Editor’s note: Ryan Swartling has been a chef, caterer, and food product developer in Seattle for 14 years. He has tremendous passion for Italian, Louisianan, Caribbean, and barbecue cuisines, and loves to share them with those around him. He spent weeks developing the original recipes in this story for Leafly.
Cannabis and barbecue have both been part of American culture for centuries. Each has navigated a unique history to arrive at the roles they now play in modern life. Although each has had a different evolution in our culture, their social roles are not so distant. Both have been used for generations as a means of bringing people together, friends and strangers alike. Marrying cannabis and barbecue into one form seems a natural next step.
After years of cooking and catering for large events, barbecue is at the top of my list for a cost-effective crowd pleaser. The cuts of meat are large and inexpensive, the accompaniments are simple, and the aroma is irresistibly enticing to guests. Generations of families have developed and tweaked recipes and techniques for barbecue mastery, and in many places, barbecue strategy is as hotly debated as professional sports. Barbecue enthusiasts typically have a personal history or connection with barbecue as well. My own barbecue history includes the dishes and flavors I came to love as a student in New Orleans; the Texas and Memphis grilling and smoking traditions; and the local ingredients I grew up with in the Seattle area.
Developing a cannabis BBQ sauce
The legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes in several states has brought new opportunities for chefs and backyard BBQers alike to experiment with new recipes. You have likely seen or heard about various edible products sold at pot shops, but the vast majority of these products fall on the sweet side of the flavor spectrum. One of the reasons I was curious about cooking with cannabis and barbecue sauce is because it creates a fantastic savory option.
When I was approached to develop a recipe and explore cannabis barbecue, my first thought was that a savory treat would have a lot of trouble still being a treat if the cannabis flavor was too predominant. Regardless, there clearly is an interest in cannabis-infused barbecue (what’s not to love?), and people are showing the desire and ability to be creative. For assembling a proper cannabis barbecue spread, I drew inspiration from both local bounty and flavor profiles that are complemented by carefully selected strains of cannabis. For instance, I chose the strain Lemon Haze for my main recipe because it is a bubbly, energetic, and social sativa with citrus notes that lend a subtle balancing flavor to the hearty barbecue sauce.
Regional variations of American barbecue
There are four predominant styles of American barbecue, each specific to a region.
- The Carolinas developed a barbecue style based on roasting whole hogs and chopped pork with a thin vinegar and pepper sauce, and serving them with classic sides of coleslaw and hush puppies. South Carolina claims four different original sauces, including a famed mustard sauce.
- In Tennessee, the classic sauce is tomato-based, mild, and sweet. It is used for pork and baby back ribs.
- Farther west, in Kansas City, dry rubbed ribs are king, with a thick, molasses-and-tomato-based sauce laced in hickory smoke.
- In Texas, beef (notably brisket) plays a central role, as does pork, smoked or grilled over local oak and mesquite woods. Texas’s barbecue sauce is traditionally a bit on the spicy side, thinned with Worcestershire and vinegar.
Here in Washington we don’t have an established style like the ones above, but we are privileged with an array of natural riches for making our barbecue spectacular. These include fantastic smoking woods like apple and cherry, along with their fruits to incorporate into the sauce game; local salmon and trout for smoking (a great way to extend a short shelf life or impress some visitors); and bountiful produce like Walla Walla sweet onions and sweet and spicy peppers. Good Northwest beer also brings life-affirming deliciousness to the table. And of course, unlike in the South, we have readily available legal cannabis.
Some things to know about building flavor with cannabis
I spent two years doing culinary research and development, making natural and organic food products for retail stores and restaurants. It was basically designing a dish for 100,000 units instead of one single plate. The process was often lengthy as the search for the perfect profile was elusive, but it trained me to develop a blueprint for creating a good dish. I smoked beef jerky for Hillshire Farms and salmon for Costco for months at a time, tinkering with every ingredient to find the perfect doneness, texture, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, and finish.
The first step is to strategize the flavor build. Adding cannabis to food can be tricky because the flavors tend to overly dominant. You are working with a pungent, musty, grassy, sometimes citrusy or floral flavor that strikes the back of the palate. The goal is to balance this out with other elements and careful measurement.
When finding ways to neutralize an over-dominant cannabis flavor, keep the following in mind: Acidic ingredients are a natural choice, as is the addition of spices, sweetness, and/or smoke. This is why barbecue is such a great fit for cooking with cannabis—because good barbecue depends on a punchy blend of sweet, tart, spicy, and smoky flavors that balance the naturally pungent cannabis flavors and make it an effective supporting element rather than an aggressive, overbearing one.
The first sauce I developed was apple cider vinegar-forward with ketchup and Granny Smith apples, built for pork. The second was a sweet/spicy sauce for chicken with gochujang (Korean fermented chili paste) and hatch peppers. Why Korean chili paste? The fermented quality of the chilies pairs beautifully with chicken and cannabis.
As for the cannabis infusion, I chose two methods. One sauce utilizes an oil concentrate that is activated (doesn’t need to be heated in any way to make its cannabinoids bioavailable, or effective). The other incorporates a more classic cannabutter (recipe included). The first method streamlines the processes of infusion as well as dosing; the second makes dosing trickier, but is equally effective and enjoyable.
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Go forth and barbecue
It’s certain that I’ve omitted countless sub-regions, techniques, and flavor preferences in this guide, but that diversity is what makes barbecue so fascinating. Each person who has grown up loving smoked and grilled meats has a tale of his or her own approach, techniques, and tips. Whether it be for a family reunion, a fundraiser, or a weekend cookout, barbecue is made for bringing the masses together for a conversation and a plate. This gathering-togetherness is one of the most endearing and enduring aspects of American barbecue—and cannabis only provides more of an impetus for gathering together.
So have a cannabis-infused barbecue, offer up some tasty meats and sauces (for the 21+ set), relax, and enjoy the company—it’s what barbecue and cannabis are all about.
Total yield: Twelve 6-ounce servings
Sauce to meat ratio: 1 tablespoon barbecue sauce per 1 ounce of meat
Approximate dosage: 5–10 mg per serving*
Lemon Haze apple cider barbecue sauce recipe
Start to finish: 45 minutes (active: 30 minutes)
- ¼ cup Lemon Haze cannabutter (recipe follows)
- 1 ½ cup onion, chopped
- 2 Granny Smith apples, cored, peeled, and chopped
- 2 ¼ cup Heinz ketchup
- ⅔ cup organic apple cider vinegar
- 1 ½ cup Rainier beer (or similar lager)
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup blackstrap molasses
- 6 squirts of Louisiana Crystal Hot Sauce (found in most supermarkets)
- 4 teaspoons brown sugar
- 12 turns cracked black pepper
- 2 teaspoon chili powder
- Generous pinch of salt
- Generous pinch of cumin
- Melt the Lemon Haze butter in a large saucepan on medium to medium-low heat and add onions and apples. Saute until soft but don’t brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the cumin, salt, and chili powder and saute another 30 seconds. Crack the beer, take a sip, and add it to the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to get any bits off the bottom.
- Add all the remaining ingredients and simmer very softly for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Hard boiling can dilute the potency of the cannabinoids in your cannabutter.
- Let cool slightly and pulse five or six times in a blender with the top covered but not air sealed. Be cautious: If you seal it, it will be messy. A kitchen towel over the vent on the top works well. The mixture should be just a little chunky.
- Serve with pulled pork and apple slaw (recipes follow).
Pro tips: To portion the proper dose, take a 5–6 ounce portion of pulled pork in a small bowl and spoon six tablespoons of Lemon Haze barbecue sauce into it. Stir well to mix. You can serve with pickles and slaw, or on a potato roll topped with the same.
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Lemon Haze cannabutter recipe
Start to finish: 2–3 hours (active: 20 minutes)
- ¼ ounce (7 grams) Lemon Haze, ground or broken up
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- Cheesecloth and a wire mesh strainer
- On very low heat, melt butter. Add Lemon Haze and stir to incorporate.
- Let steep for two hours and do not allow to boil. It will slowly bubble a bit, but keep the heat very low or you will lose cannabinoids.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool for several minutes. Transfer mixture to a strainer lined with a double layer of cheesecloth and let drain over a bowl for 10 minutes.
- Clasp all edges of the cheesecloth and wring out the soaked leaves, but not too firmly or you will be extracting water moisture. Give the butter a little stir and transfer to a small Tupperware container lined with wax paper. Refrigerate until firm.
Pro tip: Feeling adventurous? Substitute the butter with bacon fat for a richer flavor.
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Smoked pulled pork recipe
Start to finish: 12 hours (3 hours active)
- 4–6 pounds bone-in pork shoulder
- ½ onion, sliced
- 5 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons cracked pepper
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- ¼ teaspoon cumin
- ¼ teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Mix spices and generously rub over the pork. Refrigerate for at least six hours or overnight.
- Allow the roast to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.
- Smoke for 90 minutes at 250˚F. If you don’t have a smoker, grill the pork on high heat for about 20 minutes, giving it a sturdy char on all sides.
- Transfer to a deep roasting pan with onions spread over the bottom and place pork on top. Cover and roast at 275˚F for four hours or until meat is fork tender and falls from bone.
- Remove cover for final 45 minutes of roast.
- Let pork rest for 30 minutes, then pull apart by hand and serve with infused barbecue sauce.
Total yield: 10 servings
Sauce to meat ratio: 1 infused spoonful of sauce per serving, plus more non-infused sauce to coat
Approximate dosage: 10mg per serving*
Gochujang hatch pepper sativa barbecue sauce recipe
Start to finish: 1 hour (30 minutes active)
- 100 milligrams activated cannabis concentrate or tincture, such as Ethos Sativa Serum (available in Washington)
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- ½ cup onion, finely diced
- ¼ cup mild hatch pepper, seeded and finely diced
- ½ teaspoon garlic
- ⅔ cup Tsingtao beer
- 2 tablespoons Gochujang (Korean chili paste)
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar
- ½ teaspoon Worcestershire
- 2 tablespoons organic apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons organic rice vinegar
- ⅓ cup water
- Heat a medium saucepan to medium heat. Add peanut oil and saute onions and hatch peppers until they just begin to brown.
- Add garlic and when it becomes fragrant, add the beer, stirring with a wooden spoon to remove any bits from the bottom.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 45 minutes. Allow to cool, but reserve a desired portion to infuse (works best while sauce is still somewhat warm). Brush the non-infused sauce over the chicken thighs while they finish cooking, as directed below.
- Add 10mg worth of activated cannabis serum to a spoonful of warm or hot sauce, then pour over one of your gochujang hatch pepper barbecue glazed chicken thighs and spread evenly. Repeat until each thigh has been infused, varying dosage depending on the desires of each diner. Serve thighs with Granny Smith slaw and pickles or make a slider!
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Simple grilled chicken thighs
Start to finish: 3 hours (45 minutes active)
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- ½ teaspoon celery salt
- ½ teaspoon Korean chili flake
- ¼ teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon peanut oil
- Combine spices and apply to chicken. Drizzle peanut oil evenly over pieces. Refrigerate for 2–3 hours.
- Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Allow the thighs to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before cooking.
- Grill for approximately 25 minutes, turning four times during the process. Watch out for flame flare-ups.
- During the final 5 minutes, brush Gochujang barbecue sauce (prior to infusion) lightly on each side and allow to work up a small amount of char. Let the thighs rest for 5–8 minutes before serving.
- Add reserved cannabis-infused sauce at desired portion (as indicated in the recipe above) as you plate.
Pro tip: This rub and grill setup can be used without sauce and with any barbecue style.
Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes (active: 20 minutes)
Yield: 8 servings
Approximate dosage: 1–2 mg per serving if using cannabis-infused sugar; 0 mg per serving if using regular sugar
Granny Smith slaw recipe
- ½ head medium-sized green cabbage, sliced to ⅛ inch thick
- ¼ onion, sliced to ⅛ inch thick
- 1 small Granny Smith apple, sliced to ⅛ inch thick
- ½ an English cucumber, halved the long way and sliced to ⅛ inch thick
- ¼ cup cilantro, chopped
- 2 tablespoons aioli or mayo
- 2 tablespoons sour cream
- 1 ½ tablespoons Klaussen’s dill pickle juice
- 1 tablespoon stone ground mustard
- 2 tablespoons organic apple cider vinegar
- ½ teaspoon sugar, infused (use a brand like Ruby) or non-infused
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Pinch celery salt
- 4 turns cracked black pepper
- To cut the vegetables and apple, use a mandolin (if available) to create thin, uniform slices.
- Mix the wet ingredients with seasonings and toss in chopped ingredients and cilantro.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.
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Ryan’s recommended barbecue reading:
These dudes are legends and have some absolutely killer recipes as well, with narratives to school you up on barbecue and beyond. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try experimenting with your own infusions of their recipes as well.
- Aaron Franklin | Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto
- Sean Brock | Heritage
- Paul Prudhomme | Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (not really barbecue, but it’s legendary)
- John Currence | Pigs, Pickles, and Whiskey
Additional photo credits:
All header and flood images: Audrey Kelly for Leafly
*Note: The amount of cannabis concentrate and cannabutter specified in this recipe are very loose suggestions; the actual amounts you use should be modified based on the strength of your products and the potency you desire. Dosing homemade edibles can be tricky (click here to learn why), so the best way to test for potency is to start with one portion of a serving, wait one to two hours, then make an informed decision on whether to consume more. Always dose carefully and listen to your body, and never drive under the influence of cannabis.