Chef Thomas Boemer wants to set one assumption straight: Discussing Midwestern grilling in general is like lumping all Southern desserts together, from Key lime pie to beignets. You just can’t do it. And he’s an award-winning chef in Minnesota in particular, which is quite different from other parts of the region — besides his state’s obvious northern, lake-filled qualities.
“In Minnesota we consider it the North, so it’s kind of Game of Thrones here with winter. It’s one of coldest places in the United States,” the chef says.
But we’re going to generalize both for a moment, focusing on Minnesota, where Boemer runs the award-winning Corner Table and more casual Revival restaurants in Minneapolis, and North Carolina, where Boemer grew up.
We love to break the rules.
After all, Boemer was a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for the 2016 and 2017 The Best Chef: Midwest category. In 2014 and 2015, Boemer also won both the Cochon555 Minneapolis Championship and the Grand Cochon Championship. The Cochon championships are a nationwide tour and culinary contest pitting five chefs against each other, cooking more than 30 dishes using whole locally-raised heritage breed pigs.
So this chef handles not only the highest-quality meats using the best techniques, he handles a ton of it.
Boemer’s Corner Table easily goes through 100 pounds of house-made pork sausage a week, “and that’s a minimum,” he says. That number can double at peak times. In the spring, he and staff butcher two whole lambs and 30 ducks every week, and then one whole hog every two weeks.
At Revival, they’ll sell five to 10 whole briskets, four to eight pork shoulders, 750 to 1,000 piece of chicken, and racks upon racks (upon racks) of ribs — in a day. “That’s a lot of fried chicken,” Boemer says with a laugh. Among other things.
So if anyone’s going to give advice on grilling and barbecue, it should be Boemer. These are a few of this grill master’s most critical, easy-to-follow tips:
The worst grilling sin is to grill at too low of a temperature. “People do not put enough charcoal in the grill,” Boemer says. “It’s not the best, most efficient, or most cost-effective way of grilling something.” When you really want to get that grilled flavor, it comes from two things: the char, and when those juices hit those super-hot coals and it creates a savory smoke that infuses the meat.
Set zones on your grill. You always need a hot spot and a cooler part, “so you can get a really great sear, that carbonization, and then move it over to a cooler spot so you cook it all the way through; that’s how you maximize the texture.” When people do use really high heat, they then make the mistake of trying to cook the meat all the way through on that direct heat. And that, of course, leads to burning, or at least dry meat. That makes people like Boemer (and us) very sad.
There’s no reason to ever use lighter fluid. Don’t even use charcoal with lighter fluid in it. And don’t use briquettes. Well, what should you use then? Look for natural lump charcoal. “It cooks more consistently and longer and with better flavor. You’ll get far superior flavor. Briquettes have a lot of fillers,” Boemer says.
Experiment with rub mixtures. You can match your rub with your sides, such as choosing a Moroccan rub on grilled chicken served with couscous. A Southern rub on pork can come with slaw. “You can play with it,” he says.
So what about these regional American differences?
In the Midwest, or Minnesota at least, they think of it as grilling, Boemer says. In the South, they’re all about barbecue. “Here where it’s cold for a very long period of the year, as soon as it gets above 32 degrees, we get out there. We don’t waste any time here. We enjoy it,” Boemer says. It’s not uncommon to dig a pathway through the snow to the outdoor Weber grill.
In the northern Midwest, it’s about sausages: bratwurst, Polish kielbasa, and knockwurst served with garnishes. But people are branching out lately, grilling more vegetables and whole chickens, he says. The outdoors and hunting are huge in Minnesota, so venison sausages are popular. Everyone has their own blend of spices, but garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper are common. People will bring their animal to a butcher to prepare and then eat the cuts, including grinding some of it for sausage. Buy a natural casing from a whole-animal butcher for the best flavor, if possible. See our step-by-step instructions for making sausage.
In the Carolinas, pork reigns. Often it’s a pork shoulder or a whole hog, cooked low and slow on the grill all day. Southerners are more excited about smoking your meat. The cooking process can take as little as three hours for ribs or as long as 24 hours for a whole brisket. “When it’s time to enjoy it with guests there, you just chop it up and you’re ready,” Boemer says. Generally, between 275 to 325 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature. The humidity in the environment can slow down the cooking time. “We call that the ‘stall,'” he says. People often serve vinegar-heavy sauces or coleslaws because the acidity cuts the richness of the fattier meat that you get with pork.
Boemer created three recipes for us to highlight these grilling and barbecue tips, fusing his expertise and Midwestern-Southern roots.
1. BBQ Pork Shoulder Sandwiches with Mustard Slaw
That mustard-based barbecue sauce has the tang of cider vinegar, a signature Carolina move when it comes to smoking or grilling pork. The acidity of the vinegar is a welcome contrast to the fatty meat. Get our BBQ Pork Shoulder Sandwiches with Mustard Slaw recipe.
2. Toasts with Grilled Chicken Livers and Peach Agrodolce
You grill the peaches too, along with the marinated chicken livers for a crunchy, creamy, juicy, smoky, sweet, and piquant bite that’s irresistible. Get our Toasts with Grilled Chicken Livers and Peach Agrodolce recipe.
3. Grilled Lamb Chops with Broccolini and Olive-Pistachio Sauce
There are so many well-thought-out elements here that provide you with contrasting and complementing flavors. It’s lamb like you’ve never had it before. Get our Grilled Lamb Chops with Broccolini and Olive-Pistachio Sauce recipe.
For more recipes and tips, check out our grilling page.