Right off the bat, I’ll admit that truth be told, I’m a bit of a barbecue snob.
And living in Texas, a state loaded with great barbecue tradition from one end of the vast Lone Star State to the other, I regularly indulge in my taste for the best brisket and sausage money—and a tank full of gasoline—can buy.
To be completely accurate, however, I should say what I really am is a barbecue connoisseur, familiar with the smoky locations, hallowed menus, and hours of operation at many of the legendary joints scattered around the state. Because while I’d like to think I can find good barbecue, I’d have to admit that being able to make the smoky magic happen in my backyard is sometimes an art that eludes me.
The reason, of course, is that barbecue—good barbecue, at least—is as much a craft as it is a skill. The mantra of backyard pitmasters is a fire that burns low and slow, but there’s a good learning curve—and a lot of trial-and-error at times—to learn how to turn a fire, some smoke, and a trimmed brisket into a meal that delights the taste buds, boggles the mind, and leaves guests clamoring for more.
Over the years, my office shelves have filled with books on good Texas barbecue, volumes that have fueled my definition of what does and doesn’t constitute real barbecue.
Meaning that if the method of cooking doesn’t involve the time-honored tradition of my state that centers around a metal barrel, an offset pit filled with glowing wood coals, and a hefty brisket absorbing the low-and-slow smoke wafting out of the smokestack, I simply wasn’t interested.
But a few months ago, my understanding of Texas barbecue came under deepening scrutiny when I discovered that one of my heroes, Matt Pittman of Meat Church fame, was committing what I might have previously considered as barbecue blasphemy.
Why? Because he was smoking meat on a Traeger pellet grill as a—gasp!—full-fledged member of the Team Traeger pro staff!
Having watched Pittman’s YouTube instructional videos—and knowing his rise to fame from a local barbecue expert from Waxahachie, Texas to BBQ Pitmasters TV stardom—I began to consider that my understanding of what real barbecue is might not be completely accurate.
Also fueling my change in attitude was a Sitka Gear deer camp I shared last winter with renowned bowhunter John Dudley, a popular writer, Nock On Archery podcaster, and Team Traeger pro staff member who almost always has a pellet grill in the back of his truck to turn out epic meals of deer, elk, and other game.
With all of that swirling in my head and my previous definitions starting to crumble a bit, I soon found myself assembling a Traeger Pro Series 34 Pellet Grill that was destined for some meat-smoking sessions on my backyard deck.
Over time, here’s what I’ve found as I’ve gradually entered the world of smoked meat produced on a Traeger pellet grill.
First, assembly is easy—if I can do it, anyone can. With a few simple tools, a little extra help from my oldest son Zach, and a few minutes of time, a big box transformed easily into a fully functioning pellet grill.
I also found that once again, I’m not the best at following directions—just ask my wife—although easy-to-understand directions are included with every Traeger Grill.
Because I didn’t do a great job of following the directions, I needed to call the Traeger Customer Service number (1-800-TRAEGER) to get me back on track. A few minutes later, my Pro Series 34 Pellet Grill was belching out delicious smoke that was ready to turn meat into a meal.
The first thing I wanted to try, of course, was a whole packer brisket that spent hours being bathed in the low-and-slow heat produced by a supply of Traeger hickory wood pellets. As I prepared for my first cook, I kept things a bit on the secret side since my father-in-law Pat and Uncle Dudley might have frowned a bit as I deviated from the methods revered for many years in our family circle.
So, with the Traeger app loaded onto my iPhone, I opened it up, went to the Traeger Top Recipes icon, clicked on the Traeger BBQ Brisket recipe, and began my entry into what was suddenly a changing world of barbecue for yours truly.
While I did have the Traeger Beef Rub the recipe advises, I decided to stick to the tried-and-true 50/50 mixture of coarse salt and pepper that many Texas barbecue nuts prefer to use. After coating the brisket with the rub mixture, getting the Traeger grill preheated and ready to cook at 225 degrees, and taking a deep breath, the brisket was fat side down on the grill, the lid was closed, and my new adventure was underway.
I suppose the Texas barbecue snob part of me might have secretly hoped for a problem or two to happen along the way. But the simple truth is that didn’t happen. Following the directions and using the meat thermometer, the various steps of smoking a brisket followed as the low-and-slow process ensued.
A few hours later, the first magic number of 160 degrees was reached internally, and the brisket was wrapped in aluminum foil. While some Texas barbecue snobs’ frown on that step and call it a crutch, others readily use the foil wrapping trick. Besides, I was suddenly a rule-following kind of a guy and since the recipe said to do it, I did.
As the clock slowly ticked forward, the Traeger wood-fired revolution that began in Oregon back in 1987 began to slowly do its work, converting meat into a meal and a Texas barbecue snob into a convert.
Starting with a hopper filled with hickory pellets and my unit’s controller set to the desired temperature (Editor’s Note: this process is even simpler now with the company’s new WireFire technology that connects the grill to your smartphone), the internal auger pushed the right amount of pellets forward into the grill's firepot where a hot rod ignited them and produced a consistent bath of heat and smoke.
While the noise of the grill's electric fan took a little bit of getting used to, along with no need to keep adding wood and poking the fire, the result was a process that slowly smothered the brisket in what's necessary to produce great barbecue – no matter where you live.
As the evening turned into late night, I kept careful check of the smoking process, looking for that magical combination of time, smoke, and internal temperature that turns a piece of meat into a meal to die for. When the finished internal temperature of 204 degrees was reached, the brisket was pulled to sit and rest in a cooler for a few hours.
Finally, it was time to see what the result was. With a little fear and trepidation, I started slicing the brisket up and grabbed a piece to take my first bite. Instantly, I realized that all this time, I had been wrong to believe that only the traditional methods I was so familiar with in my home state were able to produce great barbecue.
The bark was there, the smoke ring was there, and more importantly, a melt-in-your-mouth taste was there. Put simply, I was amazed at what I was experiencing as years of barbecue snobbery melted like so much fat on a brisket.
About that time, my son-in-law Tim wandered through the kitchen and made his way to the cutting board. A Baylor law school student who got his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas in Austin—the state’s new capital for the meat smoking craft—Tim is also a barbecue connoisseur who recognizes a great piece of smoked meat.
He sampled a few bites … and then a few more. Finally, I could stand it no longer and asked the expected question: “Well, what do you think?”
His response both confirmed my suspicions along with providing a little shock when he said: “I attended a barbecue festival a few months ago in Austin and sampled 50 of the best barbecue makers in the state. This brisket is pretty good, and I’d have to say it can hang with much of what I tasted there.”
With that, my final defense crumbled and my appreciation for the nuances of the art of making good barbecue had been completely transformed. In the months that have ensued, my experimentation has continued as I’ve gotten used to the Traeger way and turned out delectable meals of ribs, pulled pork, chicken, and vegetables.
With an almost endless supply of recipes available on the Traeger app, I can’t see any end in sight as I continue on with low heat, plenty of smoke, and the ongoing quest for great food. And after a freezer mishap a few months ago, the supply of venison is now back to normal in my household after the fall hunting seasons, so there is plenty more smoky goodness ahead if you ask me.
Put simply, what I’ve discovered in all of this is that the sky is the smoky limit in my own backyard. All I had to do was be willing to give the Traeger wood-fired revolution a try.
And wow, am I glad I did.
Amazing Wild Game and Fish Recipes by Traeger: