A Bruin Guide to a Great Summer


By Mark Davis

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

The Art of the Barbecue: Hayward Harris Jr. '74

During the week, he's a risk manager with the County of Los Angeles. But come the weekend, Hayward Harris Jr. transforms into The Rib Doctor, taking his old-school, custom-built smoker, Big Bertha, and his barbecuing skills to competitions around the country. Sometimes he judges, sometimes he competes, and often he wins.

Flavor guide

The Rib Doctor explains it all: how wood smoke and sauce combine to create unique regional flavors

Name that flavor

Charcoal or propane?

"That's a heated battle right now," Harris says slyly. "Propane is cleaner and convenient. But those of us who believe in true traditional barbecue don't use gas. It doesn't give you the same taste or experience."

Smoke signals

Charcoal alone isn't enough. Indirect cooking with smoke from hardwood is the key to flavor, Harris says. He is an expert on smoke-and- meat combinations.

Poultry and fish need a lighter smoke. Harris recommends a blend of apple and oak.Thicker cuts of meat need a heavier smoke. In Southern California, that is usually a blend of mesquite and oak. Add hickory, if you can find it.

Finding flavor

Most big box stores carry wood chips or chunks in the barbecue section. Harris also recommends California Charcoal & Firewood, in Commerce, Calif. Just don't shop in the lumber yard, he warns. You can't trust age or labeling or know if the wood's been treated with potentially harmful chemicals.

For adding flavor, Harris suggests transforming your regular kettle grill into a smoky slow-cooker. (Even without smoke, the technique can help you avoid meat that's burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.) Start with soaking the wood chips or chunks in water. Most packaging will give specific directions.

Location is everything

Build a fire on only one side of your grill to give you hot and cool zones. When the coals are hot, add the wood to create the smoke.

When cooking, move the meat between the hot and cool sides. Give yourself plenty of time to leave the cuts on the cool side. Keep the lid on so the smoke can heat the meat and infuse it with flavor. Move it to the hot side toward the end to make it hot and crispy.

Cook smart

"Always cook poultry with the skin on," Harris cautions. "It keeps the meat moist and succulent, and you can always pull the skin off after cooking."

Harris also recommends using probe or quick-read thermometers to take the guesswork out of knowing when the meat is safe for the serving platter.

What about sauce?

"I'm not a sauce fan," Harris says. "If you've seasoned and cooked the meat properly, the flavor will be there." If you like sauce, serve it on the side, he says. Never add it during cooking. For competitions, Harris developed his own sauce recipe in 1989, and, except for a few minor adjustments, it's the sauce he still uses.

"It meets you with a sweet, goes to a tang and there's a kiss of heat at the end," says The Rib Doctor. For now, the sauce recipe is top secret as he preps the product for commercial release.

For Harris' list of wood blends, regions and flavors, see the "Flavor guide" (above).