Crank up the heat on your backyard technique with these tips from Morgantown’s great pitmasters.
Nothing says summer like the smell of hickory smoke, long hours tending the pit, that first bit of mouth-watering, falling-apart meat. But how do you learn? It turns out great pitmasters are often self-taught. They also learn from each other.
Charlie Heard grew up in Georgia. When he came to Morgantown, he missed the roadside barbecue he’d eaten everywhere when he was a kid, so he taught himself to make it. Now Heard’s Best BBQ Ever, made with his signature spice rub and sauce and served from the side of his food truck, is in hot demand all over town. Dylan Garza, from Fairmont, pitmaster at Smokin’ Jack’s until recently, learned to barbecue when he was in the Army, stationed in Germany far from any town—grilling was the only thing to do with downtime. Smoking meats with his fellow soldiers, he learned techniques from all over the country.
Are you ready to take your backyard technique from medium to well-done? Grab your tongs—we asked some of Morgantown’s barbecue gurus for advice to get patio pitmasters past burgers and dogs and experienced smokers to the next level.
Derrick Shanks, Owner: Woodburn Shanks
“Have a fire extinguisher handy.”
When Derrick Shanks and his wife lived in Kansas City, Missouri, going out for barbecue was a way of life. “It was so available, I didn’t even own a smoker,” Shanks says. So their move to Vermont was a shock. “I drove around in a two-hour radius and didn’t find anything but sauce poured over a pork shoulder and cooked in a crockpot. That’s just not barbecue.” Unwilling to do without, he built a smoker out of a 55-gallon drum. “We got pretty good at it. People were trying to buy our catering services, which I wasn’t even trying to solicit at that point.”
But after the couple moved to Morgantown, he decided to give it a shot. His Woodburn Shanks serves up a variety of meats, like any Kansas City barbecue joint. His favorite cut? Brisket. “Pork is easy—brisket is hard,” he says. “The challenge of doing the brisket right is what makes the job fun. And that’s the cut of meat that puts us on the map—it’s just harder to find good brisket.”
For those who are thinking about getting into barbecue, Shanks recommends a charcoal grill over gas. “I associate barbecue with fire—that’s the flavor profile that I like personally, and you’re not going to get that with gas.” If you’re married to the gas grill, a smoker tube is an inexpensive hack.
And for those who have already done some home smoking and are looking to improve, Shanks recommends investing in a stick burner. “It burns logs or lump charcoal instead of gas or electricity.”
He offers one tip for everybody: Have a fire extinguisher handy. “People burn their stuff down all the time. Once it’s on fire, it’s too late to go looking for a fire extinguisher.”
Josh Martin, Pitmaster: Atomic Grill
“Try new meats.”
Josh Martin’s family owns 84 Packing Co., a meat-packing house in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania—so he’s been around meats his whole life. “I grew up making my own sausages and jerkys.” Working at Martin’s Bar-B-Cue Joint—no relation—he learned from a Tennessee pitmaster to do the famous West Tennessee whole hog barbecue. “Whole hogs—that’s my favorite,” Martin says. “It’s really time-consuming. Low temperature, only using hickory, smoking for hours to get that flavor into it. If you do it right, it’s something that you won’t be able to taste anywhere else.”
Martin has been at Atomic Grill for a couple years. Atomic doesn’t do whole hogs, but it’s loved for its pulled pork sandwich and other specialties.
For a backyard griller who wants to try a hand at barbecue, it’s no surprise that a guy with Martin’s background recommends getting the best meat possible. “Something local, if you can. The meat’s the biggest thing.” Second to that, for Martin, is the seasoning. He’s a fan of good old trial and error. “Mix stuff together, see what it tastes like,” he says. “Some spices overpower the meat more than others. Brown sugar is a good starter for pork and chicken. Paprika, salt and pepper, onion powder, garlic powder. That’s a good start.”
If you’ve got some experience and want to go to the next level, Martin’s advice is just what you’d guess: try new meats. “Do bigger cuts of meat, different kinds of meat,” he says. “You can get beef ribs that are really big and take a lot of time to marinate and smoke. Try meats you don’t use every day—beef ribs, whole turkeys, wild turkeys.”
Rob Wolfe, Owner: Two Fat Cousins
“Don’t be afraid.”
It was sauce that sucked Rob Wolfe into barbecue. He and his cousin Matt—a trained chef who owned Wolfe’s Family Diner in Granville—talked forever about bottling sauces. When Matt died too young, Wolfe created his Two Fat Cousins line of barbecue sauces and dedicated part of the revenues to an annual scholarship in Matt’s name, first awarded in 2013.
Wolfe started doing roadside barbecue and events for friends a couple years ago and, in 2019, he’s started catering. He says he’s been loving ribs lately but, if he had to pick one favorite cut to barbecue, it’s brisket. “Ribs are ribs, but brisket. You can have it sliced, shred it and put it on a sandwich, chunk it and put it on nachos, put it in tacos.” His favorite Two Fat Cousins Sauce when it comes to brisket is the Kickin’ Mustard.
For the backyard cook who’s just getting started with smoking, work your way up to brisket, Wolfe says. “My very first thing I did was a beer butt chicken. It’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken than to buy a brisket, and it’s more forgiving.”
If you’ve already mastered chicken, pork butt, and ribs, stretch a little, he says. “I’d start looking into the pork belly—it makes bacon, so how is it not good?” he laughs. “Last year I did pork belly burnt ends. It’s just like pork candy. Or maybe beef jerky—you can do that on your smoker, if you can control your temperature low enough. I’ve done that and it was some of the best jerky I’ve ever had.”
Mostly, he says, don’t be afraid. “Have fun with it. That’s what barbecuing is all about. If you see me on the roadside and I’m not smiling, there’s something wrong.”
photographed by Carla Witt Ford