Learn to Grill at Barbecue University with Steven Raichlen

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A panoramic view of Colorado awaits attendees of Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue University.
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Raichlen and a class member talk while basting.
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Steven Raichlen demonstrates his favorite “Cave-Man” style of grilling during a session of his Barbecue University.

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO – Barbecuers find their way to the historic Broadmoor Hotel each June for a special event: Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue University.

Raichlen, the award-winning author of The Barbecue! Bible and Barbecue USA, has gained a following who hungrily watch his PBS television programs, buy his DVDs and his grilling gadgets, and then faithfully try his creative recipes.

As one of 50 people making a pilgrimage to Colorado Springs for the intensive three-day grilling event, I was in the company of other backyard barbecuers, chefs and restaurant owners; Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming and her husband, vitner Greg Jenkins; an Australian pilot with Emirates Airlines; and an Army food and beverage director.

As each day begins, Steven Raichlen calls for volunteers: “If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do or had trouble with, that’s the dish to volunteer for.” Volunteers prepare for grilling during Raichlen’s talk. Later, outside, they grill, plate the dish and tidy up.

Raichlen demonstrates eight recipes a day while students sit riveted, taking notes on the printed recipes provided.

As Raichlen explains it, barbecue is when food is exposed to fire. The class covers all five methods of fire cooking:

  • Direct Grilling: food is cooked 3 to 6 inches above hot embers. Used for steaks and hamburger.
  • Indirect: cooking next to, but not directly over, the fire. Best for tough or large cuts of meat so they can thoroughly cook without burning.
  • Smoking: a form of slow, indirect grilling, utilizing low heat and wood smoke.
  • Spit Roasting: rotisserie grilling with infrared or ceramic heating behind a turning spit. This constant, slow turning bastes both internally and externally, resulting in juicy meat.
  • “Cave-Man” style grilling: Raichlen carefully demonstrated his favorite technique, “Heavily season a thick, tender T-bone steak. Lay the steak right on the coals; use natural lump charcoal. Why are we doing this? Because surface charring of meat makes a smoked flavor and crust you can’t get on a conventional grill. Periodically, grab the meat and knock off embers so they won’t stick to the meat, making it cook unevenly. Cook about 3 minutes per side. Turn the meat when you see little pearls of blood form on top.”

An entire meal, Raichlen says, can be cooked – appetizer to dessert – on the grill; thus he offers his Caesar Salad with Grilled Romaine Lettuce and Smoke-Roasted Pears for dessert. 

Full of sage advice, Raichlen provides clear and thorough explanations:

  • “How do you control heat on a charcoal grill? Set up a 3-zone fire: Thick layer of coals in back for searing meat, medium layer of coals in the center for cooking, and no coals in front – where you move your food, if it starts to burn.” 
  • “When do you put sauce on ribs? At the end, or the sauce will burn.”
  • “How do you keep fish from falling apart or sticking to a grate? Cook fish on a cedar plank or wrap it in grape leaves.”

In addition to acquiring seasoning techniques and sauce-making tips, participants learn how to light a gas grill safely, light a chimney starter, and do basic butchering.

Although Raichlen uses different recipes in each session, a perennial favorite is Beer Can Chicken, a recipe that uses a can of beer (or soda) to keep the bird moist. The can sits on the grill, with the opening of the chicken carcass placed over the open can, holding the chicken upright.

Outside on the deck, amidst a panoramic view of mountains and valley, Raichlen stands surrounded by 24 grills and says, “I’m going to show you how to use all major categories of grills, everything from smokers to charcoal grills to wood burning grills, hibachis and ranches. We’re actually even going to spit-roast a whole hog on a rotisserie.”

Later, staff members bring out a large butchered hog plus a military-size rotisserie skewer. Raichlen pulls a willing volunteer from the crowd to sew the hog onto the skewer.

By the time we finished grilling, the enticing aroma from 24 grills has all of us hungry. Inside, The Broadmoor kitchen prepares a barbecue lover’s feast from recipes introduced that day.

Back home, I’m experimenting with what we learned. And I’ve heard from the Australian pilot, Grant Robertson, who says he’s tried many of Raichlen’s recipes: He reads the recipes, starts the grill and, then watches one of Raichlen’s DVDs to see if he’s forgotten anything!