During a visit to Taproom on 19th, I spoke with Michael Strauss about the BBQ joint he plans on opening, his passion for BBQ, and the GoFundMe campaign he launched to help make his dream a reality.
Brion Shreffler: How long have you been barbecuing? Michael Strauss: Probably since my mid-20’s—so about 20 years. As I got older, I started taking it more seriously, trying to get the result to be as perfect as possible. At home typically I would BBQ ribs pretty exclusively. Then they were coming out pretty good. I would also smoke pork shoulder. All the briskets I’ve done at my house all came out sucky. Hard as a rock. Then I met the guys from Pig Headed BBQ. They came here and I picked their brain for hours. So, I started doing briskets here and they’ve improved by like a thousand percent. [I found out] that it’s important that you hit a certain temperature. It’s not time. It’s temperature. And that’s when the fat has completely melted inside the brisket. If you don’t completely melt that fat, it comes out bad [said with gravitas].
You’re going to get that chewiness.
Also the way that you slice it. The last brisket I did, I was off the next day and they sliced it with the grain [laughs]. I’m looking at it and I’m like, what the fuck. You guys sliced it with the grain.
So if you don’t melt all the fat what are you getting? A lot of gristle and chew?
It’s not going to be moist and tender. It’s going to be more chewy.
What style of BBQ do you plan on doing?
Aaron Franklin [of Franklin Barbecue] down in Austin, Texas—with his popularity it seems like everyone is opening up their own version of a Texas BBQ. They serve things the way they do down there on a tray with your different cuts laid out and everything else. I don’t think that’s what I want to do. I want to do it more South Carolina, more home grown where you go in and you order a half-rack or a full-rack. You get a brisket or a pulled pork sandwich. South Carolina BBQ is more on the sweet to spicy side. That’s more my flavor profile [Note: Like Joe Carrol of Brooklyn’s Fette Sau, Strauss, who also is not from the South, says not being tied to a given tradition frees him to experiment]. Texas, they just seem to use salt & pepper and smoke. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not my flavor profile. The big goal is, I hate reheated BBQ and you can tell when you’re getting it. BBQ tastes the best the day that you BBQ it. That’s when it’s the best. I’d like to try to follow the business model of a Joe Beddia or Sam Jacobson. I make this amount and that’s it. Either I sell out or don’t sell out. I have a little bit more flexibility where if the demand is higher, I can make more. Joe with the pizzas, he can only make so many pizzas. There’s only a certain amount of time. He just can’t go, tomorrow, I’m gonna make a hundred pizzas. There’s no way he can do it. With BBQ, I can step it up if there’s a larger demand. If there’s not that much of a demand, I can back it down. I just want the meat everyone is putting in their mouth to have just come off the smoker within an hour or two. That’s my goal.
What are your cooking times?
Ribs usually take about four hours. A brisket can take eight to ten hours depending on the temp. I can speed it up little bit. You don’t want to keep the brisket on the smoke the entire time. The outside bark starts to get bitter. Usually when the brisket hits around 160/165° you wanna wrap it either in butcher’s paper or tinfoil and put it back on the smoker. It keeps its moisture and actually speeds up the cooking time, but also protects the bark from getting bitter. On average it’s still about eight hours on the brisket.
The bark is that crunchy exterior?
Yeah. That’s one thing you lose when you wrap it. You don’t lose the flavor, but you lose some of the crunch because it’s steaming. You’re protecting the meat, the end result. When you’re cooking a brisket, it hits a stall period where it can hit 170° and it can stay there for like an hour and not move and you think there’s something wrong with it. But it’s actually stalled because the fat is starting to melt and actually cools the brisket down from inside. One way to get past that stall is to wrap it.
So wrapping the brisket is something you’re always doing?
I’ve done it several different ways. The last one, I did full smoke from the beginning to the end. And I did it at a lower temperature—225°. That was like a ten-hour smoke. I thought the outside was a little too bitter. I did one that took seven to eight hours. I cooked it at 250-275°. It was quicker. I didn’t wrap it and it didn’t taste bitter because still, it wasn’t on the smoke that long.
What kind of things have you been picking up from the Pig Headed BBQ guys?
When you learn different techniques—l wouldn’t call them tricks—and you start applying them, you’re like holy shit. This makes a huge difference. Those guys are competition BBQ guys. So the end result has to be perfect every single time.
They’ve done food for two anniversary parties at Taproom and Mike Sadgwar has been here for several food competitions, right?
Mike has been here for all our contests. He won the first year’s gravy contest. Was here for that one this year and I believe he made both chili contests as well.
Talk about how you’ve integrated the BBQ you’ve been doing into the menu at Taproom. I’ve seen it pop up as specials.
When you’re experimenting with meat, it costs money. As long as it comes out good, I have no problem serving it to our guests. But because it’s not cooked that day, I have to serve it on a sandwich or do something else with it because you have to rehydrate it. Some things are easier to rehydrate than others.
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