Barbecuing—and by that I mean the low-and-slow cooking of meats using live fire and smoke—is more art than science. Not that there isn’t plenty of chemistry and physics going on, too, but I’m certainly not the guy to try to explain that stuff! What I mean to say is that the people who do it best have all gotten there by years of practice, trial and error, patience, and perseverance. Either that, or they grew up alongside someone who did so before them. Books and YouTube videos are helpful, but the best way to learn and perfect this art is to get out and try and fail and try again.
True barbecue is as much about building and maintaining fires as it is about sourcing, seasoning, and cooking meat. Which means that barbecue is also about buying, storing, and chopping wood, which is why so many home cooks opt for easier solutions like charcoal-fueled water smokers or gas- or electric-powered vertical smokers. But without live fire and real wood smoke, food will never reach its true potential to become that intoxicatingly flavorful, complex, and deeply aromatic food of the gods.
Pitmasters obsess over smoke: good smoke, bad smoke, black smoke, blue smoke. The goal is to create and maintain a steady flow of pale gray smoke that is so light, it almost looks blue. You should wait to place the food into the smoker until it reaches the proper temperature and “the smoke is running clear.” This is the type of smoke I am referring to. Good smoke is produced by a properly built and tended fire burning at optimal temperature. Once that fire is going great, maintaining ideal cooking temperatures is as easy as adding an occasional log and regulating the airflow by adjusting the dampers.
To achieve that “good smoke,” it’s crucial to start with properly seasoned wood. Seasoned wood is wood that has been cut to length, split, stacked, and allowed to dry over months and months. Seasoned wood burns easier and faster and produces the kind of smoke that pitmasters require. You’ll often hear barbecue pros go on and on about certain types of wood and how they are the best for this or that particular style or application of barbecue. But the one thing they all have in common is that they utilize species native to their location, because using what you readily have available just makes sense economically. In Texas, they burn post oak. In Kansas City, they burn hickory. In Cleveland, we burn apple- and cherry wood because northeast Ohio has tons of fruit orchards. Barbecue is regional because it developed around the use of local wood, livestock, and equipment.
When it comes to cooking and eating, there are few things in this world that I love more than pork belly. This affordable cut of meat is so versatile. Most of us know that pork belly becomes bacon when it’s cured and smoked. But when you simply season and smoke it, like we do at Mabel’s, you end up with something completely different in texture. Our popular pork belly is smoky, meaty, and deliciously rich. Some might even say it’s unctuous. How’s that for a $10 word!
- 1 (10- to 12-pound) Skin-off pork belly
- 1 cup Cleveland BBQ Sauce*
- 1 cup Pork Rub**
- Prepare and preheat your smoker to 225°F.
- Cut the pork belly crosswise into two equal pieces so it’s easier to handle.
- Coat all sides of the pork with the barbecue sauce and then season it all over with the pork rub.
- When the temperature in the smoker reaches 225°F and the smoke is running clear, add the pork belly fat-side up and cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 185°F, about 5 hours. For the best results, use a probe thermometer to continually monitor the meat’s temperature.
- Slice to the desired thickness and serve immediately.
- 2 cups Cider vinegar
- 1 small Red onion, quartered
- 1 large Garlic clove, smashed
- 1 Chipotle in adobo sauce, plus 1 tablespoon of sauce from the can
- 3 Tbsp Bourbon
- 1 tsp Coriander seeds
- half tsp Smoked paprika
- 1 cup Bertman Ball Park Mustard or other brown stadium-style mustard
- half cup Yellow mustard
- quarter cup Pure maple syrup
- 1 Tbsp Soy sauce
- 2 tsp Kosher salt
- 1-and-a-half tsp Freshly ground black pepper
- In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, onion, garlic, chipotle in adobo, bourbon, coriander, and paprika. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the flavors come together, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the chipotle purée, brown and yellow mustards, maple syrup, soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Strain the vinegar mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into the mustard mixture (discard the solids) and whisk until smooth and combined.
- Use immediately or store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
- 2 parts Kosher salt
- 2 parts Freshly ground black pepper
- half part Celery seed
- half part Ground coriander
- Sweet paprika
- Mix together the first four ingredients.
- Then combine the mixture with sweet paprika, in the ratio of five parts basic rub with one part sweet paprika.
Reprinted from Michael Symon’s Playing with Fire. Copyright © 2018 by Michael Symon. Photographs copyright © 2018 by Ed Anderson. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.