Take a closer look at Santa Maria barbecue, and you’ll find that there are a few things that set it apart—and make it pretty awesome. To get a true picture, we spoke with California pitmaster Wayne Stahl of the Santa Maria Elks Lodge, where he’s in charge of 11 pit crews that work every weekend, serving crowds as large as 10,000, giving to charity and doing it all with that laid-back California attitude.
2. 1. Red Oak
It all begins with a tree that’s one of the most recognizable parts of California’s landscape. “The red oak is indigenous to our area,” Stahl says. “A lot of places up and down the coast don’t have access to red oak, though, and some will use fruit trees. That’s California style vs. Santa Maria style … we take the style up to another level.”
3. 2. Tri-Tip and Cowboy Steaks
California barbecue is forever linked to tri-tip, a cut of meat that just doesn’t have the same impact anywhere else. Read more tips for smoking tri-tip here. Juicy, smoky steaks are another hallmark of Santa Maria-style barbecue, shown here in all their tender, fatty glory, made even more succulent when wrapped in bacon.
4. 3. Open pits
“What makes Santa Maria so unique is not so much what you cook, but how you’re cooking it,” Stahl says. The barbecue here is out in the open: iron grates suspended by chains over hot red oak logs. Since the 1800s, this style of open-flame grilling has been a hallmark of Santa Maria barbecue. Some say this can be traced back to Spain’s vaqueros (cowboys during colonial times).
5. 4. Simple seasoning
Santa Maria seasoning is best described as minimalist: salt, pepper and granulated garlic. “That’s all we put in it,” Stahl confirms. “We just want whatever you’re cooking to shine.”
6. 5. Garlic bread
The garlic bread that you’ll find on a true Santa Maria barbecue plate is pillowy-yet-perfectly charred French bread that’s hiding melted butter and a kiss of pungent garlic inside.
7. 6. Pinquito Beans
Small, pink beans that are indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley are a key element in the classic Santa Maria-style barbecue plate. Salsa and green salads are also big time favorites out here on the coast.
8. 7. Cooking for a crowd
The Santa Maria Elks Club barbecue crew has fed groups as large as 10,000. That means that traditional methods must be adjusted for big volume. See Stahl’s bbq catering volumes cheat sheet here.
When cooking for 500 guests or more, Stahl’s guiding principle is making sure that everyone has a great time.
“You gotta think about your guests,” Stahl says. “Don’t over-season, or overcook or make it too rare. It’s not about you; you’re cooking for a bunch of people … they don’t care how you like it.”
9. 8. Secret Ingredient: West Coast attitude
The number-one thing that Stahl emphasizes when he’s training future pitmasters?
“Keep it simple,” he says. “A lot of people get intimidated and they make it so complicated—injecting brines, putting so much in the rub—we tell people that’s not really best for catering barbecue.”
Stahl recommends rubs with just a few ingredients, low and slow cooking and “have a few beers and enjoy it,” he says. “Even for a thousand people, we enjoy it. We make it fun.”