Rick Schlereth held a chicken thigh for approval by barbecuers Brian Daevel and Ron Pinchot.
Photo by Sam Arendt
It’s all about rubs, marinades, charcoal, wood chips and, most of all, slow cooking
Memorial Day is a day of reflection to honor those who died while serving our country.
It’s also the unofficial start of summer parties and outdoor barbecues. Rain or shine, grills will be fired up to cook a variety of meats, vegetables and breads.
Most Wisconsinites are “hot and fast” grillers who use gas grills, said Rick Schlereth, who has become an expert on “low and slow”southern-style barbecue, cooking ribs, chicken, beef or pork for 10 to 18 hours over a fire fueled by wood, charcoal or wood pellets.
In 1998, Schlereth and his friend Larry Tredrea of Grafton were featured in Ozaukee Press when they competed in prestigious barbecue competitions in Kansas City and throughout the country.
For four years, from 1996 to 2000, the men, then teachers at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Washington, spent summer and fall weekends pitting their tender, smoke-infused meats against those prepared by the top teams in the country. The duo won awards
for their rubs, sauces and marinades, but top prizes eluded them.
“There are a lot of high-financed teams with big rigs, and we couldn’t compete against them,” Schlereth said. “I think we just got tired of lugging the equipment in and out of the van. It’s physically exhausting and expensive.”
Now, Schlereth judges competitions, rating other people’s chicken, ribs, beef and pork for appearance, presentation, taste and texture.
He also gives seminars onsouthern-style barbecue at his Town of Holland home that concludes with a meal. Those are done in May before the competition season begins.
While it takes 13 to 16 hours to cook most meats at low temperatures, Schlereth said, the meat can be taken off the grill after six to eight hours and finished in the oven.
Most meats are smoked at 250 to 300 degrees until it falls off the bone, easily pulls apart or has a tender but firm texture, depending on the cut of the meat.
“It will have enough smoke flavor to taste good after six hours and you don’t have to worry about feeding the fire,” Schlereth told a dozen grillers who attended a seminar Saturday afternoon in the rain. The smokers were kept somewhat dry under a canopy while Schlereth demonstrated the process in his garage.
Since the amount of meat in the smoker doesn’t change the inside temperature or time it takes to cook, Schlereth recommends filling it with as much meat as possible and freezing leftovers.
“You reheat it in the oven for an hour or two. I think it tastes even better because the flavors settle into the meat,” he said.
Schlereth prefers cooking with charcoal or wood, while his assistant Ron Pinchot of Cedarburg prefers a wood pellet smoker because it automatically feeds the amount of pellets needed to maintain the heat and he doesn’t have to tend it.
However, unlike pellet furnaces that heat buildings without electricity, pellet smokers require electricity.
“Sometimes, it’s a good excuse to get away from chores,” said second assistant Brian Daevel of Belgium, who is perfecting his barbecue style since he found an old metal smoker at an estate sale that has features not found in modern equipment.
Pinchot is also a judge and introduced his sons Joe of Port Washington and Dominic of Libertyville, Ill., to the culinary art. Now they’re also judges.
“We try to judge two or three events together. They won’t let us judge at the same table, but it’s fun to be together and compare notes afterward,” Pinchot said.
Smokers range from more than $30,000 for large rigs that can feed hundreds to inexpensive barrel style.
“You can spend as much or as little as you want. You can use your Weber (charcoal) grill using the indirect method,” Schlereth said.
“You can even use a gas grill if you put wet wood chips in a foil pouch, punch holes in it and set it on the heating element. The smoke will go up and over the meat. It isn’t officially a southern barbecue because it’s not cooked by wood.”
Gas grills are not allowed in competitions sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, but some contest sponsors have a gas grill category.
Schlereth fell in love with southern barbecue when he and his wife JoEllen, a first-grade teacher who will retire this year, traveled through the South in the 1990s and ate their first pulled-pork sandwich at one of the many rustic, roadside, smoke-
engulfed shacks that advertise barbecue.
They liked the tender, smoky meat, and Schlereth quizzed the cook on how to prepare it.
They stopped at more barbecue shacks and Schlereth gathered information at each place, sometimes acquiring a recipe or two for rubs, marinades and mops.
He has developed several rubs that he likes for different cuts of meat. He also smokes fish, usually salmon, over alder wood using a dry brine he developed.
Southern barbecue seems to appeal not only to Schlereth’s palate, but also to his competitive and inquisitive nature.
I’m always experimenting with different techniques, different spices,” he said.
“I think I can safely say I make the best barbecue in this area, but it doesn’t compare to some I’ve tasted.”
Turn to the recipe page for Schlereth’s tips and recipes for low, slow barbecue.