Finger Lakes barbecue, it's slow and delicious
FINGER LAKES--It's an American classic with as much diversity as the country itself. Real barbecue--the kind that melts in your mouth and gives your taste-buds something to think about--involves secret and semi-secret ingredients, a little work, a bit of planning, smoke and style.
All barbecue experts counsel patience as every barbecue's main ingredient. "I'll tell any of my customers, anyone can do it, it's just time and labor intensive," says Andy Catlin of Andy's BBQ Shack in Penn Yan. "If you want barbecue for lunchtime, you've got to start it yourself at about 2 a.m. You trim the meat and put it on the smoker, wait 8 to10 hours or 12 to 14 for brisket. The shortest one I cook is ribs, and that's a six-hour minimum cooking time."
"The thing about barbecue is everybody does it differently," says Ray Neira, owner of Smok'n Bones, a restaurant specializing in barbecue in Burdett. "You'll never find two barbecue places to be the same. People will use different spice rubs or wet mop ingredients. At home, that's a good way to experiment with flavors."
Neira advises starting with a basic spice rub of granulated onion, granulated garlic, brown sugar, salt and pepper. "And add on from there. Barbecue is a slow heat process with smoke, it will take hours and you'll want indirect heat."
There are many ideas about how barbecue began. Some say the Native Americans in the Caribbean were discovered by Columbus slow-roasting their meat with spices; slaves in the American south also used similar techniques to tenderize the lesser cuts of meat now prized as barbecue staples--ribs, pork butt, brisket and wings.
"The biggest secret we've found is not really a secret," says Nicholas Thayer, owner of Nickel's Pit BBQ in Watkins Glen. "We use the highest quality meat we can find, locally-raised, never frozen, and cooked fresh. And I always say you'll need a high quality beer next to you, because you're going to be waiting a while!"
Another vote for longer-term planning comes from Sue Kirton, co-owner of Kirton's Farm Market in Hector, who cites long marinade times--at least overnight and sometimes as long as 48 hours--as a way to infuse meat with good flavors.
Another most important ingredient is smoke, part of the reason why great barbecue takes time. For those who want to accomplish their barbecue outdoors, "You get coals, and after they're ready and heated, move them off to the side so there's no direct heat," Neira says. "Then you put down wet wood chips so they'll smolder."
The wood chips chosen add subtle flavor, leaving their imprint on the food, sometimes in the form of a "smoke ring" seen in the meat, indicating how far in the smoke has penetrated. Hickory and mesquite are used in many Southern barbecues, but with fruitwoods more plentiful here, area chefs favor those for the sweetness they impart. Most of those interviewed favor apple wood, though Thayer prefers cherry. Neira suggests one might try for a similar effect at home by placing a pan of liquid, perhaps apple juice, next to the coals when barbecuing on a grill, to help keep the meat moist.
Catlin, taking a professional interest in barbecue diversity, says he tries local barbecues wherever he travels. In his own restaurant, "People always ask me, what style barbecue are you? Texas? Southern? Kansas City style? I always tell people I just pick the best from each one. It's finding things that suit your palate."
Everyone doing barbecue professionally first experimented with different spices, flavors and sauces before coming up with the blend, and suggest those who barbecue at home do the same. Thayer has branded and marketed his; the Kirtons use a Cornell formula for their chicken, then add their own touch. As for barbecue sauce--everyone recommends adding it only when the cooking is complete.
"Don't feel like you need to fit into what the internet or a cookbook says is a certain barbecue style," Thayer says. "We say we're Upstate New York style. It's an expression, use your own style."