While roving the country seeking out the best barbecue and most knowledgeable pitmasters, Savory Spice founder Mike Johnston asked plenty of questions. One of the questions he asked every barbecue pro was, "What tip would you give the backyard barbecue guy or gal to help them produce better barbecue at home?" We've compiled their answers to give you a variety of 'Cue Tips. Straight from the professionals, these are tips and tricks for making the best barbecue.
'Cue Tip #1: Maintain a Constant Temperature
"Maintaining a constant temperature is the key to cooking low and slow. I try to maintain 250-265 degrees."
'Cue Tip #2: Master Your Fire
"Before you can master barbecuing you need to master fire building and fire management. Building proper fires takes practice. You’ll know you are on the right path when your fires produce a clean, white, wispy smoke rather than a big, billowy cloud of smoke."
'Cue Tip #3: Cook! Don't Look
"If you’re looking you’re not cooking! In the age of social media, everyone wants to take pics of what is on their pit and that is just a bad practice. Leave the lid shut and let the magic happen."
'Cue Tip #4: You Will Lose 50%
"You should expect a 50% loss of weight when cooking a brisket; so if you want 8 pounds of smoked meat, start with a 16 pound brisket. Some of the weight loss will be from proper trimming of the fat cap. Before you place the brisket on the pit, it should have no more then a ¼ inch of fat on any part. Here at Black’s, we keep those brisket trimmings and use them in our house-made sausages."
'Cue Tip #5: Good Meat + Simple Flavors
"We cook hot and fast here. Our cooking temperature is about 800 degrees. You probably can’t get that type of heat in your backyard cooker, so do two things: buy the best meat and keep your flavors simple so the wood flavors can do their job."
'Cue Tip #6: Always Use Seasoned Wood
"Always use wood that has been seasoned, meaning wood that has been allowed to dry naturally for 8-12 months. Green wood may put off a lot of smoke but not the type of smoke you want; it will add unwanted, bitter flavor to your cooked meats."
'Cue Tip #7: Use All Your Senses
"Use all your senses, including tactical; touch the meat to check for doneness. On a brisket you want to be able to easily separate the meat fibers on the bottom on the lean side. If you can’t put your hands through it pretty easily, it’s not done yet. If it is just completely falling apart, it’s over done. If you do overcook it, all is not lost—put a knife to it and you now have chopped barbecue beef!"
'Cue Tip #8: Don't Change Too Much at Once
"You’re going to learn something every time you cook. Pay attention to that and don’t try to change too much at once. The thing amateur smokers tend to do is pull the meat off too soon because it starts to look so pretty. The magic number for brisket is an internal temp of 203 degrees, so make sure the temp reaches 195-205 degrees before calling it quits."
'Cue Tip #9: Keep It Simple
"Central Texas barbecue is the way I make a living. It’s the only thing I know how to do. I think you put some fire on there and you watch your meat. That’s pretty much it."
'Cue Tip #10: Simple, Slow & Keep Experimenting
"Have a simplistic philosophy. People get all sorts of craziness going on with this smoker and that smoker. That can be fine but simplicity is where to start. Try little things, move slowly, and keep on experimenting. It takes a long time to master. We’ve been open 6 years now but 10 years ago Aaron was talking about this and the rest of us were like, ‘Why don’t you get a regular job, no one likes bbq.’ But he stuck with it. He had a dream and he kept on practicing. He cooked a lot of briskets for a long time. He cooked so many for so long that he came to understand that cut of meat. He mastered it…and proved us naysayers wrong!"
'Cue Tip #11: Let It Rest
"Whatever meat you’re cooking, you need to let it rest. With brisket, you need to rest it a minimum of 2½ hours and sometimes as long as 5-6 hours—depending on the size of the brisket. The internal temp for serving should be 145 degrees; believe me, when you slice into it, you will be serving up moist meat that is still quite warm to the touch."
'Cue Tip #12: Trim the Fat
"In the old days we used to leave all the fat on briskets and skin them after cooking, along with all the seasonings we put on them. As our barbecue knowledge evolved, we learn to trim the fat down ¼ inch before smoking. Now our seasoning can truly penetrate the meat and provide real depth of flavor throughout. So trim your briskets first—before seasoning."
'Cue Tip #13: Wrap It in Butcher Paper
"After you remove the brisket from the smoker wrap it in butcher paper, instead of foil, before letting it rest. The butcher paper will help keep the brisket moist but allow enough moisture to escape, so the bark retains its chewy texture."
'Cue Tip #14: Lean Meat in the Middle
"When putting any cut of meat into the smoker, place the lean side of the meat towards the middle (or center) of the smoker and the fattier side toward the outside walls. The heat is higher on the sides so if you position it the opposite way the lean side will overcook long before the fatty side is done."
'Cue Tip #16: Don't Slice Right into It
"Don’t waste 12 hours of cooking by slicing right into the brisket. You have to let it rest for at least 2 ½ hours."
'Cue Tip #18: 'Cue Glue: Mustard & Pickle Juice
"Mix some mustard and pickle juice together at a 60/40 ratio and lather the protein before applying your spices. That mixture acts as the glue for all of the spices and helps to lock in a lot of moisture. Don’t worry about pickle and mustard flavors, they will evaporate by the time the meat has been cooked."
'Cue Tip #19: Nice Smoke Ring
"If you are looking to compete in barbecue, you can ensure that your brisket will have a nice smoke ring by rubbing it with tender quick and rinsing it off. The tender quick helps the brisket absorb carbon monoxide, which is what causes the smoke ring. We don’t care about a smoke ring here, we care about the flavor and tenderness of the brisket, but it could help a backyarder to sneak up in the standings."
'Cue Tip #20: Be Aware of the Stall
"Be aware of “the stall.” The stall is the time when the internal temperature of the protein you are smoking can plateau or even drop. You need to stay the course and resist the temptation to increase the heat. The stall is much easier to get past if you allot a few hours more then you think you will need for cooking."
'Cue Tip #21: Pay Attention!
"Nothing is automatic in barbecue. There are all kinds of variances, from the weather to the size of meat and wood. 90% of good barbecue is the time and attention you give it, so pay attention."
'Cue Tip #22: Cook with Love!
"Memphis BBQ is all about diversity. Everybody has their own way of doing it but all of us do it with love."
'Cue Tip #23: Easy on the Sugar
"Too much sugar in your rub can cause the meat on the exterior to cook much faster then you want, which will result in meat that looks burnt. Try easing back on the initial amount of rub you use and adding a second coating in the last hour or so of cooking."
'Cue Tip #24: The Bounce Test
"Want to know if your ribs are ready? Use the bounce test. Using a pair of tongs, pick up the ribs (you’re smoking) by the middle bones. If the meat starts to break away from the bones, they’re done. If you only see a small crack, they need more time."
'Cue Tip #25: Keep a Constant, Steady Temperature
"Whether you’re barbecuing low and slow or hot and fast, a constant steady temperature is critical for great results. This can be particularly challenging if you are cooking with wood rather than gas. Investing in a thermometer that monitors both meat and smoking chamber temperatures will help immensely….’cause you won’t need to open that dang lid so much!"
'Cue Tip #26: Don't Over-Season
"Be careful not to over-season the meat. The goal of cooking low and slow is to let the flavors of the meat and smoke shine."
'Cue Tip #27: Wood That Fits Your Pit
"Pick the right size wood for your home pit. Smaller pit, smaller wood. With practice, you will be able to use your sense of smell to know when the heat in your pit is right."
'Cue Tip #28: Patience, Time & Air
"If you want to cook better barbecue you have to remember three things. Patience is key. It’s all about the time you’re willing to put into it. Control your air flow."
'Cue Tip #29: Man Up!
"Don’t be afraid to be your own man on the pit! Trust your own judgment and let your friends adjust. Believe in your flavors and have fun with it. Like it or not, we do it spicy here and there is no other option."
'Cue Tip #30: Know Your Smoke
"Knowing your smoke is knowing your fire. Look at the color of the smoke. If it’s not white but gray or dark smoke, that means there is sap in the wood. The whiter the smoke, the purer it’s getting. You can bet your money when you see white, wispy smoke coming out that your wood has broken down. That’s what you want; you don’t wanna see big ol’ logs in there, you wanna see big ol’ red coals in there. Now you’re ready to cook."
'Cue Tip #31: Slow Down - Don't Rush It!
"Barbecue is defined by geography. But regardless of what style you’re cooking, take a deep breath and slow down because you can’t rush it. Treat any experimentation you do like writing a recipe; so take notes on what you did differently that day, what the weather was like, etc. so you can define your own personal style."
'Cue Tip #32: Wood Is Your Flavor
"Don’t think of wood as your heat source, but rather as your flavor. Use charcoal or gas as your heat source."
'Cue Tip #33: Can't Always Go Low & Slow
"Everyone wants to try to cook low and slow, but I tell backyard guys that they have to increase their smoker temperature from 225 to 275-300 degrees. It does two things: one, it will set a better bark so you’ll get better flavor on the outside of your meat; two, it will help your cooking process go a little quicker without losing out on tenderness. Ain’t no one have time to cook for 20 hours anymore!"
'Cue Tip #34: Great Meat = Great BBQ
"Great barbecue starts with great meat. So develop a relationship with your local butcher and this way you will have an inside track to better barbecue."