June 30, 2017
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A Sermon on Smoke
MikeMills

“You don’t see the spaghetti people doing this,” says competition barbecue boss and pit educator Mike Mills of the passion of his followers. A new book introduces secrets of at-home smoking.    

Mike Mills knows a thing or two about impressing barbecue judges. After all, he’s won three Grand World Championships at Memphis in May, America’s premier barbecue cook-off. But please don’t ask him for tips on cooking championship-quality ‘cue at home.

This has nothing to do with trade secrets. He just knows that competition techniques aren’t meant for the backyard. “Judges are taking just one bite of each entry, so that bite has to be a burst of flavor,” Mills writes in Praise the Lard: Recipes and Revelations from a Legendary Life in Barbecue, the new cookbook he co-wrote with his daughter Amy. Contestants simmer ribs in honey and apple juice, poach chicken in butter and inject salty broth into “one-bite” brisket. “If you ate an entire serving of some competition barbecue,” Mills warns, “you’d probably have a stomachache.”

Instead, Praise the Lard advocates for barbecue “in all its natural glory”—a no-nonsense approach focused not on gimmicks or gadgets but on solid fundamentals. And you couldn’t ask for more authoritative sources than Mike and Amy Mills, a powerhouse father-and-daughter duo with some of the most influential voices on today’s barbecue scene.

They’ve garnered a room full of competition trophies, built a flourishing restaurant business, mentored a generation of new barbecue cooks and transformed tiny Murphysboro, Illinois (population 7,811) into a barbecue destination. Praise the Lard adds a new chapter to that legacy by setting its sights on the backyard.

“Nothing tastes better than the barbecue you cook in your backyard,” the Millses assert firmly. “This is as true for seasoned pros as it is for those who are new to the flame-taming game.” And so they set about offering a “sermon on smoke,” covering everything from selecting your wood and formulating spice rubs to knowing when to remove the meat from the pit.

Ultimately, their approach is grounded in the notion of hospitality—using fire-cooked meats and tempting sides to bring people together. And that means everything from brisket and pulled pork to garlic-buttered ribeye steaks. The recipes are geared less to wow guests (there’s neither sous vide tenderloin nor monstrous bacon-smothered concoctions) than they are to satisfy them, whether it’s opening with “Devil’s-in-the-Details” deviled eggs (“always the first thing to disappear off the Southern buffet table”) or closing with Church Cookbook Peanut Rolls, an old-school treat found almost exclusively in southern Illinois.

Amy and Mike Mills walking the mean streets of Murphysboro, Illinois.

This concept of fellowship and community is what drew Mike Mills into the barbecue world in the first place. Back in 1985 he was operating a dental lab in Murphysboro and decided to buy a local bar and grill as a sort of side gig. The goal, he explains, was to create the kind of gathering place where he’d want to hang out, a place where people would feel good and warm.

Mills had been cooking chicken and ribs in the backyard for years, and he started serving barbecue a few times a week at the bar. It quickly became the main attraction.

In 2002, the Millses headed east to help Danny Meyer open the acclaimed Blue Smoke in New York City, and the following year they helped launch the first Big Apple Block Party in Madison Square Park, introducing the masses to traditional regional barbecue. After establishing a second 17th Street Barbecue outpost in 2004 in nearby Marion, Illinois, they turned their energies toward mentoring other entrepreneurs.

Smoked brisket from a new cookbook, Praise the Lard.

Through OnCue Consulting, Amy advises restaurateurs across the country on the business side of barbecue operations. In 2011, the Millses staged the first Whole Hog Extravaganza, an annual industry conference that brings dozens of aspiring barbecue pitmasters and restaurateurs to Murphysboro, where they learn hands-on from some of the best in the business.

One theme underlies their advice to industry insiders: Barbecue is not just a business, it’s a calling. Or, as Mike told the gathered crowd at one of their industry events, “you don’t see the spaghetti people doing this.”

That notion of barbecue exceptionalism carries over to the backyard, for nothing draws a crowd faster than meat cooking on a pit. For those who want to go whole hog, Praise the Lard offers an entire chapter with detailed instructions for procuring, prepping and cooking a whole pig. For those preferring more coursed-out cooking, there’s a chapter devoted to upscale dinner party fare like prime rib roast or coffee-crusted beef tenderloin.

But the core of the book focuses on the fundamentals, including 17th Street’s signature baby back ribs along with pork shoulder, chicken and brisket.  For those ready to branch out, there are slightly more esoteric entries like pit-smoked pastrami and caramelized Midwest-style pork steaks, which are first slow smoked then finished with a high-heat sear and a light mopping of sauce. Throughout, the authors insist on using the highest quality of ingredients, and they promote a made-from-scratch mentality—whether that’s grinding your own meat for beer brats and burgers or simply blending your own spice rub.

Stacks of smoked bacon is the new bread basket!

All in all, Praise the Lard is a serious barbecue primer that doesn’t cut corners, but it’s still accessible to even a novice backyard cook. Its guidance covers everything from selecting wood to knowing when the meat is done, and it details common pitfalls to avoid, all delivered with a healthy dose of wit. (Mike Mills on whether to wrap meats with aluminum foil: “I used to wrap my ribs, until I learned how to cook ‘em right.”)

The best cookbooks do more than just catalog recipes and tips. They establish a guiding philosophy for their authors’ style of cooking. In Praise the Lard, Mike and Amy Mills do precisely that, advancing a theory of barbecue hospitality that’s expressed succinctly in this equation: “Barbecue = Food + Family + Love.”

That’s the kind of culinary math we can all get behind.

Ingredients

  • Ribs
  • 3 racks of baby back ribs (about 2 pounds each)
  • Pure Magic
  • 2 cups apple juice in a spray bottle with a trigger handle
  • barbecue sauce
  • 4-5 pounds good-quality lump charcoal
  • 1 small (8-inch) piece of apple wood or 2 store-bought chunks
  • string mop
  • Pure Magic
  • ½ cup sweet Hungarian paprika
  • ¼ cup kosher salt
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup granulated garlic
  • ¼ cup chili powder
  • ¼ cup ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Our royalty status on the competition circuit originated with our long-reigning champion baby back ribs. Also known as loin backs, baby backs are cut “high on the hog” and come from the curved region of the rib cage. You’ll notice the bones have a slight arch to them, and the meat has a bit of pork chop or pork loin flavor. When buying your baby backs, pay attention to the size of the ribs. We prefer smaller 2-pound racks, which come off a younger hog and are more tender, with a higher meat-to-bone ratio.

    Ribs

  1. Prep the meat: To remove the thin, papery membrane from the inner side of the ribs, lay each rack, bone side up, on a flat surface and slide the handle of a teaspoon between the membrane and the meat, working from one end all the way to the other. Use a paper towel to grab ahold of the membrane and pull firmly to peel the whole thing off. Then use the bowl end of the spoon to scrape away any extraneous fat on the bone side of the rack, between the bones. Don’t scrape all the way down to the bone; just remove any thick deposits. Turn the rack over and inspect the front. Use a sharp knife to trim off any scraggly edges and hard pieces of fat (which won’t render out during the cooking process).
  2. Cut the racks in halves or thirds as needed to fit on the cooker. Lightly sprinkle each side with dry rub. You’ll be layering on rub several times during the cooking process, so don’t overdo it now. Set the ribs on a baking sheet, cover them with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until you’re ready to put them on the cooker. Note: You can dust the ribs with dry rub up to 4 hours prior to cooking, but if they sit much longer than that, the salt in the rub will begin to pull moisture from the meat.
  3. Set up the cooker for indirect-heat smoking: Open the top and bottom vents. Pile 3 pounds of the charcoal in one half of the cooker, leaving the other half empty. Load a charcoal chimney one-quarter full of charcoal and light it. When the coals in the chimney are glowing, dump them on top of the pile of charcoal in the cooker. Set the wood on top of the coals, replace the grate, and put the ribs over the side with no coals (the indirect cooking area), bone side down. Close the lid.
  4. Don’t open the cooker for 1 hour, but keep a close eye on the temperature (see page 84 for how best to assess and monitor cooker temperature); when it reaches 185°, which might happen very quickly, close the vents about halfway so that less air comes in to feed the fire and the heat in the cooker rises slowly. Let the temperature climb to between 225° and 250° (see page 77 for how to determine your target temperature). Maintain your target temperature for the duration of the cook.
  5. Throughout the entirety of the cook, be on the lookout for fluctuations in cooker temperature; if it dips more than 5° below your target and opening the vents isn’t sufficient to bring it back up, you will need to add a few hot coals. If at any point the temperature climbs above your target by more than 5°, close the top and bottom vents further so that even less air comes in to feed the fire.
  6. After 1 hour, open the lid and check the edges of the ribs closest to the fire. If they look like they’re beginning to brown, rotate the racks, moving the pieces that are farthest away and placing them closest to the fire, and vice versa. (Do not flip the ribs over, now or at any other point during the cook.)
  7. Close the lid and continue cooking the ribs for another 2 to 4 hours, monitoring the cooker temperature and checking every 20 minutes or so to see if the surface of the meat looks dry or moist. If the ribs look dry, mist them with some apple juice and sprinkle on another light coat of dry rub. Ribs “sweat” about three times during the smoking process, indicating that the seasoning from the dry rub and the flavor from the smoke are being absorbed into the meat. Never flip the ribs over; instead continue rotating them so each piece cooks evenly.
  8. Prepare another round of charcoal in the chimney as needed. This cook should not require more charcoal than the initial amount, but we always keep some coals at the ready just in case more are needed to maintain the temperature.

Pure Magic

  1. Mix all the ingredients. Using a spice mill or coffee grinder, blend ¼ cup at a time to a powder-like consistency so that all of the spice particles are relatively the same size.
  2. Store in a tightly covered container in a cool, dark place. The rub keeps for about 6 months, or until the color or pungent aroma fades.
From-Scratch Baked Beans

From-Scratch Baked Beans

12-15 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried great Northern beans
  • ½ cup dried small red beans
  • ½ cup dried light red kidney beans
  • ½ cup dried baby lima beans
  • ½ cup dried large lima beans
  • 1 small meaty ham hock or 3 to 4 strips of bacon; or leftover cooked and smoked meat such as fatty bits of brisket, pulled pork, or a few ribs
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups ketchup (made with cane sugar, such as Red Gold or Hunt’s)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ½ cup local honey
  • 1 ½ tablespoon tablespoons Pure Magic dry rub
  • 1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard
  • 1 ½ teaspoon dry mustard (we use Colman’s)

These are not your average baked beans. Using four different varieties and scratch-cooking them from dried makes for a deliciously complex combination of flavors and textures, while a mix of savory spices, brown sugar and honey adds tang and sweetness. Bear in mind that the dried beans will need time to soak. And be selective about what you buy: Take a pass on bagged beans that contain a lot of shriveled or broken bits, and consider giving specialty beans a try. We’ve found there really is a difference when you use quality beans straight from a grower, such as Rancho Gordo.

  1. Combine the beans in a large colander and rinse well, picking through and discarding any debris as well as broken, darkened, or otherwise old-looking beans. Transfer the beans to a stockpot and add enough cold water to cover by several inches. Skim off and discard any floating beans.
  2. Transfer the pot to the refrigerator and soak the beans for 4 to 8 hours, depending on how fresh they are.
  3. Drain and rinse the beans. Rinse out the pot. Return the beans to the pot and add the ham hock and enough water to cover by several inches. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour, skimming off any foam.
  4. Check the beans for tenderness: When you can bite through one of them but it’s not yet tender to the center, they are about three-quarters of the way cooked and it is time to salt them. (Salting sooner greatly prolongs cook time; salting later means the salt doesn’t penetrate the beans, so you get salty broth and bland beans.) Add the salt and 1 cup of the ketchup and simmer the beans for another 30 minutes, or until tender at the center but not soft.
  5. Ladle out and reserve 1½ cups of the cooking broth. Drain the beans, transfer them to a large bowl, and set aside to cool to room temperature.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350°, with a rack in the center.
  7. In a medium bowl, combine the remaining 1 cup ketchup with the onion, bell pepper, brown sugar, honey, dry rub, prepared mustard, dry mustard, and the reserved bean broth. Add to the beans, and using your hands or a large wooden spoon, gently mix, taking care to keep the skins of the beans intact.
  8. Transfer the beans to a 13-x-9-inch baking dish. Bake for about 1 hour, until bubbling. Alternatively, transfer half of the beans to an 8-inch-square baking pan and bake until bubbling (about 45 minutes). Freeze the remainder in a freezer bag for up to 3 months; thaw in the refrigerator before baking.

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is a food and drinks writer and culinary historian living in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living and the author of Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South (2016) and Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (2010), the first full-length history of barbecue in the United States. Along with Hanna Raskin of the Charleston Post & Courier, he hosts The Winnow, a podcast about dining in the South and beyond.

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