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“This sumptuous feast of barbecued sirloin, salsa, Pinquito beans, toasted French bread, and green salad has been called by Sunset Magazine, the “best barbecue in the world””
Simple aroma of the Red Oak burning in the bottom of an iron pit. The hot smokey air surrounds everything, changing everything. The deep crackle of the big oak logs, the fire is preparing to give up its gift. Men in jeans and boots, as authentic as the aroma itself prepare the 4″ thick Top sirloin “Block” steaks or tri-tips. Preparation is simple – shaking on some coarse garlic, salt & pepper. We have a few beers – waiting. We aren’t going to trim very much – the fire will need that. Families are happy, women talk. The fire wisps and cracks as we lower the iron grate on the rotating shaft. We control heat with the movement of the grate. This scene has been repeated thousands of times, more in this Central California region. We know nothing else. This is our lifestyle. Every important event. Every sad event. Grill marks, weeping, dripping fat into the fire, reddened meat, swollen. This is my BBQ. This is Santa Maria Style.
Families grill everyday in “backyard” California. Our weather is beautiful for 9 months of the year. Some slow smoke, others charcoal grill, others gas grill.
This style, like other landmark BBQ styles, is not the “only” way to BBQ, it is just the only true CALIFORNIA BBQ. It is ours. As simple as the corner of Mill and Vine streets in Santa Maria where the first Tri-Tip roast was discovered. Bob Shultz stumbled into the core of modern Santa Maria BBQ…only by accident. This discovery put Santa Maria BBQ on the map.
The fire lighting tips are simple:
Traditional Oak Pit: as pictured, load it with 5 or so logs and light it up. When those logs burn down, to coals, put one log in the back of the pit at the edge of the fire. This log will smolder and give you new coals slowly as the main fire burns down. Continue to add logs to the rdge of the fire as needed to continue making coals. Rake or drag the coals to the center as you BBQ. (If you have one of these pits, my information probably isn’t new or revolutionary. Have patience for those that are new.)
Charcoal grill or any “Stick Burner”: make a fire with BBQ oak wood chunks/small logs make a large pile, light them up, add more until you get a nice bed of coals 3″ thick. During this process, you probably won’t have seen your grill emit this much fire, so add sparingly to keep the fire manageable. A person could add charcoal to the BBQ chunks, but that isn’t what we’re talking about here. This is a process, enjoy it. Have a glass of wine, enjoy friends around that huge pile of burning oak wood.
Gas Grill: I don’t know what to tell you. Oak chips soaked in water don’t do it. Use this an excuse to buy another type of BBQ. After all, two or more isn’t bad.
Let the coal bed rest until you can keep the back of your hand over the coals for about 2 1/2 seconds. It’s gonna be hot… On the charcoal grills, move the coal bed to one side, block the fire with foil covered bricks or something firm, creating a slightly indirect heat.
In this temp range, the term “indirect” sorta goes out the window. We could be looking at 600+ over the fire, and around 450+ on the “cold side” In a charcoal grill, where you don’t have much control of the heat/grill height. Wait until the heat is within the 350-400 degree range before even thinking about putting that $30 dollar 4″ Sirloin Block or tri-tip on the grate. If you have an Oak Pit, lower the grate as the fire cools to maintain the 350 degree range. Oh yeah, you probably aren’t going to need that lid on the charcoal grill or Big Green Egg, Weber etc. Cook this on the grate, moving it around as needed to keep things in line.
Lets see, what else…yeah, your arm hairs may be singed, and you eyes may sting from that cookable clear smoke – that’s a sign that everything is normal. Just keep that meat moving a bit, don’t burn it & make sure to serve it with a great salad (and strawberries if you can get them)
This BBQ Style will take practice, and will probably cause a newbie some degree of frustration at first. Stick with it, and you will begin to unconsciously begin to “feel” your BBQ & it’s sumptuous rewards.
We’ll continue to have more on Santa Maria Style BBQ in the future…