I’ll admit it. A cookout at my house usually means lighting some charcoal, throwing meat on the grill and hoping for the best.
The setting is normally a social one. We’re having guests, and they all seem to arrive at once in a commotion of children, side dishes and questions about where to stash the beer just at that moment when the grill flares and threatens to incinerate the chicken and sausage.
By then I’m sweating, I’m batting away smoke and I’m fixated on the fate of the meal. Torn between hosting and cooking, I have to remind myself that this is supposed to be relaxing downtime with friends.
There is a better way of course, and it’s no mystery. Cooking low and slow — that is, cooking over low heat for long periods of time — can produce meltingly rich flavor. It’s an approach as old as the hills, it’s the basis of great barbecue and it’s gaining new currency around New Orleans, a town where grilling and barbecue have heretofore been largely synonymous.
It’s also the subject of a pair of books co-authored by New Orleans food writer Colleen Rush. In the 2009 book “Low & Slow” and the just-released “Low & Slow 2,” she and Chicago pit master Gary Wiviott chart a refreshingly accessible, no-nonsense system for the pursuit of better barbecue at home.
It’s about indirect heat, clean fires, managing smoke and temperatures, resisting the urge to take shortcuts, building confidence and trusting intuition and, perhaps most of all, taking your time.
“Low and slow is so much more forgiving once you take the time to set it up properly,” Rush told me during an interview over ribs at her Faubourg St. John home. “Throw something on there, have some beers, and truly enjoy the conviviality of cooking for people. That’s why we love cooking, right? You can do that when you’re not worried about something catching fire or burning up on the grill.”
Companionship, not championships
That sounded more like my speed. With the July Fourth holiday coming up, that de facto national cookout weekend, I wanted to see if I could really both up my game at the grill and make the experience more gratifying.
I had some doubts. I’ve eaten a lot of barbecue, often in the line of duty while covering restaurants. But I haven’t tried making it, not this way. For a neophyte, the bravado billowing around the competitive barbecue circuit doesn’t necessarily seem like a recipe for a relaxing backyard hang.
But a recent visit to Rush’s home for an interview, a consultation and some lunch put me in the right frame of mind.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is overdoing it. Your friends love you. They’re coming over to see you, not get some eight-course extravaganza,” she said. “Know yourself and your capacity. Start with something easier. Do you want to spend two hours at the cooker or eight?”
Rush comes at the subject as an instructor, not a competitor, but she also brings the zeal of the converted. She grew up in Alexandria and has family roots in Mansura, the spiritual home of cochon de lait, Louisiana’s own distinct brand of barbecue. It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago, however, that her immersion into low-and-slow barbecue truly began. It started online, in a Chicago food forum where Wiviott ran a tutorial that codified the basics of successful barbecue into a step-by-step system. He became Rush’s own mentor at the barbecue cooker, and he’s now an award-winning pit master at the popular Chicago barbecue restaurant Barn & Co.
Their “Low & Slow” books aren’t about glossy food photos (though they include some) nor are they narratives of the authors’ journeys of self-discovery through barbecue (they constrain themselves to blurb-sized bios on the back flap). Instead, they read like DIY instruction manuals for learning low and slow technique, and then applying it through a roster of vouchsafed recipes.
Taking Rush’s cue, I knew I had to start easy with the book’s very first lesson, or “cook,” as she refers to the entire process of a particular barbecue undertaking. Back home, over my own humble kettle grill, I would start with the marinated mojo Criollo chicken. It would be my own field test and, hopefully, produce dinner to share with a couple of buddies coming over for the experience.
Trial by (low) fire
I approached the first step of building the fire with great diligence, adjusting the cooker’s vents, sloping the charcoal just so, deploying wood chunks for smoke, arraying aluminum loaf pans filled with water to absorb some of the heat (see sidebar for Rush’s top tips).
After all, Rush had told me that these early steps were crucial to making the rest of the process successful and low-pressure.
“People get in a hurry once fire enters the equation,” she said. “But start early, so you can adjust your vents and let your fire cool down. Once you have your temperature stabilized, that’s half the battle.”
While I did have to start much sooner than usual for grilling, in time I had produced a charcoal fire that was glowing steady and bright, not raging or billowing. I arranged my chicken on the grate to specification, careful to point the meatiest parts away from the fire. I resisted the urge to poke and flip and turn (a reflexive habit from grilling over direct heat).
At 30 minutes in, I lifted the lid for the first time to check the status of the charcoal, as instructed. Going off the books a little (but, I felt, sticking with the spirit of the endeavor), I then fixed a round of drinks and put out an appetizer plate for my friends as we settled in for the rest of the cook.
There were some missteps on this first run. I didn’t marinate the chicken long enough. At one point I spilled water from a loaf pan on the charcoal, producing a hiss that I had to imagine would make my instructors cringe.
But then, lo and behold, by the one-hour mark the chicken was done, beautifully bronzed and juices running clear. I felt like I had won this round.
“If you get to the point where you’re doing a brisket, there is really something to taking that out of the cooker in front of this horde of salivating guests and just having that pride in knowing you made something really kickass,” Rush told me earlier.
That might come later. But for now, my friends were happy — I dare say impressed — and I had actually spent the evening talking with them around the table instead of working the grill. It might not have been the best chicken I’ve ever eaten, but it was definitely the best chicken I’d ever cooked.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.