The future of barbecue: No regions, no rules, lots of innovation

  • Jim Shahin
  • The Washington Post
6:00 a.m. Sunday, May 21, 2017 Cooking and Recipes
Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post
Jackknife Sandwiches. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

One weekend last October, some of the nation's top young pitmasters gathered on a pig farm just outside Durham, North Carolina, to participate in an event called the N.C. Barbecue Revival.

On undulating farmland, the cooks, veiled in wood smoke, tended their creations while Duroc and Berkshire pigs trundled freely in the surrounding woods. Without setting out to, these pitmasters - they're all in their 30s and opened their places in just the past few years - were making a statement: that the next generation of barbecue has arrived. 

Tyson Ho of Brooklyn's Arrogant Swine slow smoked a lamb, which he would season with fermented red chiles, fennel and Sichuan peppercorns. John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, prepared gargantuan beef short ribs. Bryan Furman of B's Cracklin' Barbeque in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, kept a watchful eye on several glistening beef briskets. In the past, such contributions would be shunned as invasive species in pork country. 

Meanwhile, Sam Jones, the scion of a prominent North Carolina barbecue family who opened his own barbecue restaurant near Greenville, and Wyatt Dickson, who helped organize the event, supervised the cooking of a trench-cooked whole hog. 

The hog was a reminder of where barbecue had come from, while the other offerings showed where it was going. 

"There are less and less rules," said Elliott Moss, a co-owner and pitmaster at the retro-modern Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, North Carolina. 

Moss was cooking Brussels sprouts seasoned with cider vinegar, onions and garlic in a wok over a wood fire in a burn barrel. The coals from the burned wood were shoveled beneath the hog in the trench. Drippings from the hog then flavored pots of vegetables, a technique Moss uses at his restaurant. 

At his restaurant, the Smoked Pimento Cheese appetizer modernizes the traditional Southern dish by using smoked cheese and fermented red bell pepper, which replaces the pimento. "It adds an extra layer of umami," he said. 

It's hard to imagine an older generation of pitmasters throwing around the word "umami." But the Revival, so-named to reclaim a cuisine once seen as dying in the state, was intended to showcase the up-and-comers, new lingo and all. (Full disclosure: I moderated a panel at the event.)

"I feel like I'm a steward of North Carolina barbecue," said Dickson. "It's an extremely large part of our culture. So, I want to respect tradition but not let tradition blind you, which is something that can happen in the South."

Dickson is the pitmaster at Picnic, a barbecue restaurant in Durham that opened in 2014. He co-owns the business with chef Ben Adams and financial adviser-turned-farmer Ryan Butler. Together, they epitomize some of the new approaches. 

Butler owns the pig farm where the Revival took place. He pasture-raises the heritage hogs that Dickson smokes. Adams creates a mix of traditional and upscale side dishes - think Brunswick stew and marinated kale salad. Dickson smokes the whole hog in a heavy-gauged, double-walled steel pit completely unlike traditional brick pits. 

"I knew I couldn't stand there, chained to the pit, with a shovel in my hand 24 hours a day," Dickson said. "That's why North Carolina barbecue was dying out. Nobody wants to pick that shovel up. They've seen that lifestyle and they've said, 'No, thank you.' I wanted to find a way to make this more sustainable. Sometimes you have to change to stay around."

As recently as 10 years ago, pitmasters used commodity pork and select (the lowest USDA) grade for beef. The next-gen pitmasters gravitate toward choice and even prime grades for beef and pasture-raised heritage hogs for pork. Their approach is marked by more creative side dishes, a return to all-wood smoking, ethnic influences, local sourcing, cheffy experimentation and pan-regionalism. Even smoked tofu is popping up on menus.

Their patron saint is Aaron Franklin in Austin, Texas, who opened his bricks-and-mortar operation six years ago. His use of Angus prime meat, detailed attention to air flow in his self-made offset smokers, and strict adherence to all-wood cooking created a transcendent smoked beef brisket that helped him to become the only pitmaster to win a James Beard Award for best chef (for the southwest region in 2015). Along the way, he ignited a revolution in the world of low-and-slow cooking. 

Franklin smoked pork shoulder, a novelty in Texas as recently as five years ago, and, in a state notoriously averse to sauce, he offered an espresso barbecue sauce. Somehow, Franklin escaped the scorn of the region-first purists. Not long after, a long-advancing trend seen as homogenizing barbecue (the barbecue scholar John Shelton Reed mockingly called this trend the International House of Barbecue, or IHOB) became embraced as a way to reinterpret regionalism through experimentation with local traditions. 

Since Franklin opened in 2011, a scad of other highly regarded newcomers followed in Austin alone: La Barbecue, Freedmen's Bar, Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ, Kerlin BBQ, Micklethwait Craft Meats. 

The upscaling of barbecue is an urban phenomenon. In an article last December for Texas Monthly, the magazine's barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, called the trend "Big City Barbecue" and opined that "the new region is the Internet." 

The Revival was a natural extension of that region-less idea. I call the approach "citified." Traditionally, the best barbecue in Texas and the Carolinas was found in the rural areas. Now, the cities are matching, sometimes besting, their country cousins. 

Whether it's experimental or high-end traditional, many observers have noted the emergence in recent years of pricey barbecue. The cost isn't just in dollars. 

Urban newcomers often talk about the importance of barbecue as community. But their higher prices have put the historically cheap fare out of the reach of the regular working stiff. That, in turn, has pretty much consigned the sense of a broader community to nostalgia. Years ago, it was hard to find a story about barbecue that didn't include a paragraph about doctors and lawyers sitting next to plumbers and house painters, of beat-up Chevy pickups parked next to new Mercedes. Now? They're partly about the hipster customer base, but mainly they're just about the food. 

As for the food, aficionados maintain that it is perhaps better than ever. "Welcome to the glory days of American barbecue," John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote in a 2014 story in Parade magazine. 

This year, Houston Chronicle barbecue columnist J.C. Reid wrote, "In many ways, the millennial generation I've observed is good news for the future of barbecue."

He cited several pitmasters, among them 29-year-old Laura Loomis at Two Bros. BBQ in San Antonio, Texas. "You picture a pitmaster with leather skin and all that," she told me by phone. "Now, it's just younger kids. It's really cool. We talk about how we want to get together and maybe do a festival in a year or two. Because we're new, it's like, 'Can they do it?' "

Two Bros. BBQ uses six wood-fueled offset pits. The menu skews traditional, but the cherry-glazed baby back pork ribs break with the Texas norm of no sauces or glazes. Cherry is a very different from the usual tomato-based sauces. And spare ribs are far more common than baby backs. 

"We try to offer something for everyone," Loomis said. 

Transformation is underway in the Kansas City, Missouri, area, as well. I asked barbecue columnist Ardie Davis for names of barbecue restaurants that have opened in the past five years. He emailed a list of 12, nearly all opened in just the past three years. 

Mark Kelpe is co-owner of one of them, Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements in Kansas City. Although he is 48, the restaurant is aimed squarely at millennials. In addition to a bocce court, full-size croquet course, two outdoor ping-pong tables and a large firepit, the menu offers a range of vegetarian options. 

"When we set out to create a barbecue concept, we were very wary," Kelpe said. "We were treading carefully because we are in Kansas City and it's filled with world-class barbecue restaurants. We decided we were going to do a Southern-inspired smokehouse, with something different. I wanted to make sure the barbecue was relevant to 2014 and 2015, especially millennial diners."

The star of Char Bar's vegetarian offerings is a pulled jackfruit sandwich with melted provolone and fried jalapeños. Jackfruit is a large, sweet, nubby-shelled fruit that is native to South and Southeast Asia. The canned version of unripe jackfruit comes in chunks and, when cooked, replicates the mild flavor and texture of pulled pork. 

"I set out to create a vegetarian sandwich that would please a meat eater," Kelpe said.

There were no jackfruit sandwiches at the N.C. Barbecue Revival dinner. Patrons did, however, dine on appetizers of grilled oysters and smoked mullet before wandering from one station to the next to try sides that included an Asian take on collard greens, marinated shrimp with pickled vegetable salad and those wood-cooked cider vinegar Brussels sprouts. At the tables serving the luscious brisket, spicy lamb and juicy beef short ribs, the servers were the pitmasters themselves, who will help shape barbecue for years to come. 

- - -

Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post
Cherry-Glazed Baby Back Ribs. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post.

2 to 4 servings 

In San Antonio, Texas, at Two Bros. BBQ, pitmaster Laura Loomis serves baby back ribs in a cherry glaze; this recipe makes a cross between a sauce and a glaze that can be served at the table. 

You'll need 1 cup of apple, pecan, oak or cherry wood chips or 6 fist-size chunks; replenish coals as necessary.

MAKE AHEAD: You'll probably have spice rub left over. It keeps well in a sealed container in the pantry for up to a month.

From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin.

3 tablespoons sweet paprika

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon granulated garlic (garlic powder)

1 tablespoon granulated onion

1 tablespoon ground ancho pepper

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 rack (about 2 1/2 pounds) baby back ribs

1 cup cherry preserves

6 ounces tart cherry juice

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest and 2 tablespoons juice (from 1 lemon)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 chipotle pepper in adobo (from a can), diced

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the rub and meat: Whisk together the paprika, salt, granulated garlic and onion, ancho chile pepper, light brown sugar, and the cayenne, black and white black peppers in a bowl, until lump-free. The yield is about 2/3 cup.

For the glaze: Combine the cherry preserves, cherry juice, lemon zest and juice, Worcestershire sauce, cinnamon, butter, diced chipotle, salt and pepper in a large pan over medium heat, stirring until well incorporated. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a slightly thickened sauce. 

Transfer to a food processor; puree until smooth. Pour into a bowl for use later to baste the ribs. The yield is about 2 cups.

Place the ribs on a rimmed baking sheet, meat side down. You'll see a thin membrane on the bone side; some say this prevents flavor from penetrating the meat and is papery to chew on. But pulling it off can be a little tricky, and a lot of ribs are served with the membrane still on. The choice is yours. If you opt to remove it, slide a small, sharp knife beneath the membrane to cut it enough so that you can grab it with your hands and pull it off. The best place to insert the knife is in the midsection, so that you can tear off one side and then the other.

Coat both sides of the ribs with the rub, working it into the meat. (You may have some rub left over.)

Prepare the grill for indirect heat. If using a gas grill, turn the heat to high. Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium (375 to 400 degrees). Turn off the burners on one side.

If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Drain the chips and scatter them over the coals. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.

Set the rack of ribs meat side down directly over the coals; grill for 5 minutes, then turn them over (bone side down) and repeat. 

Move the ribs to the cool side of the grill, bone side down. Close the lid. Smoke the meat until it is browned and tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. 

In the last half hour, baste the meat with the cherry glaze at least three times, or every 7 to 10 minutes. 

Use tongs to transfer the ribs to a cutting board; let them rest for about 10 minutes before cutting them apart between the bones.

Pile onto a platter. Serve warm, drizzled with more of the glaze.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 4, using half the rub and glaze): 850 calories, 55 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 53 g fat, 20 g saturated fat, 205 mg cholesterol, 1,170 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 24 g sugar

- - -

Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post
Smoked Pimento Cheese. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post.

8 to 10 servings (makes about 3 1/2 cups)

Smoked cheddar, fire-roasted peppers and herbes de Provence go into this cheffy makeover of the Southern classic that is common to contemporary barbecue.

Serve with crackers or toast points, or as a sandwich filling.

MAKE AHEAD: The cheese can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. 

Adapted from "Buxton Hall BBQ Book of Smoke," by Elliott Moss (Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2016).

12 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (3 packed cups)

4 ounces smoked mild cheddar, shredded (1 packed cup)

2 tablespoons finely diced roasted red pepper

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably Duke's

3 tablespoons sour cream

1 tablespoon spicy whole-grain mustard

1 tablespoon Texas Pete hot sauce (may substitute Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce)

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon herbes de Provence

1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic (garlic powder)

1/8 teaspoon onion powder

Combine the extra-sharp cheddar, smoked cheddar, roasted red pepper, mayonnaise, sour cream, mustard, hot sauce, black pepper, herbes de Provence and garlic and onion powders in a mixing bowl, stirring until well incorporated.

Serve or store in an airtight container (for up to a week).

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10): 300 calories, 10 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 390 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

- - -

4 servings 

This deeply smoky sandwich is the popular alternative to pulled pork at Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements in Kansas City, Missouri. Be advised that green jackfruit is not packed with protein, but it does shred with a texture akin to meat.

It's a good idea to handle the jalapeños with food-safe gloves.

You'll need 1 cup of apple, pecan, oak or cherry wood chips, or about 6 fist-size chunks.

MAKE AHEAD: The jalapeños can be fried an hour to two ahead of assembling the sandwiches.

Canned green jackfruit is what you need to use here; it is available at some MOM's markets and at Asian markets.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements in Kansas City, Missouri.

Two 14-ounce cans young green jackfruit packed in water or brine (not syrup; see headnote)

1/4 cup barbecue seasoning blend (your favorite; see NOTE)

3/4 cup buttermilk

1 large egg

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon granulated garlic (garlic powder)

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups canola oil, for frying

2 jalapeño peppers, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch coins

1/2 cup barbecue sauce (your favorite)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 hamburger or brioche buns

Four 1-ounce slices provolone cheese

Flesh of 1 ripe avocado, thinly sliced

Prepare the grill for indirect heat. If using a gas grill, turn the heat to high. Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium-high (450 degrees). Turn off the burners on one side. 

If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Scatter the wood chips over the coals. Have a spray water bottle at hand for taming any flames. 

While the coals are getting ready or the gas grill is preheating, drain and thoroughly rinse the jackfruit. Pat dry. Coat the jackfruit with the barbecue seasoning blend. 

Whisk together the buttermilk and egg in a bowl. Whisk together the all-purpose flour, cornmeal, salt, granulated garlic, cayenne and black peppers in a separate bowl.

Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat. 

Meanwhile, dip the jalapeño coins in the milk mixture and then lightly coat them in the flour mixture.

Once the oil shimmers, carefully drop the jalapeño coins one by one into the hot oil; fry for about 3 minutes or just until golden brown, turning them over as needed. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the lined plate to drain. 

When the grill is ready and about a minute after you've added the wood chips, set the jackfruit on the indirect side of the fire. Close the lid and smoke the jackfruit for about 40 minutes, until the jackfruit has shrunk slightly and has browned lightly around the edges.

Transfer to a platter, then use two forks or your clean hands to pull apart the jackfruit. The yield is a bit more than 4 cups. 

Transfer the jackfruit to a bowl and add the barbecue sauce, stirring to coat evenly. Cover loosely to keep warm.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-low heat, then use it to brush the cut sides of the buns. Place them, buttered sides down, in the pan; toast them for a few minutes, until golden. 

Arrange the toasted buns on a baking sheet. Distribute even amounts of the smoked, sauced jackfruit on the bottom buns. Top each one with a slice of the provolone. Place under the broiler or return to the grill and cover just long enough to melt the cheese.

Finish each sandwich with avocado slices, the fried jalapeño coins and the top buns.

NOTE: To make your own barbecue spice blend, combine 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon granulated garlic (garlic powder), 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper in a container with a tight-fitting lid.

Nutrition | Per serving (without the jalapeños): 460 calories, 14 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 1,720 mg sodium, 14 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar

View full experience