The Secrets to True ‘Cue

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By Kurt Michael Friese

No type of cooking inspires as much passion, competition, obsession, and plain old American hometown pride as barbecue. There are local, regional, and national ‘cue contests that bring together hundreds of pathologically devoted cooks and thousands of BBQ-scarfing chowhounds to debate about which wood to use and to lie about their recipes.


Barbecue may, in fact, be the original way to cook. Historians believe man’s ancestors first ate cooked meat by scavenging in the aftermath of forest fires. More recently, Spanish conquistadors “exploring” tropical islands were fascinated by the aromas coming from the small green-wood grills New World natives called barbacoa. From these origins came the huge variety of barbecue that exists around the world. No other country, though, pursues the ‘cue with such passionate abandon as the United States.

First thing’s first: Barbecuing and grilling are not the same thing. Grilling is done over high, direct heat for a short amount of time, and might even use heat from gas or electricity. Real barbecue requires patience. It’s done over low, indirect heat–usually 200 F to 300 F–and can take from two hours to a couple of days, depending on the size of the meat. True ‘cue also needs smoke from hardwood chunks or chips that have been soaked in water and which impart signature flavor to the meat. This is America’s true slow food.

Because good barbecue needs smoke and an indirect heat source, serious ‘cue aficionados use a smoker to take advantage of an adjacent fire. You can mimic this with a typical backyard grill. For a charcoal grill, pile the coals to one side, add the soaked wood directly to the hot coals, and place the meat on the unheated side. For a gas grill, light a couple of the burners on one side, place soaked hardwood chips in a smoker box or foil pouch over the flames, and set the meat over the unheated side.

While there are many talented barbecue enthusiasts here in Iowa, where I live, it is perhaps a bit surprising that Iowa does not have a rich barbecue tradition all its own. We have all the necessary ingredients: pork and beef, an abundance of hardwoods like oak and hickory, hot summers and hungry people. Still no one particular form is labeled as “Iowa ‘cue,” so we borrow nearly everyone else’s traditions and will barbecue nearly anything that moves and a few things that don’t; any excuse to play in the smoke.

Among the favorites is Texas-style beef brisket. Down there the wood would have to be oak or mesquite, but we have lots of different choices up here and I am especially fond of the fruit and nut woods, which produce sweeter smoke than oak or mesquite. I used cherry and pecan wood to smoke this Barbecued Beef Brisket.

For the beginning ‘cue chef, hardwood chips are sufficient for flavor and ease of use, and used with a smoker box or even a simple foil pouch they can convert any gas grill into a makeshift smoker. Wood chips are available in most grocery stores and anywhere grills are sold. If you want to get serious about your ‘cue, though, Iowa boasts one of the best resources in the country. Check out Hawgeyes BBQ in Ankeny for everything you’ll need and then some.

So here are my secrets to true ‘cue: Low heat, real wood, smoke … and hefty shot of patience.

kurt-thumbKurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the ea981c; background-position: initial initial; padding: 0px; margin: 0px; border: initial none initial;" href="" target="_blank">Slow Food USANational Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine ea981c; background-position: initial initial; padding: 0px; margin: 0px; border: initial none initial;" href="" target="_blank">Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.

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Barbecued Beef Brisket

Beef brisket is a tough cut that lends itself to slowly smoking on the barbecue. Soaking the hardwood is crucial for successful barbecue. As you may have learned while camping, wet wood produces lots of smoke–bad for camp-outs but just what you want for barbecue. For beef brisket and other relatively lean cuts, basting is necessary to keep the meat moist; any kind of high-quality beer will work well in this recipe. Hardwood chunks are ideal, since they burn slowly and produce gentle, consistent smoke.

Barbecued Beef Brisket


Prep Time: 24 hours

Cook Time: 12 hours

Yield: Serves 24

Barbecued Beef Brisket


  1. Rub:
  2. 1 whole (8-pound) beef brisket, cleaned and trimmed
  3. 1 cup brown sugar
  4. 1 cup stone-ground mustard
  5. 1/2 cup kosher salt
  6. 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage
  7. 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  8. 2 tablespoons freshly black pepper
  9. 2 tablespoons cayenne pepper (or to taste)
  10. 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  11. Baste:
  12. 1/2 cup good beer
  13. 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  14. 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce


24 to 36 hours ahead:

To prepare the rub, slather beef with mustard. Combine sugar and next 7 ingredients (through cumin); press evenly onto meat. Cover, and refrigerate at least 12 and up to 36 hours.

24 hours ahead:

Soak 10 pounds of hardwood chunks in water. (If you use hardwood chips, they only need to soak for 2 hours.)

To prepare the baste, combine beer, vinegar, and Worcestershire in a clean spray bottle; refrigerate.

12 hours ahead:

If you have a smoker with a side firebox, you probably already know how to stoke it. If you’re using a charcoal or gas grill, build the fire on one side of the grill. Add some of the soaked hardwood to the hot coals (or place it in a smoker box or foil pouch if using a gas grill).

When the temperature has reached about 200 F, place brisket in smoker or on the unheated side of the grill and cover. Mind the fire to maintain this temperature throughout the cooking process. Baste the meat with beer mixture and add new wet wood every hour or so, for a total cooking time of 10-12 hours.

The beef is ready when the internal temperature registers about 170 F on a meat thermometer. It will be completely charred black on the outside (don’t worry, that’s a good thing). Let it rest at room temperature for 20 minutes before slicing it across the grain. Serve with your favorite barbecue sauce and plenty of cold beer.


Prep Time: 24 to 36 hours

Cook Time: 12 hours

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  • mountainrn

    Just logged on after a few month’s absence and found this – very interesting and the recipe looks good too. Sent it on to my oldest son who is a bbq enthusiast. He makes the best tri-tip. steph

  • Alison Ashton

    Mmmm, love tri-tip! It’s great to bbq, ’cause it doesn’t take as long to cook as brisket or pork butt.

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