Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lite Lagers

The best thing about Lite Lagers is there is no law requiring me, or anyone else, to drink them. Lite lagers are the moral equivalent of Wal Mart stores. Sure, they get the job done, but no one ought to brag about the encounter.

Despite the fact that they are disgusting, Lite Lagers are probably among the best selling beers in America. Most every one has tried one. Miller Lite, Bud Light, Coors Light are but some of the offerings foisted on an unsuspecting public. Some of the major craft brewers also offer these beers - most likely to get a toehold on the market. Sam Adams Light being one example. If you want to drink a lite lager but don't want to appear to be too much of a Philistine you can always order a Bitburger Light (at least that's German).

Believe it or not these beers are designed to be flavorless and borderline insulting to your intelligence as a beer drinker. These beers can often contain up to 40% rice or corn as adjuncts. That means that the brewers are intentionally brewing the flavor right out of them. They must be served cold because the coldness deadens your taste buds so that you can pour these things down your throat without puking. If you try to drink one of these warm you will get a mouthful of something that is best left undescribed.

In fact, if you want to know if you are drinking a good beer let it reach room temperature. At that point you will really begin to taste the actual flavors of the beer. If you can identify pleasant malty flavors and/or the aroma of hops, chances are you aren't drinking a Lite Lager.

Lite lagers tend to have an original gravity of 1.028-1.040 and a final gravity of .998-1.008. That means the alcohol by volume is between 2.9 - 4.2%.

The hop bitterness of the beers (measured in IBUs) is 8-12 and the color (measured in SRMs) is 2-3. That basically means there is little to no hop aroma and the color resembles pale straw.

The one redeeming quality of this kind of beer is that it is incredibly refreshing on a hot day and with it's relatively low alcohol content you can have a few and still see straight. It also has fewer calories than many other beers. There, I said something nice. Next style, please!

When I'm not humiliating myself at a BBQ competition or cutting huge gouges in my sharpening stones I teach Reformation history at two institutions of higher learning. I have always loved history and I suspect that's the underlying connective tissue that holds all my hobbies together. In all my avocations I am drawn to the fact that by cooking with fire, sharpening steel, brewing beer, or even fly fishing, I am able to touch a part of the past. Sorry to be a sap, but it's true.

During the coldest parts of winter, when I don't enjoy tending a smoker and I can't control fermentation temperatures, I concentrate on sharpening. But I have decided that this may be a good time for me to begin the process of studying for certification as a Beer Judge. The process of becoming a certified beer judge is nothing like becoming a CBJ in the competition BBQ world. The official study guides are close to 100 pages when combined. In addition, the exam tests a person's knowledge of the brewing process by requiring the test-taker to provide all grain recipies. And if that's not enough the examinee (is that a word?) must be able to provide detailed information on a number of beer styles.

Needless to say I'm loving the opportunity to turn my mind away from Reformation history and dig into a little liquid history, at least until the next term begins.

All blogs are self-indulgent bovine scatology, and this one is no different. So if you don't mind I'm going to use this little part of the internet to review what I'm learning and track my progress. First stop - Light Lagers. I don't mind studying them, so long as I'm not forced to drink them!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Flanken Cut Beef Short Ribs

When I was in graduate school in Chicago I shared a room with a guy from South Korea. He was almost evangelical about Korean food and insisted on sharing his homeland's cuisine with everyone he met. He took me to a Korean restaurant and ordered egg roe soup. I was supposed to think it was delicious. If you replace the word "delicious" with "absolutely disgusting" then, yes, it was delicious.

After that experience I was not inclined to eat anything Sung offered to feed me. But when he spoke of Korean BBQ, I had to relent and give it a try. Sure, there was a possibility that it would include rotten cabbage or something similarly putrid but BBQ is BBQ, so I gave him a chance.

He started off with Flanken cut beef short ribs and marined them in some sort of soy sauce garlic mixture that smelled much better than I thought it would. After marinating the ribs he cooked them quickly over a small grill and served them with lettuce leaves.

I ate so much I thought I needed to purge. To this day those ribs are the highwater mark for me and my understanding of "good grilled meat." Until yesterday I thought I'd never be able to reproduce that wonderful evening with ribs, lettuce, and shattered misconceptions. But like my understanding of Korean food, my belief that I couldn't cook good Korean style ribs has undergone a serious transformation.

Here's what I did:

I found Flanken cut beef ribs at Sam's Club, then I paid for them. Easy enough.

I made a marinade with:

1/2 c. soy sauce

1/4 c. water

1 Tablespoon brown sugar

1 Tablespoon sesame seed oil

several cloves of garlic

I marinated the ribs for a couple hours on the advice of John "Chez" Eddy - who warned me that if I marinated them too long they would probably get overly salty. Then I grilled them for a couple of minutes over medium heat. These things are cut thin so it would be easy to overcook them. I wanted to err on the side of underdone and I'm glad I did.

They turned out something like this (the photo isn't mine, I borrowed it from - I also lifted the picture of the ribs from My apologies to the hardworking photographers who took these pics. Perhaps you can visit those pages and see the photos for yourself!):

Last night I relived that evening in Chicago so many years ago. I ate until I was nearly sick and I kept looking to my wife for affirmation. "Aren't these ribs great?" But I never heard her response. I was only interested in more ribs and I'm pretty sure she was more interested in finding another husband!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I'm a freaking chicken ninja!

There are three of us who cook for Holy and Oly's Competition BBQ. I'm not sure exactly how we decided to split up cooking duties, but for whatever reason I ended up with chicken and brisket. I don't mind cooking brisket. It's relatively straight forward and doesn't require much prep work.

Chicken? Well, that's another story.

It usually takes me an hour or more to prep chicken thighs for competition. Most of that time is spent shaping the thighs and trimming fat. This is tedious work and I have never enjoyed it. Until now.

O.K., that's not totally true. I still hate prepping chicken, but using a scary sharp Japanese shiv has made the experience much more enjoyable. The blade on these knives are so sharp and the cuts so exacting that instead of cutting through hunks of meat I can decide whether the cuts are deep or millimeters thin. Simply slide the blade across the meat and the knife takes care of the rest. Cutting through flesh while leaving the skin intact is as easy as turning on my FEC, the knife gives you that much control.

The blade does not have a typical 50/50 edge. Instead, this particular knife is a single bevel blade that resembles one half of a pair of scissors. Real sharp scissors. Sharpening it will be a bit of a challenge, but I love getting my water stones out anyway so I suppose I can find some enjoyment in maintaining this tool. Now I need one big enough for brisket!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Joe York rules the world!

Sometimes when I forget why I started BBQing with extreme prejudice - when I worry more about how to impress KCBS judges rather than my family and neighbors - I'm thrown a bone from a Good Samaritan and I am able to call to mind what a true blessing BBQ is to me and my culture. That bone often comes in the form of a Joe York documentary.

Joe York is to BBQ what Ken Burns is to everything else American. He is a master documentarian who has a special gift for telling the story of America's cuisine. I have seen his previous short films, Capitol Q and Whole Hog, so many times that I can talk along with the filmed dialog - his films are that good.

I was delighted to come across Karen Walker's (of the Kansas City BBQ Society) Facebook status today because she included a link to Joe's new film, Cut/Chop/Cook. I am shamelessly lifting that link and putting it on my blog. If you want to say thanks to Karen, get or renew your subscription to KCBS and tell 'em she's the reason. You might also want to check out some of her BBQ photos. She's an artist in her own right!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Skyrockets in flight...afternoon delight!

In 1976, the Starland Vocal Band made BBQ cool. Until then most people preferred boiled meats and jerkey to anything that would resemble what we have come to know as BBQ. Smoking meat hadn't been invented and most men, as a result of the feminist movement, didn't even know how to build a fire. Then everything changed. With a few words put in delicious harmony the world of modern BBQ was born. In not so coded language, the essence of smoked ribs and brisket was captured and released into the airwaves of post hippy America.

Skyrockets in flight
Afternoon delights...

The explosion was instantaneous. People began to venture outdoors in the afternoon and were delighted by what they were able to produce on what they called "grills." On a sunny day (June 18, 1976) soon after the song was released the Weber company decided to market an oversized baseball shaped beer cooler as a grill and the birth of the modern kettle grill was realized.

In honor of the 34th anniversary of BBQ, I have decided to partake in some afternoon delights of my own. I picked up some ribeyes at a local rural groceria and decided to throw a brisket and some pork butts on my pellet smoker. Here's to America and the American way. And I hope you have a chance to enjoy some afternoon delights of your own this weekend!

Click here for the soundtrack to this historical monograph - Afternoon Delight

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

If someone hands me a can of beer my habit is to say a quick "thank you" to whoever was kind enough to share a barley pop with me. Then, when they aren't looking, I dump it in any hole I can find so long as it isn't my mouth!

Words like "light" and "drinkability" are sure signs that whatever is in that can isn't worth my time or trouble. As Hunter Thompson once wrote, "Good people drink good beer." Well, I may not be a good person, but I sure do expect my beer to be borderline awesome. So it's craft beer for me - all the way.

However, tonight I experienced two worlds collide and I have to admit I enjoyed the experience. Our local Hy-Vee stores have been carrying a ton of good beers as of late and today I stumbled on a real treat. Sitting on a shelf, at eye level no less!, was a four pack of Roller Dam Red Ale from Great River Brewery - in cans!!!

A BBQ friend of mine, Ryan Newstrom from Big T'z Q Cru, mentioned that a friend of his (and sponsor) had opened a brew pub in my neck of the woods. I have not had a chance to visit the brewery so I jumped at the chance to try their beer.

Get this - they actually put the IBU's on the can (30, for what it's worth). Maybe I'm easily impressed, but when beer artisans are willing to waste good money printing info that only beer nerds understand on the package I get the feeling I'm about to enjoy myself....tremendously! And this beer didn't let me down.

It's a typical American Amber Ale that is wonderfully malty while giving enough hop aroma and flavor to keep things interesting. The color, as one would expect, is a wonderful amber that brought to mind a cricket held in hopeless suspension in amber on my desk when I was a little shaver. The head was a pleasant golden color that disappeared rather quickly, probably due to the fact that I poured it into a glass that was washed in detergent. What can I say - I wasn't expecting good beer tonight!

As the can indicates, the beer is named for Mississippi River Lock and Dam No. 15, which is located south of The Great River Brewery brewhouse. Despite what you may think about Texas, the biggest roller dam in the world just happens to be Mississippi River Lock and Damn No. 15. Additionally, the best brisket cooks in the free world are found in Iowa as well - but don't tell that to any Texans.

The fact that a local brew pub had managed to get their beer in cans and on a highly desired location in a grocery store beer cooler gives me pause to reflect on how lucky my generation is to have access to these craft concoctions. Imagine finding a beer of this quality on beer shelves in the mid eighties. Never would have happened.

I am a happy camper tonight. This good beer has made me feel like a good person living in a good place to live - rural Iowa. So support your local brew pub. And if you can't, then support mine. Give this beer a try if you are able. If you can't, then live vicariously through me. I do it all the time!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sharp is better!

"I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better." – Sophie Tucker (among others!)

While trimming spare ribs into St. Louis style ribs this morning I recalled the simple, yet wonderful, sentiments of Sophie Tucker. Given the choice between having and not having – having is better. Why did these words pop into my head while trimming pork ribs? Because as my freshly sharpened knife cut easily through both meat and bone I couldn’t help recalling the times when I tried the same cuts with dull knives.

If I may, let me paraphrase Sophie. I’ve used sharp knives and I’ve used dull knives. Believe me, sharp is better.

Most BBQ cooks understand this principle, yet do enough of us understand how to turn that principle into a reality? Sure, we want sharp knives; we crave sharp knives. But at the end of the day do we have sharp knives?

In fact, are we actually dulling our knives with the traditional tools most of us carry with us from competition to competition? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought the answer was “no.”

Perhaps one of the most important tools for keeping a sharp edge between actual sharpening is the “steel.” You know, that long rod with ridges that comes with every Henkels and Wusthof knife set! You all have one….don’t you? Of course you do!

Because I don’t want to insult your intelligence I won’t bother explaining that a steel won’t actually sharpen a knife. You probably already understand that the purpose of a steel is to re-align the edge because as a knife is used the edge tends to curl – thus taking that sharpness away. Each of you is already an expert at removing that curl by passing the knife across a steel.

But did you know that not all steels are created equal? You have your typical “new with the set” steel - these are characterized by long ridges running up and down the length of the tool. Then there’s the butcher’s steel - a long piece of steel with no ridges. Then there’s the ceramic “steel” – which actually comes close to being a sharpener because most of them have a grit like quality.

If you are going to bother re-aligning your knives with a steel do yourself a favor. Use one that actually helps you keep the knife sharp. I recommend using either the smooth butcher's style steel or a ceramic hone. In an email with knife sharpener Dave Martell (this guy's my hero!) Dave passed along some words of wisdom about using a steel:

A friend of mine send me some pictures a few years back that clearly showed what most of us pro sharpeners already knew and that's the typical grooved steel damages knife edges. It appears that the sharpcorners of the cut out grooves will grab and tear the edge which in turn leaves a jagged deformed surface behind. This jagged edge is what cuts, or rather tears, at the food.

There are some grooved steels that are very hard and super fine which are less bad for the cutting edge, however, they're very hard to locate and the price point is discouraging. I suggest using a fine ceramic hone like the ones we carry from Idahone. They work in a way where they remove loose damaged micro-teeth (trace material seen on the rod as black streaks when used) and at the same time assure that the edge is aligned correctly as well as brought back to the optimum grit level for maximum performance. For European/American knives the ceramic rod is the best way to go.

The other issue with steels is how they are used or - perhaps more importantly - misused. Here's Dave again:

One other point worth noting is that one of the worst things you can do to your knives, or maybe better said - pointless things you can do to your knives, is to "steel" them by swinging them at the rod in the air like the fancy chefs on TV do. Those of us in the know see the damage this creates to the shape of the belly of the knife and the scratches along the sides of the blade caused by slips. In the thousands of demonstrations I've personally seen I have never seen one cook "steel" correctly. They're all hitting the edge, that is if they actually do hit the edge, at an incorrect angle and most often also not hitting the entire edge along it's length. Why flail away with a knife in mid air acrobatics besides to look cool? I say drop the showmanship and go for edge quality which is after all what you're supposed to be after.

An example of this ridiculous method of using the steel is found on Youtube featuring notable chef Gordon Ramsay:
(sorry - embedding was disabled so click on the link if you'd like to see the video)

So how should you use a steel? Let's give Dave the last word:

The correct technique for using a honing rod (or steel) is to put the tip of the rod down on the counter/table top while holding the handle in your off hand. Then slowly, using control, make light swipes down the rod travelling from heel to tip. When using this method you only need 2-3 passes per side to bring the edge back to it's peak level. Using this method doesn't look as fancy to onlookers however it provides a better longer lasting edge with zero damage to the knife as well as extending the knife's serviceable life through less edge wear.

Monday, April 12, 2010

How sharp is too sharp?

When I first bought a smoker I was really impressed with my new purchase. I decided to spend way more for my cooker than the "typical" smoker costs because I believed that I might as well cry once and have the item that I wanted. When I brought it home I put it together and it was a thing of beauty. A big barrel, nice smoke stack and a firebox made me the talk of the town (it’s a small town!).

That first smoker was a Brinkmann Pitmaster, and compared to the ECB (El Cheapo Brinkmann) bullet smoker, this was a Ferrari. However, it didn’t take me long to find out that the thin layer of metal and the small firebox would be a huge disadvantage when trying to smoke meats that take a long time on the heat. After spending some time on BBQ forums I came to realize that what I though was a good smoker was, in fact, a royal piece of crap. Sure, some folks love cooking on these smokers – they love to make modifications and re-engineer the pit. But I’m not that kind of guy. I want a product that does what it’s supposed to do without hassle and frustration.

I suppose that’s just the way things go. We have perceptions of quality that simply don’t hold up to the deep mystery of reality. Lesson learned.

I am in the process of learning that same lesson again, but now it’s with knives and knife sharpening. For the last year or so I have been experimenting with dry stones, Arkansas oil stones, and recently I purchased an Edge Pro sharpening system. In order to learn how to use the stones I have had to learn a lot about knives. Secondary bevels, burrs, acute and obtuse angles, the list goes on. I have also learned a lot about the difference between Japanese knives and the German knives we have come to think of as knives of the highest quality.

My experience with knives is similar to my experience with cookers. The idea of quality is often found in perception based on experience. I perceived that the Brinkmann Pitmaster was of higher quality than the ECB bullet, primarily because of the price difference and the appearance of the cooker itself. It simply looked more like a smoker to me! Indeed, the quality of a Pitmaster is probably higher than the Brinkmann bullet smoker. However, when I was confronted with a community of other BBQ enthusiasts I came to realize that my perceptions of quality were way off the mark in the grander arena of the world of cookers. The same thing is true for knives. Put up against the knives I bought from Sam’s Club (2 for $8) and the Chicago Cutlery that I inherited from my mom, the Wusthofs and Henkels that my wife bought for our home seemed like the highest of quality. Even more impressive, they cost twice as much as the knives I grew up using. Thus, these German knives were the high-water mark for me in terms of cutlery. Then I tried to sharpen them.

I was looking for that scary sharp edge, and I managed to get it after some work. The problem was that I couldn’t keep the edge. I’m not afraid to admit when my ignorance gets the best of me, so I got onto a knife forum and began to ask what I was doing wrong. The answers I got back surprised me, they even offended me a little. The problem was that I was expecting Japanese knife quality from a German knife. The problem is that Japanese steel can be up to 10x stronger than German steel, so a razor edge is difficult to keep on a German knife. To put it in BBQ terms - A Brinkmann won't cook like a Jambo.

After a phone call to master sharpener Dave Martell (Japanese Knife Sharpening) to see what I could do differently he informed me to actually refrain from making the knives razor sharp. His council? Use a courser stone so that the edge can maintain some “teeth”, the knife will cut better, longer if it is not brought to a razor, polished edge.

I am certainly not about to go and dump my German knives in order to get Japanese slicers in order to cut briskets at a BBQ competition. Indeed, there is no need to do that, just like there is no need for us all to sell inferior pits in order to get a Jambo (believe me, I’ve come close)! The secret is to understand the equipment we have and adjust our use of the equipment accordingly.

So, if you are having trouble maintaining a “scary sharp” knife, it may not be your lack of care – it may be the knife itself. If your razor sharp Henkel is having trouble cutting through a bark coated brisket, it may be that you need a different kind of sharpness to achieve the desired results. And if that "scary" sharpness disappears as quickly as it came, there is only the deep mystery of reality to explain that the knife is just too soft to hold that kind of edge.

Here are some videos of Dave at work:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Some final thoughts on my Waygu cook.

As I reflect on my experiences today I think I should acknowledge that my judgment of CAB vs. Waygu was less about Waygu beef in general and more about the particular brisket I happened to cook. I have been lucky enough to see Waygu briskets cooked by some of the best in the business and I have some idea of what a Waygu brisket ought to look like. Notice in the picture below how marbled the brisket is:

This brisket was unbelievable in every respect. It had a flavor and texture that was beyond belief.

Now look at the marbling in the brisket I cooked:

The fat you do see was resting on top of the silver skin. After I trimmed the square looking piece on the right there was nothing but pure red.

I think that there is certainly an advantage to using premium meats. However, when this amount of money is at stake one negative experience with what may not have been the best product can certainly sour a person's opinion. My estimation is that I need to try again - with another producer - and see if the results are the same. Anyone know where I can get free Waygu briskets?

At the end of the day...

At the end of the day the results of my Waygu vs. CAB were more than conclusive. In the picture below the Waygu is on the right and the CAB is on the left...

CAB on the left, Waygu on the right. These pictures were taken a half hour after slicing - after the taste tests were complete. Hopefully that explains why the slices are a bit ratty looking - this is what was left after the "judging" was complete. The burnt-ends didn't make it to the photo-op :)

I prepared each of the briskets using the exact same methods and products. I injected with Butchers - the rest I'll keep to myself. Both briskets looked good and held moisture well.

Of the five people who judged, two were competitors and certified judges, and one was a hottie who could have married much better than she did! The results were:

3 chose the CAB
2 chose the Waygu after a lot of deliberation (almost came down to a coin toss).

Clearly the issue could have been the cook - but my experience has left me feeling happy with the meat I am able to get at Sam's.

Which one is the Waygu? - update

We are are almost half way through the cook - just prior to putting on the foil. One note - the brisket on the left has the point end closest to the camera. The brisket on the right has the point farthest from the camera. Any guesses which one is the Waygu?

Which one is the Waygu?

This is my third time cooking Waygu briskets. I decided to do a side by side comparison of a Waygu brisket ($4.70 per lb.) and a choice CAB brisket ($1.98 per lb.). Can you tell the difference?

This is the Waygu:

This is the CAB

CAB on the left, Waygu on he right.

I'll post pics of the finished product later this evening - this is going to be a good day for eating at Monty's!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

BBQ Brewday(s)

Time to Q also means time to brew. I am putting together a bunch of brews for KCBS BBQ Competition teams and if they are going to be ready by summer now is the time to get started.

Why would I brew beer for teams that will crush us on the BBQ circuit? Simple. I plan on delivering the beer at the precise moment each team is deep in preparation. They will feel obligated to let me into their camp and I will use those brief moments to shig mercilessly.

My first beer is brewed for Big T's Q Crew. They started competing the same time I did. The only difference - they managed to win a bunch of Grand Championships last year and ended up the Iowa BBQ Society's 2009 Team of the Year. Where did Holy and Oly's end up in the IBS rankings? Who knows! They don't calculate out places that far down!

Big T's Tongue Twister.

This beer is huge. It has a pound of hops. To put that into perspective here is the amount of hops used in a typical extra pale ale:

Here's a pound of hops - these are the additions I used in the Big T's Tongue Splitter:

The original gravity of this beer ended up at 1090. By the time it ferments it will be around 9% ABV. Needless to say once the Big T's crew lays into this brew they'll be flat on their backs. Then I'll sweep in and swipe their briskets!

Boondoggle Royal Pale Ale

Don and Bob Denner were the winners of the 2009 American Royal Open, thus the name Royal Pale Ale. This beer is a bit more subdued when placed next to the Big T's brew - but it still packs a lot of hops (5 oz):

I plan on delivering this beer right as they are saucing their pork shoulder. If neither of them are looking I may even snatch some of their sauce!

The original gravity on this is 1040 - making it a nice session brew.

Both beers will spend a lot of time in fermenters. I plan on bottling them in about a month in a half. Then they will age in bottles. The Big T's is big enough that it could be stored for several years - it will only get better.

More to come!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I don't want a holiday in the sun.

It's time for me to spend more time outdoors. I don't plan on doing any camping or fishing anytime soon. I'm thinking of outdoor activities that involve a lot of sitting and watching. So today I went outside and sat and watched my smoker burn through stick after stick of hickory. Here are some pics. Sorry for the dull colors (almost yellowish tint). But what do you expect for nothing?

Thick cut bacon. Dredge it in:
Brown Sugar
Cayenne pepper
Smoke it for 2 hours (250-275*)

Brisket with burnt ends. Maybe someone who knows something about photography can explain why my camera makes this brisket look like it's slathered in mustard (it's not, really!!).

A good day overall. We had ribs as well, but my sons destroyed those slabs - they hit them like rats on a cheeto!

Here's my fist in the face of winter. Listen to this over a nice plate of Q - especially if you are knee deep in snow!