I'm a writer and vintage junkie transplant from Baltimore to WV. Interests include Etsy, crafting, archaeology, and good food.
Pit Beef and Baltimore
Pit beef is to Baltimore as salt is to pepper—the two go hand in hand.
Back in the 1980s, in a time before the internet as we know it today and before the Food Network launched, several curbside shacks were serving pit beef on a stretch of highway named U.S. Route 40. The highway, also known as Pulaski Highway, ran from inner-city Baltimore to the Northern I-95 corridor leading into Delaware. However, the key area for pit beef was found in Rosedale, leading south to the city.
Around the 1980s there were actually three of these roadside shacks that were competing for customers and would go on to do so for nearly 10 years. These small roadside dives served what they called pit beef, which to some looked like giant hunks of cow smoked on high flame and burnt a little on the outside, dripping with blood on the inside.
The meat was prepared by a pitmaster, sliced thin, and piled high depending on how you liked it. Most of Baltimore ate rare or medium, and it seemed to be a cardinal sin to ask for well done. Most sandwiches were on round buns and were completely unadorned, but were often topped with raw onions, barbecue sauce, and horseradish—or blend thereof. There was a secret to their taste, however, which is forthcoming.
The names of the three main players were Big Al's, Chap's (whose owner Bob Creager was smart when he set it next to the Female Revue), and Big Fat Daddy's. Each place varied in terms of how exactly they cooked the meat, but all three places did a good enough business to compete against one another for nearly a decade or more.
Big Al's employees and kin eventually moved into the restaurant business. Chap's remains to this day in the same location it was in the late '80s, and has since franchised after being visited by the host of Diners, Drive-in's and Dives, Guy Fieri. Big Fat Daddy's had an early visit from Primal Grill author and producer Steven Raichlen, which would lead to appearances in the New York Times and Saveur Magazine. They've since been inducted into the National Food and Beverage Foundation's Trail of Smoke and Fire for their contribution to "barbecue," which was actually for the beef. They are now located in Pennsylvania.
So the legendary masters of pit beef were born. But back when they started, they probably didn't know what the future had in store for them.
The Secret to Cooking Pit Beef: It's in the Rub
If you look up recipes for pit beef online, you will encounter confusing advice. Different sources will tell you to use different cuts of meat: from top round to bottom round, from flank to whole beef flat (the large portion of the cow which contains brisket on the one end). No two sources seem to agree. The one thing that is key, says Big Fat Daddy's owner Wayne Mark Schafer, is to use a dry rub marinating process.
"Do not get hung up on what type of chunk of beef you use, as long as it's boneless top round or bottom round will work. The key is to worry about the dry rub. The dry rub marinating is key to any cut of meat you are using. Make yourself a fresh batch of rub, and hand rub that into your meat. You really have to rub it, not sprinkle. The longer you marinate before grilling the better. I've marinated 24-72 hours before, with 48 being a key turning point in the taste of the meat. Then you can grill on high heat to lock in the flavor."
Schafer's Simple Ingredients for a Large Pit Beef Dry Rub Batch
- Seasoning salt, granulated
- 1/8 cup fresh parsley, dehydrated and chopped
- 1/3 cup granulated garlic
- 1/8 cup dry mustard
- 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup black pepper
- 1/4 cup paprika
- 1/8 cup oregano
- 2 tablespoons onion salt
Grilling Tips for Pit Beef
Schafer uses hickory wood, apple, and oak, on an open pit smoker, which is his claim to fame. He says, "The beef chunks sear flavor at about 350°F. I cut the chunks into about three- to four-pound small roasts. I sear them on high, then flip them constantly on the high heat open flame, and slice them paper-thin from this. The searing locks the flavor into the chunk, and you will get that crispy color on the outside, which some refer to as bark. Meanwhile, the inside should be a medium-rare to rare for traditional Baltimore pit beef."
Schafer said he has used both top round and bottom round, in addition to the whole flat of the cow, that cut sometimes doesn't matter as long as you are slicing it paper-thin and have a good base of rub.
He does indicate, however, his personal preference is not top round due to the amount of trimming of fat. He says, "Some fat on the chunks is okay for protection and ninety percent should sear off in the grilling process. Take care in watching the meat constantly, so no grease fires occur. The key to being a pitmaster is monitoring your meat."
Cook Time for Charcoal or Wood Grills on Average 3-Pound Chunk
|Prep time||Cook time||Ready in||Yields|
1 hour 15 min
49 hours 15 min
6 potato-roll-sized sandwiches, piled high
Suggested Fixin's for Pit Beef
- Raw onions: Sliced thin to paper-thin. Often found in traditional pit beef sandwiches.
- Horseradish or tiger sauce: Tiger sauce is a mix of mayonnaise and horseradish.
- BBQ sauce: You can use any preferred flavor, but a traditional flavor is hickory sweet.
It should also be noted that a pit beef sandwich most often comes on a potato roll, kaiser roll, or the like. Seeded buns are rarely used.
© 2021 Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer