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Low and Slow BBQ

low and slow stick burner

If you’re a bbq enthusiast, chances are that you’ve heard the term “low and slow“. What is low and slow bbq, and how does one cook ribs, brisket, pork shoulders and chicken with the low and slow method?

I’m going to attempt to answer some of these questions so that you can turn out good food in your backyard just like the pitmaster from your favorite bbq restaurant.

Low and slow barbecue typically refers to the method of slow cooking or barbecuing large cuts of meats on a low heat for several hours.  Low and slow is usually done on a smoker or what pitmasters call, “stick burners”.

A stick burner or smoker typically has a firebox and cooking chamber set up for indirect cooking. Now, you don’t necessarily need a large competition style smoker, you can cook some good barbecue with the low and slow method on a grill like the Weber or any kettle grill.

You have to work a little harder, but it can be done. Manning a smoker isn’t something that a novice backyard griller can easily do.

It takes time and for most pitmasters, years to learn the art of smoking meat. Not to say that you can’t watch and learn, but there is so much to learn.

The various cuts of meats like a butcher packer brisket, the difference between full spare ribs and St. Louis style ribs and cooking with green wood vs. seasoned wood. There are lots of variables to smoking meats for hours and imparting flavor with smoke and seasonings like bbq rubs.

Visit some local bbq joints and talk to some pitmasters or attend the next barbecue competition in your area and talk to some of the winners. Many of them will tell you that they’ve been barbecuing for years, and most people don’t wake up and decide to become a professional pitmaster and compete in bbq competitions as a novice.

You just don’t compete against Myron Mixon, Big Moe Cason, Tuffy Stone, and Johnny Trigg as a novice pitmaster. These guys are the best of the best when it comes to smoking meats and cooking on a smoker.

The goal is to churn out the same product each time. If you can successfully and constantly put out delicious barbecue the same way each time you cook, you’ve become a successful pitmaster.

low and slow bbq ribs

An experienced pitmaster can consistently put out their favorite bbq recipe no matter what type of grill or smoker their own. It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny outside or snowing, they know how to adapt to what it’ll take to put out a good product.

I’m sure you probably also heard about the great bbq war.  What state has the best bbq?  That debate has been brewing for a long time.  I’m going to put it out there and say that Kansas City has the best bbq.  Not because I live in Kansas City, but because it’s true.

I challenge you to try LC’s bbq and Joe’s here in the KC area.  We also have great barbecue joints like Arthur Bryant’s and Gates.  My personal vote for the best bbq in Kansas City has to go to myself.  I’ve been barbecuing for about 37 years and have cooked on everything from an old oven grate and cinder blocks to competition smokers.

What states have the best bbq?

The battle continues between North Carolina vs Memphis vs Kansas City vs Texas vs Georgia.  If you want some good bbq, you can find it in any of these states.

North Carolina BBQ:

A lot of North Carolina pitmasters don’t use bbq sauces, they call it a finishing sauce that’s usually a blend of vinegar, ketchup, and spices.  Many Carolina pitmasters also don’t go heavy with exotic rubs and seasonings.

A little salt and black pepper and they let the meat speak for itself.  North Carolina barbecue is known for its smoked pork and coleslaw sandwiches and vinegar and mustard-based barbecue sauces.

Memphis BBQ:

Memphis and Kansas City-style barbecue are probably the most similar of all the places to eat great bbq.  Memphis is known for ribs, as is Kansas City.  Memphis is known for sweet sauces as is Kansas City.  What separates the two is that Memphis bbq restaurants serve lots of dry rub ribs.

They don’t sauce them and the folk of Memphis love their dry ribs.  Memphis also is known for its different and unique sides like barbecue spaghetti.  This creation was made famous by Mr. Neely’s Interstate BBQ.

Kansas City BBQ:

If you want a real and diverse barbecue experience, come to Kansas City.  I think Kansas City has it’s favorites and traditions when it comes to bbq, but we also have a collection of pitmasters from around the U.S. that brings all types of styles and flavor.

Most people think sweet bbq sauce when they hear Kansas City BBQ, but that’s not true at all.  Although many of the well-known local bbq joints have their signature flagship sauces, many also have crafted several sauces like hot, sweet and original.

kansas city low and slow barbecue ribs

From my experience, historic BBQ restaurants like Arthur Bryant’s, Rosedale’s and Gate’s don’t have sweet sauces.  They’re tangy sauces that are vinegar and tomato-based.  JackStack and LC’s, have more of a traditional sweet sauce like the KC Masterpiece bbq sauce.

Big T’s is another local bbq joint here in the K.C. area that has a traditional Kansas City style bbq.  Kansas City is also known for their burnt ends.  Burnt ends are the crispy parts of the brisket and are a delicatessen here in K.C.  You can get an order sauced up and eat it with some bbq sides or you can get a burnt end sandwich.

Kansas City is the bbq mecca of the world.  You can’t drive too far without someone selling some type of bbq.  Our local grocery stores and meat markets have smokers and sell great bbq.  One of our local grocery chains sells a rack of baby back ribs for $10.99, and they’re well smoked with hickory. If you want to experience real bbq, visit K.C.

Shoutout to Ollie Gates,  L.C. Richardson, and Deborah and Mary Jones

Texas BBQ:

Texas is known for smoking big cuts of beef and cooking with mesquite wood.  Many Texas pitmasters also don’t believe in lots of unnecessary seasonings and spices.  They have some of the best beef in the U.S., and they want the beef to stand out.  That’s why they also don’t put a lot of smoke in their meat.

Traditional Texas-style bbq also has a little bit of heat to it.  They like to use red pepper, lots of black pepper and a little salt in their rubs.  Texans don’t typically bbq too much pork.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t find a good rack of ribs in the Lone Star State.  Their choice of smoking woods is mesquite and oak.

But it really depends on what part of Texas you’re in.  The state is so big that they have a few different types of barbecue styles.  Some parts like hickory, and other parts like ash or oak.  Where ever you eat bbq in Texas, whether it be down South, Central or East, you can count on getting a big portion of beef.

Georgia BBQ:

Georgia barbecue is certainly underrated when discussing the great bbq debate.  It always seems as though Georgia is last when talking about Memphis, North Carolina, Texas and Kansas City bbq.  I have lived in Georgia and I can tell you that they’ve got some good bbq in Georgia, and I’m sure Myron Mixon will agree with me.

I’ve lived in Georgia, Texas, Kansas City is my home and I’ve spent lots of time in Memphis and I can tell you that there are some pitmasters in the Peach State that can smoke and burn with the best of them.  One of them being Perry Foster.  He used to own Perry Foster’s BBQ in Warrensburg, MO.

He was a native Georgian and bought the Georgia style bbq to small-town Missouri.  People loved him and his bbq.  I can never remember getting any bad bbq from there.  His smoking style was just like that of traditional Georgia pitmasters.  They use a tangy vinegar and mustard-based sauce like that of North Carolina.

I found a lot of the pitmasters in Georgia like using pecan wood, hickory, and oak.  Pecan is one of my favorite hardwoods to smoke with.  Combined with hickory and apple gives the pork a very nice flavor profile.

Shoutout to Jack’s Old South and Southern Soul BBQ.

I honestly don’t believe there is, “the best place to get bbq” or this state or city has better bbq than XYZ.  The truth is, you can get good bbq in New York or Los Angeles.  You can best believe that folk from Kansas City, Memphis, Georgia, Texas or North Carolina has migrated to all parts of the U.S. and took their native pitmaster and barbecue styles with them.

So it doesn’t surprise me that you can get some really good Kansas City style ribs in Harlem or Compton.

How to low and slow bbq.

The idea of low and slow sounds simple, but the process can be very tedious and time-consuming.  Cooking lots of meat on a smoker can take upwards of 16 hours.  Keeping the temperature on a smoker between 225-275 degrees can get very tiresome if you’re doing it alone and it’s not a bright sunny day.

To cook low and slow bbq, you need a grill or smoker and hardwood such as oak, hickory, pecan, apple, cherry, and mesquite.  For the meat, you need some large cuts of meats like briskets, pork shoulder, and ribs.  You start by firing up the smoker and bringing it to temp.  Before loading the meat, you want to make sure you have plenty of coals already burned for heat.

how to make low and slow bbq

If not, you’re going to find yourself with thick dark smoke once the meat gets on the smoker because the temp has dropped and you’re left scrambling to load wood in the firebox to get the temp back up.  Once the smoker has held the temp for at least an hour, it’s okay to put the meat on.

While the smoker is heating up, prepare and season your meat.  This is the time you want to prepare your ribs, by removing the membranes and cutting them into St. Louis style by removing the breastbone and flaps.

Smoking the breastbone of the sparerib and cutting it up is known as rib tips and is very good.  I like to throw them in the baked beans. It’s also the time to rub your pork butts, inject your meats and gather your things for basting or mopping the bbq.

How to cook Low and Slow Brisket:

Larger cuts of brisket need to cook low and slow around 225-250 until it reaches an internal temp of around 200.  Foil it and let it rest for a few hours.  This is where you’ll need experience.  I’ve seen plenty of briskets still not tender at 200, you have to also go by feel.  All beef isn’t created equally.  If it’s probe tender, it’s done.

How to cook Low and Slow Pork Shoulder: Pulled Pork

Now, it’s hard to get this one wrong.  If you’re new to the world of smoking meats, pork shoulder should be the first cut you smoke with the low and slow method.  The reason being is, it’s a forgiving cut of meat because of the fat content.  You can go over the recommended internal temp without losing too much quality.

Smoking pork butts are fun because there are so many ways to cook them.  I’ve seen them slathered with yellow mustard and rubbed down and injected with everything from apple juice to an injection marinade with 15 ingredients.  I personally like to keep it simple with salt and pepper and then season it with a basic bbq rub after I’m done pulling the pork.

Pork Shoulders for pulled pork are usually cooked between 225 and 250 degrees until the shoulder or butt reaches an internal temp of 195-200 degrees.  I usually pull mine off the smoker when it hits 195.  I then foil it tight and let it rest for a few hours.  When I remove it from the foil, the bone will usually pull out very easily.  Always buy the bone-in pork shoulder.

Best meats for low and slow bbq

The best meats for low and slow bbq are large cuts of meats or any meat that will take a few hours to cook.  You don’t want to cook a steak or burger on the smoker because you want a nice sear, and you’re not going to get a nice sear and crust on a steak cooking it on a smoker using indirect heat.

But, you can always cook it over the hot coals in the firebox.  Some smokers are equipped with a grate for cooking in the firebox.  You can fast sear a steak in the firebox and let it rest in the cooking chamber.

Best wood for low and slow bbq

The top smoking woods are hickory, oak, ash, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite.  I personally use a blend of two types when I’m cooking.  A combination of hickory with any fruit hardwood goes well with pork.  My best ribs are smoked with hickory and apple

For beef, I like to use oak and cherry or oak and pecan.  Oak and pecan gives beef a nice flavor and brings out that beefy taste.  I don’t use lots of smoke on my briskets and beef ribs, I want the beef to shine.  The most used woods for low and slow bbq is probably hickory and oak.

How to cook low and slow on a kettle grill

Every now and then I don’t feel like firing up the smoker and standing over a stick burner for hours to keep the temp at a constant 225.  You can cook and smoke large cuts of meat on a kettle type grill, it just takes a little ingenuity.  First off, you have to set the grill up to cook indirectly.

I do this by putting the coals on one side of the grill or by using charcoal pans.  Before they made charcoal pans, I’d put the charcoal on a piece of foil and fold it to where I could open and close it for indirect cooking.  It also made it easier to move the coals around.

low and slow on a weber

Nowadays they make charcoal pans that fit along the sides of the kettle grill.  You can also use a hinged kettle grate to add more coals and wood chunks.  The idea is to place the meat as far away from the fire as possible and adjust the dampers so the kettle will cook on a low and slow temp.

I’ve cooked pork butts, ribs, fatty’s, turkey and whole chickens on a weber kettle.  But a smoker is way more convenient and efficient if you’re cooking lots of meat.  I really only like to use the kettle for grilling chicken, steaks, burgers, and chops.

The difference between smoking and bbq

I get asked this question often, and my answer is, smoking is barbecuing.  You can bbq on a smoker or grill, but you can’t grill on a smoker.  BBQ to me is cooking outdoors on a piece of equipment set up for indirect or direct cooking.

Cooking on a gas grill with direct heat is barbecuing and smoking meats on a competition smoker is barbecuing.  The difference is, one is grilling and one is smoking meats, but they’re both methods of barbecuing.

These are the basics of smoking meats.  Learning the low and slow method of barbecuing takes time.  It’s a hobby that’s been very satisfying and it’s an honor to learn the craft of the pitmasters who done it before me.  Barbecue brings people together from all walks of life.

Go to your favorite local bbq joint and you’ll see black, white, brown, old, young, rich and poor eating barbecue next to each other.  We may not agree on a lot of things and have our differences, but one thing we can all agree on is that barbecue when cooked the low and slow way is downright good.

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