Meet The Meat

While there are many non-meats that come out scrumptious from the BBQ smoker such as salmon, and many vegetables, the real deal for BBQ is meat. The Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS), which is the worlds largest organization of BBQ enthusiasts and sanctions and sets the rules for over 400 competitive BBQ events across the US, requires that competitors include the following meats for judging to be eligible for overall prizes:

  • Chicken
  • Pork (“Boston Butt”, “Picnic” – parts of shoulder)
  • Pork Ribs
  • Beef Brisket

You can become a BBQ Star in your own backyard with any of these meats, but here are some things about each to consider as you work toward BBQ glory.

Chicken is made up of 4 basic parts: leg, thigh, wing, and breast. All parts are considered “dark” meat with the exception of the breast, which is called “white” meat. Dark meat has more fat and hence more flavor, but also cooks very differently than the breast. More fat means that the thighs and legs work better for BBQ than the breast because in addition to having more flavor, they do not dry out as easily as breast meat (wings usually have so little meat they aren’t seriously considered anything other than a bi-product snack). The drier breast also cooks faster than the legs and thighs. (Note that, because of their similar fat content and cooking times, legs and thighs are oftentimes not separated and are cooked in the smoker together. The combined leg+thigh is called a “leg quarter”).

It is important to understand the difference because, while smoking a whole chicken may sound cool, it really isn’t the best way to cook chicken because the breast will dry out way before the thigh and legs are cooked through. Sure, “beer can chicken” can be fun, but it won’t yield the best finished product.

Finally, the skin should be retained during the cooking process to retain moisture and add flavor; if your crowd isn’t a skin lovin’ group, then simply remove the skin after the chicken is done. Cook chicken to 160° by checking with a meat thermometer deep into the thigh but do not touch the bone. Smoking a chicken will result in pinkish meat, especially next to the bone – this is normal and should not be cause for concern as it may be with other cooking methods. As long as you let the chicken reach 160° before removing it from the smoker, you are completely safe.

Good chicken product can be found in many places, including your local grocer’s meat counter. I often look for a source that supplies very fresh and preferably hormone-free chicken. A yellowish tint to the skin (versus bright white) is preferable because it indicates a higher fat content and usually a better product.

Pork can come in many forms, roast, loin, etc., but the cut of pork usually associated with BBQ (and required in a KCBS competition) is either a portion of the shoulder, called a “Butt” or “Boston Butt” and a “Picnic”. Whole shoulders can also be used in a KCBS competition as long as you do not separate it and subsequently return it to the smoker. But for most of us using just the butt or picnic is the best choice for smoking.

A pork butt/picnic is usually around 7 pounds, but can vary by as much as a pound or two either way. They come with bone-in and boneless. Some people believe the best flavor is achieved with bone-in, and while I agree the bone does impart additional flavor, I really don’t think it makes much difference with this cut of meat as most flavor is going to come from the rub and smoke. Depending upon the weight of the bone if it is included, a typical pork butt/picnic will yield about 4 to 5 pounds of cooked meat.

I have found that the best source for pork is warehouse stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco. They will typically have two separate butts/picnic in a single package at a reasonable price.

Pork Ribs are the most difficult to cook properly but seem to be the most popular item when people think of BBQ. Unfortunately, they are also the most expensive by far. Ribs come in three cuts:

  • “Baby Back” – This is the rib bone at the top of the rib cage next to the loin. It is a misnomer to think they come from “baby” or more tender pigs, but they do have less fat and cartilage than spare ribs. Due to their popularity they typically cost far more than spare ribs. Ideally, a slab of loin/baby back ribs should weigh 2 1/2 pounds or less.
  • Spare Ribs – This is the rib bone below the loin/baby back portion of the rib that comes down around the belly and is what is left over after cutting away the bacon – hence their name of “spare” ribs. Spare ribs include a flap of meat and small cartilage bones on one end.
  • “Saint Louis Style” – These are spare ribs with the flap of meat and the cartilage bones at the top removed resulting in something that appears somewhat between a loin/baby back rib and a full spare rib.

Look for loin/baby back rips at warehouse stores, coming in packs of 3 in cry-o-vac. Unless on sale, these ribs can be outrageously expensive at the local grocery store.

Spare ribs and Saint Louis Style ribs can be found in local grocery stores at reasonable prices and can oftentimes be found on sale.

Beef Brisket is typically found in one of two ways: as a trimmed “flat” or whole in cry-o-vac. A whole brisket is comprised of the “flat” and the “point”, and a layer of fat separates the two. The flat is sliced to produce what you normally see as slices of brisket in a sandwich while the point is used to produce “burnt ends”. The point contains far more fat content than the flat.

Whole briskets are found at warehouse stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco but can sometimes be found at local grocery stores. Trimmed flats can be found at either warehouse stores or grocery stores, but be prepared to pay far more per pound than you would for a whole brisket, and you will not have the point for burnt ends if that is desired.

One final point about all BBQ meat: With other methods of preparation we believe that expensive cuts of meat yield the best result, and many times that is true, such as a grilled Kobe beef tenderloin steak at a high end steakhouse costing $100 plus. But the magic – the fun – of true BBQ since its roots has been to take lesser cuts of meat and turn them into glory! So pay for quality and freshness, but don’t get caught up in using some expensive cut of meat thinking it will yield a better result. BBQ is alchemy – turn otherwise normal or tough cuts into BBQ Gold!

Philip Allen