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Interview: Meathead Goldwyn, BBQ Master

Note from Peter:  I met Meathead Goldwyn a few weeks ago at the Decatur Book Festival, where he held the culinary stage immediately before I went on, so I had a chance to watch his presentation, which was on “Busting Myths About Barbecue and Cooking.”  It was a fun filled hour, full of great tips on temperature control, best brands for food thermometers, how to cook a steak to the perfect doneness, and all sorts of suggestions for successful grilling and slow cooked barbecue. His passion for the subject is contagious and the audience was totally in the palm of his hand. I knew immediately that he was a perfect fit for our community here on Pizza Quest, where we celebrate not only pizza but the passion that underlies not only the artisan pizza movement but also artisanship in all areas. Meathead personifies this, as you will see below, and also if you go to his website, www.amazingribs.com where he presides over one of the most successful food-themed websites in the world. Enjoy!

 

PQ (Peter): Thanks so much for spending some time with me and our viewers, Meathead. Is that your real name?meathead_book_3D_v2

Meathead: That is what everyone except my wife and mother call me. Dad first called me Meathead during the Archie Bunker years. Archie called his TV son-in-law, played by Rob Reiner, Meathead. Like Archie and Meathead, my Dad and I disagreed on politics. Thankfully he wasn’t a bigot like Archie, though. When I got into barbecue it became my natural online avatar and it stuck. What do Mom and my wife call me? Many things, many of which are unprintable.

PQ: I know you’ve been referred to as a “Barbecue Whisperer” and even as a “Hedonism Evangelist,” titles that you seem to have fully embraced with great enthusiasm. How did you become this guy?

As with Meathead, they were sobriquets applied by others, both of them by radio interviewers. I like them much better than “president” and “publisher.”  I especially like Barbecue Whisperer because, on the website and in our book, I have tried to explain the science of heat, smoke, meat, vegetables, charcoal, and the different types of grills and smokers. But it is all about the pleasure of good eating, so I am clearly a hedonist, spreading the word.

PQ: Your website, AmazingRibs.com, really is pretty amazing. What impresses me is how much free information you provide there, and how many pages and subjects you cover. How long has it taken to bring the site to this point and how large is its viewership? Has it become a full time job for you?

 

We launched in 2005 and the initial articles were only about cooking ribs, hence the name AmazingRibs.com. It was a hobby blog. Google liked it and traffic and revenue grew and I branched into all types of outdoor cooking. Within 5 years I decided to go to work on it full time. It now has more than 1000 free pages covering recipes, cooking techniques, mythbusting, science, grill and smoker reviews, thermometer reviews, and accessories reviews. We average about 1.5 million unique visitors a month, more in summer, fewer in winter, and we are still growing. We are among the 25 most popular food sites in the nation according to comScore. The site supports four families and we have a number of freelancers who are also paid.

We don’t sell any products because we review and rate them. No sauces, rubs, grills, etc.

All we sell is memberships in our Pitmaster Club. We launched it in July 2014, and it costs $23.95 per year. We now have about 17,000 paid members with an 80% plus renewal rate. It is by far our most important revenue stream and it is a business model we pioneered and that I think you will see more often.

Rather than put up a paywall, more than 1,000 pages of content are free. But membership has privileges. First of all, members don’t see ads. As a result pages load faster. There’s a member’s only forum called, The Pit, where a real community has formed. We are planning face-to-face “Meat-Ups.” Our first one is in February 2017 in the Bahamas, and it is already sold out. There is a weekly news podcast, in depth video interviews with top pit masters, monthly sweepstakes with prizes north of $1,000 in value, an email newsletter, a free magnetic temperature guide that sells for $10 on Amazon, and we donate 5% of membership fees to Operation BBQ Relief, a great organization that mobilizes competition cooks with large pits to feed first-responders and the homeless when disasters like tornadoes or floods strike.

In The Pit, members exchange recipes, help each other solve problems, show off pix of their cooks, review restaurants, swap and sell equipment, and much more. In two years we have only had to kick one member out for being a troll. It is a very civil environment. We have paid moderators to answer questions and help out. Notice I said PAID moderators. That is rare.

Advertising was once a major source of revenue, but all across the net ad rates are tanking because supply way outstrips demand. Advertising is now the smallest of our revenue streams.

Another revenue stream is our affiliate relationship with Amazon and others. They pay us a finder’s fee when people buy something we recommend from them. We have a full time grill and smoker reviewer, an electrical engineer who tests thermometers, and I rate and review lots of other products. Readers trust us to give it to them straight and gladly use our links to buy.

Finally, there is revenue from our book, “Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling” {http://amazingribs.com/book}. It came out May 10, and by June 30 Amazon had named it Cookbook of the Year at Midyear. It has been on the New York Times Best Seller list since August. The reviews have been unanimously affirmative and it is by far the most popular barbecue book on Amazon.

Meathead holds the stage at The Decatur Book Festival, busting food myths.

Meathead holds the stage at The Decatur Book Festival, busting food myths.

PQ: You’ve clearly got a passion for barbecue, fire and outdoor cooking, and serious meat – but you also have much broader interests and expertise in many areas, whether wine, beer, spirits, food science, photography, writing, teaching – what is it that drives you? Can you describe the deep itch, the fire in your own belly that fuels your fire?

I once thought I would be somebody important and change the world, but then reality set in. I was a journalism major and then got a masters in image making. I spent 20 years writing about wine, food and travel, and made a name in those worlds as the wine critic of the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, but it wasn’t very satisfying. But now, there isn’t a day that goes buy that I don’t get email telling me how we have changed someone’s life, how his wife now respects him more because he can cook, how the kids ask if Daddy can cook tonight, and how her ribs helped her get her man. So I am changing the world by teaching people to cook and eat better!

PQ: Okay, before we end, I have a couple of practical questions for you. The first is your article on the science of grilled pizza on AmazingRibs.com (http://amazingribs.com/recipes/pizza_and_flatbreads_on_the_grill/index.html ). You seem to have come down on the side of single-sided, no flip-over grilled pizza rather than the Al Forno method of first grilling one side, then flipping and topping it on the other side. Why do you prefer the single-side method?

Actually I love BOTH methods. I differentiate them by calling them “pizza on the grill” and “grilled pizza”, a subtle nomenclature difference, but very very important. Pizza on the grill means that you prepare the pie as it is would be prepped in a pizzeria, form the crust from raw dough, add the toppings, place it on a pan or stone, put it in a hot grill, close the lid, and bake. If you stop people in the street and ask them to describe a pizza, that’s the answer. That’s “Pizza on the Grill”.

“Grilled Pizza”, on the other hand, is a unique preparation pioneered by Johanne Killeen and George Germon at Al Forno restaurant in Providence, RI, around 1981. The dough is placed right on hot grill grates. No toppings. It is toasted til golden on one side and flipped. Because there is no lid, just a few toppings can be added, and they cook while the bottom is toasted darkly and slightly charred. If you want to put sausage on it you should pre cook it.

I now have a wood fired brick pizza oven from Italy and my favorite pizzas are Neapolitan style, usually a simple Margherita style: an oil free dough, slightly charred on the bottom, blistered and dark on the top edges, my wife’s sauce made from homegrown tomatoes that she cans by the gallon every summer, fresh buffalo mozz, plenty of fresh homegrown basil. http://amazingribs.com/recipes/pizza_and_flatbreads_on_the_grill/grilled_pizza_margherita.html

But we often make a Roman style dough with oil in it and on it, tomato sauce with oregano, onion, sweet red peppers, Parmigiano Regianno, provolone, mozz, Kalamata olives, and capicola. http://amazingribs.com/recipes/pizza_and_flatbreads_on_the_grill/grilled_capicola_pizza.html

I also have a recipe for a New Haven White Clam Apizza, Pepe style, and others on my website. My love of pizza is hard to miss on AmazingRibs.com.

 

PQ: Another question: I heard that you have judged at the “World Championship of Steak.,” which sounds like a lot of fun. We have a lot of steak eaters here, some who use wood-fired ovens and super hot temperatures, and some who go with the slow, inside out method. First, what do you look for when judging a great steak and how do you distinguish the winners from the non-winners? Second, any tips on favorite cuts, thickness, seasonings, and your own favorite cooking method, including the inside out (cook low, then sear high) method I heard you describe at the event where we met?

Oh, we could talk for hours about this. Let’s start by saying that the cooking method differs for thick and thin steaks. Skinny steaks, under 1”, should be cooked hot and fast, often lid up, depending on how hot your grill is.

The problem with thick steaks is that you want the interior an even temperature from top to bottom, and the exterior as dark as possible without carbonizing it. That means you must cook thick steaks in two stages. You need to start at a lower temp, lid down, and gently warm the interior, and finish with high temp searing, lid up, and flip often. I know this sounds backward, and it is called reverse sear, but if you sear first you end up with a dark exterior, a brown layer, then a tan layer, then a pink layer, and finally a perfect 130F medium rare center. It is all bout physics and meat science, but it works. People who try it rave that it makes the best steaks ever. I call it redneck sous vide because it is the same concept as sous vide cooking.

The best thing I can recommend is that you link to my articles on the subject. It goes from dry brining to temps to why you want the lid down part of the time to up part of the time.

http://amazingribs.com/recipes/beef/steakhouse_steaks.html

 

PQ Last question: I am someone who loves barbecue sauces of all types, despite the disdain that some barbecue purists have for it, and I see that your site touts many brands and styles, along with a nice article by you on the history of these sauces. Do you have a particular type or style, whether bought or made yourself, that is your go-to sauce, or, as I would suspect, are there certain sauces that you think are best for, specifically, ribs, brisket, shoulder, chicken, etc., and any other secret tips and favorite myths you’d like to bust right here, right now?

For ribs, I like the classic sweet “tomatoey” red sauce, Kansas City style. For pulled pork, give me the mustard based South Carolina style. Brisket, the old fashioned Texas style, which is thin and definitely not sweet. For chicken, I like the mayo based Alabama style. I describe the 12 major styles and what they work best with in this article http://amazingribs.com/recipes/BBQ_sauces/bbq_sauce_types.html

People who want to try them can find links to my recipes on that page, or they can order a case with one of each that I have selected as benchmark examples from a sauce company that sells them

PQ Thanks so much, Meathead! I know you cover a lot more than this in your new book, “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling,” so what’s the best link for anyone who wants to buy a copy? I look forward to running into you at future competitions, food gatherings, and whenever I come to Chicago!

If your readers go to http://amazingribs.com/book they can choose between Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Anderson’s, a bookstore near me where I can sign and personalize your copy. They can also see some of the wonderful things pitmasters, chefs, and others have said about the book and read the foreword by Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats. His cookbook, The Food Lab, was a James Beard award winner and is also on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Final Note from Peter:  If you have any questions for Meathead, go to www.Amazingribs.com and write to him in the comments section in the area of your interest. 

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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.

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