Life

Three Food Writers Face Off With Their Best BBQ Recipes


Look fam, this is waaaaaay late. It was meant to be published in the lead in to 4th of July. Then Labor Day. Then the first NFL game. Now it’s mid-September and… here we are. It’s on me. Zach and Vince were done ages ago and I was on the road. Deduct points if you get tired of all the now-dated references, but please note that I’m already lagging well behind because you jerks can’t appreciate fish.

Anyway, the idea of doing a BBQ challenge was supposed to be thematically aligned, and we realize that it’s about to start getting cold in most of the country, so let’s call this the “Make Your Last BBQ of 2017, Your Best!” challenge. And we promise, the fall flavors challenge is coming right on the heels of this one.

As always, your shares, Tweets, and comments are much appreciated.

— Steve Bramucci, Managing Editor, Uproxx Life

PAST RESULTS:

BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve*
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Challenge — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Challenge — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve**

*Steve got robbed.
**Zach keeps the count on these, can we fact check this?

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 14
VINCE: 11
STEVE: 8

I. VINCE’S TEX-MEX BRISKET AND CORN

If I were being true to my upbringing, and frankly, my taste buds, I’d be cooking tri tip in any Summer grilling/BBQ challenge. Sadly, this is a competition, and I want to win, and I don’t trust anyone who wasn’t born in Steinbeck country to know how awesome tri tip is. It’s hard to convey because it doesn’t really make sense. It’s easy to understand why a nice fatty cut with lots of marbling is good, but tri tip is lean and looks like it’d be tougher than shoe leather. Lean beef is normally about as flavorless as chicken breast or Bourne movies, but for some reason tri tip is neither tough nor bland. That triangular little back muscle must be where cows store their hopes and dreams and the concentrated sadness of being cultivated for their meat and shot in the head in front of their families.

Aaaaanyway, now that I’ve described the thing I’m not cooking, the thing I am cooking is brisket. Brisket doesn’t need much explanation, since word of its fatty deliciousness has traveled far and wide, even to foreign backwaters such as New Jersey and Europe. I also chose brisket over ribs, because as much as I love ribs, which are probably better on average than brisket and much harder to mess up, if I had to read commenters arguing about Kansas City style versus mustard-based versus vinegar-based versus pepper-based versus dry rubbed vs basted and blah blah blah I would throw away my computer and go live in the woods.

So, brisket it was. And I served it with my favorite grilling vegetable (“vegetable”), corn, treated my favorite way, Mexican style. I threw in some pickled onions which are always good and some white bread because I know BBQ heads shit their proverbial e-britches if you serve them brisket without white bread.

The Meat

Dry Spice Rub

1 Tablespoon Each Of:

Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Black Pepper
Sweet Paprika
(salt generously)
Drizzled with olive oil and a tablespoon of Worcester Sauce.

A couple more caveats before we start: I live in an apartment, which means any form of traditional BBQ or grilling is pretty much out. That being said, I think my work arounds are pretty good. I can’t do open flame, but I can still do long cook using my precision cooker/sous vide. That comes with its own set of advantages, which include being able to cook at a stable, precise temperature, and being able to cook the meat entirely inside the marinade bag, which makes it really flavorful. The disadvantages are that it offers no char (“the Maillard effect,” if you nasty) and no smoke flavor. Sure, you can add “liquid smoke” to your sous vide bag, but that always sounds weird and chemical-y to me, and is probably some kind of old-timey racial slur.

So instead I added the smoke flavor with, get this, a stove-top smoker. Then I added char with my kitchen blow torch, surely the most radical way to get Maillard.

(Admission: I didn’t have time to get to a real butcher, so I kinda had to take whatever brisket I could get at the supermarket, which in this case was trimmed very well and was missing some of the deckle — that fatty connector bit between the two… uh… fascia? of the brisket. That being said, all that fat cap matters much less when you’re cooking sous vide, because the meat stays at a lower temperature which renders less of it off, and since the meat stays immersed in a bag of oil and worcester sauce inside a water bath, it doesn’t take much to keep it moist, much like your sister).

The Cook

24-hour sous vide at 155 degrees (F), spice rubbed and bagged with a drizzle of olive oil and a little Worcester
90 minutes in the stove top smoker with oak and alder (most of the tri tip I’ve had has been cooked over oak with a spice rub that leans heavily on the garlic, which I sort of tried to mimic here). Charred with a blow torch to finish, especially on the fatty parts.

The Jus

Maybe this is weird, but I feel like it’s wrong to drown out all that beautiful natural brisket flavor with a heavy BBQ sauce. Plus when you sous vide a brisket you end up with 2-3 cups of perfect, undiluted brisket juice. So once the sous vide was done, I just took the juice that had developed in my sous vide bag, separated out the fat with a gravy separator, then simmered the remaining juice with about a half cup of dry wine and about three cloves of pressed garlic. It tastes like concentrated brisket. Mmm.

The Corn

The Lather

2 tablespoons Mexican crema
1 teaspoon each of chile powder, New Mexico and California
Half a lime
Salt to taste
About a half cup each of crumbly queso fresco and chopped cilantro (omit it if you think it’s inauthentic or you have that horrible cilantro-tastes-like-soap disability, but in my personal opinion, cilantro f*cks)

I’m not going to pretend this is the most authentic recipe for Mexican corn, because I’ve honestly never read one. And anyway, like I said above, I don’t have a grill or a backyard because the life of a professional writer is probably somewhat less glamorous than what you’ve heard (though we are skilled lovers). I do know that my reverse engineering of what I thought I saw in Mexican grilled corn tastes fairly close to what I thought I tasted when I’ve had Mexican street corn. Whatever the case, my version tastes pretty damned good.

You gotta cook the corn a little bit (but not a lot) to turn that starch into juice (I mean, I think, what am I, Bill Nye?), which street corn vendors seem to do by grilling with the husk on to let it steam. Since that wasn’t an option, I gave it a quick boil instead, followed by another blow torching (let it never be said that I don’t enjoy torching shit).

2-3 minute boil
Char
Roll in mixture of crema, lime juice, chili powder, cilantro and salt (mixture should taste sort of like those Mexican chili candies)
Roll again in the crumbled cheese

To serve, I sliced the brisket, spooned the jus on top, and served it with the other “stuff”. Bone appetite, you bitch, and God bless the USA.

ZACH ON VINCE’S: Sorry dude but that roast looks like the ass end of dying donkey. I mean this is how you brisket, yo. One, you need fat to char with a torch. This is just a sad burnt piece of way too lean meat. I kinda wanna cry for the poor cow who gave its life for you to cock up its meat this badly.

Corn looks legit. So points for that. Plus you’re plating isn’t as dizzying as Bramucci’s.

STEVE ON VINCE’S: Jesus Christ, if I get beaten by a guy who did his grilling with a blowtorch then I need to retire. Vince, in all that vast, expansive cow country that you talk about there’s not one person who would let you grill at their house? Damn. Okay, obviously I’m not a fool and I’d eat this brisket, but I’m not as in love with sous vide as you and Zach are. Maybe it’s just the pics, the meat always looks a little gummy. Also, where is that jus? That was the best description and now I demand to see it.

To conclude: This is a plate o’ meat with some damn nice corn, as such it’s awesome. But I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to recognize it in a lineup from the other plates o’ meat I’ve eaten.

VINCE’S REBUTTAL: Oh, do we not have a rebuttal section in these? Well, we do now. Leave it to Steve to give me a two-day deadline on getting this in, which I actually delayed a vacation for, and then let both of these ass wipes rip on me for 1. not having time to get to a real grill, and 2. having to buy my meat at a supermarket because I couldn’t get to a butcher in the time frame. Yes, I would’ve rather used a grill or smoker. Yes, I would’ve bought a brisket with a real fat cap on it. And then Steve delays the post for four months anyway. This whole thing is a set up. All points that may be rewarded for this are under protest.

II. ZACH’S HIGHFALTUIN’ McRIB

Every recipe, every dish is about the journey. Think about it, even the banalest of recipes you have in your arsenal started somewhere — your mom’s kitchen, that awesome taqueria down the street, the book your girlfriend gave you that one year for your birthday. Hell, we don’t microwave a burrito because we love frozen burritos from 7-Eleven. We do it because deep in our lizard brains there’s some story about our first one.

I grew up in a town without a McDonald’s until I was ten years old. Then they came to town and as part of the promotion of the new location they had a brief run of the McRib. I still remember taking that first, sugary bite. The pork patty, BBQ sauce, pickle, and minced onions were just okay. It wasn’t as good as a pack of chicken McNuggets as far as I was concerned. And I never really thought about the McRib again. Then about ten years later the McRib came back with a vengeance (plus a great marketing campaign) and the rest is history. But, I never really got back into it. I’ve tried them again. But something was always off with the pork patty and overly sweet BBQ sauce.

This is what the McRib should always be.

The Meat

I devised this recipe for those of us who don’t have the luxury of a big backyard with a smoker. Anyone can make this at home in a small kitchen.

I’m not making a ground pork patty, so get that outta your mind right now. I’m using nice and thick baby back ribs that butt up against the tenderloin for maximum meat and fat exposure.

After removing the membrane from the bone side, I rub in my seasoning. That’s a mix of smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, allspice, and a little cumin with a punch of sea salt. Once that’s nicely massaged into the meat, I get out my trusty smoking wand and fill a ziplock bag with hickory smoke. I let that rest for at least an hour. Since I don’t have a smoker at my disposal, this really does the trick by getting a nice smoke flavor into the meat.

While that’s absorbing all that nice smoke, I rev up my sous vide to 145F. I put the meat into a Stasher bag (#environment) and drop in the meat. I cover the container with tinfoil, set the timer for 36 hours, and walk away.

The Sauce

I go ahead and make the barbecue sauce a day ahead of time — it’ll allow the flavors to meld a bit more overnight in the fridge.

I add about a cup of low-sugar ketchup, a few heaping tablespoons of smoked brown sugar. I want the sweetness to come from good, flavored sugars I add in and not the industrial sweeteners Heinz is using. Next, I add teaspoons each of onion powder, garlic powder, allspice, and smoked paprika, and then a good glug of apple cider vinegar and Kentucky bourbon to the pot and bring to a simmer. I let that simmer on the lowest possible flame for about an hour until everything is emulsified nicely.

I put that in a jar and refrigerate. I’ll heat it back up the next day.

Finishing The Meat

This is the fun part. First I crank up my oven to about 425F — make sure it’s really pre-heated here. I gently remove my piece of rib from the sous vide. It’s going to be very delicate at this point and fall apart easily, so I take my time. I place a rack over a well tin-foiled baking sheet. I then slather it on all sides with the re-warmed sauce.

I place the rib in the oven and rebaste every 20 minutes or so for about an hour — or until the edges of the rib start to crisp up from the fat blending with the sugars.

Once that’s ready, I wrap up my rib in grease-proof paper and then tin foil and let rest for another hour. This keeps all that heat and moisture in the meat and creates something verging on miraculous in the end.

The Assembly

I stroll on down to my corner bakery while the meat is resting. I grab a soft-crusted potato roll which has a little bit of heft to it, but is still light enough not to be over-bearing with too much starch. I slice it in half, butter it, and add some garlic salt to both sides and pop it into a piping hot skillet to toast it Texas-style.

Next, I slice some red onions and generously salt them and set aside(this draws out bitterness and water). Lastly, I grab some of my sous vide pickles — which have been spiked with Thai chili peppers — and slice some into coin-sized pieces.

Once the bread roll is toasted, I generously slather each side with the warm barbecue sauce. Then the magic happens. I open up the meat like a frenzied five-year-old on Christmas morning! The smells of fat, smoke, garlic, brown sugar, and bourbon fill up my senses. I gently nudge the rib bones and they slide out of the meat like something, something Vince’s mom.

I put the rib on my sandwich and place the pickles and onion on top and done! What you have is a solid sandwich that’s soft, tender, and glistening in all its barbecue glory — even if it never saw fire.


This was one of the best McRib sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. The meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender with a savory smokiness that was sweet and spicy. The crunch from the pickle and onion added a nice texture, and the soft, buttery, garlicky bread roll tied it all together like fucking magic.

VINCE ON ZACH’S: Hey cool, a sandwich. That looks like a really good sandwich. That said, if I spent as much time on my meat as you do (hey) I’d want to taste it (something something Steve Bannon). Hiding it under a giant roll (it does look like a good roll) feels like a waste. I mean that sandwich would probably taste almost good with just a little mortadella in there, and then you’d have 37 more hours of free time. I do appreciate that it was inspired by a dish you like less than chicken mcnuggets though. You know you’re in for a long one when Zach starts talking about the “journey” in the first sentence.

STEVE ON ZACH’S: These fucking nerds. Neither of them actually grilled or barbecued anything? They just boiled it in bags for a long time?

“Hey bro, you want to go for a little kicker at Zach and Vince’s pad?”

“Sure, my dude, I’m down to get turnt. Are they grilling meat? Will there be a DJ? A pool? Laaadies?”

“Oh… No, none of that stuff. Instead, they’ll both put meat in plastic bags then boil it for a long time. Doesn’t that just sound like pure, distilled summer vibes?”

“Fuck off.”

Zach, that’s a good fucking sandwich. And I’m pretty sure that pork cooked for a week at 12-degrees tastes dope. I get the concept. But “one of the best McRib sandwiches” sounds pretty apt, when the only other McRib comes from McDonalds. Okay, the pickles look awesome and I’d pay real money for that sauce. Nice roll. No cheese, so GTFO, but other than that, I’m into it.

It’s just… no char at all? Just some mush meat and a bun? I stand by confit as the ultimate low and slow if that’s what you’re chasing. Boiled in duck fat > boiled in a Ziplock. However, I do think you should get bonus points for every year deeper you reach into your childhood for food memories. You’re going back to early childhood now. I anxiously await your breast milk alfredo next round.

STEVE’S FISH SAUCE SHORT RIBS WITH STICKY RICE AND LONG BEANS

I’m starting with the fish sauce pic, because if you don’t understand the umami-giving powers of fish sauce, I can’t help you. That is this dish. Also, short rib. And an actual fucking grill, because I follow the letter of the law with these contests. Plus I don’t own a dumb sous vide.

NOTE: I had a bunch of jokes and riffs I wanted to write to get the fans on my side early, but Zach wrote a long enough lede for all of us, so I’ll skip right to it. Here’s what I did:

Short rib marinade:

Chopped garlic
Fish sauce (three-ish tablespoons)
Soy Sauce (five-ish tablespoons)
Olive oil
One handful of vanilla bean brown sugar (I’m trying to sound Zach-sophisticated here. This just means that I use real vanilla in my pancakes, then put the bean husks in my sugar bowl and it permeates the sugar.)
One cup of unpasteurized apple juice.
Juice from two tangerines

I find that the acid in the apple and tangerines is all I need to break down the meat. Screw vinegar. I left it for 26 hours, so that Zach and Vince couldn’t say: “But bro, your meal only spanned a single day?”

Low and slow:

I put the meat and the marinade in a Mexican clay pot and popped it in the oven at 250 for four hours. It came out smelling insane and looking delicious — a classic Steve Bramucci “meat slurry”, as Vince calls them.

Long beans:
These beans are the perfect side for a my entree’s vague SE Asian origins. I pan fried them in chili oil with garlic, salt, pepper, galanga, and a dash of soy sauce. I also put some red chilies in for color (though I guess I took this photo first).

Sticky rice:

Sticky rice is better than all other rice in all ways. It’s so freaking glutinous and sweet and it holds together tightly. I soaked my rice for hours, then steamed it. It came out perfectly and made the dream compliment to the flavors I was chasing.

The grill:

What the hell? Is that an actual grill that just snuck into this grilling contest? Indeed, it is friends. I felt like you deserved at least one entry this month that didn’t have to spend three paragraphs covering its own ass by reverse engineering the concept of char. I kept the two short rib meat sections together, with the fat cap in between, because I didn’t want to shred the short rib for this (though in retrospect “Short Rib Two Ways” has an interesting ring to it).

You can see that the meat is already tender, because one of the short rib bones is twisted — proving that the sinew in my dish was as loose as Vince’s … standards for what a BBQ consists of.

The caramel:

I’m calling this sauce a caramel because it’s got a high sugar content. It consists of:

rendered meat juices + cooked down marinade
chili oil
tons of fish sauce
and…

Every competition there’s something that I feel like I’ll get dinged for and decide to do anyway. This time it was adding the water inside canned lychees to my sauce. It’s sweetened it and added a bright, tropic fruit layer. I stand by this call.

**NOTE: If you don’t like fish sauce, know this: That fish flavor cooks out. You never taste “fish” — you just taste food with an extra depth that can’t really be explained. It’s amazing and you’re a philistine if it weirds you out.**

Garnish:

Unlike my cohorts, I’m not fucking terrified of herbs. I topped my plate with Thai basil, garlic chives, regular chives, shaved lemongrass, shaved lime peel, and a few droplets of juice from fire-roasted plums.

The plate:

I zoomed in a little close. Sorry, I wanted to make sure that Zach, Vince, and any other sous vide cultists would get to see what real char looks like.


ZACH ON STEVE’S Why Sooo much hate for sous vide? You know you love and can’t compete. Plus, everybody loves the McRib, so….

Look, this sounds delicious. But listen, this looks vertigo inducing. There’s something so Steve about how busy this plate is. It feels like I just got off a boat and the seas were rough and now all I can smell is the funk of fish sauce.

I will concede this sounds way better than Mancini’s sad cow. So I’d put you in a well deserved second behind my luscious and well-charred McRib.

VINCE ON STEVE’S: You guys, I feel like Steve is a little defensive. Anyone else getting that from this? Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. That’s some great char. I don’t know that anyone in the history of food has ever flexed so hard about cooking over propane, but good char nonetheless. Oh man, is that real gas? How exotic. I guess now I understand why barbecue joints are always promising “cooked over 100% gas!”

Also, I have no fear of herbs, I just feel like barbecue is not a situation that requires two kinds of chives and three different kinds of fruit (that’s not even including the lychee in the… uh… caramel? what the hell is this dish again?). Call my BBQ standards loose if you must, I’ll simply point out that in a barbecue challenge I’m competing against a sandwich and a stir fry. I assume this tasted good based on the grill pic, but I honestly have no idea what I’m looking at in the final shot. Whatever the hell this dish actually is it’s probably going to be a disappointment to its Tinder date. “Wait, that’s what you really look like?”

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