Whether trimming ribs, slicing brisket, or chopping pulled pork, a good knife is absolutely essential to creating top notch barbecue. However, not all blades are created equal. Different sizes, shapes, and weights of certain knives are designed to execute certain tasks. Good thing for y’all, I’m a certified Texas pitmaster and chef and I’m ’bout to drop some professional knowledge like brisket on a chopping block.
When we trim pork spare ribs at Freedmen’s in Austin, we remove the skirt piece on the inside of the rib rack, trim the smaller bone end to square it off, and remove the chine bone to use in our smoked bone stock that enriches the chili and barbecue sauce. When trimming briskets, we have to take the fat cap down substantially, while leaving enough to fully render and keep the meat moist at the same time. The thick, heavy handle allows easy navigation of large pockets of fat on a brisket and the stiff blade goes right through the chine bone on the ribs. It was inexpensive, and doesn’t look pretty, but it gets the job done. Look for one online or a restaurant supply store.
The cleaver we use at Freedmen’s is a heavy, wood handled, menacing looking blade, used exclusively for pulled pork and chopped beef. Any guest from any point in the restaurant can tell when we’re making an order of chopped or pulled from the tock-tock-tock of the clever on the chopping block permeating the restaurant like the smell of oak smoke, or the heat during the summer. The weight of the blade helps break up the meat fibers and mix in the sauce without having to saw and without killing the carver’s arm during a long service. Also, using the cleaver for all the intense chopping action and not banging the blade of the slicing knife on the board all night keeps us from having to sharpen it more often. We purchased it used at a local knife shop on the cheap. It has a wooden handle and is not stainless steel, so if it isn’t dried immediately after washing, it will rust. The biggest advantage of using this knife is that it makes you look and feel like a total BBQ badass.
Our slicer is a long, curved, scimitar-style blade that gets the most work done on the carving board. It slices brisket, glides through rib bones, cuts sausage, pork belly and most any other special we drop on the board. It’s the star of the knife line up, and my personal favorite. Length and sharpness are most important here; you want to be able to slice long slices of brisket as thin as a pencil. The handle is plastic and thick so it cleans easily and balances the weight of the long blade. As far as sharpness goes, honing daily will go a long way toward preserving the life of your edge. If you’re comfortable using a whet stone then by all means. It’s the best way to get the sharpest edge, but if you don’t have the time or skill, take it to a sharpener or get an electric one online. No shame at all. We purchased this knife at a local knife shop for surprisingly little money for how much work it does.
Using the right knife and keeping them sharp makes trimming, chopping, and slicing all much easier tasks than they would be if using the wrong knife. These three indispensable blades in my kitchen were all fairly cheap and can not only up your barbecue game, but also make long, tedious tasks more efficient and more fun. In addition to all this, owning and taking care of a good set of knives just ups your awesome factor considerably. Any chef and pitmaster know that using the right tool for the job is essential to creating a stellar finished dish, and that’s especially true when it comes to knives.
Evan LeRoy is the Executive Chef and Pitmaster at Freedmen’s in Austin, Texas. Evan learned the craft of smoking meats from his father while growing up in Austin and perfected it over time as pit boss at Hill Country Barbecue Market in NYC. At Freedmen’s, LeRoy puts a unique stamp on the traditional barbecue scene by smoking everything from brisket to beets to banana pudding. He currently lives in Austin with his wife, Lindsey, and their dog, Star.