Back in 2002, there weren’t a lot of places for New Yorkers to score good barbecue. That’s when restaurateur Danny Meyer tapped chef Kenny Callaghan to helm the kitchen at Blue Smoke. Since then, a barbecue renaissance has blossomed in the city, with top-notch pitmasters smoking meat from the West Side to deep Brooklyn. We talked to Callaghan about the New York barbecue boom, the difference between Memphis- and Kansas City-style ribs, and the challenges of smoking up to 600 pounds of meat a day.
Why do you think barbecue has enjoyed so much popularity in NYC recently?
I think there was a void in New York City before we opened. There are a lot of transplants here from all over the country who miss the home-style barbecue they ate while growing up. The success of Blue Smoke also opened a lot of people’s eyes and made a lot of restaurateurs say, “Look at the success they’re having, I’d like to do that myself.”
What New York barbecue spots are you digging right now?
How about outside of New York?
There is a place in Southern Illinois called the 17th Street Bar & Grill that has fantastic ribs. There is the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas, a place that makes amazing barbecue. The Cozy Corner and the Bar-B-Q Shop in Memphis are also fantastic.
What’s your approach to making ribs?
Well, we do a Memphis-style baby-back rib, a Kansas City-style spare rib, and a Texas-style beef rib.
What’s the difference between the regions?
Texas is predominantly beef; there are huge cattle ranches in Texas. So we do a Texas-style beef brisket and ribs. I mean, they do cook pork ribs in Texas, but they also cook them in Memphis and other places, so we kind of stick to beef when it comes to Texas.
When it comes to Memphis, we cook baby-back ribs over applewood, and my rub is a bit more on the savory side. It has cayenne, chili powder, garlic powder, and onion powder, and the sauce is more of a mustard-tomato hybrid with a decent amount of acid so it’s nice and savory.
The Kansas City-style spare ribs are a bit richer and fattier, and the dry rub is a little sweeter, so we’ll still have the onion, chili and garlic and all of that, but we’ll also throw in a little cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg into it. Traditionally in Kansas City, they prefer a thicker, sweeter tomato-based sauce. My Kansas City-style sauce is sweet and thick, but it also has a bit of spice to it to cut through the richness of the spare ribs.
I’m also about to put a North Carolina-style sauce on the menu. That will have vinegar, sugar, black pepper, paprika, and red pepper flakes; that’s from the eastern part of North Carolina, where they like to have the acid from the vinegar to cut through the richness of the pulled pork shoulder.
Tell me about your smoking process.
We smoke them with either applewood or hickory for about seven to 7½ hours. I use applewood for the pork ribs and hickory for the beef ribs. The hickory can overpower the pork ribs; I like for my pork to taste like pork. If you use hickory or mesquite or oak and you don’t control it in a certain manner, you can actually overpower the sweetness of the pork and it can take on an acrid flavor. So I try to stick with applewood, or if I can’t get that I’ll use cherrywood, for the pork ribs.
The beef ribs can handle a bit more; the texture of the meat doesn’t allow the hickory to overpower the flavor of the beef. I have two Old Hickory smokers in the restaurant and those things are basically chugging along for 24 hours a day. It’s stuffed with ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, chicken, chicken wings, prime rib; we’re constantly throwing things in there and smoking things all day long. We probably smoke 500 to 600 pounds of meat a day.
When I give tours and open the smoker you can see people’s jaws just drop. The smoke and the flavor and the essence of all of it just hits you in the face and then the visual element of seeing hundreds of pounds of meat in the pit is all pretty impressive.
What are the most popular things on the menu?
People really like the pulled pork sandwiches and the baby-back ribs. I think people like the baby-back ribs most because they’re a little more user-friendly: Their bones are smaller; the meat is a little leaner and comes off the bone clean. The spare ribs are a lot richer and fattier. I’m partial to the baby-back ribs myself.
Any tips for people trying to make great ribs with a simple charcoal grill in their backyard?
You can’t rush good barbecue. I cook my meat at between 200 and 210 degrees. The internal temperature of ribs have to reach a certain point, about 180 degrees, before the meat starts to break down. A common mistake that home cooks make is that they’ll undercook their ribs, so the meat doesn’t really have an opportunity to break down and let the connective tissue melt away and leave the meat nice and tender. So it appears that they have cooked the ribs for too long because it’s dry and tough, but in reality they haven’t cooked them long enough for the connective tissue to break down. If they’re actually overcooked, they’ll be falling apart; if they’re undercooked, they’ll appear to most people to be overcooked. I’ve had ribs where the cook has said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I overcooked them,” and I’ll say, “They’re not overcooked; they’re undercooked by about an hour and a half.” And they couldn’t understand that because they don’t understand the science behind how meat breaks down.
How about seasoning your meat?
You can play with a lot of different seasonings. When I start with a dry rub, the two main components are salt and how much sweetness you want in there. For my baby-back rub, I start with salt, sugar, and pepper, then I start layering on the chili powder, garlic, cumin, and cayenne, all the things you need to balance heat against the level of saltiness and sweetness that you have. You don’t want to have too much sweetness in any kind of rub or sauce because over time it will start to caramelize and will eventually become a little acrid and bitter.
When it comes to sauce, you should only sauce your ribs in the last five minutes or it will also start to caramelize and get a bitter taste. So you just want to cook your ribs to the point where you’re almost ready to take off, sauce them, cook them for another five minutes, sauce them again, and take them off.
Check back in tomorrow, when Kenny shares the secret to great chicken wings and talks about the amazing success of the Big Apple BBQ Block Party.
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