Holy Smokes

Hone your smoking skills for better backyard barbecue with these tips from meat-master Ed McGrew

While purveyors of barbecue tend to be a secretive bunch, Whitefish’s premier smoke-master, Ed McGrew, let spring a few leaks in the days leading up to summer.

Prepping for a busy season slinging expertly seasoned and smoked brisket, pork and chicken in the Flathead Valley and beyond, McGrew shared his philosophy on barbecue culture.

“Give a man barbecue and feed him for a day. Teach a man to barbecue and feed him for the summer,” he said of his motive for sharing his secrets, a term he insists is a misnomer.

“There are no secrets,” he said. “Well, maybe a few.”

McGrew’s lifelong obsession with barbecue was born of his roots growing up on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, home of the whole-hog barbecue tradition. It was there that his uncle Joe, a cattle driver, taught him to smoke brisket and pork using barbecue pits and trenches.

“I started learning about barbecue when I was a little kid from my Uncle Joe, who was the last of the real cowboys,” McGrew said.

He’s since turned barbecue into a career affair, and is well-known in the Flathead Valley for his signature smoking style, which he’s been peddling around western Montana in his mobile catering kitchen, Ed McGrew’s Barbecue Catering.

Check out his Facebook page to schedule a mouth-watering catering event, and turn up at the Whitefish Hootenanny in August to sample his goods.

Although McGrew’s smoker is equipped to accommodate enough meat to feed a small army, he encourages beginners looking to hone their skills with a simple charcoal Weber grill.

Before you get started, here are some courtesy tips on the best meat-smoking methods.

Ed McGrew’s smoked ribs on May 25, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Patience is a Virtue

Before you dive into your meat-smoking project, it’s important to enter the proper headspace, which is to say, “find your Zen” — this is likely going to take awhile.

For the best results, set aside a large chunk of the day, and plan appropriately to coordinate with the arrival of guests or suppertime.

For ribs, expect to be smoking for about six hours after you’ve achieved an ideal temperature of between 225-250 degrees.

“You can’t go wrong with 250,” McGrew said.

Because you’re essentially tending to a small fire for an hours-long period, being prepared is key.

Use Proper Coals

McGrew warns against using lighter fluid or charcoal that’s been impregnated with lighter fluid, encouraging either high-quality briquettes or lump coal.

You’re not going to want to add raw coals to the fire, so keep an arsenal of hot coals nearby in order to keep the temperature consistent, using either a separate grill or, ideally, a chimney. Keeping a fire going continuously for hours requires careful attention.

Using a standard charcoal grill, bank your briquettes to one side of the grill and open its bottom damper, then pile lit coals on top of it.

Slowly add the coals until it gets up to 250 degrees. If you don’t have a temperature gauge on your grill, buy a cheap one, or employ the Mississippi method: If you can hold your hand above the coals for three ‘Mississippi’ seconds, you need to add some more coals. If you can’t hold it there for more than two seconds, it’s almost too hot.

Next, add wood on top of the coals.

Local Wood, Local Flavor

At McGrew’s home outside Whitefish, a colossal stack of cherry wood sits outside, which will provide him with a summer’s worth of smoke. He bought his cherry wood from Bowman Orchards in Bigfork, but offered this advice for local wood:

“As far as wood up here goes, birch has a real subtle flavor and burns real hot, while your Flathead cherrywood has a mild, sweet flavor that is a good match for all meats,” McGrew said. “Dried aspen wood has a completely different fragrance and is really good with chicken, and then you’ve got your mountain maple bushes that a lot of people tend to get rid of.”

Hardwood or fruitwood adds a smoky flavor and complexity, and McGrew uses only wild and local fare, avoiding the commercial store-bought kind.

However, wood pellets sold at most grocery stores are also a popular source of heat.

The Right Meat

McGrew purchases his meat from various locations, but he said knowing your meat cuts and grades, and having a good relationship with your butcher, is key.

The crew at Super One in Whitefish is top notch, McGrew said, and Costco is a good option, while Perfect Cuts in Columbia Falls has become a popular spot.

You can smoke anything from ribs and brisket to chicken breast and whole turkeys.

The meat should be pulling pack from the bones a little bit when it’s properly done. To test your meat, use an oven mitt, lay your hand flat, and put one of those slabs of ribs on your mitt. If the ends of the slab of ribs bounce when you move your hand up and down, they need more time — probably another hour. If you hold them up and the slab starts to split apart and break in the middle, you’ve overcooked them, which is fine.

All About the Rub

Dry rub, for the uninitiated, is the mystical mélange of spices and seasonings massaged into the surface of the meat before it is smoked.

McGrew’s simple recipe calls for three parts Lowery seasoning salt to one part ground black pepper, followed by ground celery seed to taste.

“That will work on anything,” he said. “I’ve even used it on chicken.”

After massaging the rub into your meat, the key is to let it sit for at least 24 hours.

Saucy Finish

Don’t let your smoked meat hang out to dry.

Instead, put a tasty sheen on it with a homemade barbecue sauce, which is one secret that McGrew isn’t dishing out.

His secret concoction edges toward black-pepper hot rather than teeth-on-fire hot, and stays a tick to the sweet side of things.

Last summer, McGrew catered the Whitefish Hootenanny, blowing through two cases of pork shoulder and a case of tri-tip during the course of the evening.