Living on the same block as David and Michelle Fries might be just a little bit torturous. They’re lovely people, but David dabbles in competitive barbecue, and devastatingly good smells float from their patio almost every weekend. Pork ribs. Brown sugar. Burning wood. One imagines a wisp of smoky temptation curling through the trees, triggering envy in every backyard.
David fell into barbecue after seeing a TV feature on Kansas City’s American Royal competition. “True story,” says David. “We were on the couch, and I said to Michelle, ‘I’m going to do that.’ Long story short, I did. I had three friends meet me in KC, and it’s become an annual event. I don’t have a long line of trophies behind me in my office, but I finished in the upper 50 percent!” The hobby stokes David’s competitive fire, but he and Michelle have also discovered that smoking makes for super easy entertaining. David rattles off the perks: Once you master the basics, low-and-slow smoking is more forgiving and flexible than high-heat grilling. You can start way early and slow down before serving. The meat is so good, no one will mind shortcut sides like bagged slaw and box-mix corn bread. Plus, that intoxicating scent beats any candle for setting a mood. “We’re not into big catered dinner parties. If we’ve got margaritas, wine and beer, friends, Michelle’s big family and barbecue, it’s great. I can relax and mingle,” David says while slicing ribs. Michelle’s mom sneaks one to taste, and soon, everyone has swiped a sample—including the grinning cook.
Blanket Policy Fill a coat rack with throws for chilly guests to grab
Learn to Smoke
As backyard smokers have become more popular, prices have come down. David shares tips for getting started.
Shop Around Find a barbecue store—mine is Quetopia here in the Twin Cities—where staff are experts and can explain electric, gas, charcoal and wood pellet models. I like digital pellet smokers (which use electricity only to ignite) because I can get both easy temperature control and deep smoke flavor.
Talk to Pros When I first started smoking, I went to weekend ’cue competitions just to talk. People are incredibly sharing with their knowledge in this business. Late afternoon or early evening during the Friday setup is usually a good time to wander and chat, before cooking heats up.
Layer Flavor Sauce alone isn’t enough: The flavor just sits on the surface. I start by brining chicken or injecting pork with stock or juice. Before smoking, I do a rub. Then sauce at the end. It’s all about building up flavor. But watch the salt in the rub if you’re using a brine. I still make that mistake.
Be Adventurous Try a local sauce you’ve never seen before, or a different spice. A lot of people are really timid and afraid of putting anything that’s got more heat on there, so I add sweetness for balance. I don’t like fruity beers, but I love berry or plum jam stirred into my barbecue sauce.
These fruity pepper spreads from Nebraska are one of David’s go-to secret ingredients. $7.50 (chilidawgs.com).
Wish List Grilling Gear
Smoking Shortcut These tubes hold wood pellets and work on any grill or some smokers to add or enhance smoky flavor. From $20 (amazenproducts.com).
Dual-Handle Skillet For cooking or heating sides, Lodge’s new cast-iron pans fit better on grills than the long-handled originals. From $27 (lodgemfg.com).
Techie Thermometer Weber’s iGrill series syncs to your smartphone and sends alerts when meat has reached the perfect internal temperature. From $50 (weber.com).
Luxe Tools Wusthof’s new grill set offers the same durability, weight balance and iconic style as its top-of-the-line German knives. $100 (crateandbarrel.com).