If you think the only way to add flavor to your BBQ is BBQ sauce, then prepare to have your eyes opened.
The great thing about the hobby is that there is this wonderful world of flavors that are yours for the taking.
Most people use a combination of BBQ rubs and sauces to spice up their meals. Rubs are a mixture of dry ingredients and usually applied to the meat before cooking. Sauces are wet and typically applied toward the very end of the cook for a sweet or savory caramelized crust. (Putting sauce on too early can cause the sauce to burn or dry out which will give you unpleasant results).
The sky's the limit with BBQ rubs and sauces, as there are tons of options with which you can experiment to achieve a variety of flavors.
After you apply the rub, it's best to let your meat sit covered at room temperature for a minimum of 15 minutes (many do it longer). It helps the flavors of the meat and the rub to blend together for the best results.
The great thing about dry rub is that it helps the meat to form a "bark," a slightly crunchy crust that is delicious. It also gives your food a bold flavor, which cuts such as beef brisket can handle.
Don't forget smoke wood, which can bring out even more flavors. Think of smoke as an ingredient for BBQ, just like sugar, cayenne, salt or pepper would for a recipe. You want to use just enough so that it compliments your meat, but doesn't overwhelm it.
Most charcoal should have very little flavor of its own. Smoke woods come from very specific types of trees and add a great aroma to your BBQ. Smoke woods come in "chips", smaller pieces (better for beginners) or large chunks. Once you get the hang of charcoal, consider adding these chips or chunks of smoked woods such as mesquite, apple, hickory, or cherry to your charcoal. Chips are best for short cooks (thin chicken, fish, and thin steaks or chops), while chunks provide the best choice for meats that take a longer time.
It can't be repeated often enough: A little smoke goes a long way. You want to achieve balance and not overpower your foods with too much! One of the biggest beginner mistakes is to add too much smoke wood, which overwhelms the meat and can quickly ruin the taste.
These are the most popular wood flavors that have proven track records for great BBQ. Apple wood is one of the mildest and is therefore often a great one to start with as a beginner, before moving on to bolder flavors.
Sweet, fruity aroma and dense smoke.
Use with salmon, pork/ham, game, fowl, beef, fish and chicken.
Subtle, sweet flavor.
Use with beef, fowl, game, pork, seafood, fish and chicken.
Stronger aroma reminiscent off a bacon-like flavor.
Use with beef, pork, game, fowl. Popular with pork shoulder/butt and ribs.
Subtly mild yet rich; sweet, spicy, nutty.
Pairs well with all meats and even cheese. Good with fish and chicken.
Bold and strong! A little goes a long way.
Use with beef, vegetables, and pork. A brisket favorite.
Mild and delicate. Similar to oak.
Use with fish, heavy game, and cheese. Good with fish.
A fantastic way to get "Oh, my goodness" flavor into your meat is through injection. While it seems odd to the beginner, it produces great results. An injector - which looks like a really big doctor's needle - is used to push flavored and/or tenderizing marinade deep into the meat. This helps keep the meat moist, flavors it, and sometimes helps break down the meat's collagens for tenderer BBQ.
An increasingly popular (and very old) way of adding flavor to the meat is to brine it. This simply means to soak your meat for a period of time in a solution of salt and water. Brining your meat not only helps enhance the flavor but, especially with non-fatty cuts such as pork and chicken, can prevent them from drying out. In addition to helping retain moisture, brining also helps break down the meat's collagens.
Finally, believe it or not, a key ingredient is having the confidence you will do a good job! Try not to be intimidated by cooking on charcoal. Trust us - You can easily learn to cook BBQ, and it will turn out great. Your friends and family will thank you!