4 Rules for Becoming a Pit-Master
Chef Perry Perkins
PitMaster: One in charge of the pit. Someone who, not only has mastered the techniques to create great BBQ, but is proficient in using a variety of pits, or grill to do so.
While there's no one single accepted definition of the title, "Pit Master" (in fact, they vary wildly), I like the one above. I see someone who has "mastered" the pit, as being able to produce delicious BBQ with any number of meats, and a variety of equipment.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Here are four things that I think anyone needs, to achieve the title.
1. Practice Practice Practice!
It can't be said enough (though I'll stop at three times), like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get.
Chose the cut of meat you want to perfect, then keep working on it until you're doing it the best it can be done. I recommend starting with pork shoulders (the most forgiving) and working your way up to smaller, thinner cuts.
Experiment with varied cook times, type of smoke, rubs, marinades, brines, and the like, until you think, "Damn, it doesn't get better than that!"…then do it 10 more times.
2. Keep Notes
Repetition isn't going to take us very far if you don't recall exactly what we did, and the results, the last time.
Date your test, and track external elements like:
- Ambient temperature
- Type of smoke
- Amount of coals
- Time to temp (how long, from the time the meat goes in the heat until it reaches the target temperature.)
You'll also want to jot down your recipe specifics:
- Cut and weight of meat
- Grade of meat, and where you bought it
- Temp prior to cooking
- Marinade recipe, rub, brine (and time), or injection
And, of course, your thoughts on the finished product. A 1-10 scale for taste, texture, and appearance can be helpful, too. I know some pit-master who go so far as to make before and after photos, but I'm not quite THAT anal-retentive.
Keep it simple...sucker!
If you ask 10 cooks a BBQ question, you'll get 12 answers.
Don't waste your time trying every new fad or "miracle technique" you find in the comments section of your favorite BBQ blog.
There are enough well-established methods to keep you busy for the rest of your life! Find out what the big boys are doing (i.e: Google), and monkey-do.
Meat, salt, and smoke is 90% of the game anyway, and some of the best BBQ in the world is made in dented old oil drums, behind wooden shacks.
As far as the "extras" (seasonings and sauces), learn your favorite flavor profile (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy, umami) and spend most of your time and effort in that neighborhood.
4. Have the Right Gear
Last (but certainly not least) make sure you have the right tools for the job.
For starters, a high-quality meat thermometer is my most important grilling tool.
Tongs are #2 on the list...and I own a LOT of tongs (in fact, I may be a bit obsessive on the issue), and I use them on nearly everything. Even if you don't become a collector, like me, your need at least a couple of pairs, one for raw meat, and another for cooking.
When working with large cuts, never (ever!) use meat forks to move them around. Buy some heavy, white dish towels (invest in bleach), and use them to protect your hands, while carefully moving that brisket or pork shoulder from the box, to the table.
Lastly, I find an industrial food-grade spray bottle to be indispensable. Every time I life the lid on the box, I give the meat a quick, healthy spritz of the warm marinade, adding both flavor and moisture.
That's it, four steps to get you started on the road to greatness!
In the words of another great master..."do or do not, there is no try…"
As a third-generation chef, Perry P. Perkins focuses his love of cooking on barbecue, traditional southern fare, and fresh Northwest cuisine. His cookbooks include La Caja China Cooking, La Caja China World, La Caja China Party, La Caja China Grill, and La Caja China Smoke.
You can follow the rest of Chef Perry’s BBQ adventures at www.lacajachinacooking.com and Perry P. Perkins at Amazon.