The “Triple Bypass Tour” in Lockhart, Texas is, for many connoisseurs, where the best barbecue begins and ends. It includes Kreuz Market (pronounced “Krites”), Black’s Barbecue and Smitty’s Market. Like religious scholars arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin, barbecue experts routinely and endlessly debate which region has the best barbecue; whether pork is more authentic than beef; and which is the tour’s top stop. Most experts are pretty diplomatic about which is best. One is unequivocal.
Author of “Taming the Flame” and “Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned,” executive chef of New York’s acclaimed “Hill Country BBQ Market,” and member of the “Swine and Dine” barbecue team, the “Queen of the Grill,” Elizabeth Karmel, says Kreuz is best.
“I love Ed Mitchell’s pulled pork. I love Mike Mill’s baby back ribs. I grew up in North Carolina but I love Texas, and I honor the barbecue that Rick Schmidt created at Kreuz,” say Karmel. “It is the mecca.” Kreuz seasons their glistening, mahogany slabs of brisket (fatty mean) or shoulder “clod” (lean) with a light rub and “smokes them with a whole lot of post oak they truck in every week,” says Karmel. It’s served without sauce like all Texas barbecue, with white bread, saltines, ketchup, pickles, cheese, tomatoes and jalapenos and no fork because, as Schmidt supposedly says, “God gave you two and they’re at the ends of your arms.” Karmel serves hers with a cucumber salad on the side. And a fork.
Karmel’s own recipes run the gamut from Dr. Pepper Barbecue Sauce to Tuscan Steak with White Anchovy and Truffle Butter, from Sheyboygan Brat (Bratwurst) Fry to Firecracker Shrimp with Hot Pepper Jelly Glaze, reflecting not just barbecue’s essential democracy but her contagious enthusiasm for it.
After she moved away from home, Karmel realized that if she wanted the authentic North Carolina barbecue she was raised on she’d have to make it herself. At the time she was a marketing exec for Weber Grills with no barbecue experience. She nailed it using only taste memory, no recipes, and in short order went from desk jockey to pit mistress. Joining the bbq circuit changed her profoundly: “I’d never experienced something where all the demographics just melt away. Every type of person is there and there just to eat. I fell in love with the people.” And she fell in love with the food. “Every time I see this perfect pork butt with bone sticking out, clean as a whistle... I think, ‘Look how beautiful it is.’” That’s a whole lot of love right there.
She’s been preaching the gospel of the grill for ten years and says barbecue is easier now because “it’s no longer about fire-building. That was messy, hard, a pain in the butt.” Now, with modern machinery, it’s all about flicking a switch. “If you can cook it, you can grill it,” she says, proving the point with a cookbook devoted entirely to pizza on the grill. The combination of flame, heat and rotating air intensifies caramelization and gives a nice crust that makes food taste better. “Plus, everyone thinks you’re a hero. It’s worked for the guys for a long time,” she cracks. “They made it look like it was so hard when all they’d do was go out there, hang with friends and drink the beer. The heat and the smoke do all the work.”
The whole point of barbecue she says is that anyone can do it. To that end she wrote the “St. Francis Girls’ Guide to Grilling” (www.stfsavortheflavor.com), a free, download-able barbecue cookbook, created with the St. Francis Winery in Sonoma, California – suppliers of Hill Country’s house wine. Its grill tips, recipes for wine-based marinades, compound butters and sauces are for everyone, not just girls.
“Most men had the traditions of their daddies. Women don’t have that.” Her only gender-specific tips are: “If you’ve got long hair, tie it back. If you got bell sleeves, roll ‘em up. And if you’re wearing false eyelashes, they’ll melt off.” She teaches more men than women and aims to remove barbecue’s intimidation factor. Her basic common sense grilling tips are a good place to start.
-Clean grill before and after cooking. Turn all burners on high and scrape off anything that’s turned to white-gray ash with a brass brush. If you haven’t cleaned all season and there’s an inch of stuff fired into it, buy a new grate. Treat your grate like a cast-iron skillet that is seasoned with every use. Never use abrasives or Easy-Off as you don’t ever want to strip it. Brush consistently, and cleaning your grill, like cleaning your teeth, will never be a big job.
-Master direct vs. indirect cooking techniques. Use direct on food that cooks in twenty minutes or less like boneless chicken, burgers, steaks or shrimp. Turn once, halfway thru cooking. Turn too early and it’ll stick. Use indirect for larger cuts of meat, bone-in chicken or dense foods like potatoes. Combine techniques once you’re comfortable; direct to sear and seal in juices and indirect to finish cooking.
-Oil your food, not your grate. Besides the fact than an oily rag on a smoking hot surface is a fire hazard, oil has low heat-point, becomes sticky and glues food to grates. Oiling food seals in moisture, stops it from drying out and promotes caramelization.
-Blot off excess marinade. Food will steam rather than grill if it’s too wet. And don’t over-marinate. The acid in marinades breaks down meat’s protein and makes it mushy..
Follow these basics, says Karmel, and say bye-buy to leathery steaks and hockey-puck burgers forever, and you’ll soon be smitten, just like she was. “The first time I tried a real rib, one that was kissed with smoke and cooked with time, the original slow food, it changed my life. Oh, yes, I fell in love.”