HELENA — When it comes to barbecue there's a plethora of methods that people can choose from, whether it's cooking over a wood fire, coals, gas, pellets, the possibilities are endless when it comes down to it.
In the grand scheme of it all, the best way to barbecue is the way that you like to eat it. The point of this story isn't to change people's minds, but rather open people up to a side of grilling they may not know.
But instead of reading paragraph after paragraph about the merits of certain methods of outdoor cooking, MTN spoke with two barbecue magnates in the Helena area to get their take on the art of barbecue.
Chris Starr started Rockstarr BBQ in 2018, before tackling the business full time in March of 2020. Starr, a former Traeger Pellet Grill salesman, uses the grills exclusively on his truck because that's how he knows how to make good barbecue.
"Ease and convenience is going to be your first and foremost. A lot of people jokingly say or maybe even seriously say it's cheating. It just makes it easy. It's set your temperature. It controls everything for you. It takes less babysitting and your results are very, very consistent," said Starr. "With every different fuel source comes a different flavor profile. One thing I find with the pellet grills— you're going to have a little bit more of a milder smoke taste, which isn't going to offend people, whereas with some of your offset smokers, your charcoal — just comes with a more heavy, robust flavor. And that, I think, is something that not everybody loves."
Calvin Richards opened Bad Betty's Barbecue in 2014 as a catering business before opening a restaurant in 2016 and uses an Ole Hickory Cabinet Smoker which uses wood as its main fire source and fans to help circulate the smoke evenly throughout the cooking cycle. Though Richards wasn't always set on using his current method.
"I was actually looking at an offset [smoker]. That's the direction I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Texas style, and I took a class out in southern Illinois from a man named Mike Mills. It was called The Business of Barbecue. It was right about the time I was getting this thing going. At that point, I was cooking on a homemade cabinet smoker, and this guy exclusively uses Ole Hickory pits," said Richards. "After being able to cook on them for a couple of days, I figured out why he uses them exclusively and I ordered one before I came home."
Despite using different methods to achieve the same thing, happy customers, both Richards and Starr agree that one of the easiest ways to get good barbecue is by using a pellet-style grill.
"The best all-around cookers on the market right now are definitely the pellet smokers, because you can do the low and slow and you can do the super hot and fast," said Richards.
However, in Richard's mind, picking the right grill boils down to doing research on what kind of cooking you'd like to do.
"If I was starting out now or recommending something to start out with, somebody to start with, I would go with either just the old Weber Kettle or the [Weber Smoky Mountain] smokers or the Big Green Eggs, if you've got the finances to step up to that. They burn a mix of charcoal and wood, you're going to get the flavor. They're fairly inexpensive and you're going to get the experience of cooking," said Richards. "Then maybe step into the pellets. But I would, I would recommend starting with charcoal and wood because you learn a lot more that way."
As for tips and tricks of the trade from either business owner?
"All of it is learning about cooking. Your times, your temperatures, your safety for meat temperatures, how not to overcook something, how not to undercook something," said Starr.
"I think the biggest thing is experiment. Have fun. Don't believe 90% of what you read on the internet. You learn this stuff by doing it. You know, fat up, fat down. Yes, they both work. You know, wrap, don't wrap. Yes, they both work. There's nobody that's going to give you a 100% answer," said Richards. "And if it's been if you can think of it, it's been tried."