Ted Dombrowski grilling with the Big Green Egg | Photo Ruta Smith

Secrets from the grill

Barbecue has two meanings in the South.

It’s a noun used to describe a melt-in-your-mouth, finger-lickin’ bite of meat cooked slowly on a grill or a smoker. In South Carolina, the go-to barbecue is pork, but it’s more common these days to see beef or other barbecues on menus or whiteboards at restaurants and dives.

“Barbecue” is also a verb used to describe the process of throwing a slab of meat — pork, chicken, beef, fish or even alligator, ostrich or kangaroo — onto a grill to cook or smoke over smoldering coals.

However you use the word, picking up a pound of pulled pork or a slab of ribs from a local barbecue joint is some good eating. And now with fall in the air, barbecued meats are on lots of palates, especially at college tailgating parties.

So we thought it would be a good idea to ask some recognized barbecue experts for their secrets — anything they’d like to share to help the home cook “barbecue” some meat to rib-stickin’ perfection.

James Beard Award-winning Pitmaster Rodney Scott is best known for his method of cooking whole hog barbecue

Show a little marinating love
Best of Charleston 2022 Pitmaster Rodney Scott, owner of barbeque restaurants in Charleston and other Southern cities, said preparing good food starts with “positive vibes and focusing on giving your guests one of the most unforgettable fun experiences ever! Genuinely enjoying the craft and the process of barbecuing will make your food standout.”

His process starts with the fire that can take at least an hour to get it hot enough to cook a whole hog that can weigh more than 120 pounds. Then for the next 12 hours, Scott said, “you have to be mentally prepared” to not become frustrated by the long cooking process so that when the meat is done, it’s served with a good attitude.

“We eat with our eyes first,” said Scott, who has been barbecuing since he was 11 years old with his family’s business in Williamsburg County. “You don’t want to throw it on a plate because you are angry, tired or frustrated. So you have to prepare yourself with these good vibes.”

Scott recommended to achieve “flavorful and tender barbecue, don’t be afraid to marinate your proteins. Cooking your protein low and slow with a citrus or vinegar base sauce added will result in delicious, tender meat.” The process also applies, he said, to chicken, turkey and smaller portions of pork. “At the restaurant, we prepare a ribeye loin, and we marinate that loin overnight before we smoke it the next day,” he said.

Wrap it up
Ted Dombrowski, who operates Ted’s Butcherblock in downtown Charleston, said a proven secret in his book is to make sure whatever meat that’s cooking stays moist. He likes to smoke meat in a Big Green Egg grill.

“Wrapping a pork butt or beef brisket in butcher paper or foil for the final two to three hours of smoking will help reach a desired temperature and keep the meat moist and juicy,” he said.
Will the paper burn? Nope. “The temperature should be low enough.”

Pat Nelson

It’s all about the dry rub
Ravenel resident Pat Nelson, operator of the Big Boned Barbecue food truck here for the last 15 years, has won more than 100 awards over 25 years of cooking ’cue.

“I think that the biggest thing for us is the dry rub,” he said. “People need to really experiment with it. Find a good dry rub seasoning. Ours is a really nice mix of sweet and salty. There are 32 different things in ours, so it’s a little bit complicated. It took us something like 10 different tries to get it right.

“Just find something that you think is going to work, cook something with it, make some notes, modify it, put more salt in if you want. Put some more sugar if you’re looking for that profile. If you’re looking for something garlicky, add that, but don’t be afraid to just try stuff out.”

Nelson said the best barbecue for one person might not appeal to another.

Photo by Robert Donovan

“Barbecue is one of those things that is not one size fits all. If you don’t like a lot of smoke, don’t use a lot of smoke. That’s the biggest thing I tell people: ‘Man, you’re the one that’s got to eat it, so do what you enjoy,’ ” he said about dry rub and barbecue in general.
Nelson said lots of people cooking pork ribs worry too much about peeling off membranes from the back or racks of ribs.

“And we’ve just found, and we cut thousands and thousands of racks of ribs a year, that if you just score the back of  ’em with a knife in sort of a diamond pattern, your ribs are still going to fall off the bone, that membrane will be cut enough that it lets the flavor through. Plus, it can be a pretty tasty thing. It’s like eating pork skin or something like that. Those crispy backs on the bottom of it.

“You don’t need to spend all that time [peeling] and it can be a real pain to pull off, but as long as you’re cutting that membrane, put a little seasoning on it, so that it crisps up and get a little flavor to it, and it’s also going to help keep some of the juices in the ribs.”

Bessinger’s Barbecue is known for its Carolina mustard-based sauce | Ruta Smith File Photo

Don’t be afraid to oil up
Michael Bessinger of West Ashley favorite Bessinger’s Barbecue said home cooks need to consider using oils on the outside of meats, such as wings.

“For example, I don’t brine my wings at home often,” he said. “A lot of times, I use olive oil instead, I put the wings in a Ziploc bag with the oil and within that mixture, I will also add any seasoning I want — whether it be lemon pepper or a barbecue rub. I let it sit in the fridge for about three hours. Pull them out individually and smoke them or cook them on a charcoal grill in an offset fashion. There will still be a good bit of oil on that wing, so placing them directly over the coals will cause a fire.”

Bessinger also said using a cooking spray like Pam often helped for meat in a smoker.
“I’ve even used Pam spray on my ribs at the very end of my cook before I glaze my sauce on them,” he said. “I really like what it does to the texture, especially if you use aluminum foil to accelerate the cooking process.”

Home Team BBQ St. Louis Style Ribs | Jonathan Boncek file photo

Try a wet brine
Home Team BBQ Pitmaster Aaron Siegel said wet-brining can be an overlooked asset when it comes to jazzing up more neutral proteins like poultry and pork. Traditionally, both wet and dry brining solutions are used to add salinity and help retain moisture when preparing protein.

“It’s more of a complement as opposed to a dominant flavor profile,” said Siegel, whose three locations in the area won Best of Charleston 2022 awards for best wings, tots, mac and cheese, nachos and caterer.

“With a leaner protein, constructing a brine is very useful,” he said. “You can create all sorts of different kinds of brines by steeping herbs in liquid. A simple brine is just salt and water, but we like to add granulated sugar or sometimes light brown sugar. You can add herbs and citrus rinds [and] juice — anything that has a little bit of acidity.”

To make a basic wet brine, dissolve salt and/or sugar in hot water, Siegal said. Then throw in any additional ingredients to steep in the solution, kind of like a tea. After you test it for taste, cool it. But, he said, don’t brine your protein for too long. Something like a chicken breast would brine for half a day.

While brining is typically used with poultry, Siegel said Home Team BBQ brines its pork products — and even beef products such as brisket and ribs — from time to time.

“Usually, you don’t see folks brining red meat too much,” Siegel said, “but we’ve utilized it on different occasions. The best application is [to] proteins that are leaner and more neutral in flavor than red meats like ribeye, brisket and strip. Say you’re smoking a whole sirloin, it’s probably better just to go more neutral on that and not [use a] brine.”

Pitmaster John Lewis brings West Texas barbecue to Charleston at his restaurant Lewis Barbecue with offerings like Texas hot gut sausages |
Jody Horton file photo

Pick the right pieces
Noted Pitmaster John Lewis, whose Lewis Barbecue won Best of Charleston 2022’s best barbecue, brisket and ribs, said home cooks should be discriminating when picking a pork butt for the grill.

“Don’t just grab the first one — look through all of them and find the one that’s got the most marbling in it. There will always be one with a lot of marbling on it. It’s also a really good one to not mess up because it naturally already has tons of marbling in it. So you can overcook it and it’ll still be fine and undercook a little bit and chop it and it’ll also be fine.”

He said meats should be cooked with indirect heat. “If you’re doing it at home you can do it on a Weber kettle grill, and look up a basic set-up for indirect cooking.”

Barbecue from West Texas, which Lewis brought to the Lowcountry, often is smoked with mesquite because there’s not much hickory, oak or pecan in the area. If you use mesquite, be careful because it burns hotter than you might think. To use mesquite wood in the backyard, start with charcoal to get the heat going, and add a couple of mesquite wood chunks every hour. Flavor-wise, mesquite wood has an acrid or campfire taste, according to Lewis.

“It’s the best wood for high heat grilling because it burns hotter than all the other hardwoods. For slow cooking you can overdo it real quick because it does have a very distinct flavor. It is not a mellow flavor at all.”

Lewis suggested beef back ribs for “more of a West Texas kind of thing … It actually works really well — better than a pork butt or brisket or anything like that on the typical grill that people have. You can set up your backyard grill for indirect cooking, and it will take you about four hours. You want to run it about 275 [degrees] and it just comes out awesome, man.”
He said to season the beef back ribs as you would a steak. And when it’s on the grill, don’t mess with it too much. “It’s impressive-looking for not so much effort.”

City Paper staffers Samantha Connors, Herb Frazier, Chelsea Grinstead, Michael Pham and Andy Brack contributed to this story.

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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.