To say that Tom Ryder takes barbecue seriously is an understatement. Our first conversation on the topic began with him cautioning me against tossing the terms “grilling” and “barbecuing” about indiscriminately when they are actually two very different things. Grilling, explains the former chairman of Reader’s Digest Association, “is cooking directly over a hot fire for a brief period of time; while barbecuing involves cooking over indirect heat for a long period of time by using smoke as both a cooking and flavoring agent.”
He would know. This is a man who once spent a good chunk of a holiday weekend rigging up a contraption capable of slow-cooking an Easter ham at 150 degrees overnight. He has sampled barbecue in China and trekked through Texas in search of the state’s best BBQ (his firsthand report is posted on RDLiving.com). If those chops alone don’t qualify him as a grill-and-BBQ guru, other creds in the culinary circuit include serving as a judge at the famous Memphis in May barbecue competition and as chief food critic for The Cookhouse, a chain of four Connecticut restaurants owned and operated by Ryder’s wife and son.
My plan was to draw upon this formidable BBQ background to provide would-be summer chefs a guide to the best gear for backyard cooking. That idea went up in smoke the very moment I attempted to grill Ryder about high-end grills featuring infrared technology. There was dead silence. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said finally. “To me, the most important gear is intelligence.”
Bad backyard cooking, it turns out, has more to do with mental missteps than inadequate equipment-which brings us back to the difference between grilling and barbecuing. “The most common mistake in cooking over a fire is cooking over direct heat when you should not,” says Ryder. “It burns the meat on the outside and leaves the inside raw.”
Meat size and thickness are the determining factors in the direct vs. indirect question. Thick hamburgers, steaks, pork chops or even chicken should be placed away from the fire to cook, then browned over flames at the very end of the cooking period. “Some chefs prefer to brown on each side at the beginning,” notes Ryder. “But that may seal in the juice and seal out the smoke, so I do it at the end.”
Another bad move novices make is slathering the meat with sauce before slapping it on the grill-a surefire path to charred meat that’s raw inside. “It’s okay to cook a little bit in the sauce, but only if you brush it on at the very end and watch it closely,” says Ryder, who says adding wet hickory chips to the fire, putting the meat off to the side away from the fire, and closing the grill for 10 or 15 minutes is a better bet for adding flavor. “Then grill it quickly the way you normally would because the meat will not have cooked very much.”
The Ryder clan forgoes charcoal altogether and cooks over wood logs-hickory and oak-in a simple, non-gas grill, which is the set-up Tom Ryder heartily recommends. But for those of us who have already invested in gas grills, he suggests a workaround. “You can create some smoke in a gas grill by taking a double thickness of aluminum foil, putting some wet hickory chips in it, and placing that over the fire,” he says.
“They will begin to smolder and create smoke in your gas grill so that you can achieve part of the effect of cooking over wood.” And, of course, you would cook over indirect heat by lighting only one burner of a two-burner grill and placing the meat on the unlit burner.
Better yet, you can dispense with your chef’s apron altogether and head for The Cookhouse, where pork shoulders are smoked over oak and hickory for 14 hours until “they’re transformed into something truly magical.” Now that’s advice even this novice can handle.