Like fireworks and freedom, barbecue is both wonderfully American and indisputably great. It’s delicious. It’s social. It’s an excuse to throw around the word “rub.” And while anyone can go to their local spot and call it a day, we believe that a true connoisseur should know how to smoke his ribs/chicken/pork himself.
Or herself. We sat down with the improbably (if deliciously) named Melissa Cookston of Memphis BBQ Co., the world’s foremost female pitmaster and a 10-time world champion, and asked for her tips on nailing your barbecue this summer, and to tell us what it’s like to make it in a man’s world.
“I just wanted to win. I never really played that girl card. I pull my own rigs. I get my own meat on. I do it all.”
When did you first start making barbecue?
Well when I was dating my husband 20 years ago he made the mistake of taking me to a barbecue contest. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, but it really appealed to my competitive nature. And it was barbecue. I mean those two things for me was kind of a utopia.
There were no women competing in barbecue then. I wanted to be the best at whatever’s the most difficult, and that’s obviously whole hog, so I learned how to cook whole hog first, and then learned how to cook the separate cuts. But I was really naïve in the competitive world because I didn’t realize that [my competitors] were just buying a commercial product [Editor’s note: She means barbecue sauce you can buy at the store] and maybe adding something to it and making it theirs. It never even entered my mind, so I started off on a quest to make my own rub and my own sauce from scratch.
Wow. So what are some tips for somebody who can’t make it down to Memphis and have some of your barbecue? What’s the best way for somebody at home to get started?
When I think of grilling, number one have a spray bottle filled with water handy. You don’t want the flames to lick the meat too much because you’ll end up with a charred meteorite on the outside and something still raw on the inside. A great way to manage those flames is keep a spray bottle handy and tame them down.
OK. What else?
Always keep tongs available for turning your meat or moving your meat. Thermometers are paramount. I’ve been cooking for years and years and years, and I still use thermometers.
Is there one that you swear by?
I really like Thermapens, which are instant digital thermometers. They’re very fast and they’re very accurate.
I will also tell you that smokers have hot spots. I buy oven thermometers and I will put them around in the grill just so I know where my hotspots are. Then you can either choose to stay away from those or if you need to rush something a little bit you can cook on those, but just know that there are temperature gradients in your cooker.
What do you use for the fire?
I always use a bed of charcoal just because it creates a very consistent heat and then I augment that with wood. I think you can really regulate your temperatures easier that way, especially for a novice smoker.
What kind of wood do you recommend?
Use lighter woods like fruit woods for pork and chicken because you can overpower them real easy with heavy wood. You can use heavier woods like hickory for beef.
Anything else on the smoking part?
Leave the door closed. We have a saying in the business: “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking.” Leave the door closed, and find something else. Take a book. Take something else to do so you are not tempted to keep opening the door.
“Thermometers are paramount. I’ve been cooking for years and years and years, and I still use thermometers.”
How many hours do you think somebody should plan on this taking?
That probably depends on what you’re cooking. I can cook ribs in three to four hours and a whole hog will take me 24 hours. It just depends on how big the meat is that you’re cooking and what temperature you’re cooking at.
Let’s talk about rubs.
I believe what makes your barbecue personal and what makes your barbecue good would be the rub.
What makes a good one?
Typically in the restaurants and competition circuits that’s a dry rub. It’s seasonings that you would put on the meat when it’s raw before you start smoking.
What makes a bad one?
Well I think the biggest mistake people make with making rubs is too much sugar, because sugar caramelizes, especially when you’re cooking over a long period of time or if you’re grilling hot and fast.
How do you avoid that? You gotta have sugar.
Turbinado sugar has a higher caramelization point as opposed to white or brown sugar. I suggest if you want a sweeter rub, go with turbinado sugar.
Flavor is one of the most subjective things in the world, so everybody has a different flavor that they like. If you like a little more heat then put more cayenne in your rub. But chili powder, cumin, onion powder, granulated garlic, salt and pepper… start with base ingredients, and then really make it personal to you. Personalize it.
What about sauce?
I believe that your sauce should complement the meat. It should not overpower it. It should not be dredged in sauce. It should be something that’s complementary, so for my base flavoring agent of my sauces I use my rub because that makes the most sense, because that’s a flavor profile that you’re going for. For sauce I think the most important thing is having a great rub for a base flavor.
And the sauce kind of builds on top of that?
What’s the best meat to start with?
Probably chicken would be the easiest thing. It’s a fast cook time. With a thermometer you can get chicken right every single time. Once that internal temperature reaches about 163 degrees, you’re good. You need to get it to 165, but once you take it off the smoker it’s going to continue to rise three to five degrees.
Start off with chicken. Play around with that. Get your flavor profile that you really like. Chicken is also inexpensive at the supermarket so it’s not like you’re going to ruin a hundred dollar brisket. You spent five bucks on a pack of chicken.
Any tips for serving it? How should it look?
I’m not sure there’s a wrong way to serve barbecue.
Most of my peers and friends are purists when it comes to barbecue. There’s only one way to cook it and it’s their way. I don’t really subscribe to that way of thinking.
Neither do we. Switching gears: When you started there were no female pitmasters. Did people underestimate you because of that?
I don’t really think so. I don’t know that I’d be the best person to ask that question. You’d probably have to ask them. I never really worried about what everybody else was doing or what they thought. I really focused and concentrated on what I was doing, and I never realized I was different until much, much later.
It wasn’t really a guy-girl thing. I just wanted to beat them and I didn’t care if they were from Mars or what.
I just wanted to win. I never really played that girl card. I pull my own rigs. I get my own meat on. I do it all. It wasn’t until I guess media made a big deal out of it that I even realized that I was different than everybody else.
Did it serve as motivation?
My husband told me one time, he said you’re just going to have to work twice as hard and win twice as much in order to get the same respect as everybody else. My response was, “OK, I’ll do that.”
Have you ever encountered overt chauvinism?
Not so much by coworkers because I lead a pretty tight ship. But there are always times where salespeople will come in and one of my managers or a hostess will say there’s somebody down here that would like to see you, and I’ll walk down and they’ll go, “Oh no, I was looking for the owner.” Because that couldn’t possibly be me, you know?
I just kind of laugh about it. I don’t want to waste my time feeling bad about who I am or what I do based on someone else’s opinions.
Have you noticed a newer generation of female pitmasters coming up?
Yeah. I’m really glad there are more women in the sport just because it takes the spotlight off me a little bit. But I’ve held classes and I would say that 99 percent of the people that have come to my classes were men. There’s still just not a lot of women in the sport.
Do you think that will change? Do you think there will be a day when it’s not 99 percent men in your classes?
Well I don’t teach classes anymore.