John Markus’s barbecue odyssey began with a man who once wore a satellite dish on his head and who, more recently, asked a question that contributed to attorney general Jeff Sessions recusing himself from investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election.
Markus was already a well-established TV writer, with credits on seminal shows such as Taxi, The Cosby Show and The Larry Sanders Show, when he began working with Al Franken, the comedian turned august senator from Minnesota. In the late 1990s, Markus and Franken were sequestered at Markus’s house in the New York’s Hudson Valley working on the NBC sitcom LateLine when Franken proclaimed that he knew how to make he made the best ribs in all of New England.
While Markus thought the boast was equivalent to being the best Jewish basketball player in the NBA, it didn’t stop the two from recreating Franken’s recipe, which involved placing a half dozen racks of ribs in a Hefty bag filled with gallons of soy sauce, sugar and garlic and marinating the concoction overnight before grilling them. After a long day of scriptwriting, the two sat down to enjoy the fruits of their labor and…“they were the worst things I had ever had. I couldn’t chew them,” Markus recalls.
Despite that less-than-stellar meal, Markus started going down a rabbit hole to figure out why BBQ was such a beloved cuisine, why Franken’s ribs were so bad (for the record: Franken loved them) and what could be done to make them better. His quest first led him to Kansas City, where he met Paul Kirk, a member of the BBQ Hall of Fame (yes, it’s a real thing) and a pitmaster whose book on BBQ is a bible of sorts for fans of meat and fire.
Then when Franken became a talk radio host on Air America, Markus became a correspondent on the show who traveled around the country in search of the best BBQ and people who hated Al Franken for a segment they called “Good Ribbin’”. That’s where Markus met world champion Chris Lilly of Alabama’s legendary Big Bob Gibson restaurant. Lilly became a mentor and propelled Markus’s knowledge of BBQ to even greater heights.
Today, Markus is one of the most influential people in BBQ, which has become an even more beloved cuisine than when his quest first began. He is the creator of the popular TLC show BBQ Pitmasters and a well-respected cook in his own right. For Markus, the appeal of BBQ is simple. “It’s primal. You’re literally cooking primal cuts of beef, so it has an appeal on a visceral level,” he says. “And it’s authentic and straightforward. Having a BBQ reminds us of simpler times. It is honest food and probably in the Top 3 of comfort foods.”
With his deep knowledge of all things, B, B and Q, we asked Markus for some tips to help guys master the grill as summer kicks off.
Know Thy Butcher
Most people just buy whatever is on top of the pile at the supermarket. Don’t do that. Having a good BBQ starts with having good meat and that starts with having a good butcher. “You don’t want someone who looks like they got this job a few weeks ago. This is a yearlong apprenticeship at the very least,” says Markus. “There are some butchers in their 20s that are really good. I’ve just never met one.”
Get The Good Stuff
When buying a steak, Markus recommends looking for one with a healthy red color and white fat that is marbled throughout. Grain-finished beef tastes better than grass-fed because the grain allows the cow to get some fat on its bones. That fat equals flavor. For burgers, ask for ground beef that is a mix of chuck, brisket, and short rib. “Make sure the butcher can guarantee that it’s at least 80/20, 80% lean to 20% fat. I even like to go 70/30. That’s extreme, but I like it,” Markus says.
Pass On Gas
Gas grills are convenient, and that’s about it. “I will say with total certainty that your food will not have the ultimate flavor achievable [as it would] with charcoal and/or wood,” says Markus. “I’m not going to stand there [next to a gas grill] with a mojito in my hand and say, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ but I’ll be thinking it.”
Shock To The System
Make sure that your meat is at room temperature before putting it on the grill. “Don’t get uptight about killing your guests and keep [meat] in the refrigerator until right before putting it on the grill.” Going from one temperature extreme to another shocks the meat and prevents the fibers from being relaxed when it hits the grill. A steak should come out of the fridge 1-2 hours before meeting heat. Use that time to rub it down with a little olive oil, kosher salt, and pepper.
X Marks The Spot
“This is controversial, but I am not a fan of grill marks. I think it’s bullshit and just good for commercials for steakhouse chains.” Markus says. Instead, he recommends using a cast iron griddle or sizzle plate on top of your grate. Grill marks only add char over the parts of the meat that touch the grate. With a sizzle plate, you can easily add a char over the entire surface.
Don’t Pulverize The Meat
“If you want to look at hamburger porn, the internet is filled with it,” Markus says. But a good-looking burger isn’t always a good-tasting burger. Aside from sourcing the right type of ground beef (see “Get The Good Stuff” above”), it’s important that the patty be the correct size and proportion. Don’t over-handle the meat. Simply fashion it into a thick disc, knowing that it will flatten a bit once it hits the grill. There’s no need to supersize it. Just make sure that it’s large enough to fit all the way to the edge of the bun. “I hate when you can see the bun around the burger. I think there’s something wrong with those people, and I sometimes suggest therapy.”
It’s a fact of BBQ life that as soon as the fire gets going, someone will sidle over to the grill and, without provocation, start offering his two cents on the “correct” way to grill. For Markus, the number one rule is not to be an asshole to your guests. That doesn’t mean you can’t politely slip in a line like, “There are many approaches and at the current moment we’re standing on my property. At your house I’ll see how you do it.” Since most guests will take up that challenge, not only will you have cemented your status, you will also get yourself invited to another BBQ.
Drink It In
Some kind of adult beverage is de rigueur while manning the grill. It’s to the point that some “low and slow” BBQs are known by how many beers it takes to complete them. There’s 5-beer cooks and 8-beer cooks. “Personally, I don’t think you want to get stupid while you’re making this food,” Markus cautions. Still he thinks pilsners and IPAs make for nice compliments to the BBQ experience. But his favorite drink during a BBQ is bourbon. He prefers a darker, smokier bourbon; Four Roses is his go-to. But when he opts for the good stuff, his favorite is the hard-but-not-impossible-to-find Pinhook. “That is probably the finest bourbon I’ve ever had,” he says. “If it’s a special occasion and you’re the pitmaster, by god, you deserve a Pinhook.”