[Photographs: Josh Bousel]
Doug Worgul of Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, Kansas, will happily rattle off the ingredients for the restaurant's dry rub. "Salt, sugar, pepper, garlic and onion powders," he says. "Paprika—lots of that—and a little bit of celery salt." What he won't reveal is the ratio of each component.
"There's no real secret ingredient in our rubs," says Worgul says. "What gives our rubs their unique flavor is not some secret thing that we found that someone else hasn't found. It's a matter of proportion."
They vary that proportion for the different types of meat they serve. "We use the same rub on the brisket as we use on pork," Worgul says. "We use a separate rub on ribs, and yet another rub on our chicken and turkey."
Oklahoma Joe's isn't the only barbecue joint that has a few proprietary techniques when it comes preparing meat for the pits. In fact, of all the elements of American barbecue, rubs and basting sauces are where pit masters differ the most from each other, even within the same regional style. Some use complex rubs; others don't. Some baste the meat while it cooks; others leave it completely alone.
Even the term "rub" is a little misleading. "They're called barbecue rubs," Worgul says, "but we don't really rub them in. We apply them with a big shaker and then pat them in and let them sit for a little bit, not very long, only as long as it takes to apply to the rest of the batch, and then they go in the smoker."
That blend of herbs and spices, and plenty of hickory smoke, is the sole source of flavor. "No basting or injecting," Worgul says. "It's all just rub."
Rubs are a big deal in Texas, too, and at La Barbecue in Austin, John Lewis has a few other tricks up his sleeve, too. The rub is pretty simple, he says. "Just coarse ground black pepper, Lawry's seasoning salt, granulated garlic, and kosher salt."
What's different is how he applies it. "The first thing we do is trim the brisket and rub it down with a mustard slather and pickle juice."
That's right—pickle juice. "We get five-gallon buckets of pickles," Lewis says. "I end up with half a bucket of pickle juice. I got that idea from Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue. Then you don't have to rub the seasoning into it. You can just sprinkle the rub on it."
Lewis believe that, when it comes to brisket, not actually rubbing the spice in makes a big difference. "If you end up rubbing it in," he says, "you close up the pores in the meat and it can't take on the smoke."
At Jim 'N Nick's in Birmingham, Alabama, they also start out with a liquid, but not just for moistening the meat. "We brine our ribs and our chicken," says owner Nick Pihakis, "which I think is important to impart flavor and to tenderize the meat. . . It's just a very basic brine: sugar, salt, water."
Once brined, the meat gets a good coating of dry rub before it hits the pit. "The rubs are real important," Pihakis says. "They give a nice crust on the meats when we're smoking them--they give them a real good flavor. We do it on ribs, pork shoulders, chicken, and turkey."
Up at Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama, pit master Chris Lilly is serious about his spices, too. "In house, we use a total of four different dry rubs," he says. "I have one dry rub for beef. I have one dry rub for turkey, one for pork shoulder, and one for ribs."
The rub for chicken is simple—just salt and fresh cracked black pepper—while those for the other meats incorporate sugar and lots of spices, too.
"What I've found is that many people have all-purpose rubs, but at the restaurant and in competition as well we want the absolute best dry rub. It's hard to do that with one dry rub across the board."
You can find recipes for two of Lilly's rub recipes in his new cookbook Fire & Smoke: A Pitmaster's Secrets, which was just published in April. Each has more than a dozen ingredients, and they include a few unexpected flavors, like cinnamon, coriander, and curry powder.
At Big Bob Gibson, they also use a technique not frequently seen in the smokers farther west: basting. For pork shoulders, Lilly says, "We do the dry rub, put it on [the pit], shut it up, and forget about it. In the morning my pit crew will open the pits up and start basting."
As for the basting sauce, Lilly says, "It's really simple. Just a mixture of cayenne pepper, vinegar, salt and a little lemon juice. We baste with that for at least three hours."
Their famous barbecue chicken gets a different treatment. "Every chicken that comes off the pit," Lilly says, "is dipped in our white barbecue sauce. It comes right off the pit, dunks into the vat, gets dipped and is served."
Brines and rubs maybe be the thing in the Central Time Zone, but in the Carolinas, they do it a lot more simply. Chip Stamey, the owner of Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a minimalist when it comes to seasoning. "We lay all the shoulders in the pit," he says. "The face of the shoulder—the non-skin side down—and then salt both sides. We use a whole round of salt per pit [that is, for 20 whole shoulders]. No pepper no other rub. It's just plain iodized salt."
And that's all they do. Stamey says they don't baste the meat while it cooks, and they keep the shoulder whole right up to the time it's served. "We don't want to chop it until you're going to eat it," he says. "We want to break that shoulder down and chop it and you're eating it within 5 minutes or so."
As you move eastward into whole hog country, the preparation remains simple, too. "The only thing we do once we get them at on the pit," says Samuel Jones of the Skylight Inn in Ayden, "is sprinkle some water on the skin and salt it moderately. That helps draw the water out, and when we flip it, that helps it to parch up."
Getting the skin properly crisp is key for the Skylight Inn. "The main thing that sets ours apart from everyone else's is the fact that we chop the skin [into the meat.]"
At Scott's Bar B Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, they don't even bother with salt. "We put the pig on fresh," says Rodney Scott. "The only preparation we do before putting it on is we take the extra fat out of the belly. We take the skin and turn it up, and split the shoulder and the hams."
Where Scott's and Skylight Inn differ is how they finish the pig. At Skylight, they flip the pig after 4 or 5 hours. "We used to let them cook all night and then flip them," Samuel Jones says. "But at that point, if you don't use a contraption to help you, you run the risk of them falling apart and into the pit."
Rodney Scott takes a different approach, cooking the pigs skin side up until they're almost done. "For the first 12 hours," he says, "we just do plain roasting, no nothing other than putting fire to it. Everything is done in the last 30 minutes in terms of the seasoning and the flavoring."
And he does use a contraption of sorts to do the flipping. The pig is placed on the pit on top of a big sheet of wire mesh (the kind used for fences), and when it's time to flip them at the end of the cook, he and a helper lay another sheet of wire mesh on top of the pig. Then they lift, twist, and flip the pig skin side down on the pit.
Then the mopping begins with a very simple sauce. "Vinegar and pepper and lemons," Scott says. And, when Rodney Scott says mop sauce, he means it, for he applies it to the pig using an actual mop. Then, he loads up the pit with more embers to raise the heat until that spicy basting sauce is bubbling and simmering, effectively braising the tender pork within the big container formed by the crisp skin.
Rubs, brines, basting sauce: each pit master's technique is a little different. To some degree, the way cooks prepare their meat for the pit and what they do while it's cooking is determined by their larger barbecue technique. After all, it's one thing to mop a whole hog with an actual mop when it's cooking on an open pit. When you're using a closed metal smoker, it makes more sense to rub the seasoning on up front (or, at least, pat and shake it on) and let it go from there.
But, that explanation isn't fully satisfying, because even within any one style of cooking—whole hogs on open cinderblock pits, pork shoulders on closed brick pits, briskets and beef ribs inside hi-tech metal smokers with chimneys and vents—one pit master's cooking technique can be completely different from his or her peers. And that variance is a beautiful thing, for it helps create the rich diversity of barbecue that we enjoy in America today.