“What I tell people, if it works for you, it works for you. You got to start somewhere and don’t be intimated.” That’s the very passionate advice pitmaster Dani Goldblatt has for any newcomer wanting to get into the very serious game of cooking meat with smoke and fire.
Pushing the boundaries
Dani isn’t your typical barbecue pitmaster: first, she’s half Midwesterner/half South African living in Los Angeles (not exactly smoked meat territory). Second, she’s Orthodox Jewish (there aren’t that many kosher bbq joints in the world). And third, she’s a frum woman competing in a very male dominated industry (Jewish and non-Jewish alike).
“I’ve always been a girl to push the boundaries, Tom Boy and athlete,” she told us over the phone while smoking briskets on a very hot day in The Valley. “The kosher barbecue community has been incredible, super encouraging.”
Dani is the vision behind Holy Smokes Kosher BBQ, a popup/private catering service that specializes in glatt kosher meats. When she’s not up early smoking meat in the California heat, or coming up with new dishes like beef “bacon,” she’s a full time teacher and mother of two.
The barbecue bug caught Dani early at 19 but in her words the first brisket that she made “was terrible.”
“I was really into cooking, I started on a charcoal grill and went slowly from there,” she told me. She started taking her cooking seriously five and a half years ago, and it only took her a few years to get firmly into the barbecue business. Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah a few years back when Dani was busy cooking 350 pounds of meat in a 500 gallon smoker.
The rise of kosher barbecue
When you think of barbecue, “kosher” doesn’t immediately come to mind but there is a growing list of Jewish chefs that are trying to change that. These barbecue masters are a huge driving force in the renaissance that’s taking place in the kosher food world.
Side note: I spent a lot of time living in North Carolina, so when I use the word barbecue I’m not using it as a verb like my Midwestern friends do, i.e. a bbq is anything cooked on a grill (think hot dogs and corn). (It’s okay, I was born in Chicago so I can say that.) When I say barbecue I’m talking about the artistry that is cooking a piece of a meat long and slow for hours over a flame or in a smoker.
I started to ask Dani if kosher barbecue can stand up to the traditional fare found in Memphis, Texas and my adopted home state of North Carolina. She didn’t pause to think– “1000%,” she quickly replied cutting me off before I could finish the question.
“1000%, Izzy’s won Brisket King and it’s a tref competition,” she added, referring to the Brooklyn kosher smokehouse that won best brisket in New York City in 2017. “It 1000% can compete with the right equipment.”
On top of Izzy’s in Brooklyn (and now Manhattan) and Dani in Los Angeles there are only a handful of chefs cooking up authentic kosher-certified barbecue in the United States:
- Shmorg: The Smoke Joint in Los Angeles
- Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed in Chicago
- Wandering Que in Hackensack, New Jersey
- Backyard BBQ in Miami
The right equipment? Fire
There’s a simple ingredient to Dani’s success: “100% real fire.”
Dani explained to me that a big part of having the “right equipment” that is needed in order to compete with non-Kosher barbecue is the actual fuel that you are cooking with. This is the ingredient that separates the backyard bbq of hamburgers and hot dogs from the food made by pitmasters.
Dani soon graduated from her charcoal grill to smoking and cooking over a real flame.
“Using 100% fire, not just charcoal — combustible flame — you see it creates a whole new flavor profile. It creates that ‘bark’ on the meat that tastes so good.”
That bark and highly prized pink smoke ring on briskets only comes from patience and hard work, something that you can’t easily achieve using the cheap wood chips that you add to your gas or charcoal grill.
How to cook Jewish barbecue
There are some additional challenges that are unique to cooking kosher barbecue (besides the obvious lack of pig on the menu). Glatt kosher meat comes pre-salted, so for some cuts certain precautions need to be made.
“Most things aren’t too salty, [but] certain cuts are,” Dani explained. “There’s a particular cut of lamb that is crazy salty.”
When cooking beef, Dani says skirt and hanger steaks are the saltiest and from my own experience (confirmed by my butcher) glatt kosher ducks also come extremely salty.
Because of the salty issue, Dani says none of her dry rubs actually contain the ingredient. “I salt individually, beside skirt and hanger on the cow, nothing can absorb salt that well.”
The biggest issue in the kosher barbecue game is the cost of meat and that forces some creativity in the kitchen.
“Chuck eye steaks are great, they are a poor man’s ribeye,” Dani pointed out. “It’s going to be much cheaper especially from kosher butchers. It’s also good for low and slow, like brisket or pulled meat. You can do poor man’s burnt ends with them. Chuck eye is a super versatile cut with many options, I think it’s the most underrated cut.”
If you know barbecue, you know that on top of a smoked brisket with that perfect pink smoke line, burnt ends are the next best thing (many go one step further and consider burnt ends to be the Holy Grail of smoked meat).
Burnt ends are typically made from the fattier “point cut” of a brisket but a “poor man’s” version can be made just as easily (and quicker) with chuck eye.
Dani even gave away a secret on how to make this version even more tempting.
“To do burnt ends with chuck eye, it can dry out,” she explained. “I like to wrap it in foil and at about 160 degrees I drop it in tallow (rendered beef fat) and put it in the smoker and finish it there.”
(If dropping a piece of delicious meat into rendered beef fat is a bridge too far for you, Dani also has a simple yet delicious recipe for burgers which you can find at the bottom of this article.)
What’s next for kosher bbq?
“I’m someone who can’t really sit still,” Dani told me.
“It’s a whole new ballgame– it’s so foodie,” she went on about the kosher food scene. “I’d like to see more barbecue fusion like there’s so much to learn from the Asian barbecue community. A true fusion place because so many places in this world cook with fire and I see that there’s a lot to explore still. There’s so much.”
More women are getting into smoking meat too.
“There are a couple of women who compete at the kosher circuit,” Dani said.
Recipe: Really simple burgers
This recipe in Dani’s words is “really simple yet awesome.”
-2 lbs of ground beef (lean or regular, just not extra lean)
-3 TBSP grated onion.
-1 TBSP ‘Worcester’ sauce
Form patties with ingredients. Put in fridge while you start up the grill to let flavors meld. Salt and pepper right before grilling. Cook to desired temp. (We told you it was easy.)
Originally Published Jul 1 2021 08:30AM EDT