BBQ expert says keep it low and slow, and spread it out

The summer is upon us, and grills and smokers all over the DMV are heating up as well. For the series Fired Up with Jake and John, WTOP’s Mike Jakaitis and John Domen are talking with some of the region’s best pit masters about their methods, with the goal of helping you level up your barbecue game.

Fire up your grill often enough and you’ll come to realize there’s no right way to barbecue. Everyone likes to put their own spin on it, and if you make a mistake — well, call it an experiment.

But there’s definitely a wrong way to do things. You don’t want to sabotage your cookout by incinerating your food, or overwhelming it.

Stephen Raichlan, host of “Project Smoke” on PBS and the author of several cookbooks on cooking meat and veggies, over fire, flame and smoke, said some cooks try to take a shortcut by cramming the grill full of food. It may seem like a shortcut, but Raichlan calls it “a very common guy mistake” that just makes for a long, unenjoyable meal.

“Usually I try and work with about a half to two-thirds of my grill grate with food on it,” he said — “always at least one-third of the grill grate food-free.”

On most grills, especially charcoal ones, different sections are at different temperatures.

“If something is done before the piece next to it is done, you move it to that safety zone, that food free zone, let it stay warm,” Raichlan said. You’ll also have room to move something if your grill starts to flare up and food is getting scorched.

He also recommends taking time when you’re smoking. Going low and slow doesn’t mean just low temperature and waiting hours for something to cook. It means taking time with every step in the process. Raichlan admits he made the mistake of ignoring that early on.

“I remember when I first started smoking, I thought, ‘What is this — adding a cup and a half of wood chips every hour for six hours? That seems very inefficient. Let’s add nine cups of wood right to start with and then we don’t have to be bothered every hour.’”

He could taste the regret in every bite.

“You just hideously over smoke the food and it winds up tasting like an ashtray,” he cautioned. “Take your time. Enough is enough. Remember not to overdo it.”

Next week: What if you don’t have a smoker in your backyard? What if you don’t even have a backyard? Rob Sonderman, the pitmaster at the Federalist Pig restaurants, offers tips on how to make barbecue in your apartment kitchen.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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