The summer’s best barbecue cookbooks

  • Wyatt Williams
  • For the AJC
6:00 a.m. Thursday, June 1, 2017 Food
Time Inc. Books / Andrea Behrends
Helen Turner stokes the coals in her Tennessee smokehouse, as seen in Matt Moore’s new book “The South’s Best Butts.” (Courtesy of Time Inc. Books / Andrea Behrends)

It’s summer again. Time to head to the grocery store, pick up a big hunk of meat, some charcoal and wood, maybe a six-pack or two, and head home to make a recipe from your favorite barbecue cookbook. Wait, that’s not right. Did some part of that sentence sound off to you? Who makes a “recipe” from a barbecue “cookbook”?

No, barbecue isn’t cooked like any other dish. It is a sport, a lifestyle, an art of touch and taste and smell and feeling that could never possibly be summed up like any old recipe in the dull pages of a cookbook. Or could it?

Plenty of people have tried their hand at barbecue cookbooks over the years and almost as many have failed. Part of the problem lies in the beautiful diversity of barbecue. Even if we can agree that barbecue is a marriage of smoke and meat, there are so many ways to conduct the wedding: in the long tanks of Texas-style offset smokers, in the thick ceramic domes of Big Green Eggs, in cinder-block-lined open pits, in dime-store grills, or even buried in the ground. And that doesn’t cover half of it. Imagine trying to write a French cookbook in a world where no one could agree how an oven should work. That’s the essence of the barbecue cookbook problem.

Yet, some pitmasters have seen a way forward, as enterprising barbecue folks always have. When Aaron Franklin of the world-famous Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, published “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto” a couple of years ago, it was a revelation. Sure, there were a handful of recipes near the end. But the bulk of the book — a couple of hundred pages — was devoted to welding, chopping wood, and understanding the science of smoke. It told us something new, something more than the dreaded barbecue cookbook cliché: “Set your smoker to 225 degrees, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.” No doubt the success of that book, along with the current new wave of barbecue joints, has inspired a new vogue for barbecue cookbooks.

What’s surprising is that some of them aren’t that bad. The best new barbecue cookbooks explore the devoted lives, complex preparations, creative possibilities and diverse practices that gravitate around smoke and meat.

Matt Moore’s tome to Southern-style smoked pork butt touts “150 recipes” on the cover, but the heart of this book is less cookbook and more travelogue.

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“The South’s Best Butts” by Matt Moore

In seeking out the best tips for barbecue pork’s most popular cut, Moore traveled to a dozen states to meet pitmasters and ask for their advice. More than a couple of times, Moore admits, they declined to share the secret recipes of their rubs and sauces. Instead, they shared their stories.

Along the way, we’re reminded that barbecue is about more than meat-obsessed dudes. We meet Helen Turner of Helen’s BBQ in Huntsville, Tenn., who left behind a factory job 20 years ago to become a fearless, celebrated pitmaster in a male-dominated industry. We meet Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee, a married couple who combined their Southern and Korean cooking traditions for Heirloom Market BBQ here in Atlanta.

This is a fine introduction to the hardworking people who make some of the best barbecue in the South.

A cookbook from the legendary father-daughter team behind 17th Street Barbecue in Illinois, Praise The Lard might be the one must-have barbecue book of the year.

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“Praise the Lard” by Mike Mills and Amy Mills

The tongue-in-cheek religious themes for the chapters (“The Holy Trinity: Seasoning, Smoke, and Sauce”) are no joke. This is a barbecue bible for devotees who want to know the nitty-gritty gospel of traditional pork barbecue. Why does a true barbecue pro always have extra string mops and PVC pipe on hand? The Mills can tell you. A section titled “The Gospel According to Mike Mills” might be worth memorizing.

The book is written with alternating anecdotes from father and daughter that give a personality and voice to the authoritative advice doled out in the pages.

The centerpiece is focused on one of the most challenging of the barbecue arts: smoking a whole hog. The 20-page chapter contains enough detail, advice and encouragement that you’ll be able to do as the book commands — “Go forth, armed and ready with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to take on the whole hog challenge.” Amen.

While reading Ben Tish’s latest cookbook, I could almost hear the groans of Southern barbecue purists. “A fancy television chef with restaurants in tony London? What the heck could he know? That’s not real barbecue.”

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“Grill, Smoke, BBQ” by Ben Tish

Though it likely won’t fit any narrow definition, the recipes Tish has collected from his SoHo restaurant Ember Yard are the impressive work of a chef pushing the boundaries of smoke and meat.

Drawing on Spanish and Italian wood-fired cooking influences, there are fascinating ideas on nearly every page. Recipes for smoky watermelon with burrata, balsamic and basil, or thyme-smoked mussels, could be sourced from a Georgian garden and coast as easily as one from England. Illustrated with impressive, gorgeous photography, dishes such as cold-smoked sea bream with pomegranate, bottarga and coriander look as good as they sound.

Some of these recipes are so preciously and exactingly defined that you might have trouble actually executing them. (If you know where to source the leg of a lamb raised in the salt marshes of coastal England, as one recipe calls for, please let me know.) But if you’re looking to smoke something other than another pork butt on your Big Green Egg this summer, this is the book for you.

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“Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades” by Steven Raichlen

Though the title of this book is rather bland, the recipes contained in it are anything but.

Rather than focus on the actual smoking of barbecue, Steven Raichlen narrows into the two other fundamentals of barbecue, the seasoning and the sauce.

You may be tempted to try charmoula, a North African sauce of herbs and paprika. You may learn to marinade your pork in the Chinese tradition of char siu. Or you could take tip from New Yorkers and brine your beef pastrami style.

Sure, you can get plenty of flavor out of just salt, pepper and a little vinegar, but the nearly academic breadth of recipes here is a reminder that barbecue is a global phenomenon with wildly diverse styles.

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