Spicing Up the 'Cue

Barbecue is far from ordinary, especially as regional influences play a large part in the finished product. Still, operators continue to spice it up—and not just during the summer.

You don’t have to be an expert to rustle up a barbecue and you don’t even have to have access to a smoker or the great outdoors in order to menu this summertime favorite any time of year. Sure, there are regional differences, but unless you’re going for the prize in a cook-off, don’t sweat the “authenticity” factor since even the experts tend to mix-and-match rubs, marinades, brines or mopping sauces as their creativity—and availability of seasonings—dictates.

From “whole hog” and beef brisket to half sides of salmon and chicken kabobs, there’s a protein out there to menu that is sure to add sizzle to your sales.

Hittin’ the sauce: The essence of barbecue, many say, lies in the sauce—and there seems to be no limit to the creativity food professionals will exert in developing something new and different for their customers.

For example, the sauce to be served at a new barbecue restaurant in Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonburg, Kentucky, “will contain copious amounts of bourbon, our state’s best known product next to thoroughbred horses!” exclaims Bob Perry, foodservice director for Kentucky’s Department of Parks.

Perry was at one time the chef at the Bourbon Cooking School held during the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. Like many an experienced chef, Perry is never shy about turning to the experts when seeking authenticity.

“I’m working with Shane Best, who owns Kentucky BourbonQ (a retailer and caterer based in Westport, Kentucky) and is a retired world champion barbecue contest winner, to develop this concept,” he says.

Perry explains that in west Kentucky, barbecue is primarily pulled pork shoulder but the marinade is often mustard-based. “I often do a marinade, but instead of vinegar, I’ll use bourbon—and each bourbon has a different flavor,” he notes.

During his stint at the Bourbon Cooking School, Perry developed a marinade for beef tenderloin that he still uses today. To prepare, he mixes one cup of bourbon, two cups of olive oil, salt and pepper, oregano, thyme, lots of fresh garlic and finely sliced onion. The mixture is poured over the tenderloin to marinate for just a few hours or overnight.

Bourbon basics: “Wipe off the marinade, then lay the brisket in the smoker with wood chips in the bottom,” Perry suggests. He recommends wood chips, also known as “bourbon chips,” made from oak barrels used in aging bourbon. “The bourbon picks up the caramel color and flavor from the barrel,” he adds.

Another style of barbecue just calls for a rub and Perry uses his combination of ingredients on salmon and serves it over stone-ground white Cheddar cheese grits. Stone-ground grits need to be soaked overnight then cooked in chicken stock, finished with heavy cream and melted white Cheddar.

“I smoke the salmon with a very basic dry rub, then it goes into the grill, enough to mark on the side with the rub,” he says. “Finish in the oven and garnish the plate with three or four grilled green onions crossed atop the salmon over the base of grits. It’s a simple dish and the creaminess of the grits plus the softness of the salmon and cheese—it just melts in your mouth.”

Brazilian barbecue: Churrasco, the traditional Brazilian barbecue, is a huge hit among the approximately 200 students (grades 8-12) at St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Conn. The concept comes to this bucolic, lakeside campus via Flik Independent Schools’ traveling booth. Foodservice director Julie Hanrahan has taken it from there, incorporating elements of it into the regular six-week menu cycle.

“We’ve done churrasco in the winter and will do it this summer as an outdoor event over an open pit wood fire with long skewers of beef, pork and chicken,” she says. “You can do a variety of marinades, such as a basic one for pork (consisting) of olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. For beef, it’s olive oil, lime juice, cilantro, salt and pepper. Then, for chicken, it’s olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Large hunks of meat marinate overnight, then we place them on large skewers (about two feet long) and roast over an open pit fire so they brown on the outside.”

Usually this dish is menued with Brazilian rice seasoned with garlic, olive oil, onion, whole cloves, salt and pepper. Set up buffet-style, students can self-serve fried sweet plantains, yucca chips and tri-pepper relish, while three chefs stand at the ready to slice the meat from the long skewers.

Indoor grilling: Customer volume sometimes dictates what method of barbecuing operators can use. Barbecue comes indoors at the University of California-Berkeley, where Chuck Davies, assistant director and executive chef for CalDining (which handles residential feeding), employs char-grilling for thousands of residents.

“Indoors means char grilling, usually with a wet marinade or dry rub,” Davies says. “I prefer wet marinades since it’s easier for me to work with in large quantities. It’s less labor-intensive, since rubs have to be done by hand.”

The wet marinade, prepared in a big tub, is generally olive oil–based and includes fresh lemon juice, dried (ground) coriander, finely minced garlic and soy sauce. Davies recommends it for chicken or fish but fish, being more delicate, requires different handling since it often sticks to the grill.

“I suggest having a well-seasoned, well-oiled grill,” he says. “A wet marinade works better than a dry rub since the moisture helps protect it from sticking, as does adjusting the temperature to medium rather than high. I like to cook boneless thighs and breasts with a wet marinade, using a higher heat to sear in juices and mark one side, then turning it to cook.”

Although Davies admits he has not done a whole lot of experimenting with barbecuing vegetables, he has recently done portabella mushrooms for a Team Night event. “We sauced a great flat iron steak—it’s fairly economical yet tender and tasty and probably costs half the price of a New York strip steak—and grilled portabellas marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, pepper and finely minced garlic. The mushroom caps were done in a hotel pan and turned over so each side was cooked.”

Barbecue Wednesdays: Barbecue is also a natural fit for the “theme day” approach to menu rotations.

For example, each week the 3,000 lunchtime cafeteria customers at UCLA Medical Center look forward to Barbecue Wednesday. Executive chef Mark Dyball has created 24 barbecue sauce recipes, rubs (for such items as Southern chicken, seafood, brisket and pork rib) and mopping sauces (typically thinner than barbecue sauces). These he likes to mop on the item while it cooks, thus adding flavor to the meat.

Each Wednesday, barbecue fare includes sides of salmon, half a chicken, plus a beef item. “For a tri-tip (triangular beef roast), we’ll rub the meat, letting it marinate overnight,” he explains. “The next day we’ll sear it on the char broiler, pour beer over the top of the beef in the pan, seal the pan with plastic wrap and foil, then place it in the oven on low heat to slowly cook.” Ten minutes before the end, he adds, staff brush on barbecue sauce, then glaze in the oven for another 10 minutes. “I’ll menu it as Barbecue Santa Maria Tri-tip With Rosemary, and serve it with Santa Maria pinto beans and enchilada sauce.”

Dyball also uses soda (mostly Coke and Dr Pepper) as a barbecue flavor enhancer. He recommends the latter combined with many slices of lemon and chili powder as an ideal seasoning for chicken.

Another mixture consists of ketch-up, sliced lemons, Dr Pepper, mustard, brown sugar, a bit of molasses, Worcestershire sauce plus salt and pepper to taste, simmered together then strained prior to service.

Dctoring is in: Dyball’s not the only culinarian out there getting creative with barbecue sauce. Sandy Edwards is not a doctor but head cook at 90-bed Henry County Medical Center in Paris, Tenn. However, she makes a practice of doctoring up commercially prepared barbecue sauce to serve atop packaged, frozen barbecue product already prepared with a smoked flavor.

Edwards simply adds some brown sugar (but not for patients) and perhaps black pepper for a bit more heat. Of the 200 daily lunchtime cafeteria customers, about 100 usually choose the barbecue item which is set out on the steam table on a bun, with slaw and other trimmings nearby.

For a recent board dinner, she marinated tenderloin in Italian dressing to which she’d added garlic powder, Worcestershire sauce, a garden blend seasoning, salt, pepper and a bit of sherry. Marinated overnight, then put on the grill, the result was tender and flavorful, she reports.

Fridays are cookout days for the 800 to 1,000 daily lunchtime customers at Hoffman Enclosures in Anoka, MN. Steak, chicken and bratwurst are the favorites, according to Bob Longfield, manager of business services.

“We like rubs—I have one for steak and another for poultry—but I don’t find that rubs are being used in our local restaurants, just salt and pepper,” he says. “We’ll rub a few hours ahead and prepare perhaps 1,000 steaks.”

Longfield also purchases whole salmon to grill half at a time, skin side down, having first rubbed the skin with olive oil. After eight to 10 minutes on the grill, it’s finished in a pan in the oven. “We also do kabobs of chicken, shrimp or steak in a soak of our own teriyaki marinade,” he notes.

“These are individual skewers with just one type (of protein) featured on the four-week cycle. We’ll do a shrimp kabob (shell off) with a Cajun marinade to serve with a side of seasoned rice or potatoes.”

At Dow Corning Corp. in Midland, Mich., Bill Eldridge, manager of strategic events and food service, runs some barbecue items two or three times each summer. He uses a frozen, pre-seasoned pork and beef as sandwich ingredients when looking to bring barbecue to his daily contingent of 600 to 700 customers.

“Occasionally we’ll do barbecue Country-style Pork Ribs from raw ribs which we season and cook in the oven,” Eldridge reports. “About 10 to 15 minutes before it’s finished, we’ll add barbecue sauce then put it out on the steam table and we’ll sell about 70 to 80 portions each time. We season with whatever’s available, and I’ll use steak seasoning on chicken, as well.”

Take home barbecue:  Barbecue is extremely popular pretty much year-round in Irving, Tex., but Kent Coleman, Sodexho’s general manager at a corporate dining account in the area, tries to concentrate on preparing it for holiday weekends to be sold through the location’s take-out station.

“We smoke baby back ribs just for take-home and we’ll sell about 25 to 30 orders—that’s pretty standard for weekends,” he says.

But barbecued items may in fact turn up at any of four stations within the café. Perhaps it’s a combo at the Panhandle station—a plate featuring brisket, ribs (smoked baby back) and pulled pork (scratch-made from the shoulder). Customers can choose it as a small portion of each type or request more of one item than another.

The combo is served with a choice of Tex-Mex–style pinto beans, traditional coleslaw, or corn on the cob.

“The beef emphasis here is on brisket and it’s often menued at the Traditions station as an entrée (with baby back ribs as an alternative selection), two vegetable sides, plus Jalapeño cornbread in the shape of Texas—or traditional cornbread in the shape of a cactus,” he says.

Coleman is a proponent of the use of hickory wood and smokes all barbecue items over that. “Even though we’re deep in the heart of mesquite country, we use hickory since it has a nice mellow flavor and mesquite is more acrid,” he points out.

“Depending upon the product, we might begin smoking it the day before, quick-chill it, then continue smoking it the day of service. It may need to go into the oven, just to bring it back to temperature. Our methods here are based on providing variety and offering an eclectic mix.”

Dyball at UCLA Medical Center says: “If you know the basics of barbece sauce, you can let your imagination go wild”—and a bit of bourbon, sherry or soda couldn’t hurt either.

Barbecue—A State of Mind

Barbecue can literally be made and served anywhere, anytime. But certain locations leap instantly to mind when thinking “barbecue,” among them Kansas, Texas and the Carolinas.

Consider the following:

At Kansas State University in Manhattan, center-of-the-plate barbecue is menued more often for the occasional dinner or Sunday noon meal than for lunch. For the approximately 2,800 students on campus, John Pence, associate director of housing and dining services, knows it’s all about choices. Brisket is the No.1 sandwich choice among the barbecued items menued at the deli, although turkey remains the overall top sandwich seller.

Annual Labor Day picnic fare includes barbecue brisket (menued about 10 times a semester, carved to-order) as well as burgers and sausages. “For outdoor preparation we’ve gone to pre-cooked burgers and they’re absolutely wonderful,” Pence asserts. “We season them and they remain juicy after heating on the grill. They’re very expensive—about 30% more—but because of the safety issue, it’s worth the cost.”

At St. Paul and Zale Lipshy University Hospitals in Dallas, Brent Ruggles, CEC, corporate executive chef, finds that Barbecue Day once a week at St. Paul’s is one of the strongest selling days. About 360 of the 450 to 500 daily lunchtime customers participate.

“We bought a little smoker and smoke brisket and turkey ourselves,” Ruggles says. “We buy a generic tomato-based barbecue sauce that we thin down with vegetable stock and vinegar. To make it a bit more tangy we add more vinegar [a malt or apple cider vinegar] and add spices. Because we do the same basic menu each week, people have their favorites. For turkey, we put on a bit of spice rub, sweetened with brown sugar, and smoke it. The slow smoke—about 5-1/2 hours—will penetrate.”

Trident Medical Center in Charleston, S.C., offers barbecue daily. Every two weeks there’s a Special Day when a whole barbecue pork loin is menued along with hand-pulled pork, plus coleslaw and onion rings. On the alternate week, barbecue ribs are prepared.

“We usually use a mustard sauce, but for patients it’s a vinegar marinade which is more North Carolinian,” says David Hendricks, director of nutritional services and executive chef at the 300-bed facility. “It’s prepared with a bit of chili powder, a bit of garlic, plus salt and pepper. We use about eight to 10 gallons a week. It’s lower in sodium than the mustard sauce that is more typical of South Carolina.”

The Carolina Inn at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill specializes in a roasted suckling pig that will feed about 40 guests. Brian Stapleton, Aramark’s executive chef and food-and-beverage director at the inn, says, “For roasted pig, we dry rub and let it sit, refrigerated, overnight. We slow roast it in a 275°F oven; then, before serving, we make an incision front and back to remove and discard the thick, crispy skin, then present the pig on a platter.”

Stapleton is a master at using brine as a “seasoning,” often applying the process to duck, game and seafood. “The length of time needed depends on the brine,” he explains. “If it’s very salty, you have the item in brine for less time, perhaps three to four hours for shrimp, for example. A typical brine includes sugar, salt and herbs with the spices being at the whim of the chef. Occasionally, we’ll do a smoked tuna pastrami that’s cured with salt and black pepper (like deli pastrami), then smoked for additional flavor.”

Want breaking news at your fingertips?

Click here or text FSD to (877) 281-7554 to receive text alerts from FoodService Director and get the news and insights that matter to your operation.


More from our partners