There are few things—possibly no things—more satisfying in this world than cooking a flawless piece of meat. Taking that first bite of your expertly charred achievement is a near out-of-body experience. Colors are brighter. Sounds are clearer. Your perception of space and time become altered. And most importantly, your dinner is really, really good.
When you accomplish that feat at home, you’re a hero to the masses. Or to the handful of hungry people milling about your grill. But there are those whose livelihood is directly related to their ability to rub, smoke and sear meat like protein-handling gods. We tend to like those people. And we also like to hear about their triumphs. So below, five carnivorous experts tell tales about the best pieces of meat they ever cooked.
“The best piece of meat that I ever cooked was a whole hog named Fred in Cleveland, Mississippi. I can’t remember the year, but I’ll never forget Fred!”
–Melissa Cookston is the only female barbecue world champion. She owns three locations of her popular Memphis BBQ Co. restaurant across the Southeast and recently released her second cookbook, Smokin’ Hot in the South: New Grilling Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue. Check out her website, melissacookston.com.
When we buy meat we vote with our pocketbooks for a world with better treatment of animals and one that’s clear of antibiotics and growth hormones.
“It’s a tough question. It’s like choosing your favorite child. Some days you might love one over another, but ultimately you love them all the same. There have been so many amazing pieces of meat, but in recent memory it’s got to be the ribs on the cover of Project Smoke. These are beef plate ribs—the biggest you can buy, with each individual rib weighing about two pounds. This particular one is a grass fed beef rib from Strauss Meats. Aside from being delicious and keeping the seasoning simple, there’s a philosophical point underlying it all. The old-school thinking is that it’s all about the smoke, wood and spice rub, but no one used to talk about where the meat actually comes from.
“To me, where it comes from matters as much as how you smoke it. This grass fed beef is organic and hormone-free, so it’s as pure and clean as meat can be. It’s like bringing barbecue into the modern age. When we buy meat we vote with our pocketbooks for a world with better treatment of animals and one that’s clear of antibiotics and growth hormones. Or we can take the cheap route and allow the awful practices to keep going. So I encourage grass fed beef, heirloom or heritage pork and wild seafood. That to me is the competitive edge in barbecue.”
“The greatest piece of meat that I ever cooked was when I won my first World Championship (I’ve since won three more) at the Memphis in May festival in 2001. Perhaps it was the taste of my first big victory that will always stand out in my head, but I really think I got blessed with a very special hog that day. Every piece of meat is not the same, and boy, the hog we used that day proves this fact. It may have been the breed, but it had this buttery sweetness to it that I have yet to taste in another hog since then. Cooking whole hog is my favorite because it cooks all in one package, and all of the individual flavors from all the different parts blend together. Each part of the pig has its own unique flavors and when they blend, you’re left with unique flavor profiles that you can only achieve by that means. That hog back in 2001 was something great and I will never forget that flavor profile for as long as I live!”
—Myron Mixon is a four-time world barbecue champion and the “winningest man in barbecue.” He’s the star of two television shows—Smoked and BBQ Pitmasters—and a bestselling author. Check out his latest book, Myron Mixon’s BBQ Rules.
“The most memorable bite of barbecue I ever cooked came after I started experimenting with beef ribs. It took a few tries to get things dialed in, but once I had it down, nothing could compare. The sight of a huge hunk of charred meat anchored to a dinosaur-size rib bone sets the tone, and there’s nothing short of magic that happens when the right amount of smoke, salt, pepper and fat are combined. There are few cuts of meat that can deliver that combination like a beef rib. I’ll never forget slicing that bone off the rack and taking the first bite… my favorite bite comes from the muscle that rides just below the bone. It’s a thin strip and easy to burn if you’re not careful. But if done right, that meat gets the bulk of the smoke and is basted by the salty fat that renders from the rest of the rib. Pure joy.”
—Justin Fourton, along with his wife Diane, is the owner of Pecan Lodge, an award-winning barbecue joint in Dallas.
“One day at my restaurant, I fired up my 500-gallon reverse drum smoker. Natural lump charcoal went in first and then I added two logs of pecan wood and two of oak wood. Once the logs caught fire, I proceeded to adjust the air flow. I fully opened the two vents at the base of the fire box and I opened the chimney all the way up. Next, I went inside my kitchen and I pulled out two cases of pork spare ribs. Right around 24 4.5-pound slabs. I proceeded to open each package of ribs and season them with my Raging Cajun Spice. After seasoning them I took them out to my smoker and I spread them across evenly.
“The temperature inside the smoker was around 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Just right for ribs. I closed the smoker and then added another log of pecan and oak. After two hours the bark on the ribs was just right. I got enough smoke on them and they were caramelized evenly across every slab. I proceeded to wrap each slab in foil. I let the ribs carry over for about an hour and 15 minutes inside the smoker. When I pulled them out to test them, they were perfect. Smoky with a hint of sweet spice, tender with a slight tug off the bone. These were easily the best ribs that I ever cooked in my life.”
—Kenny Gilbert is a Top Chef alum who’s cooked all over the world, developed his own line of rubs, spices and seasonings called Chef Kenny’s Spice Blends and currently operates Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen in Florida.
All photos: Getty