Have a small backyard smoker and big barbecue dreams?
Labor Day weekend is the perfect chance to get started. Who knows – it may even be the start of a championship competition barbecue endeavor.
That’s how it was for Alex Ranucci of Ranucci’s Big Butt BBQ in Belmont, whose love of making ribs and barbecue in his backyard led to him becoming a regular winner on the competition barbecue circuit, including back-to-back top 10 finishes at the prestigious Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in 2010 and 2011.
Ranucci, a native New Yorker, first learned about “real barbecue,” or the art of cooking pork over low smoke and heat for hours, in 1991, when he moved south to play soccer at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs.
“I found out quickly what barbecue was down here, that it meant pork,” said Ranucci, who graduated from Gardner-Webb in 1995. “In New York, barbecue was hamburgers and hot dogs.”
After moving back to New York for a few years, Ranucci returned to the region in 1998. He started playing around with ribs and eventually began making his own sauces and rubs.
That led to buying a small smoker and making more traditional barbecue. He traded his boat to a guy in Texas for a custom smoker.
“I had to teach myself how to do southern barbecue,” he said.
In his first competition in 2005, Ranucci, with his dad, took first place in the ribs category at a contest in Charlotte. In their first time out against professionals, Ranucci took second for pork shoulder.
Eventually, he got good enough to quit his day job in medical sales and move into catering fulltime. He and his wife Zoe are opening Ranucci’s BBQ & Grill in the old Catawba Fountain & Grill location in Belmont in mid-September.
It’ll feature the competition-style barbecue Ranucci has become known for, plus glazed ribs, pulled chicken and brisket specials, in addition to burgers, hot dogs and salads. There will be specialties like the Southern Philly, in which pulled pork is used in place of steak in a sandwich topped with cheddar cheese, peppers and onions; and the potentially heart-stopping Porkasaurus, which will feature pulled pork, smoked ham, crispy bacon and pepper jack cheese.
Ranucci’s pork is injected with a homemade marinade, dry-rubbed and hand-pulled. Sauce is on the side. Chicken is hand-shredded, too, while slow-cooked ribs retain a good bite. Brisket “is Texas barbecue and it’s good,” he said.
With some planning, a little effort and a lot of patience, you can make mouth-watering, competition-quality barbecue at home. To get you started, Ranucci served up some advice on common mistakes inexperienced barbecuers make and easy ways they can improve their pork.
Start with a good dry rub, cook the piece of meat for the appropriate time and use a quality sauce. Ranucci doesn’t like his pork too smoky (“Smoke should really only be like an herb or seasoning and shouldn’t overpower anything,” he said).
Common Mistake: Not cooking it long enough. Undercooked pork is a big no-no. Ranucci likes to smoke his butts to an internal temperature of 195 degrees. Take it off too early and you’ll have a harder time pulling it apart, he said.
Beginner Tip: Plan ahead so you can let your butt rest a couple of hours before you tear into it so the juices don’t escape. Find an injection marinade online and inject it into your butt using a simple injector like the ones used on the turkey at Thanksgiving. “You have an 8- or 9-pound piece of meat, it’s hard to get smoke penetration or rub penetration over the course of 10 hours,” he said.
For good baby back ribs, start with a dry rub that’s not too salty and take the silvery, inedible membrane off the back. You want to cook them slow over low heat. “Everybody loves ribs, but nobody wants to cook ribs,” Rannuci said.
Common Mistake: Folks go crazy when ribs are so tender that the bones fall right out when you pick them up, he said, but that actually means they’re overdone. You want your ribs to have a tug when you bite into them, he said.
Beginner Tip: They should be fine the first couple of hours on a smoker or offset grill. After that, check every hour. Use tongs to pick up the ribs and when you see the meat start to crack, they’re done. “When you touch the bone and it comes straight out without too much work, they’re overdone,” he said.
You’ll see competition barbecuers cooking thighs on television (Rannuci does the same), but you can have success with barbecuing chicken breasts at home. Cooking chicken breasts to the proper temperature is extremely crucial – 165 degrees is good.
Common Mistake: Overcooking and undercooking are common mistakes, which is why investing in a meat thermometer is important. Once you get it to 165 degrees, let it rest for about 10 minutes so the juices come back.
Beginner Tip: Finish your chicken with a light glaze of sauce instead of over dousing. “With the barbecue, a lot of people over-sauce and then if you have a bad sauce, the chicken is not as good,” he said.
Brisket ranks up there with the whole hog (which is not for amateurs) when it comes to difficulty in smoking, Ranucci said.
Common Mistake: Not knowing what to buy. Most folks go to the grocery store and buy a brisket flat, which is 4 to 5 pounds. “A flat is a really exposed piece of meat and is a lot quicker to cook” because it’s thin and doesn’t have a lot of fat content, he said. Whole “packers,” which have fatty round points and weigh about 11 to 14 pounds, are more forgiving. Plus the fat will render out and go through the rest of the meat, adding flavor.
Beginner Tip: Allow yourself plenty of time – brisket is done when it’s done. Cooking time can range from 13 to 16 hours. After the first 10 hours, “you’re constantly checking because there’s such a small window to hit it to make sure it’s good and juicy and will fall apart instead of being crumbly and dry,” he said.
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