When you put out food for a group it’s always a balancing act with quality vs. pricing. We must understand that most of the grocery stores, caterers, and restaurants lie. They will mislabel, represent previously frozen as fresh, and claim to use ingredients they do not. Here are some ways I cheat down the costs without sacrificing quality, and some things on which you must never cheat:
Shellfish often freezes better than fish, if done properly which is either flash freezing on a factory boat or frozen in milk at home. If I am going to serve fish as an entree I will not serve anything frozen or previously frozen, period. Shellfish, specifically shrimp, can be OK. Clams and mussels and crabs, NEVER. They don’t freeze well. For smoking, I prefer fresh but will accept frozen in some cases depending on the variety, the texture, and the smell test.
Other than Costco, I will not buy any seafood without a good whiff test.
If there is the slightest presence of ammonia, the fish should have been sold yesterday, and you walk away. I reject about 1/3rd of the fish and shellfish at Bel Air, and they are as good as any non-specialty store.
Brining can cure a lot in seafood, specifically texture. Through simple osmosis, brining ejects the existing liquid and replaces it with your fresh ingredients. It can firm up a slightly mushy fish or shellfish nicely and properly and add flavor. What brining will not do is make old fish good. Old fish belongs in fishwrap.
Spices and Seasonings
If they are used for sauces, you must have them fresh. I clean out my spices every 6 months and replace them. If available, I use a small coffee grinder for the freshest spices possible. For brines or marinades, you can definitely cheat here. Cheating for me is the Dollar Store or Big Lots for bulk seasonings like dehydrated onion, garlic, honey, and similar generic ingredients. Salt is something with which I never cheat. I use only sea salt or kosher salt because it tastes better and holds up to slow cooking better, and you use a third less of sea salt than table salt for the same recipe. Never use anything iodized. If I am doing a sauce or marinade that requires Soy, I only use Aloha Shoyu, but in brines I easily substitute less expensive Kikkoman. That’s the bottom for me. That awful strong Soy taste in many Chinese restaurants is from crappy, bulk soy. Don’t use it–it will bite into your taste. I use a lot of maple syrup, and only 100% pure maple syrup will do. The artificial stuff breaks down and does not take heat well. I buy it at Costco in bulk and it’s not that expensive there.
Both turkey and chicken are very forgiving for smoking. I am not picky about fresh or frozen, even for holidays. While I’d never use a frozen breast for an oven prep, you honestly cannot tell the difference when smoking or BBQing, and this makes a huge difference in cost. I prefer a Zacky’s previously frozen–never miss with those. Forget free range and all that hype for chickens when smoking or BBQing. Just make sure it’s fresh and the color and odor are right and buy on cost; just be sure the enhanced additive percentage is less than 8%. Beer can whole chicken is a great smoky, greasy meal and I use the cheapest chickens I can find for it.
The only pork I do with any regularity is a Boston Butt for pulled pork sandwiches, and ribs. I buy butts mainly on price and appearance. It’s real junk meat anyway. The best butts/shoulders I’ve ever had are from SYSCO, and sometimes I’ll tap a restaurant to sell some out the back door. Over the last couple of years I’ve been buying bone-in pork shoulders from Walmart and have been pleased.
Quality ribs are extremely critical. I will not buy any rib not in Cryovac, and getting good spares has become next to impossible during some seasons. I went one entire season without doing spares because the quality was so bad. I now buy nearly all my ribs at Costco, and I normally use baby backs, using this killer technique. It’s hard to beat a good spare, however, if you can find them.
BBQ and Smoking Cheats
Basically there are none. It’s done when it’s done and a good quality digital thermo is your best friend. What I do use that virtually no one on the west coast does is curing salt for my brined items. Not only does it ensure that all bacteria is killed and your finsihed product is much less likely to spoil, it really adds some texture and opens up pores of tight grained poultry, fish, and some pork to receive the smoke better. Every trip to the South I go into a Wal-Mart (it’s common in the South) and throw a bag of Morton’s TenderQuick into my luggage. Never seen it here in California.
Most people have no idea of the risk they take by eating at a BBQ restaurant. As we cook at low temps, the chances of botulism are probably tenfold of anywhere else. Get nailed once and you’ll learn the hard way. Pay close attention to the cleanliness and refrigeration if you can see it, because there is probably not one local BBQ joint that takes the extra step to cure meats.
For wood, NEVER cheat. Never use anything but seasoned hardwood. I beg and buy wood from all over the country for different flavorings, but the local white oak and cherry are my staple supplies. The best wood overall is Pecan, but the cordwood too expensive to bring in. I do use pecan chunkwood in my Cookshack for a few items. Avoid mesquite except for grilling wood. It’s too hot and too strong for anything but a big, tough brisket.