5 Productivity and Life Lessons from Learning How to BBQ

4 mn read

I’m a novice with slow-cooking meats over wood or charcoal smoke, but I am learning more and more every time I try. As an adult, there are only a few things in my life after the military where I get tangible outcomes from my work. This is just a dynamic of our digitized, modern, disconnected world, which is ok. However, I have taken on more and more hobbies and activities that have allowed me to be a beginner again, and I will say that the lessons outside of the meals have been well beyond what I expected. Here are 5 productivity and life lessons from learning how to BBQ and why I believe we should all try to find our passions to help us recharge and return to being a novice again.

Don’t Rush the Smoke

You can’t rush the smoke, low temperatures, and proper seasoning. With barbecue, you have no choice but to take your time. One thing that is great about BBQ is this is one of the few tasks where you maintain complete focus on the outcomes – your Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is simple – tasty, well-prepared food that is not undercooked or dried out like cardboard. That is it.

Basics and simplification are essential. BBQ is primordial. It triggers the inner caveman in all of us, which is rewarding in its own right. Humans want to create. We want to see and feel the outputs of our work.  We want to know that what we did produced something or had an impact. BBQ taught me that the time to cook things correctly is crucial, as can be said with career transitions, jiu-jitsu, fitness and health transformation, and changing things at work.

Do not try to rush things because physics will always win out. Instead, use physics, natural laws, and time to your advantage. Also, recognize that anyone who may try to “cheat” the process with BBQ, such as boiling ribs or briskets, will likely try to cheat the systems elsewhere. I wouldn’t want them on my team in the military, for work, or on the playing field or training gym.

More often than not, your efforts will result in a learning experience instead of the intended outcome

This is OK. Experience is the greatest teacher; the worst thing if you mess up a cook is losing the meat and fuel price. Murphy’s Law always has a say no matter how many cookbooks and websites we read on how to BBQ.  Even if you have the highest-end pellet grill or electric smoker to take the work of maintaining the fire out of the equation, things will still fluctuate and shift during a cook especially if you’re working on a 17# brisket cooking for 14 hours or more.  I’ve literally burned numerous chicken parts, briskets, roasts, racks of ribs, and pork bellies at the altar of getting better at BBQ. That has made it even worth it when I get good results. And even better when I can then repeat it. That’s learning and growth. I will take it.

I started trying my hand at BBQ with a charcoal smoker and constantly changing the types of meats I was cooking. This was the wrong approach. I was unwittingly taking on too many variables at the same time. First, I was working with a very hands-on, challenging fuel source. Charcoal (and added wood chunks) are as much a seasoning ingredient as a heat source for BBQ.  I did not realize this when I started.  Charcoal heat can fluctuate dramatically during a long cook. It can be dry, overpowering, or sooty if not managed correctly. 

Additionally, the different types of meats all present their own dynamics – cook time, proper cooking temperature for the best results, seasoning using a dry rub or a marinade or injections, intended textures, and so many more.  I also tried to emulate videos I saw of the greats on Youtube or Netflix. But they usually don’t use thermometers (they don’t have to because they’re experts). Combining all of these elements together diluted my learning. 

If I could have done this again, I would have focused on single meat and the appropriate fuel. Mainly seasoning combinations and becoming really good at that with consistency. Then expanded to others.  For what it is worth, if pork is part of your diet, I recommend starting with a mid-sized pork shoulder as your first foray. Start there and work to make it awesome, then move on to expand options. Cost, simplicity, and forgiveness of my stupid mistakes. Also, you can try beef cheeks for the same reason. Start there and work to make it awesome, then move on to expand options.

5 Productivity and Life Lessons from Learning How to BBQ
My First Brisket – Nov 2020
5 Productivity and Life Lessons from Learning How to BBQ
It came out a little dry

Understand how the ingredients work together

Each element of the cook-in BBQ – the fire, the fuel, the meat, the individual spices, and the seasonings – all bring their own unique input to the final outcome. The 4-hour Chef by Timothy Ferriss taught me one lesson for cooking that has helped accelerate my comfort, ability, and skill with developing and improving my own spice mixtures. That lesson was to understand and know what each spice used adds in terms of unique flavor.

That way, I can make adjustments on the fly with simple taste tests before it goes into the meat.  Needs more acidity, add lime juices or mustard.  Need some earthier richness? Add in cloves or cumin. Need more saltiness, MSG, iodized salt, pink salt, and soy sauce all bring slightly different salty profiles.  Taking the time to learn how each element may affect and alter the outcomes of the cook is essential. In fact, it is vital to know how team members work together with their different strengths.

Enjoy the Process and see the progress

It can be frustrating when you completely ruin a $75 whole brisket, but in the long run, no one will remember the mistake (unless you did it for a crowd without practicing). Remember, practice makes progress. Enjoy the steps, embrace and enjoy the beginner’s mindset, and celebrate when good results happen. These cooks take time, and slowing things down every now and then during our typically busy and hectic lives is essential. Also, remember that BBQ is an all-weather sport; you can get started anytime.


Some great resources that have helped me along my BBQ growth path:

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