Ten years ago when I started my BBQ and grilling website, AmazingRibs.com, it was because there were no good books on barbecue. Now, each new season brings at least three or four good ones (mine will be out May 10).
Any outdoor cook can always use more tips and techniques and recipe ideas, so here are some of my favorites. To see my entire list of favorite cookbooks with more detailed reviews, click here.
The Food Lab, Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt
We'll start with a book that has very little barbecue or grilling in it, but the concepts you will learn can go from the kitchen to the backyard easily. Published in 2015, it is the best cookbook in my collection of more than 400.
I am a huge fan of Kenji. We are brothers by different mothers. He went to MIT, worked in top restaurant kitchens, worked in the test kitchens of Cooks Illustrated magazine and TV, and is the most popular contributor to the extremely popular website, SeriousEats.com. This New York Times Best Seller is much like his SeriousEats articles: Funny, informative, fascinating, creative, and precise. Kenji understands food science and culinary arts, two specialties that rarely inform a single cook at the same time. A self-proclaimed nerd, you will want to make sure you have on hand a digital thermometer, a digital scale, and a sous vide machine will come in handy too.
He starts with explaining energy and heat transfer, covers pots and pans and knives, and all the basic tools of the trade. The chapter on frying alone is worth the price of admission. Then there are the recipes. He focuses on the beloved American classics and shows that often the traditional methods can be improved upon. His 2 minute foolproof Hollandaise sauce is a revelation.
Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book: Recipes and Secrets from a Legendary Barbecue Joint by Chris Lilly
Chris Lilly is the Executive Chef of one of the nation's classic old joints, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, in Decatur, AL. He is also the head of the restaurant's much decorated competition team, winner of more championships than he can count.
Most barbecue chefs have a pretty small repertoire, limited to the classic Southern barbecue canon, ribs, pulled pork, brisket, chicken, sausage, and sides like beans, cornbread, and slaw. Yes, they're all there in this superb book, but Lilly also includes fun riffs on Caribbean Jerk Pork, Bacon Wrapped Shrimp, and beyond. There is also a version of Big Bob's famous white chicken sauce, but he clearly felt restrained from giving away the restaurant's secret recipe, and frankly, I think my reverse engineering of the ingredients comes closer to the real deal. If classic Southern Barbecue is your goal, this is the one book you need.
Charred & Scruffed by Adam Perry Lang
Perry Lang is a serious classically trained chef, a veteran of Le Cirque and Daniel, and, as the proprietor of Daisy May's BBQ USA in NYC and as a competitor on the barbecue circuit, he knows a lot about barbecue and grilling.
This book shows off his macho cooking philosophy and several clever concepts, chief among them, board dressings. He mixes oil and minced herbs on the cutting board and then cuts the meat rolling it around in the herbed oil. So simple, but this is a super way to add flavor to grilled foods, and I use it often now that he has taught me how. Scruffing is his word for what I call gashing, a technique for roughing the surface of meat to create more surface for marinades to penetrate and for more browning.
Pleasantly, his attitude is very laid back, informal, educational, and fun. His standard "Four Seasons Rub" is simply salt, cayenne, black pepper, and garlic salt. He is photographed at work not in his professional kitchen dressed in chef's whites, not at poolside in the Hamptons, but in T-shirts on cheap grills, usually a Weber kettle, in what appears to be a humble back yard. I see this book as a source of ideas and inspiration more than a cookbook of recipes.
America's Best BBQ by Ardie A. Davis and Chef Paul Kirk
This wholly wonderful book is meant as a cookbook, as described in the subtitle "100 Recipes from America's Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses, and Restaurants". But it is much more. Davis and Kirk probably have visited more barbecue joints than anyone I know, and they know the good stuff from the bad. For this book they have picked some of the best barbecue restaurants, describe them, and share a recipe. I have used it more than once as a reference when I hit the road, and they have never steered me wrong.
Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto by Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay
Franklin Barbecue in Austin is widely considered the best in the world and people stand in line for hours to get in. He got to the pinnacle the old fashioned way, patience and skill. He uses massive old school offset pits, logs, and fire control. Franklin shares his secrets for building and maintaining a fire that produces clean smoke, and how to prepare the classic meats of the Texas barbecue canon, beef brisket, the meat that made him famous, beef ribs, and pork spare ribs. He throws in turkey breast, four sauces, and three sides. But if you crave the simple excellence of Texas barbecue, salt and pepper only, no sauce, brilliant meat standing on its own, this is the manifesto. It is clearly written with a wry sense of humor typical of Franklin, and his infectious smile runs cover to cover.
Dr. BBQ's Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook
Very few people know barbecue and grilling like Ray Lampe and he's got a room full of trophies to prove it. The former truck driver from the Chicago are writes just as he speaks, friendly, unassuming, and with an understated wit. Nothing snobby about Dr. BBQ. His tips on technique and tools are scattered throughout the book.
Weber's Time to Grill by Jamie Purviance
Chef Purviance has another winner for Weber. This one has the 200 plus recipes divided into two categories, "Easy" and "Adventurous", pretty much 50/50, and you don't need a Weber to cook them. Everything is neatly organized from rubs to marinades to appetizers to desserts (yes grilled desserts) with color coded sections, icons of fish and pigs, etc., and flaps on both front and back covers to bookmark pages. In addition, there are several useful references to cooking temps and times, and a great section called "prep school" with step by step photos of how to cut up onions and peppers, devein shrimp, butterflying a chicken, and more.
The Prophets of Smoked Meat, A Journey Through Texas Barbecue by Daniel Vaughn
Daniel Vaughn knows Texas barbecue so well that in 2013 Texas Monthly magazine hired the Dallas architect to write about the subject full time. He's the only guy who might have a better job than mine. The book takes us along with Vaughn and his photographer as they taste their way across the state to truck stops in the dessert and chic restaurants in the metropolitan areas in search of the truth in Texas barbecue. In all, their hegira took 35 days, covered 10,343 miles, and made stops at 186 joints. Along the way we meet the characters and artists who set the state's signature food apart from any other state and he enlightens us on the various styles and his favorites.
The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today's Meat by Bruce Aidells
Bruce Aidells has chops. Literally and figuratively. He has been a working butcher. He founded a sausage company and I'll bet you've seen Aidells Sausages on your grocery shelves. He sold the company. He married a chef. He's had his own TV show. His byline appears regularly in the food mags. And now this.
The Great Meat Cookbook is a thorough compendium on all things meat, 630 pages worth. Not just superb recipes, both classic and creative, but up to the moment introductory chapters explaining meat labeling and grading. He writes intelligently on the legal meanings and culinary implications of such terms as "grass fed", "natural", and "organic". There are photos of all the common cuts of meat and then some. The recipes don't limit themselves to common cuts. He includes bison, goat, leftovers, and, no surprise, sausages and cured meats.
The Cook and the Butcher: Juicy Recipes, Butcher's Wisdom, and Expert Tips by Brigit Binns
Brigit Binns is simply amazing. She is the author of more than two dozen cookbooks, many of them for Williams-Sonoma, including this one. She knows so much and is so inventive.
Binns shares more than 100 recipes and, on almost every page, weaves through the book tips and quotes from butchers across the nation. The recipes are a mix of indoor and outdoor, and they are beautifully photographed by Kate Sears. What stands out is the creativity. The menu sounds like a 4-star restaurant, but the recipes are easily managed with the help of a good butcher, a well stocked kitchen, and the guidance of a great cook, like Binns.
For example, Steak Au Poivre. As Binns explains "This classic French preparation is a luxurious combination: the cooked meat, as tender as butter, is finished with a bracingly piquant and creamy pan sauce. While some recipes call for the peppercorns to be ground and pressed into the meat before cooking, I prefer to season the steaks simply, with a sprinkling of salt and black pepper, and to feature the green peppercorns in the easy pan sauce." Well every recipe I've ever seen says to coarsely crack the peppercorns, smask them into the meat, and then panfry. The problem is that you end up with serious pepper overload, you can barely taste the meat, and it is almost impossible to get a good flavorful sear with all those huge chunks of pepper holding he meat above the hot pan surface. That's one reason I quit making this dish. Until now. Binns' approach, which boils green peppercorns and uses them in a pan sauce of shallots, butter, Cognac, heavy cream, and beef consommé, is so much more sensible and elegant. Just like the lady herself.
The Art of Beef Cutting: A Meat Professional's Guide to Butchering and Merchandising by Kari Underly
The best teachers can address the novice and still educate the expert, and that is exactly what Kari Underly does in this fine guide. Aimed at protein pros, this book belongs on the shelves of any serious carnivore.
Underly is a third generation butcher and consultant to numerous merchants, universities, chefs, farmers, and trade associations, among them the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. This is the book that will settle those barroom arguments such as "what is the difference between a T-bone and a porterhouse?" Answer: Both have two muscles, the toploin, and the tenderloin, and on the porterhouse, the tenderloin must be at least 1.25" diameter. If the tenderloin is smaller, it is a T-bone.
There is a lot of inside baseball talk here aimed at chefs and butchers, including a chapter called "Cutting for Profit" where you can see how a butcher can calculate the resale price and profit margin of a large hunk. There is even a complete table of all the professional meat cutter's product names and descriptions with the names of the component muscles. This may seem superfluous for a backard cook, but this is knowledge that can help keep you from being fooled when cash is at stake when you are buying steak. The sections on knives, sharpening, safety, and cutting techniques are unique and useful to all.
Spiral bound so it lays flat, there are no recipes, just some generic cooking tips, but this is not a cookbook, it is a buyer's guide for buyers of all sort.
Hot Dog: A Global History by Bruce Kraig
A well regarded culinary historian and Professor Emeritus of History and Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Scholarly yet clever and entertaining, Kraig probably knows more about the history of the hot dog than anyone and he meticulously dismissed the many myths about the origin of the frankfurter, the bun, and its name. He does a good job of explaining how hot dog culture spanned the nation and even the world.
Hamburger America: One Man's Cross-Country Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nation [Book & DVD] by George Motz
George Motz has traveled the four corners of the nation to find the best and most interesting burger joints. Many are cultural and community icons, and Motz interviews the owners, writes about their burgers, and photographs the places beautifully.
The Chili Cookbook by Robb Walsh
Walsh is a cook, a cultural historian, and a heckuva writer, and he brings all his talents to this fun book. There's classic Texas chili, red and green, no beans allowed, as well as Cincinnati, loaded with beans and ground meat. He shares Detroit chili, the African American chili tradition, Tex-Mex, and more. Lobster chili, turkey chili, There's background info on chile peppers, chili powders, and much more. The recipes come with the story behind the recipe,and if you were ever tempted to enter a chili cookoff, you better start experimenting with these formulae long in advance.
Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes by Harold McGee
McGee is a food scientist and a columnist for the New York Times and author of the best general food science book ever, On Food And Cooking. This book is a (mostly successful) attempt to cover this academic subject in user-friendly fashion. McGee has a great ability to boil down a complex idea to very few words and bring clarity to the subject. The book is designed so readers can just dive in anywhere, so he often repeats things, almost word for word, from chapter to chapter. Lots of great tips.