Nearly all barbecue and grilling cookbooks are pretty much the same.
They tell you the differences between cookers, from kettle and ceramic kamado grills to offset and vertical smokers. They explain the types of fire-building, such as direct and indirect. And they give you an overview of the flavors imparted by various woods, such as the sweet and mild apple, the deep and mellow oak, the pungent hickory.
My favorite books this season are different: They succeed primarily because they stretch the boundaries of live-fire cooking, deepen our understanding of it, or both.
“Praise the Lard,” by Mike Mills and Amy Mills (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25). This father-daughter team is barbecue royalty. Mike has won numerous championships on the competition circuit, operates his own highly regarded restaurants and helped open New York’s Blue Smoke, which helped ignite the city’s barbecue mania. Amy runs OnCue Consulting, which advises barbecue restaurants, and appears as a judge on cooking shows. In 2005, the pair published the James Beard Award-nominated “Peace, Love, & Barbecue.”
Where the earlier work drew on secrets from pit masters nationwide, “Praise the Lard” springs more from the duo’s own considerable background. The recipes reflect barbecue’s recent trend toward using humanely raised and higher-quality meats. Creative touches abound. Their recipe for Caramelized Midwest Pork Steaks, for example, transforms the “Midwest classic” from a commonplace grilling to a multistep process involving a dry rub, grilling, smoking and basting.
The play on words of the book’s title continues with religious imagery throughout: “Choirs of angels” sing the praises of the appetizers; their overview on smoking meat is called a “sermon” with “a little fire-and-brimstone testimony.” (They say they are Christians who “intend neither blasphemy nor disrespect with our language and our metaphors.”) As for the lard, it’s omnipresent, from the corn bread pudding to the peach hand pies.
One of the delights of the book is Amy’s brief recollections of childhood culinary lessons, often learned at the knee of her grandmother. They are little gems of writing, exuding love of family and friends, which she and her dad proclaim is at the heart of their love for barbecue. Their gentle humor, remarkably informed instructions and creative recipes made this reader a believer.
“Buxton Hall BBQ Book of Smoke,” by Elliott Moss (Voyageur Press, $28). A rising star of next-generation barbecue, Moss is the pit master at Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, N.C. This book, which came out last fall, is as much a worldview as a collection of recipes.
Moss is from the no-rules school of barbecue. That is, an adherence to regionalism serves as a basis to explore local flavors, not a constricting culinary orthodoxy. He has a recipe for smoked fried catfish, a fish common to the area but hardly a staple at barbecue joints.
The Florence, S.C., native cooks whole hog using only hardwoods, as his father and grandfather did. But his sides are likely not handed down from his ancestors: Brussels sprouts, a Buxton Hall signature, come in two versions, one roasted with pig drippings and cracklins, the other braised and vegetarian.
The book gets a little wonky, with instructions on how to make something called a tabletop smoker (you’ll need a drill) and how to build a burn barrel to process hardwood into charcoal. But you can skip that stuff and go straight to the winning new-old-fangled recipes.
“Red, White, and ’Que,” by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig (Running Press, $25). The so-called “BBQ Queens” from Kansas City have a knack for turning out reliable, interesting grilling books, from the well-received “The Gardener and the Grill” to “BBQ Bistro.”
This one feels a little unfocused, an Americana/seasonal/regional blend, but with dashes of international influences (with only sporadic mentions of America as a nation of immigrants). Brief recipe introductions and the occasional sidebar provide the connection to the book’s theme, but the idea behind the book would benefit from organizational guidance, such as chapters divided into seasons or regions.
Still, the well-written recipes are solid and color just outside the lines, with the likes of grilled fava beans with pecorino and grilled mahi-mahi with macadamia butter. The planked salmon combines a method credited to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest with the sweet aioli and bright salsa to create a moist, flavorful and visually stunning piece of fish.
“Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades,” by Steven Raichlen (Workman, $18). If you own Raichlen’s 2000 tome, “Barbecue! Bible Sauces, Rubs and Marinades,” you don’t need this one, which is virtually the same but with a few changes and additions.
Both books boast more than 200 recipes, but the recent work tellingly substitutes the word “righteous” for the previous book’s “all-new.” Most of the sauces in the “American” chapter, for instance, appeared in the first book, though Raichlen offers a few new ones from the likes of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and Hugh Mangum, owner/pit master at New York’s Mighty Quinn BBQ. Raichlen goes global with, among others, Argentine chimichurri, Cuban mojo, Mexican mole, Peru’s aji amarillo and South Africa’s monkey gland sauce (no monkey glands required), all of which appeared in the earlier book.
The Blanched Basil Oil, reprised from the earlier book, is a summer workhorse, providing another layer of flavor when added to meat and fish after cooking, and lending a sophisticated visual when dotted on the plate.
If you don’t own the “Barbecue Bible!” sauces book, then the current offering — which adds a “board sauce” for steaks, an “after-marinade” for meat and Austin barbecue savant Aaron Franklin’s Espresso Barbecue Sauce — makes for a valuable addition to your grilling library.
“The South’s Best Butts,” by Matt Moore (Oxmoor House, $27). Author Matt Moore journeyed through the South and collected recipes from pit masters along the way. The writing, like the title, is a little corny. (First sentence: “Opinions are like butts — everyone has one.”) But by widening the focus from pork butts (which are from the pig’s shoulder) to include lots of other foods as well, the book chronicles the changing flavors of Southern barbecue.
There’s Smoked Pork Belly with Soy-Lime Dipping Sauce, Burnt Ends Mac ’n’ Cheese, BBQ Tortilla Pie. And of course, butts. Moore’s compilation of various recipes proves that there are many methods for barbecuing a pork butt. One pit master smears the meat with mustard and cooks over wild cherry wood. Another douses with Italian dressing and cooks over charcoal. Johnson’s Boucanière Pork Butt, which Moore says is some of the most juicy he has tried, utilizes a fairly classic rub and oak wood embers.
“Weber’s Greatest Hits,” by Jamie Purviance (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25). The guys who make those ubiquitous kettle grills also turn out some pretty good barbecue cookbooks. After all, who better to tell you how to use their grills than the people who built them?
Purviance, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and author of some 15 Weber cookbooks, likens this collection to the “iconic songs of my favorite artists.” On the hit parade is the equivalent of classic rock tunes, like beer-can chicken, hard rockers like strip steak with horseradish sauce, and ambitious art-rock like ginger porterhouse steaks with roasted sesame salt.
“Salt Block Grilling,” by Mark Bitterman (Andrews McMeel, $25). The James Beard Award-winning “salt fanatic” tailors his latest book to live-fire cooking on dense Himalayan salt blocks. Bitterman says the blocks (which don’t come from the Himalayas, incidentally; that’s just marketing) serve three purposes. They provide more even distribution of heat than grate-cooking, they can generate extreme heat for searing, and they impart a mild saltiness.
The 70 recipes cover the gamut, often with a twist. Burgers are made from pork belly. The flattened Tuscan-style chicken is weighted down with a salt block rather than aluminum-foil-wrapped bricks. Bitterman, who owns a boutique salt outlet called the Meadow (which sells the blocks, naturally), provides detailed instructions for using the blocks, which can crack if not warmed properly. (Who knew?)
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.