Slice of open-pit magic

Baltimore pit beef provides unique taste of Charm City – just don't call it barbecue

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photoAlthough Baltimore pit beef is often called barbecue, it's cooked neither slow nor low. But it's a slice of open-pit magic.

You know those bumper stickers that say "Keep Austin Weird"? The slogan has been adopted by other cities around the country, but Baltimore doesn't need a sticker. It is bone-deep weird. Exhibits A, B, C: John Waters, Frank Zappa, HonFest.

Oh, and D: Baltimore pit beef.

It's a thing all its own. Although it's often called barbecue, it's cooked neither slow nor low. It's not smoked over an indirect fire in a closed cooker. Nor does it conform to conventional notions of grilling (leaping flames, fast-cooking foods like burgers and steaks).

Baltimore pit beef is to live-fire cooking what Waters is to cinema: a bit … different. And wholly Baltimore. You can find other smoked meats, like North Carolina pulled pork, Memphis ribs and Texas brisket, coast to coast. But Baltimore pit beef (the city's name is commonly invoked when discussing the food) is confined mostly to the city and its immediate environs.

On a recent Sunday morning, I decide to check out Charm City's blue-collar sandwich at the venerable pit beef stand at the weekly Baltimore Farmers Market & Bazaar.

I can smell the pit beef long before I can see it, the aroma from the grilling meat carrying all the way to my parking space on the street.

Following my nose, I thread my way through the stands of arugula and burritos toward a cumulus of smoke. Enveloped in the cloud wafting from the smoldering hardwood-lump-charcoal fire is Michael Shores. He watches a crew of guys as they pull hunks of beef from an open pit and thinly slice the meat to order.

The Shores family has been selling pit beef since 1975, when Michael's father had a little place out on Route 40. The family has been operating at the farmers market under the name Beef Barons for some 30 years.

Baltimore pit beef is cooked over an open pit, which produces a light smoke. Shores, 42, cooks the meat the old-fashioned way. Several slabs of Angus bottom round, weighing around 15 pounds each and seasoned solely with salt and pepper, hang from two steel poles directly over a glowing hardwood charcoal fire of about 500 degrees in a 5-year-old rectangular stainless-steel pit. The pitmen carve hunks of meat into smaller pieces during the cooking process to achieve a variety of doneness.

Baltimore Pit Beef

Servings: 6 to 8

Michael Shores, whose family has been cooking pit beef at the Baltimore Farmers Market & Bazaar for some 30 years under the name Beef Barons, recommends that home cooks use an eye round. The cut is very lean, so there is not a lot of fat to make it juicy. On the upside, the straight-ahead flavor makes for a poor man’s prime rib. Hardwood lump charcoal works better than typical briquettes because it burns hotter, giving a better char. But briquettes work fine if you can’t find lump or don’t want to spend the additional money. This recipe includes a basic rub, but if you have one that you like for beef, feel free to use it. The seasoned meat needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon chili powder

One 3-pound eye round cut of beef

8 kaiser rolls, potato rolls or 16 slices of regular white sandwich bread, for serving

½ cup homemade or store-bought horseradish sauce or Tiger Sauce (see related recipe)

1 large sweet onion, sliced thin into rings and halves

Combine the salt, black pepper, garlic powder and chili powder in a small bowl and mix well. Rub the beef all over with all the spice mixture, then cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or up to overnight.

Bring the beef to room temperature; this should take about 30 minutes.

Prepare a fire for direct and indirect heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 F). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes just turn ashen, distribute them on one side of the cooking area. For a hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 5 inches above the coals for 3 or 4 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.

Place the meat on the direct-heat side of the grill. Cook (uncovered) for 2 to 3 minutes on each side of the meat, turning as needed, so the exterior becomes evenly crusty.

Move the meat to the indirect-heat side of the grill. Close the lid. (In Baltimore, the pit beef is cooked over an open pit. But that’s because the pitmen distribute the coals in a way that creates hot and cool spots and also because they constantly monitor the cooking process. Cooking the beef with the lid closed reduces both the grill-hovering and the challenges of cooking to tenderness over a live fire.)

Grill for 30 minutes to 45 minutes (for medium-rare). A meat thermometer inserted into the center should register 130 F. Transfer to a cutting board; rest the meat for no more than 5 minutes, then slice it against the grain as thinly as possible. Don’t worry about full slices; you’re only heaping the meat onto a sandwich. The key is thinness.

Pile the meat onto buns or bread. Top with horseradish sauce or Tiger Sauce and a few onion slices.

From-Scratch Horseradish Sauce

Makes a scant cup

Fresh horseradish is sinus-clearing. This sauce is easy to make and is a wonderfully stout companion to grilled and roasted beef. See the Tiger Sauce variation. The sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

A scant pound fresh horse­radish root

2 tablespoons water, or more as needed

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

½ teaspoon sugar, or more as needed

¼ teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Peel the horseradish root, discarding the tough ends. Cut the peeled root into ¼-inch dice. Transfer to a food processor and add the water. Pulse until the texture is a bit like that of wet coarse sand, about 1 minute.

Transfer to a bowl. Add the vinegar, sugar and salt, stirring to incorporate. Taste, and adjust for texture and flavor as needed; for example, if you want it to be looser, add a little water.

Variation: To make Tiger Sauce, a common sauce used in Baltimore for the city’s classic pit beef sandwiches, add ¼ cup of mayonnaise when mixing the vinegar, sugar and salt.

Per tablespoon: 15 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 120 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar.