Horn Barbecue chef shares tips for smoking meat at home like a pro

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Master of the Art of BBQ” (Harvard Common Press) by Matt Horn, the chef and owner of Horn Barbecue and Kowbird in Oakland. In the book, Horn offers 70 recipes along with tips and tricks for perfectly smoked meats, including these essentials:

My style of barbecue is a melding of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas traditions, which all display their own characteristics and flavors. No matter the regional idiosyncrasies of barbecue, I’ve learned some essential tips that cross all types to ensure barbecue success in your backyard.

Don’t wash the meat. Washing meat, in general, is not a food-safe practice; any water that splashes from the meat can be crammed with bacteria, cross-contaminating everything it lands on. So, don’t do it. Washing meat also dilutes the meat’s flavor because it waterlogs the protein. Use paper towels to pat any excess moisture off the meat, discard the towels, and wash your hands. Then, season the surface and you are good to go.

Don’t overseas on the meat. When you smoke meat, poultry, and fish, the goal is to achieve that signature smoky flavor and, of course, taste the natural flavor of the protein. Why compete with that by adding too much seasoning? My go-to seasoning is a salt and pepper base with granulated onion and garlic and perhaps a touch of sugar, depending on what I’m throwing in the smoker. The sugar enhances the Maillard reaction (a chemical reaction between the heated protein and carbohydrates) that creates color, browning — flavor — as the protein in the meat reacts to the sugar.

Control the temperature. Most meats smoke beautifully between 225 degrees F and 245 degrees F (107 degrees C and 118 degrees C), so keeping the smoker’s temperature in that range is crucial. A remote thermometer can be a lifesaver — especially if you are a novice smoker — because you can adjust factors to ensure the meat turns out how you want it. If you need a higher temperature, you can vent some air by raising the lid slightly or opening the air vents (if this is a feature of your smoker). If you need to lower the temperature, close the vents or close the lid.

Let the coals get hot. Coals should burn until completely white to burn off the charcoal. Black coals will produce harsh-tasting meat rather than the smooth smoke flavor required for successful barbecue.

Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Master of the Art of BBQ

Harvard Common Press

Control the smoke. All smoke is not created equally; you are looking for the pure-white smoke from those white coals and controlled temperature within the smoker. There should only be a small stream of white smoke coming out of the smoker, not billows. If there is too much smoke, reduce the temperature (see above). The meat will dry out with excessive smoke, and the flavor will be too strong, which is unpleasant. Too little smoke defeats the purpose because you won’t get that signature smoky taste. Try replacing the wood in the smoker. It is either burned out, or there is not enough.

Don’t crowd the smoker or flip the meat too soon. There needs to be airflow all around the protein for the Maillard reaction to occur. If your meat pieces are crammed together, this reaction will not happen. Meat needs its own access to the heat source. Leave the meat alone until it has a dark, charred outside crust; then flip it. Patience is key.

Don’t keep opening the smoker. Of course, you will need to add more wood, mop the meat, or fill the water pan while smoking, but do these tasks as quickly as possible. Each time the smoker is opened, you lose heat and the temperature drops. This increases the cooking time. Be efficient!

Let the meat rest. If you want juicy meat and poultry, you need to allow it a bit of time after cooking to reabsorb its juices. If you cut your barbecue immediately after cooking it, all you will get is a dry product and lots of delicious juice spilling onto the cutting board.

Matt Horn tends to meat in his smoker, as seen in “Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Master of the Art of BBQ.”

Matt Horn tends to meat in his smoker, as seen in “Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Master of the Art of BBQ.”

Harvard Common Press

How to turn your grill into a smoker

You don’t need a fancy, expensive smoker to create delicious meats. The bells and whistles on pellet smokers and other types of smokers take some of the guesswork out of the process, but they aren’t necessary. Basically, to smoke, you need time and an indirect heat cooking method. You will probably need a temperature gauge to monitor the temperature inside the unit, and when buying meat, be aware that your space is limited — so don’t get a massive brisket.

If you have a charcoal grill: Pile the charcoal on one side of the grill and place a drip pan on the other side. Light the charcoal and get the temperature of the grill to 250 degrees F (120 degrees C), no hotter. Fill the drip pan with ½ inch (1 cm) of liquid and place a layer of wood chips on the hot coals. Place your prepared meat over the drip pan and close the lid. If your grill has vents, keep them open; if it doesn’t, leave a gap at the bottom of the lid for ventilation. Then, monitor the temperature in the grill, the temperature of the meat, and the smoke volume, adding charcoal and wood as needed.

If you have a gas grill: Preheat the grill with all the burners on for 10 to 15 minutes. Then, turn off the burners on one half of the grill and lower the burners on the other side until you create a grill temperature of 250 degrees. This might take some tweaking. Because you can’t place wood chips directly onto the burners of a gas grill, put them in a metal pan and place the pan on the grill, above the lit burners. Also, place a pan filled with ½ inch (1 cm) of liquid in the middle of the grill. Place the prepared meat on the empty side of the grill and close the lid, allowing a gap for ventilation, or open the vents. Monitor the temperatures of the grill and meat as well as the smoke volume; adjust the heat with the burner dials and add more wood chips as needed.

Smoked Tri-Tip

Serves 6. Prep time: 20 minutes. Cook time: 25 minutes, plus 20 minutes to rest.

Tri-tip steak was popularized more than 70 years ago in open Santa Maria-style pits; it is so often associated with this region of California that you can ask for it as a “Santa Maria cut” or “California cut.” My strategy here is to treat the steak to my brisket technique and create a tender, smoked steak ideal for a family-style meal.

2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt

2 tablespoons coarse black pepper

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves

1 (3- to 5-pound, or 1 to 2 kg) tri-tip steak

Olive oil, for the steak

Directions: Preheat the smoker to 300 degrees. Make sure you are burning a clean oxygen-rich fire.

In a small bowl, stir together the salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano until well blended.

Trim any loose fat from the tri-tip. Rub the meat with olive oil and evenly apply the rub on all sides.

Place the tri-tip in the smoker and smoke for 20 to 25 minutes until it reaches an internal temp of 135 degrees, checking it periodically. Once done, remove the meat from the smoker, wrap it in aluminum foil, and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Unwrap the meat and slice it against the grain to serve.

This version of the classic potato salad is one of the first, and favorite, Horn side dishes.

This version of the classic potato salad is one of the first, and favorite, Horn side dishes.

Harvard Common Press

Nina’s Potato Salad

Serves 6 to 8. Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time: 10 minutes

One of our first — and favorite — Horn side dishes is our potato salad. This is our take on the classic recipe that goes perfectly with barbecue!

pounds red potatoes, diced

mayonnaise cups

¼ cup relish

1 tablespoon mustard

1 teaspoon Horn Rub (see Recipe)

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

¾ teaspoon garlic powder

¾ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ cup (50 g) chopped scallion, white and green parts (from about 4 scallions)

4 large hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped

Directions: Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with 2 inches (5 cm) of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, partially cover the pan, turn the heat to low, and simmer for about 8 minutes until the potatoes are just cooked through. Drain the potatoes, rinse in cold water, and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, relish, mustard, rub, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper until well blended.

Add the cooked potatoes, scallion, and eggs and gently mix to coat and combine.

Horn Rub

Makes about 3/4 cup

If you spend a lot of time barbecuing, you will try out literally hundreds of rubs, not to mention cooking sauces, table sauces, mops, binders, and pastes. Eventually, you will settle on an all-purpose rub that adds loads of flavor to just about anything you put in the smoker. This is my go-to rub, which I keep close at hand at all times.

4 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons coarse salt

1 tablespoon coarse black pepper

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Instructions: Add all of the ingredients to a bowl and stir them together thoroughly with a whisk, fork, or spoon.

When ready to use, rub ample amounts of the rub onto the surface of the meat, rubbing and pushing firmly to fill any crevices or pores and to ensure the rub adheres to the meat.

Use immediately or store in an airtight container in a cool, shady place for up to 6 months.

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