Smoke Signals: Start the season off right

James M. Thresher/For The Washington Post

He emerges from the dugout, blinking into the spring sun. The grass smells fresh and, although he’s been here many times before, it somehow feels new.

He grabs a bat. Steps up to the plate.

(James M. Thresher/ For The Washington Post ) - Tongs and a grill brush
  • (James M. Thresher/ For The Washington Post ) - Tongs and a grill brush
  • (James M. Thresher/ For The Washington Post ) - Charcoal briquettes
  • (James M. Thresher/ For The Washington Post ) - Mesquite wood chips, surrounded by pecan chips and an oak log (top).
  • (James M. Thresher/ For The Washington Post ) - Two things worth having onhand: a trusty, instant-readthermometer and a sturdy knife.

(James M. Thresher/ For The Washington Post ) - Tongs and a grill brush

Bam! A home run!

The crowd goes wild!

He tips his cap to the stands after crossing home plate.

Okay, so it’s my house, not a dugout. And it’s my back yard, not a ball field.

Oh, and that homer: a slow-smoked pork shoulder or brisket or ribs. The crowd? My wife.

At this time of year, I can’t help but feel like one of the Boys of Summer, eager at the start of a long season.

Even if you are the type who grills and slow-smokes through the winter, you realize you were training and keeping in shape.

Barbecuing, like baseball, should be fun.

“Play with your food,” says Michael Fay, president of the Mid-Atlantic Barbecue Association. “Never barbecued a pork butt? Try it. What’s the worst that can happen? The main thing is to play, and have fun.”

Spoken like a veteran manager.

Herewith, some tips for a successful season.

The grill: Clean it.

For the grill you already own, start a charcoal fire beneath the grates. Buy a hard-bristle grill brush (about $8). Use it to remove all residue from the grates. When they are cool enough to handle, wash them in warm, soapy water. Rinse and dry thoroughly.

Before every subsequent use, scrape the grates over a direct fire to remove the stuck-on food. Rub the grates with an oiled towel.

If you have a gas grill, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

For a new grill, wash the unit and the grates with dish soap and water to remove residue from packaging. Rinse and dry thoroughly. Spray or wipe vegetable oil onto the grates and the inside of the chamber, which will help protect the life of your rig. Season the rig by starting a hot fire and letting it smoke, lid closed, through the chamber. This will help coat the cooking chamber with smoke, like seasoning a cast-iron skillet.

The fuel: Buy it.

Sounds obvious, right? But one evening, friends will stop by and you’ll realize you can’t grill your fabled stuffed portabello because you’re out of charcoal. The stuff lasts forever. Buy it on sale.

The most popular form is briquettes. They’ve been taking their lumps lately. Grill snobs claim that the chemicals used in binding them degrade the flavor of the food. Me, I use them. They are comparatively cheap and burn evenly, for a long time. If they impart an inferior flavor to the meat, my palate is too unsophisticated to care.

That said, I use hardwood lump charcoal, such as the Cowboy brand, when fast-grilling, especially when I want a char, such as on steaks. Irregular in shape, lump charcoal burns hotter and faster than briquettes, creating a fantastic sizzle on grilled foods.

If you don’t own a charcoal chimney (starter), get one. By pouring charcoal into the top and lighting paper stuffed in the bottom of the conical-shaped charcoal starter, you get a nice, even burn within a half-hour. The chimney does away with the need for that nasty smelling (and expensive) lighter fluid.

I never use Match-Light briquettes; mainly, I detest that vicious stench.

The wood: Use it.

Store a selection of chips and chunks: mesquite, hickory, oak, cherry, apple, pecan. They’re available in small bags in supermarkets and hardware stores. Soak them for an hour in water (or beer or wine) and add them to hot coals to add smoke to your food. For gas grills, add the soaked chips to a smoke-box or inside a foil packet you poke a few times with a fork.

If you own an offset smoker, keep a good supply of oak and hickory split logs handy. For Texas brisket or meaty beef ribs, you want a slow, soft, indirect smoke. Logs penetrate the meat, giving it a deep, soulful flavor.

They’re also great for direct roasting. I burn down the hardwood to embers and shovel it into my offset, North Carolina-style, when I slow-roast pork shoulder.

The gadgetry: Skip it.

Go to any barbecue Web site and you’ll salivate. Not over the food, necessarily. The trinkets. To capitalize on the growing barbecue craze, companies are developing all sorts of gee-gaws. You know all that junk in your attic or garage? Keep that in mind when tempted to buy the latest, greatest whiz-bang barbecue thingy.

A couple of things I would recommend: a rib rack, which allows you to cook four or five racks at a time; a hinged grate, which opens on the sides so you can easily add coals during long stretches of cooking or smoking; an instant-read thermometer, which, if you’re like me, you won’t use all that often. But when you need it’ll be there.

You’ll need a good knife, of course — or three: a 12-carving knife for slicing brisket; an eight-inch chef’s knife for trimming and chopping; a six-inch boning knife for detail work. Don’t spend too much; barbecue knives get a workout. Most any that come in a good barbecue package will be durable and last a long time, which is more important than a super-sharp edge.

The pantry: Stock it.

Make sure you have some empty, thoroughly cleaned jars around for your spice rubs. Speaking of which, keep your shelves stocked with coarse ground pepper,
kosher or coarsely ground salt and cayenne pepper. They’re the holy trinity of rubs. With them as a base, you’ll experiment with garlic powder, onion salt, cumin, ancho powder, brown sugar, and pretty much whatever you have around.

For your sauces, have on hand ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, canned tomato sauce, white and cider vinegars and hot pepper sauce. A combination of them will serve as a foundation to your homemade signature sweet-and-spicy sauces, flavored with everything from fresh lemon juice and coffee (yes, coffee) to hot peppers and fruit.

Miscellaneous: Get it.

Why wait till you need what you know you’ll use eventually? Pick up a 10-pack of disposable aluminum drip pans, a 200-square-foot box of aluminum foil and a 55-square-foot box of the heavy-duty version.

Have a pair of long tongs and a pair of short tongs around for flipping the meat. (Never use a fork; it releases juices.)

Buy a flame-retardant mitt (about $6) and get a good silicone oven mitt as well. The latter can be cumbersome, but the protection it provides against burns is invaluable.

Check out Jim Shahin’s recommendations for charcoal/wood rigs in Tuesday’s All We Can Eat blog.

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