Take your cues from these four area pit bosses. Each has his own specialty and philosophy on how to achieve the perfect ribs, brisket or chicken.
Owner of Smokin J's BBQ in Gulfport (5145 Gulfport Blvd.) and a new location in St. Pete Beach (6690 Gulf Blvd.)
Barbecue credentials: "I started in Dallas doing it as a hobby. I did a competition and went away for the weekend and loved it because I picked up tips from veteran smokers. When the company I worked for moved to Oklahoma, I didn't want to go to Oklahoma, so I started selling barbecue sandwiches at truck stops along Route 30. Truckers really welcomed a home-cooked meal. Then I came to Gulfport and brought my smoker down because my sister had a dog-grooming business."
Barbecue tips: "Being patient is the key. Brisket has to be cooked low and slow. And leave it alone. As they say, if you're looking, you're not cooking. Cook a brisket fat-side up — leave a quarter inch of fat — and let the juices run through. It takes anywhere from 10 to 16 hours. I do a dry rub (garlic, three different peppers, onion, cayenne and two other secret spices). Let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes, then slice across the grain."
Essential tool: "A thermometer is essential, but temperatures are just a guideline. For brisket, you're looking for 180 degrees, but you'll feel the resistance with the thermometer. If it slides right in, it's ready to go."
Owner of First Choice in Brandon (10113 Adamo Drive) and Plant City (712 S Collins St.)
Barbecue credentials: "The Lord wouldn't be pleased if I told you otherwise: I became disenchanted with the corporate world. Employees weren't considered an asset and companies were moving away from being employee-driven. As I learned from my mother, if you're going to make it, you have to know thyself. All I did was barbecue as I knew it in the backyard. We called it Southern barbecue."
Specialty: "Everything we do, we do well. If you like good ribs, you'll be hard-pressed to find better. Our focus is consistency and keeping it simple."
Barbecue tips: "I tell people if you're at home and you want good, moist chicken, start out with your charcoal in pyramid form, light it, and after the fire is established, spread it out a little. Line half of the grill with aluminum foil. Your focus is not to cook it until it's done — you want to impart smoke flavor and color. And when you have achieved that, move the chicken over to the other side of the grill where you have the foil. The aluminum foil is a shield and you finish cooking it just with the heat."
Essential tool: "Because I keep it simple, I say you have to have a good pair of tongs and a nice, heavy-duty fork, one that's long enough so your hand isn't over the heat."
Owner of Holy Hog in Tampa (3501 N Armenia Ave. and 4404 Henderson Ave.)
Barbecue credentials: "My father owns Pipo's, which my family started in 1979 back in Town 'N' Country. My passion turned to barbecue. I told my wife I would love to open a small, boutique barbecue joint. If the barbecue is good, people will travel for it. Well, with Holy Hog at least all our taxidermy is out of the house — I think my wife is happy about that."
Specialty: Burnt ends (crisp, fatty "bark" made from the brisket ends). "Burnt ends are like barbecue candy. It's laborious and a little tedious. We buy Angus brisket and we have the luxury of being able to trim out the point (the fattiest part of the brisket). We do a dry rub with paprika and fresh herbs like oregano and thyme, seasoned salt, garlic and brown sugar, which adds to that caramelized flavor. And it gets smoked anywhere from 12 to 16 hours. When the fat has been rendered out, we cube it into one-inch squares, and you see beautiful pieces with a red smoke ring, then it goes back into the smoker in a pan with its juices for another two hours. That's where the magic really happens."
Barbecue tips: "Don't cut yourself short by using inferior ingredients. Quality of ingredients and attention to detail are the two biggest factors for good barbecue. And taste your rub before you put it on. It needs to be balanced."
Essential tool: "Those things used for salad tongs that look like bear claws, we use them to actually shred a pork butt. And get a great thermometer. We use something called a Thermopen."
Owner of Poppa's BBQ in Clearwater (12211 49th St. N)
Barbecue credentials: "I've worked for electronic companies. I was a purchaser for two companies, but I kept getting laid off. I've been barbecuing since I was a teenager with my father. When I got laid off the last time, I decided to do this. I was born and raised in Memphis. In Memphis we do the dry rubs, and we cook all of our meat with wood instead of gas or charcoal. That has a lot to do with Southern barbecue."
Specialty: "We sell a lot of pulled pork, but we get more comments on our ribs. We sell out just about every day."
Barbecue tips: "Wash off the ribs and there is a membrane on the back of them. I always pull that off; that helps the smoke get in better. We make our own dry rub (paprika, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, a little cayenne, brown sugar and sugar). After you smoke the ribs four to five hours at about 250 degrees over indirect heat, this rub just melts into the meat. You can tell they're done when the meat draws back from the bone. Pick them up with tongs and see if they are giving and ready to break. You have to take your time — low heat and plenty of time. A lot of people will want to rush it."
Essential tool: "The only things I use are long tongs. And after about two hours as ribs cook, I spray on a marinade of apple juice, sugar, water and a bit of Worcestershire."