/3 to 1/2 cup paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
Combine ingredients in a bowl; mix well. Rub on beef brisket or pork shoulder before cooking. (Note the amount of the last three ingredients can be raised or lowered according to your taste; however, veterans recommend changing only one ingredient per batch.)