What Are Burnt Ends? And Why Are They So Delicious?
"Nuggets of barbecue gold."
Since American barbecue began its movement to full-blown renaissance, more and more food enthusiasts have become aware of the South's four major barbecue regions, as well as the forms of barbecue that have come to represent them. While serious smoke hounds might warn against oversimplifying the geography of the food, it's tough to deny that certain parts of the country are effectively synonymous with very particular strains of barbecue.
Sure, Texas is home to Mexican-style barbacoa and a fair share of pork ribs, but what grabs hold of most memories is great smoked brisket and sausage along the barbecue belt surrounding Austin.
And while Memphis has produced some of the tastiest pork shoulder sandwiches around, it's still touted far and wide as home of the iconic dry-rubbed rib.
The Carolinas are fragmented along the subtlest of edible fault lines, but they are infamous as a region for their hog-only approach to the smoky arts.
In Kansas City, a historic meatpacking and music hub of the Midwest, a broad array of meats and the popular rise of a certain household barbecue sauce make it hard for one regional specialty to dominate the chatter. Still, if you ask anyone who's paid this 'que capital a visit, you'll probably hear tales of its own eminent domain: burnt ends.
Burnt ends, like much of American barbecue, aren't a labor of design as much as a brilliant form of adaptation. As beef barbecue became more common, pitmasters would set aside the tougher, drier, oddly-shaped end pieces of their briskets as they sliced them.
Many cooks declined to serve the fattiest parts of the brisket, so many burnt ends were drawn from this portion, ultimately served as appetizers, thrown into stews or handed to customers as scrap. Unlike rib tips, burnt ends can capture just as much melted-down fat as smoky, crunchy bark, producing an all-around incredible bite in the process. When done right, they make one hell of a culinary exclamation point.
It didn't take long for someone to realize that these cooks were giving away nuggets of barbecue gold. Renowned author and Kansas City offspring Calvin Trillin made the uniquely mouth-watering qualities of the burnt end clear when he exposed the world to this local delight in the 1970s, heaping praise and legend upon the burnt ends of his beloved (and now world famous) Arthur Bryant's:
I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I'm in some awful overpriced restaurant in some strange town—all of my restaurant-finding techniques having failed, so that I'm left to choke down something that costs $7 and tastes like a medium-rare sponge—a blank look comes over my face: I have just realized that at that very moment someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges free.
Pitmasters took note, and burnt ends (whether they are truly the refuse of a whole brisket or simply chunks of brisket cut exclusively to be re-smoked and served as such) are now a staple menu item in Kansas City. My first glorious taste of burnt ends was delivered at the hands of LC's Bar-B-Q, a relative newcomer to the barbecue capital. I haven't been able to make it back since that fateful day in 2008, but two prominent New York restaurants, RUB and Daisy May's BBQ USA, make a point of serving this Kansas City favorite as an imported delicacy.
RUB, which has already made Serious Eats' pages for their St. Louis style ribs, offers a meaty rendition of the dish that is so popular that it often sells out by dinnertime. Cut from all ends of the brisket, this offering from barbecue baron Paul Kirk and pit master Scott Smith includes just as much lean as fatty, and it is seriously saturated by the taste of wood smoke.
Some ends—namely, the ones with the most crisp, savory bark and succulent fat—are entirely thrilling on their own. Drier pieces cry out to be completed by a Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, which RUB is all too happy to offer. Purists may gasp at the first pour of such a sweet and heavy concoction, but it's a combination true to regional roots. The piercing smokiness of burnt ends can hold its own against a smart amount of sauce; that's why these formidable scraps of barbecue are such a perfect addition to southern baked beans.
Do these particular burnt ends hold a candle to their Kansas City forebears? They're not as revelatory as the ones I was lucky enough to taste at LC's, but Paul Kirk's K.C. reputation is safe here. If RUB can serve a solid plate of burnt ends in Manhattan, I can keep on dreaming that we will all one day be able to enjoy the meal that Calvin Trillin immortalized in their hometown.
Where have you had some great burnt ends? Do you have any tips for making perfect burnt ends at home? The Serious Eats Barbecue Bureau wants to know!
About the author: James Boo has been a barbecue enthusiast since he embarked on a two-week road trip through the American South, eating nothing but barbecue from Virginia to Texas. He's learned a thing or two, but as Serious Eats' Barbecue Bureau Chief he's found that there's plenty more to discover about America's first food. Catch up with his musings on Fridays here at Serious Eats, and check out his narrative food blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.