Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fueling the Fuel Debate

I detest partisan politics. I feel that those who hold either purely Democratic opinions or exclusively Republican views are typically unable to look at any particular issue holistically. I suppose that's why I'm an independent thinker with opinions that crisscross party lines.

My nonpartisan views extend into the realm of outdoor cooking as well. When it comes to the endless debate about charcoal vs. propane, my view is that both do well at different tasks and in different situations. I personally own 5 charcoal units (2 grills and 3 smokers) and 4 propane devices (2 grills, 1 camp stove, and 1 high-output burner), so there's no way I can be branded as either a "charcoalist" or a "propaner". That I have such a diversity of outdoor cooking gear gives me the right to comment on charcoal and propane in a completely unbiased manner.

I don't have much patience for anyone who espouses a one-sided view on fuels used for outdoor cooking, so when a high-falootin' food writer named Josh Ozersky published an article entitled "Barbecuers, Unite! Why Gas Grills Are Evil", I really got torked off. In this piece – which can only be described as a fanciful, one-sided rant against propane – Mr. Ozersky demonstrates partisanship at its finest (or worst, depending on your point of view).

I have nary a clue about what caused Mr. Ozersky to hate gas grills so much. It could have been some horribly traumatic event that befell him as a child. Maybe it's just that no one has ever demonstrated for him the proper combination of a high-performance gas grill and an exceptional technique. Regardless of the rationale for his views, this guy's blistering screed got my blood a-boilin' mainly because he crossed the line when he went from merely criticizing gas grills to seemingly denigrating the people who use them.

Despite his being a James Beard Award-winning food journalist, Mr. Ozersky allowed some inaccuracies and misconceptions to get tangled up in his overworked and cloying prose:

1.) He says that propane users give up flavor. What? Are you kidding? The gas grills I use can sear a steak, grill a burger, or roast a chicken as good as any charcoal grill. Throw some wood chips in the smoker box, and you'll be infusing hickory, oak, or some other flavor just like you would if you were scattering them atop a charcoal fire. Based on the equipment I use, there is no difference between gas or charcoal when grilling. (Smoking, on the other hand, is a different story... keep reading.)

2.) Mr. Ozersky writes: "Gas is grossly artificial, abstract, a formula for the feeding of indifferent crowds. There are no flare-ups, and no ash to throw away, but there is also no crust, no fire, no woodsy taste or sizzling, succulent fat." No flare-ups? I've had plenty of them on gas grills over the years, typically at times when the succulent fat (which is dependent on the meat not the grilling method) sizzled just a little bit too much. No fire? The last time I checked, there were actual flames (a.k.a. fire) coming out of the burners. No crust or woodsy taste? At the risk of sounding like Hank Hill, come to my house, Mr. Ozersky, and I will show you what propane can do to put a nice crust on a steak and infuse some good smoke flavor.

3.) He also states that "as a free and mobile people, we should be able to grill wherever we want: on roofs, on beaches, in parks, in arena parking lots. But all of these are places your gas grill can't go." Dude, I don't know about you, but I think just about every municipal, county, and state fire safety code in the nation prohibits the rooftop use of a charcoal grill. And regarding not being able to take one's gas grill to the beach, to a park, or to some tailgating event, I'm confused as to why Mr. Ozersky has never heard of an innovation called a portable gas grill. They exist. You can buy them. The Weber Q series is one of the more popular alternatives in a market that offers a plethora of options.

4.) What really confounds me is how the author asserts that "gas grilling is actually much more complicated and laborious than real grilling". Say what? When I want a really quick burger I can light a gas grill and cook a batch of patties quicker and with much less effort than on charcoal. Mr. Ozersky's basis for contending that propane is more of a chore is "the drive, inevitably at the last minute, to refill your propane tanks because you forgot to close the valve, or because, being dead, blank, enormous metal spheres without any kind of fuel gauge, they impart no information to their owner." My good man, forgetting to close a valve is called being a dumbass. By the way, if you want a pretty good idea of whether a tank is almost empty, just pick it up to see how heavy it is ... it's not that difficult. Or you could simply buy a gauge. And for goodness sake, it's a well-known best practice to keep a second tank (a full one) ready to go as a back-up.

I don't want today's post to turn into a bashing of Mr. Ozersky and, by extension, charcoal. To set the record straight, I am not disrespecting charcoal at all. I have simply highlighted the fallacies of the author's position on propane. Furthermore, if Mr. Ozersky had done a better job of making the distinction between the methods used for slow-smoking BBQ and the techniques more closely associated with grilling – between which he indiscriminately switched in his companion article entitled "Five Things Americans Need to Know About Barbecue" – then I might not be putting up such a fuss. So, let me further clarify my position.

Grilling (high direct heat) is different than smoking (low indirect heat). For example, when my team prepares BBQ at a competition, the only heat that touches the meat is that which emanates from charcoal and wood. In fact, the KCBS rules prohibit me from using propane. And even if I could use propane I wouldn't do so because the end product wouldn't turn out the same. This is because when cooking for hours (instead of just minutes), the cumulative taste effect produced by charcoal is measurably better and different than propane.

Am I saying that I couldn't smoke a pork butt on a gas grill? No, not at all. If given a full tank and a decent gas grill with good burner control (e.g., my late-90s model Weber Genesis), I could definitely do it, and it would be damn tasty, too. It's just that I could make a better pork butt on a charcoal grill or smoker.

I suggest that if you're in no rush to eat and have the time to light off a chimney full of charcoal to grill up a juicy flank steak or nice piece of fish, by all means do so. But if you're pressed for time with hungry family members demanding grilled chicken ASAP, or if you're planning on grilling some sausages when it's 28°F with falling snow, a gas grill is the unit of choice. That's why I recommend that every grilling or smoking enthusiast should have at least one of each asset type, and 1 in 5 actually do. Versatility is the key!

But the 'fuel wars' aren't limited to just charcoal vs. propane. There is a great divide within the charcoal camp about the use of briquettes vs. lump charcoal. Once again, I am decidedly neutral on the matter. There are occasions when I use Kingsford briquettes instead of Royal Oak lump and vice versa. Heck, there are even situations where I use both to simultaneously enjoy the virtues of each.

Yes, it's true that lump charcoal is free from fillers, burns hotter, and imparts a slightly superior taste on meat. But lump is also of irregular size, meaning that it doesn't pack well to minimize airflow for really long cooks, and it typically burns out quicker. An insightful analysis offers a more detailed comparison. Different strokes for different folks, right?

Here are some interesting stats to consider:

  • Of Americans at least 21 years of age, 71% own at least one outdoor grill and/or smoker. Of this population, 67% own a gas grill while 46% own a charcoal grill. (source: Weber)
  • 1985 was the first year that the number of gas grills sold in North America exceeded charcoal grills. Gas has led the way ever since, and in 2010 over 8.5 million gas-fueled units were sold compared to 6.2 million charcoal units. (source: HBPA)
  • There were more than 826 thousand tons of charcoal sold in North America in 1993, and at that time 97.9% was in the form of briquettes and only 2.1% was lump. In 2010 the total amount of charcoal sold was 1.04 million tons, but the proportion of lump had risen to 11.0%. (source: HBPA)

So, here's the bottom line, people: just get outside and cook! I don't care if you're grilling or smoking, using charcoal or propane, or firing up briquettes or lump. The main thing is to get out there and do it. And don't think of cooking outdoors as just something that's done in warm months. There is no such thing as an outdoor cooking season. It's a 365-day-per-year opportunity that with the right equipment, techniques, and attitude you can seize whenever you want. Own it!!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Vegan Ribs Part 2

photo credit:
Doug Beghtel/The Oregonian
Some of you probably recall my April 23 posting on vegan ribs. There's no disputing the fact that the topic of meatless ribs was a little unusual for this blog, but the story had legs. It caught the attention of Grant Butler, a food journalist friend (and one of my high school buddies from Kansas City), who earlier today published a wonderfully written follow-up piece on the web site for The Oregonian, Portland's daily newspaper.

I had a wonderful time reconnecting with my old friend for this story, and it proved that a kitchen collaboration between a vegan and an omnivore was not only possible but also an absolute delight!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nice Showing at Falls Church Competition

The boys from Smoke Dreams BBQ participated in the Tinner Hill Barbecue Competition in Falls Church, Virginia, on June 11, 2011. This was our first competition of the year, and one that netted us 1st place in Chicken and 2nd place in Pork Ribs. This was a pretty respectable performance for our first outing of the season.

This level of success almost wasn't possible. In fact, the whole event was put in jeopardy when the 2000 Chevy Venture driven by Goofus died on the highway. Specifically, the serpentine belt on the BBQ Wagon snapped right in the middle of rush hour traffic in Interstate 66 just a few miles from Falls Church.

Thankfully, the car was able to limp along to the competition site. The team unloaded the gear and then the Goofus arranged for a tow with barely a hiccup in the plan. (Special thanks to Mrs. Goofus for bring the repaired vehicle back the following day.)

We were big winners in the Chicken and Pork categories. Our BBQ chicken thighs were moist, not overcooked, and perfectly sauced - 1st place! We made 4 racks of delicious spare ribs that were tender yet not cooked so much that they fell off the bone. A good balance of flavor and tenderness scored us 2nd place.


We cooked one 15½-lb. brisket and another than came in at 12½ lbs. We used Luke's 22.5" WSM for the job, and that thing ran for more than 15 hours on one load of Kingsford.  It was still going strong when we had to pack up our cook site, so we were obligated to shut it down by dumping the hot coals in an ash can.

Anyway, the whole brisket was on for about 12 hours and then the point was removed, re-seasoned, and smoked for an additional 2 hours. The team smoked up three 8-lb. pork butts on our Big Daddy Smoker for about 9 hours. The meat was tender and had some really tasty bark.  Sadly, neither of these meats cracked the top 3 in their respective categories.


We had a great time at the event (as evidenced by the photos). There was good music, plenty of cold beer, and – best of all – remarkable camaraderie among the team. It was the classic "work hard, play hard" approach, and it yielded many dividends... including a super cool trophy and nifty medal.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Summer is Heating Up

Over the past couple of weeks the ol' Goofus has been busy getting ready for a big season of BBQ.

Preparations have included producing 5 lbs. (¾ gallon) of pork rub and preparing more than 3 gallons of sauce spanning 4 varieties. An additional gallon of sauce covering the remaining 2 varieties will soon be concocted so that the full complement will be in stock for everything that we've got going on:

  • The Tinner Hill Barbecue Competition will be the team's first of the season, and it's coming up fairly quickly: June 10-11 in Falls Church, Virginia.
  • On Saturday, June 25, three members of the team will be pulling beer taps instead of gripping tongs. That's because we will serve as volunteer pourers at the Northern Virgina Summer Brewfest in Leesburg, Virginia. We've done this for many years and can confirm that's always a good time, rain or shine.
  • We've submitted our application for the 1st Annual Bluemont BBQ Bash July 29-30 in Bluemont, Virginia. This will be our first KCBS-certifed competition, and we can't wait to wow the judges with some tasty 'que.
  • No summertime list would be complete without COF-A-Que, the event that started our competition BBQ careers back in 2008. Details aren't available yet, but this massive annual gathering will start at 6pm on Friday, August 12, and close down on Sunday, August 14, at around 4pm.
  • We've been invited by a local brew club to provide BBQ for them at MASHOUT, an enormous beer-themed retreat in Rocky Gap, Maryland. The event is one week after COF-A-Que, so needless to say we'll have to rally strong to handle back-to-back parties.
  • As if competitions weren't keeping us busy enough, the Goofus has had a couple of catering gigs where hungry patrons have paid him to smoke meat. Not bad, eh?

We hope to see y'all on the BBQ trail!