Editor's note: The following collection of barbecue tips was originally printed in Wood Magazine and published with persmission from Darren Warth.

Darren Warth, owner of Smokey D's BBQ in Des Moines, Iowa, can be considered a barbecue master.

With more than 600 awards and 40 state championships under his belt, it's safe to say Warth knows a thing (or five) about the art of barbecue.

Here are five of his surefire tips for winning barbecue to leave your family and friends hungry for more:

Learn temperature control. Good barbecue requires that you maintain a consistent temperature in the 225–275º F range. To do that, you need a good-quality smoker that enables you to precisely control air flow with properly sized vents. Forget the low-cost smokers priced under $100— it’s nearly impossible to keep a steady temperature with those. Instead, buy one of the many medium-priced units that have gained solid reputations among backyard smokers. One good choice: the Smokey Mountain Cooker by Weber (weber.com), priced at about $300. For the ultimate in convenience, take a look at one of the wood-pelletfueled Mak Grills (makgrills.com), priced $1400–2400. They sense temperature and automatically regulate it through pellet feed rate and fan speed.
Pick a good piece of meat. It’s awfully hard to turn a poor piece of meat into something that tastes great. So look for thick-cut meat with a deep red color and ample marbling (dispersed fat that makes the cooked meat juicier). Avoid “enhanced” meat that has been injected with solutions that may include salt, phosphates, antioxidants, and flavorings. The solution is intended to improve the flavor of the meat or preserve it, but it may conflict with the rub or sauce you apply. For example, say you buy meat injected with a salty solution—if you apply a salty rub to the meat you may unknowingly wind up with an overpowering salty taste. Instead, start with unaltered meat—a blank canvas on which to execute your smoky work of art.
Choose the right wood and use less of it. In general, trees that produce nuts or fruit also yield the best wood for smoking. Darren likes to mix woods to get just the flavor he’s after, and gets great results using pecan and cherry together. You will need to experiment to determine what best suits your taste; although many people like mesquite, Darren finds it a bit harsh. Contrary to what some may believe, once you ignite that wood you do not want clouds of billowing smoke. Instead, build a hot, concentrated heat source that produces just wisps of bluish-gray smoke. To do that, use clean-burning charcoal briquettes to produce most of the heat, and supplement those with a small, clean-burning amount of wood. Excessive smoke will only leave bittertasting creosote on the meat.
Don’t overpower any single element of the barbecue. Good BBQ results from properly balancing its key elements: meat, rub, smoke, and sauce. If one of those overpowers the others, the end result suffers. Darren doesn’t marinade or inject meat, but he recommends the use of good rubs and sauces. He suggests you try Smokin’ Guns BBQ rub in hot flavor (smokingunsbbq.com) as well as Sweet Money rub (bigpoppasmokers.com, a great source for all things related to smoking meat). Good sauces include Russ & Frank’s Sassy BBQ Sauce (from russandfranks.com), and Original Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce (blueshog.com); It’s sweet and slightly spicy.

Own a good temperature probe. Some chefs measure the completion of smoked meat by time or appearance, but that’s risky. To ensure safe and tasty dishes, buy a highquality, accurate temperature probe with a narrow point for getting into tight or thin areas of the meat. One probe to consider: the Thermapen by Thermo- Works (thermoworks.com), shown at right, and priced at about $100. Use the probe to guide you in cooking meats to these temperatures:

  • Chicken: 180–185º F
  • Pork: 195º F
  • Brisket: 195–200º F
  • Ribs: 205º F

Those are guidelines; keep in mind that you can increase the tenderness of a tough cut of meat by cooking it to a higher temperature, but you run the risk of drying it out. If your meat is consistently too tough you’re probably not cooking it enough.