Noah Cheek has the nearly perfect career pairing for anyone with a love of standing around a grill and cooking juicy slabs of meat. He’s a beer distributor. A few years ago, the Portlandian moved into his first home. His utmost, urgent priority? Purchase a grill.
What did you decide on for your first grill?
Traeger grills were founded here in Oregon, and they’re super popular. A lot of my friends had them. I was going to go gas or go pellet. I didn’t think twice about it then, and just went pellet. And it opened up a whole culinary world I didn’t even know existed, when I got that grill.
What culinary world?
I always enjoyed cooking, but I didn’t cook on a regular basis. Then all of a sudden, I had this new toy, and things coming out of this machine tasted so good that all these creative juices started flowing.
I tried things like smoking some sort of spaghetti dish or doing desserts, all things I enjoyed already, but never experimented with before.
How do you get creative with pasta?
The way I get creative is I try to look at a dish and deconstruct it, because you’re not going to smoke the entire dish like you would a large piece of protein. So how can I smoke parts of this and bring it together in a more traditional way?
And smoked spaghetti?
I would make my sauce and put that nice sauce in the smoker at low temp. I’m not really trying to cook the sauce, just trying to impart some of the smoky flavor into it. If you’re doing meatballs, that’s a really easy component to smoke. Take them out of the smoker when they’re not fully cooked, but pretty close, then add them to the sauce and simmer that on the stove.
You smoked some beautiful ribeye caps.
They’re essentially the outer edge of what a ribeye steak would be. Traditionally in the store, your butcher will roll that up in a pinwheel. It makes it easier to cook, because you’re cooking it more like a standard steak. It’s an amazingly tender cut.
Is that just a salt-and-pepper situation?
When I’m cooking with high-quality beef, like prime or wagyu, my overall theory is that I want the meat to shine. I try to season with just salt, several hours before the cook. A lot of people probably aren’t doing that step.
Why would salt need hours?
Salting really early allows the meat to go through diffusion. The salt is pulling the moisture out of the steak. Then what happens, by giving it enough time, that salt and moisture reabsorb into the interior of the meat. What that does is help retain moisture inside of the meat where you want it during the cooking process. Moisture retention is the name of the game when it comes to cooking steak.
Is there a beef cut you particularly love?
If I only had one thing to cook, it would probably be beef short ribs. Incredibly tender, incredibly delicious, so many ways to cook them, extremely versatile cut of meat.
And their taste?
Short ribs take a long time to cook, because there’s a lot of connective tissue in that cut, and it takes a long time to break that down. But because of that, it takes to flavor really well. Marinate it, dry rubs, putting it on a smoker and running smoke on it. It absorbs all these different flavors really well.
They really change their appearance as they smoke.
When you start with a whole plate of dino ribs before it’s cut, it looks almost like a brisket. But what happens over the evolution of the cook, the meat shrinks into the middle and the big, long bones start to get exposed on the outside of those ribs. Not a lot of cuts where you see that dramatic of an evolution as you do with beef ribs.
What happens when you overindulge on all this luscious meat?
You get meat sweats. They’re kind of your body’s initial reaction that is probably going to lead to a meat hangover the next day.
A meat hangover?
That’s when you spend an entire day eating meat, and you wake up the next day so full you can’t even contemplate eating any more food. I had one most recently at Feast Portland. You get one at any great event for food—obviously tailgating, the Super bowl, 4th of July–any excuse where I get to eat meat all day long and suffer the consequences the next day.
What’s surprised you the most about grilling?
That it’s cathartic. It’s like therapy for me now. I start cooking and tune out. I wish more people would explore it, because I think more people would enjoy it.
What’s the most difficult thing to learn about smoking?