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Independence Day BBQ Tips from Pitmaster Aaron Siegel

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Photo by Paul Cheney
Ribs from Hometeam BBQ. Photo by Paul Cheney

On any given day at Charleston’s three Hometeam BBQ restaurants, Pitmaster Aaron Siegel could have 700 lbs of pork butts, 150 racks of ribs, 300 half-chickens, and 800 chicken wings under his watch. Now, if you’re one of the millions of Americans firing up the grill this Fourth of July, Aaron is sharing a few of his secrets so you have the opportunity to grill like a pro.

When at home with friends and family for a holiday – or anytime really – one of my favorite places to be is in front of a fire. Whether you are cooking with fire or just sitting around a fire telling stories and enjoying each other’s company, there is something about fire that just makes things feel right.

ONE
Use a Natural Heat Source

Whenever possible, always try to use a natural heat source such as wood or charcoal. Gas grills are very convenient of course but in order to get true outdoor grilling experience you are going to want use a heat source that provides some flavor. I suggest going to your local grocery store and looking for all natural hardwood charcoal, the less additives the better the flavor and the cleaner the fire and smoke will be. My favorite hardwood charcoal is the “365 degrees” brand from Whole Foods.

 

TWO
Use a “Chimney”

 

I also suggest using a “chimney” for starting your charcoal. You can find a hand held chimney at almost any hardware store, Lowe’s or Home Depot. The chimney is an excellent way to get your charcoal started quickly and will prevent any need for the dreaded lighter fluid which can create unwanted flavor and can be a safety hazard.   Everyone has been in the position before where your timing is off and or you have underestimated the amount of charcoal you need to complete a cook. The chimney gives you a place to prepare charcoal to add heat to an existing fire so you don’t end up in a situation where half of your holiday guests are fed and you end up having to microwave the rest of the burgers because your fire is out… “no bueno!”

THREE
Bring Your Protein to Room Temperature

 Shrimps on the BBQ
Bring your protein to room temperature. Photo by Keith Lanpher

One of the great misconceptions when grilling meat or any other type of protein is that it should go straight from the fridge or cooler to the hot grill. You should always strive for even cooking. Simmering potatoes rather than boiling potatoes and using items of a consistent size are examples of techniques used for even cooking. The same thing is true for a pork chop or a steak. If you pull a thick steak straight out of the fridge and throw it on the grill you are enhancing the chance the meat will cook unevenly because the core of the steak will retain a cooler temperature longer than the outer portions of the steak. I always suggest taking your meat out of the fridge at least 15-30 min before you plan on grilling.   You may cover your meat however you like if you are concerned about contamination or insects but you don’t have to worry about any foodborne illness or bacteria forming in that short amount of time. The difference between using a cold piece of meat and meat that is room temperature for grilling will be completely evident the first time you try it.

FOUR
Season Liberally

The Local Palate Season BBQ Turkery Liberally
Photo by Andrew Cebulka

I can remember the first time my mother saw me seasoning a sixteen-ounce New York strip steak. Her eyes got wide and she couldn’t believe how much salt and pepper I was using to season the steak. I could understand her reaction as I was using a good bit of salt and pepper. When you are preparing to season an item you have to think about the meat’s thickness, as one can only season the surface area of an item, and also how the items is to be eaten. When you are presented with a thick steak or pork chop the thing to remember is that when you eat it most likely you will be cutting a cross section of the meat with two seasoned surface layers (top and bottom) and a very dense unseasoned middle.   Therefore, when seasoning a piece of meat you have to think about the fact that all of your seasoning will be concentrated on the top and the bottom of the meat. The thicker the steak, the more you are going to want to season the surface area. A thinner piece of protein lends itself to be seasoned more evenly. There is no definite rule here and you can gauge it how you want, but I promise that you can’t really over season a piece of meat that is over an inch thick.

FIVE
Let your meat rest before slicing

Last but certainly not least, there is the concept of resting your meat. When grilling an item remember that there will always be “carry over” cooking. This is the idea that when you take an item of the grill it still retains a good amount of heat and that it will continue to cook for a while even after you have removed from its heat source. So think about the idea of, if you are aiming for a medium steak, taking the steak off the grill when it reaches a temperature of 130 degrees or when it feels medium rare. Here is when the resting becomes so important. Resting your meat allows the meat to start to settle at the temperature in which you are shooting for. It also will allow your meat do it’s carry over cooking on the cutting board rather than on someone’s plate. Resting also gives the meat a chance to redistribute its juices evenly throughout the meat. If you cut into a hot steak straight of the grill the juices will run all over your plate as opposed to well rested piece of meat which has been given a chance to rest. Let your meat rest for 8-10 minutes a pound. The meat will still be plenty hot and your steak will be far more delicious and evenly cooked.

Smoked Chicken Wings with Death Relish_2
Hometeam BBQ's Smoked Chicken Wings with Death Relish. Photo by Paul Cheney