“There’s nothing magical about it,” Bradford said. “It’s just work.”
Bradford and his family own Brad’s, which serves ribs every day of the week. Bradford cooks the meat, his wife makes the sauce and their son, William, manages the restaurant. The family has spent the past 25 years perfecting their rib recipe.
“It’s all cooking it with love,” William Bradford said, “every plate that’s sitting on the table. It’s disappointing when they don’t like it because you cook it with love. You want to know how to make it better.”
At Brad’s, the ribs are first cooked in a rib pit hidden behind a pair of thick metal doors. After several hours, James moves them to the rotisserie.
“Ribs are time consuming,” William said, a pot of barbecue sauce bubbling away beside him.
After 25 years in the business, William has some advice for at-home rib chefs.
“The key to anything is watch your fire,” he said. “It’s like babysitting.”
Everyone has their own seasoning and sauce to make their ribs special, he added. At Brad’s, the sauce has a distinctly sweet flavor. It’s made with honey, bought by the five-pound bucket from Weaver beekeeper Jack Chapman.
In Jacksonville, Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack owner Tim Johnson sits at a picnic table surrounded by walls covered in license plates.
“I don’t know if I know the secret,” Johnson said. Funny, coming from a man whose ribs have made it on the 100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama Before You Die list — twice.
“We make our own rub and barbecue sauce, put them in the smoker, smoke them and take them out,” he said.
At Cooter Brown’s, the ribs are smoked over pecan wood, a deviation from the traditional Southern hickory. Johnson said the pecan wood gives the meat a sweeter, more subtle smoky flavor.
“To tell you the truth, I never really liked barbecue growing up,” he said. “It was too strong. That’s why I like the pecan.”
For more adventurous rib lovers, Johnson suggests smoking ribs over other types of fruitwoods, like apple. He also advocates a dry rub. Cooter Brown’s dry rub ribs served with sauce on the side are the restaurant’s most popular item.
“People have really taken a liking to them,” he said. “They’re not as messy.”
Johnson’s advice for backyard ribs: Cook them “low and slow.” He suggests smoking ribs for six to six and a half hours at 235 to 240 degrees.
“Don’t over smoke or undercook it,” he added. “Keep the temperature consistent. You don’t need to get it too hot because it’ll burn.”
Cooter Brown’s biggest seller is dry rub ribs — about 250 slabs of a week. The restaurant also serves chopped pork and smoked chicken breast quarters, all coated with a dry rub and cooked over pecan wood. Johnson said their Boston butts usually smoke for 12 to 13 hours in a rotisserie-type smoker.
Like Cooter Brown’s, Boston butts are a popular dish at Dad’s Bar-B-Que on McClellan Boulevard, where a little boy toddles by, sporting a grin set on cheeks smeared with barbecue sauce.
At Dad’s, the Boston butt is served with a popular honey mustard-based barbecue sauce. Rusty Orr, the general manager, said the butts cook overnight.
“It’s got to be slow with indirect heat,” Orr said.
Smoked chicken and turkey breasts join the Boston butts as the restaurant’s most popular entrees. To keep the chicken and turkey moist, Orr suggests basting the meat every 30 minutes during the cooking process.
“For chicken, a good rub and just cook it slow,” he added. “The slower, the more the flavor is going to get into the meat.”
Jason Chaney, the market manager at Christian Corner Meats in Anniston, echoes the “low and slow” rule. His advice to home barbecuers is to have a little patience.
“Patience, patience, patience when you’re smoking meat,” Chaney said, adding that a brisket should smoke for 14 to 16 hours at 225 degrees so it doesn’t dry out. “You’re rewarded at the end.”
Chaney said Boston butts are the most common barbecue in the South, but Christian Corner Meats also carries whole briskets for backyard chefs who want a little Texas flavor.
Chaney’s personal favorite? That’s boneless pork loin, which customers can find in the fresh meat section of the store.
To smoke at home, Christian Corner owner and cook Debbie Young suggests a barrel, hickory wood and plenty of charcoal. Because smoking can be time consuming, Chaney suggests cooking on the weekend and enjoying the spoils all week long.
Christian Corner Meats also offers pre-smoked meats that are perfect for a quick dinner. Coated in co-owner David Young’s son’s secret rub, customers can just heat and eat the ribs or add their favorite barbecue sauce.
The store smokes ribs and Boston butts in a Southern Price Smoker, which can cook 90 Boston butts or 100 ribs at one time. Young calls it “the Cadillac of smokers.”
“We taste test everything we sell,” Debbie said. “If we like it, we sell it. If not, we change it.”
To make the meat a meal, Chaney said to be sure to remember the dessert.
“We’ve always got a pie and cakes to go with it,” he said, gesturing to coolers that also feature twice-baked potatoes and rolls. “A bag of Schubert’s (rolls) and a cake and you’ve got a meal for less than $20.”
Regardless of the type of meat — brisket, Boston butt or ribs — local smoking gurus follow the “low and slow” mantra. Find a favorite type of wood for the perfect smoky taste, add a dry rub or some honey barbecue sauce and keep the temperature low and the patience high to find that perfect blend of crispy, tender flavor.
“Everybody’s different,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s got their own way of doing it.”