When we think about the regional styles of US BBQ, we generally talk about pork BBQ with various vinegar-based sauces from the Carolinas; Beef brisket, short ribs and sausage from Texas; Sweet, tomato-based sauces on pork ribs, shoulder and burnt ends in Kansas City and of course, the famous “dry” ribs in Memphis.
However, tucked away in the west of Kentucky, a state best known for its incredible bourbon whiskey and America’s biggest horse racing event “The Kentucky Derby”, there’s an often forgotten style, rarely cooked outside the five or so counties near the city of Owensboro: Full-flavoured mutton BBQ, basted and served with a thin, black, strongly flavoured sauce, known as “dip”.
Like all of the other BBQ styles, western Kentucky’s love of mutton came from what meat was readily available in the area. Mutton is a ewe or castrate male, at least two years old and in the 19th century, Kentucky was a real centre for wool production, fuelled by the Scottish and Irish immigrants who’d settled there (The same people who brought their whisky/whiskey making skills to the region!). Once a sheep has outlived its most productive years for fleece, what you’re left with is an older ewe, whose meat has grown tough and undesirable to many; But as we all know when you cook tough, sinewy meat low and slow, you turn it into something really delicious!
Although mutton was once very common on dinner tables here in the UK, it fell out of favour in the latter half of the 20th century, replaced by the younger, more naturally tender and milder flavoured lamb. However, in recent years, mutton is slowly growing in popularity again, thanks largely to chefs in the know, Indian cuisine and the Mutton Renaissance campaign, launched by the Prince of Wales.
If you haven’t eaten mutton before, you should get hold of some and try this recipe – It’s a great introduction to this delicious meat. Although prime mutton season (In the UK) is generally regarded as October through to March, a quick search online will find numerous farms and butchers who can supply it all year round. If you can’t get hold of mutton, then lamb will do, but you’ll be missing out on the delicious, robust flavour, which stands up really well to the peppery rub and strong, tangy dip.
This is our take on the style, developed from various recipes which we’ve seen; We like to use a mix of peppers in the rub, as it really adds to the depth of flavour – If you can’t find or don’t have these different peppers, then just use all black pepper, or a mix of any others that you like. In Kentucky, the mutton is generally served sliced, but we like to take the internal temperature a bit higher and pull the meat, serving it in rolls/buns with a seasonal coleslaw.
- Shoulder of mutton (You’re going to trim quite a lot of fat/sinew from the outside so get a bigger piece than you think you’ll need
- Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
- ⅓ cup of black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon long pepper
- 1 tablespoon cubeb pepper
- 1 teaspoon Szechuan pepper
- 3 tablespoons Demerara sugar
- 3 tablespoons sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1½ cups water
- 1 cup white vinegar
- 1 cup beer (We like to use a nice, medium bodied porter, but any good beer will do)
- ¼ cup Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
- 3 tablespoons rub (see above)
- 2 tablespoons Demerara sugar
- ½ teaspoon onion onion powder
- Juice of half a lemon
Start by trimming your mutton shoulder of the majority of external fat and as much silverskin as you can bear to remove. Don’t be timid here; There’s a lot of external fat that you can tell is just not going to melt down and when you trim you’re going to lose a fair bit of the original weight of your joint. There’s also a lot of silverskin/membrane which will stop your rub penetrating and can become leathery if not removed. You’ll find slithers of what look like great meat, but underneath is more hard fat and silverskin, so you’re going to have to sacrifice these pieces. Don’t worry, just like a pork shoulder, there’s plenty of fat and connective tissue inside the meat, which will keep it moist.
Once you’ve finished trimming and can’t face removing any more silverskin, slather the joint in Worcestershire sauce – 2 to 3 tablespoons should do.
Combine the rub ingredients and blitz in a spice/coffee grinder until you have a semi-coarse powder.
Sprinkle the rub all over the meat, making sure you reserve 3 tablespoons for the dip (You should have plenty) and then lightly pat into the meat. The Worcestershire sauce will help it stick. Leave the rub to set on the joint, while you fire up your smoker (Remember, if you don’t have a smoker, like most of our recipes, you’ll still get great results in the oven, just without the smokey flavour).
We like to cook this a little hotter than usual, so bring your smoker up to 275°F/135°C. Hickory is the traditional wood used around Owensboro, so throw on a couple of fist-sized chunks and wait for the smoke to thin.
Put the mutton shoulder on your smoker and close the lid. After an hour, stick on another chunk or two of Hickory, then go and make the “dip”.
In a saucepan mix 1 cup of the water with the vinegar, beer, Worcestershire sauce and rub. Bring to a simmer over a low/medium heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Pour off half into a pyrex jug/another saucepan and set aside for later.
Now take your dip and liberally mop over your mutton. Repeat this every 45 minutes until your bark is setting up nicely (Usually about four hours in). At this point, the shoulder should have been in the stall for a while, so it’s time to wrap. (If you’ve got time on your hands, you can of course cook it all the way unwrapped – Just remember to keep basting with the dip every 45 minutes).
Double over a large pice of foil, big enough to hold the shoulder and pour in about half a cup of the dip. Place the mutton in the middle and carefully wrap it up tightly in the foil.
Return your wrapped meat to the smoker and maintain temperature at 275°F/135°C.
After another couple of hours, carefully open your wrap and begin to check for tenderness – You’re looking for the standard “like butter” resistance to a skewer or meat probe. If it’s not ready, wrap it back up tightly and try again in 30-45 minutes. I’ve found that it’s generally good for pulling somewhere between 200°F/94°C and 207°F/98°C, but try and rely on feel rather than temperature. If you’d rather slice it than pull, then it’ll be finished sooner – Somewhere around the 180°F/82°C – 190°F/88°C mark.
Once it’s ready, open the wrap to vent it and stop the cooking process. Pour off some of the liquid into your reserved dip from earlier (remember the liquid is going to be quite fatty, so use a separator jug if you have one – This will stop your sauce being too greasy).
Rewrap the shoulder and leave to rest in a “faux-cambro” for at least an hour.
In the meantime, reheat the reserved dip and bring up to a light simmer. Add the other half cup of water, the sugar, onion powder and lemon juice. Simmer for about 20 minutes until slightly reduced (The sauce is supposed to be quite thin). Taste and add more sugar to balance, if needed, but remember, it’s supposed to have quite a twang to it, to cut through the fattiness and balance with the strong flavoured meat and rub.
Pull the mutton into big chunks. Now you can either dress the pulled meat with some of the sauce, dip it as you eat or pile it high on a roll, with coleslaw and drizzle some sauce over it.