The smoky profile of traditional prep brings this old-time comfort food an edgy popularity from coast to coast. Pulled pork, ribs and brisket reign, but smoked chicken and turkey are on the rise.
There’s a new-found excitement and enthusiasm in the voices of chefs and operators when they talk about the barbecued items they’re preparing for customers these days. It is as though no other style of cooking pork, beef or chicken evokes the romance of American heritage in quite the same way.
The roots of American barbecue lie deep in the soil of Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared by the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There, buccaneers smoke-roasted wild game over open fires of animal bones and hides—a process used to preserve meat in hot-climate countries, called “barbecoa” by the Spanish, according to Jim Murray, CEC, certified barbecue judge with the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Murray has judged and competed for over 20 years. Currently, he’s a member of an international team of chefs that provides foodservice operators with menu and concept development ideas.
Smokers on campus: During his travels to present barbecue seminars across the country—including a recent lecture and demo at the University of Montana—Murray sees that many college campuses are investing in smokers in response to the renewed interest in that smoke cookery flavor profile. “So many companies now produce some type of smoker—a free-standing unit like a slow-cooking oven—that goes under the regular hood so the smoke (escaping from the unit) is minimal,” he says. “A char-broiler produces more smoke than these do.”
If you don’t have a smoker, Murray—a proponent of “low and slow,” as in heat and time—suggests “smoke roasting” that can be done on a stove top. “Set up a rack in a pan with wood chips beneath the rack,” he explains.
Set the protein on top of the rack, then lightly cover with aluminum foil so that one end is vented. Finish cooking by roasting. I put the meat at one end of the pan, the wood chips at the other end. If smoke is (discouraged) then put the pan in a convection oven for a very short time.”
Murray is now seeing chicken and turkey more on the scene across the country, further broadening menu options beyond pork and beef. “It’s exciting to see barbequing hit critical mass so it means things happen faster,” he says. “It used to be only a half-dozen companies were making smokers. Now, literally hundreds are producing these pieces of equipment, and it’s the same with the manufacture of rubs and seasonings. The point of entry has never been greater.”
Brisket is by far the most popular barbecue item among the approximately 550 lunchtime customers at Anadarko Petroleum Corp. located in The Woodlands, about 20 miles outside of Houston, executive chef Ben Whorton reports. But ribs and chicken run a close second at this Bon Appetit Management account, where barbecue is menued at least two or three times a week.
Simple salt and pepper: Whorton typically smokes brisket from 12 to 14 hours overnight and can put 180 to 220 pounds in the smoker—enough to serve about 320 customers each time. “It’s a gas-powered smoker with chips in a little box over the pilot light,” he says. “It smolders but doesn’t catch on fire. The heat, about 225°F, comes from the conventional oven. Before smoking, I just season the meat with a simple salt and pepper rub and that’s it. I want to taste the smoked meat (flavor), not the rub. I use a mix of two-inch-by-two-inch wood chunks of pecan, hickory and mesquite; I buy separate bags and blend in equal parts.”
Here the sauce served on the side is tomato-based and boasts quite a bit of chipotle and vinegar; it’s thin, vinegary and spicy, just the way Whorton’s customers like it. The tomato sauce is a mix of molasses, apple cider vinegar, chipotle chilies (smoked jalapeños), chopped onion, chopped garlic, salt and pepper. “I boil the mixture, then simmer it and add a small amount of ketchup. Whip it, add more, whip it again until it reaches the consistency you want,” he says. “I like it on the thin side, between au jus and a gravy. Then, strain it through a sieve to get it smooth.”
Rack it up: According to Whorton, the length of smoking time is key to flavor. And it’s important to place the meat directly on the rack, not in the pan. “If it’s sitting in a pan, the bottom portion will overcook. And, for the same reason, don’t wrap the meat in foil.”
Currently, Whorton pays anywhere from $1.79 to $1.90 a pound for brisket—about the same as last year. But when the rodeo comes to Houston (February 23rd through March 18th) he expects prices will jump to almost $2.79 per pound, reflecting the high demand.
“For Go Texan Day on February 23rd,” he explains, “we do brisket, ribs and chicken—probably a seven- to eight-ounce portion of protein—plus the ‘fixins’—pinto beans, mustard potato salad, coleslaw, one-inch slices of Texas toast, sliced jalapeños, pickles and raw onions. Those are the traditional sides on the barbecue plate—it’s understood that’s what you get. I usually sell about 280 barbecue plates that day.”
Overnight success: Since the start of the fall 2005 semester, students attending the University of Texas in Austin have had real “smokehouse” options to choose from each day. Henry Jackson, foodservice director at this Aramark location, offers three core items each day—brisket, pulled pork and smoked turkey—in addition to a rotation of barbecued chicken or ribs at the contractor’s signature Smokehouse station. Brisket is the best seller, even at breakfast where brisket tacos have a solid following.
Brisket is loaded into the smoker, along with hickory wood chips, before the staff leaves for the day so it’s ready the following morning. The smoke lasts about 35 to 40 minutes before dissipating, but the slow cooking at 190°F to 220°F continues through the night.
“The day before service, we rub the brisket with a combination of seasonings developed by Aramark corporate chefs during a pilot program that was held here at the university,” Jackson says. “Our chefs follow these recipes for rubs as well as recipes for about six different sauces developed by the culinary team. We use a Texas spicy sauce for brisket and smoked turkey; a Carolina gold sauce, a mustard vinegar–based sauce generally found in the Carolinas for pulled pork; or a cilantro barbecue sauce that complements everything.
“The meat is rubbed, smoked and sliced, then we top it to order with the customer’s choice of sauce.”
Jackson suggests that doing a perfect barbecue takes lots of practice in order to gain consistency. Temperature and the length of cooking time are important, as is the amount of wood chips used since too much smoke will make the meat bitter.
Barbecue—A Regional Practice
Sauce No Secret in California—Manda Bonilla Blum, executive chef at Nautilus, Inc., a Bon Appetit Management location in Vancouver, Wash., is quick to admit she’s “all about simplicity”—and that’s reflected in her barbecue sauce.
She created the recipe to accompany a brisket that she smokes for about 18 hours and occasionally menus for her 400 lunchtime customers. “It’s a very simple barbecue sauce recipe—I just put everything that I would like in a pot, and I’m a very big fan of sugar,” she says.
Blum’s tomato-based sauce includes brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, a bit of Worcestershire sauce plus some sautéed onion. “We just simmer it about four hours to let the sugars mingle and marry,” she says. “I take some sauce and rub it over the brisket and leave it on for the last two hours of cooking; I add more sauce over it after it’s sliced to order and plated.”
Standards in West Virginia—Jackson General Hospital in Ripley, W.V., is only a 40-bed facility, but this community-owned, for-profit hospital serves about 350 cafeteria customers Monday through Friday and close to 200 on weekends since the adjoining clinic is open seven days a week. In fact, it’s a “destination restaurant” for the Sunday church crowd and neighborhood locals. Barbecued pulled chicken and pulled pork topped with a ketchup-based sauce are the standards here, with a barbecue plate or sandwich, including coleslaw and iced tea or lemonade, a “best buy” priced at $1.25.
“In the cafeteria, we also menu barbecued (pre-baked, frozen) meatballs from our distributor,” says director of nutrition services Suzanne Smith, CDM, CFPP. “We serve them over egg noodles or as a sub sandwich, and they’re also priced at $1.25.”
Morrison's Southern Approach—Calvin Neal, regional director of culinary for Morrison Healthcare, points out that a recipe for Tennessee barbecue has been in the contractor’s national recipe file for many years.
Barbecue anywhere in the South means pork,” he says. “For the cafeteria retail side of things, we buy fresh pulled pork from a supplier. The fat content is at a level where many locations can offer a three-ounce portion on the patient menu as well.”
Other locations could easily substitute smoked sliced brisket for a Texas barbecue wrap. “We’re buying a pre-made barbecue sauce and adding ingredients such as cayenne pepper and chipotles,” he says. “The canned chipotles are pureed, then added to the sauce. The sauce is added to the wrap—about a five-ounce portion of meat—along with sliced tomato, julienned red onion and shredded Cheddar. There’s not a whole lot of sauce in the wrap but we’ll serve extra in a soufflé cup on the side.”
As Neal says, combos are “huge in foodservice,” therefore coleslaw and baked beans are often teamed with the wraps, which are so popular that they’re menued daily in some locations. In addition, Southwestern barbecue chicken pizza as well as pulled pork barbecue pizza (both tomato-based items) are each sold by-the-slice and rotate on a three-week cycle.
Cook-Chilling Pork in Memphis—This fall semester, Reuben Criswell, chef for the Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools, expects the district’s cook-chill facility will begin producing its own pulled pork product along with its own from-scratch sauce, in addition to the items it currently supplies. For now, he and the students at the district’s 150 schools are content with a barbecue riblet, a prepared product made to district spec, that is heated up and served with a commercially made barbecue sauce.
“The pork would be pulled at the individual schools—it only takes a few minutes,” Criswell suggests. “You open the Cryovac bag, warm the product up to temperature, then pull it. It retains the juice, it looks good and the kids will eat it. But if you chop it, product will get too dried out on the steam table and it’s too inconsistent—some would chop a quarter-of-an-inch and others half-an-inch.”
Chickens Out in Pennsylvania—Harriett Bennethun, director of dining services at Homestead Village, a Cura Hospitality account in Lancaster, Penn., and chef John Presbery have had great success in barbecuing and selling 600 half chickens during Homestead Day festivities each September. “Basically, we have some type of barbecue item on every week throughout the year at lunch or dinner,” Bennethun notes. “It might be ribs—which we first par-bake in cola so they’re tender, then baste with a tomato-based sauce—or brisket, or chicken. For Homestead Day, celebrating the anniversary of the start-up of the Village, we pit-barbecue chicken (skin-on) for our 425 residents, their guests and the public.
“The chickens, seasoned with paprika, salt and pepper, are put on racks into a big commercial metal fire-pit that’s hired for the day,” she continues. “The racks are put in after the charcoal turns to ash. A big handle on the side of the fire-pit is used to turn 25 half chickens at a time. Meanwhile, we spray a butter and water solution on the chicken as it’s barbecued.”
When the chickens are done, Bennethun and her staff place each piece in an insulated bag, then pack them into a red-and-white-checked cardboard “barn box” along with coleslaw, baked beans, a roll and butter, and chocolate chunk cookies. Including a drink, each box sells for $7 and visitors can drive through the complex to pick up their meals by following strategically placed “chicken arrows.” Normally, it’s a sell-out.