Ask any true barbecue lover the “right” season for barbecuing and they’ll undoubtedly say, “any time!” Though summer weather inspires many of us to fire up the grill, the passion of die-hard barbecue fans defies rain, sleet, and even snow. Just ask legendary pitmaster, Moe Cason. This BBQ maven has traversed the globe year-round showcasing the art of ‘cue.
Cason is a Des Moines, Iowa native — self-taught with guidance from the traditions and techniques practiced by his grandmother. Upon leaving the U.S. Navy as a young man, he bought a home, fixed it up, and flipped it in hopes of buying a top-notch smoker. The sale allowed Cason to purchase his first trailer, too, which he drove to a cook-off in 2006 at the Iowa State Fair.
“I remember seeing all these different trailers, pits, and cookers,” Cason says. “I was just like, ‘Man, it’s just really cool! This is where I need to be.’”
After showing his skills in some 20 cook-offs that first year, the would-be chef was hooked and began branching out further to Texas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Tennessee. In the years since, Cason has competed in hundreds of barbecue contests in various countries. He’s also been a contestant, judge, and star on Destination America’s BBQ Pitmasters and BBQ Pit Wars — solidifying his reputation as one of the best in the game.
After meeting “Big Moe” at Austin’s Treaty Oak Distilling last month, I was amazed by his immense barbecue knowledge and his incredible heart. During our conversation, I asked him about his intro to ‘cue and managed to snag a seven-step guide to barbecuing his specialty, brisket.
Who or what got you involved in barbecuing?
My grandmother had 17 children – an awesome woman. And my mom had to work two jobs to take care of two kids. So my grandmother watched us a lot. My grandmother cooked a lot, and she did everything from scratch. So I observed and just took in when she was doing all the time cooking. A lot of that passion for cooking kind of came from watching my grandmother make really good food. I watched my grandmother cook all these awesome dishes. She was just cooking to feed her family, but she was just a really good cook.
Then, I would cook off and on in my backyard. We had a little 55-gallon drum cut in half. I would just kind of fire the grill up, and with a little charcoal and I’d be cooking whatever I could. I’d catch fish and grill them; hot dogs, pork steaks, hamburgers… and I just kind of always had a great affinity to the grill.
As a young man, I was in the Navy. When I got out of the Navy, one of the first things I bought was a smoker. It was a little smoker I got at Walmart, and I just cooked a lot of stuff. I’d try new things – ribs, pork butt, bone-in chops — and I’m just cooking to feed my family too. Then, I start seeing these barbecue TV shows which were totally new to me. I was just fascinated by it.
What I really admire about the barbecue community is how close-knit you all are. Who do you admire and consider also to be your competition?
I’m a confident man, but I’m very humble. So I don’t look at other people as competition. I never have. Even though you’re at a cook-off and you’re trying to win, I try to look at it as the competition is myself trying to execute my game plan. That’s a full-time job just worrying about me and then let the chips fall where they fall. I know that when it comes to competition, it’s all subjective. Your food is your food. I just never wanted to be that guy to kind of play the game and try to cook whatever everyone else is cooking just to get a call. I’ve always been confident in who I am. If you like it, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s still going to be great, because this is who I am. I believe in myself.
There’s a lot of good barbecue people out there. A small percentage of them that are arrogant, but they kind of exclude themselves because of their behavior. As far as who I admire, there are very few people that I do. Ronnie Killen is a friend of mine and Tuffy Stone is a friend of mine. Those are the guys that I respect. They’re just good people and they just try to do the same thing I’m doing. Ronnie’s doing obviously a much bigger scope because he’s got restaurants. He’s a really good dude and he’s helped me out.
You’re self-taught, but I feel like everyone has a mentor or someone that’s given them solid advice. So, what would you say has been the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a pitmaster?
That’s a good question. I learned by just doing it. I would say the person that has given me the best advice is Ronnie Killen.
And what advice was that?
When I was making my rubs, he kind of schooled me on ingredients – not recipes, because they’re all my recipes – but testing out and tasting because I made all my rubs in my kitchen. It was like make sure they bring in different black peppers because each black pepper berry has a distinct flavor. I learned that when I make my rubs, I only use the best ingredients that I can afford. I’m not impressed with a lot of rubs out there. They may have a catchy name, but they don’t do justice to the protein. That’s just my personal opinion. I really feel like a rub must be there in the beginning and at the end of the cook. It must lend itself to that protein and make a great flavor. That’s one thing I learned.
I love barbecue. I’m the stereotypical Texan through and through. Would you say it matters what type of wood a pitmaster uses?
Wood, like a seasoning, that’s what you do. If you cook steaks on mesquite or cook steaks on oak, they’re going to be two different flavors with the same rub because of what the mesquite is giving to flavor that meat. Same with the oak. I treat wood like a seasoning. To me, that’s important. I’ve settled on certain flavors that I like, like post oak and pecan. I use that for almost all my meats. My seafood is a little different. I go a little lighter. I go with the apple. I may go with a cherry. I might go with peach. It all depends. As far as most of my big protein meat, it’s pecan and post oak. I love the combination of the flavors – what it puts on the meat. And that’s the seasoning to me.
Fat cap: to trim or not to trim, Moe?
The fat cap on meat, I trim to a certain point. If there’s a really heavy fat cap, I’ll trim some of it. I always cook all my meat fat side down. I’m working hard to create a beautiful part and I don’t want it to be ruined by having the meat side down on the rack and having all that scraped off and bits and pieces of knocked off as the meat’s cooking and as it’s being moved around. A lot of these books that you buy say fat side up because of gravity. It’s the quality of the meat that’s gonna determine how good that piece of meat is – the marbling. The collagen, the marbling – that’s what’s going to determine how flavorful and moist that piece of meat is; it’s not because of the fat cap. The fat cap can be used as a buffer depending on the pit. That’s why I leave it on the backside.
I’m all about presentation. I’m a competition guy. So, if I create this beautiful crust, I don’t want it to be disturbed by being flipped up the other way.
What would you consider your staple and how can we imitate it?
I’d say brisket, collard greens, black-eyed peas with Jimmy Dean sausage, jalapeño cheddar cheese cornbread, and my hot pepper mac ‘n cheese.
Oh, that sounds so good. Now, I’m getting hungry. What’s a good tip for us in terms of how to do the brisket perfectly? [We’ve numbered these directions for ease.]
1. Obviously, start with the best quality you can get. Not everybody’s going to spend the money or want to spend the money on a prime or wagyu; but at least get a prime because with beef brisket, the higher quality of meat you get as far as marbling, the better that brisket is going to be period. It’s just a fact. So start with a good piece of meat. And that’s with all proteins anyway.
2. Find the seasoning that you want. I like to use a season that complements the protein. I got a couple of rubs – a beef rub and a brisket rub. It’s basic salt, pepper, and garlic, but it’s got some other stuff that makes it more savory.
3. I use a binder. I use oil or you can use mustard or whatever. I like to put oil down on the piece of meat after I trim the fat off on the meat side. Then, I’ll sprinkle my rubs on it as a nice coat of rub on there.
4. I let it sit for about an hour, and then it’s ready for the pit. By this time, I’d already have the pit up to temperature just waiting for the meat. So, I can cook at various temperatures on different pits. A good number is 230-240 degrees for a 17- or 18-pound brisket will take you about eight or nine hours.
5. Once the brisket gets to about 170 internal temperature, you’re going to need to wrap because you want to try to preserve that color on that brisket and once you wrap it, it’ll help speed it up and getting it done at a good time. I wrap it in butcher paper. I have a technique I do; I do two sheets of foil and the meat and then butcher paper on top of that, then clip it all around. So, then the butcher’s paper is on top that allows the moisture on top of that brisket to escape without making it mushy.
6. I put it back on the pit and I put the probe back in the center of that brisket for the remote thermometer and then once I reach 203-204, I start checking it. It should be tender. If you pull that probe out and push it in and out in the same position, it should be smooth and should have no resistance whatsoever. If there’s still resistance, that means it’s not done. But generally, 203, that brisket is going to be done. If you’re cooking a really high-grade wagyu or Kobe, you might need to go to 205 because of the higher marbling.
7. Then, once it’s done, the big kicker is letting that brisket rest. Pick a dry cooler, like an Igloo or Yeti or whatever and put that brisket in, don’t unwrap it. Let it rest for 2-4 hours. And that’s the magic of making really good brisket. Letting it rest is so important. It’s almost as important as cooking the brisket. During the cooking process, the juices are trying to push their way out from the center to the surface. Once you reach 205 and you start slicing it, you’ll get a lot of juice on the cutting board. It may look really cool, but that’s not a good thing. You want those juices to stabilize inside that brisket. Once you let it rest for 3-4 hours when you go to slice that brisket, just the brisket face will be juicy. You won’t have a pond of juice on the cutting board. You’ll have a little bit, but most of those juices will be held inside that brisket.