Collecting ingredients and using them wisely

Barbecue comes very close to turning the sow’s ear of metaphor into a silk purse. It takes otherwise unpleasantto-eat cuts of meat and turns them delicious. Still, starting with the right ingredients makes the alchemy more certain.

If you’re going to put forth the effort to cook, give your energies their due by using the best ingredients you can get your hands on.

That doesn’t necessarily mean spending a fortune, but it does mean choosing wisely. This chapter equips you to start your meals right with a foundation of great ingredients.

You put a lot of time and energy into your cooking, so give your efforts their due by using ingredients that support rather than supplant them.

Finding Meat That Makes the Cut

How you plan to cook has a lot to do with the cut of meat you want to buy. Anything cut from the midsection of an animal’s back — tenderloin, sirloin, and ribs, for example — works best when it’s cooked quickly, over high heat. (For grilling or searing, common knowledge says that you stay as far as possible from the hoof and the horns. That pretty much leaves the middle of the back.).

Cuts of meat that come from the part of the animal that did most of the work (the shoulders and legs) are just right for barbecue cooking, which breaks down the tough muscle by keeping it over low heat for a good long time.

The front of an animal is the part that does the work and, therefore, has the strongest muscle. More muscle means more collagen, and more collagen means less tenderness. Enter barbecue :

Cooking muscle-heavy cuts of meat for a long time over low heat breaks down the collagen.

More fat means more flavor

Fat means energy for a living animal, which builds stores of the stuff. And for an animal that later takes a turn as food, that same fat means flavor and moisture. Without it, meat tends toward the tough, bland, and dry.

Muscle fibers have much the same consistency from animal to animal. Muscles do what they do in the same manner, whether that project is powering a wing or driving a lope across the meadow. Fat cells are where the differences among meat come into play. Because they’re the closets of biochemistry, storing any fat-soluble matter the animal takes in, they reflect the animal’s eating habits and the intestinal microbes (microscopic organisms that contribute to digestion, as well as the fungi and viruses that cause illness) that make it into its digestive tract.

Because fat stores hang onto food energy, they also maintain any flavor from that food that’s fat soluble. You see “grass-fed” advertised so often on beef packaging because that diet is not just more natural for the cattle but tends to produce a more flavorful beef.

Big sheets of fat serve a purpose on cuts like brisket, which has a blanket of fat that covers the cut. (Check out the upcoming “Brisket” section.) That fat layer melts as the brisket heats up and drips down into the meat to keep it flavorful and moist.

What you want in every cut of pork, lamb, or beef is good marbling — the network of meandering veins of thin fat that run throughout the cut. This kind of fat feeds the meat moisture and flavor, giving it a toothsome texture.

As animals age, they build stores of fat in their muscles as energy reserves. These stores show up as thick deposits in the meat, and they aren’t as beneficial as the thinner, more evenly distributed marbling that you want to look for. The veins of fat break up the strong, chewy muscle tissue and add juiciness as they melt during cooking.

Fresher is better

After meat is portioned and packaged, it’s delicate as a diva, easily falling prey to bacteria, unsavory flavors in your fridge, and oxidation.

Refrigeration slows down meat’s inevitable decay, and freezing temporarily stops it. But freezing is hard on meat. Low temperatures irretrievably change meat’s composition, and the difference shows up as less-tender meat: Ice crystals grow from the meat’s juices and drill holes that later leak the precious fluids that keep meat from becoming tough as it cooks.

And then there’s freezer burn, the discoloration that arises from extreme loss of moisture after meat has spent too much time in the freezer. Freezer-burnt meat inevitably has a tough texture and suspect flavor.

No matter what meat you’re buying, don’t forget to eyeball the sellby date on the label to make sure that day hasn’t come and gone.

Making friends with your butcher certainly doesn’t hurt.

Customers of local butcher shops generally find services and perks they’d never have expected from large chain meat counters.

Running down the options, cut by cut

The beauty of barbecue is that it’s infinitely adaptable, so this section by no means gives you the full spectrum of meat cuts, but it does give you an introduction to the most-cooked cuts for traditional barbecue cooking.

Pork

Look for pork that has a faint pink color. Darker meat means older meat: Either it came from an older pig that had more time to develop tough muscle, or it was cut and exposed to air for a longer time than is ideal. Too much juice surrounding the meat is never a good thing, nor is juice that’s cloudy.

Shoulder

The shoulder area yields two cuts, Boston butt (so-named not for the hog’s hindquarters but for barrels the cut was stored and shipped in back in ye olden times) and the picnic shoulder.

Both commonly are used for pulled pork, and they’re good for nonbarbecue applications like stewing.

Boston butt is the more tender of the two cuts. Picnic shoulder cuts cost lest but contain more large fat deposits. Figure 3-1 gives you a look at both cuts.

Ribs

Pork ribs are cut from either the top or bottom portion of the rib cage. Baby back, or loin back, ribs come from the top section and are small and pretty lean, which makes them faster to cook.

Spareribs come from the area closer to the belly, which makes them a neighbor to the bacon area and, as you may expect, fattier than baby back ribs. You see an example of both rib cuts in Figure 3-2.

Beef

You want any beef that you buy to have a rosy hue and abundant marbling (see Figure 3-3).

The exception is vacuum-packed beef, which retains the purplish color that beef has before it’s exposed to air. Pass over any beef that has a gray or brown tinge to it.

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Figure 3-1 : Boston butt comes from the upper shoulder of the pig; the picnic

shoulder comes from the joint area of the foreleg.

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Figure 3-2 : The ribs yield two different cuts. Leaner baby back ribs come from

the top and spareribs from the bottom.

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Figure 3-3 : The meat on the left doesn’t have enough marbling to give good

flavor and texture; the cut on the right is perfect.

Meat should feel firm, and you want to buy cuts that aren’t swimming in juices. Too much moisture often indicates that the meat got warmer than it should have.

You can figure out whether meat has been previously frozen by pressing your thumb onto its surface. If water pools into the indentation, the meat has taken a turn in the freezer.

Ribs

Back ribs come from the same spot that yields rib roasts or rib-eye steaks and have a goodly amount of fat. Basically scrap, the slabs tend not to have a lot of meat on them. Look for the meatiest cuts you can find. Ideally, you don’t see the bones of the ribs on the slab.

Beef short ribs are cut into individual ribs (English style) or as cross-sections of rib meat with slices of bone dotting the cut (flanken style). You’re more likely to use a rack of back ribs for barbecue cooking; the other cuts are ideal for braising (cooking slowly in a small amount of liquid).

Figure 3-4 shows you all three styles of beef ribs.

Brisket

Brisket is cut from about the same area of the cow that picnic shoulder comes from on a hog (see Figure 3-5). It’s made up of a flat and a point (see Chapter 4). The point is thicker and holds a lot more fat than the flat, which is heftier. A fat cap runs along the top length of the brisket and is critical for keeping this otherwise tough cut of meat moist while it cooks.

Look for brisket with even marbling, a nice, white fat cap and uniform thickness throughout.

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Figure 3-4 : You find beef ribs in three forms.

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Figure 3-5 : Brisket comes from atop the foreleg of the cow.

Poultry

In most cases, you leave a chicken or turkey whole when you cook it in the smoker.

Butterflying the bird helps it cook faster and more evenly. (For information on how to butterfly a chicken or turkey, turn to entrees and sides and then some chapter.)

Chicken

Look for a fryer chicken that weighs in somewhere close to 3 1⁄2 pounds. The skin should be cream or slightly yellow in color, and any juices that surround the chicken are likely to be pink and clear.

(Avoid chicken that has dark, foggy-looking juice or an excess of juice.)

Turkey

Turkeys need some kind of brining (soaking in salt and liquid) to stay juicy and flavorful. If you want to brine the bird yourself, go for a natural turkey; if you prefer to go straight to the rub portion of the program and then smoke the sucker, go ahead and buy a self-basted bird.

Look for one weighing somewhere around 13 pounds. Buy one much bigger than that, and the bird is likely to dry out from the long cooking time you need to get the heat to its center.

Handling Meat without Hazard

So delicious, yet so very damaging to your intestines if not handled properly: Meat and its juices are perfect settings for bacteria that can put the hurt on you.

Raw meat is to bacteria like Barry White records and satin sheets are to humans. Food doesn’t start out sterile (but high temperatures kill off most of the bacteria that rode along on your food from the farm to your kitchen), and protein in particular is a primo locale for encouraging bacteria to multiply.

None of this means you should shy away from meat, but it does mean that treating it with proper care is a must for the health of you and your guests.

Bacteria is most likely the culprit when the nastiness of foodborne illness (cramping, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting) invades your home.

Handling food safely makes your chances of having to cope with these flulike symptoms much slimmer.

Follow these guidelines to ensure that you’re not giving bacteria a playground while you prepare your meal :

  • Before you get started, wash in hot water all the utensils and surfaces you intend to use. Bacteria may be hanging out on your cutting board before you even start.
  • Avoid cross-contamination: Don’t let anything touch the raw meat or its juices — or anything the meat and juices came into contact with.
    • Use one knife and cutting board to cut vegetables and any other non-meat food, and use a separate knife and cutting board to prep your meat.
    • Regard anything that the meat touches as out of commission for the rest of your prep work. If you set raw meat on a dish, that dish is exactly the wrong thing for ferrying your cooked food back from the grill.
    • Wear gloves when you work with meat, or wash your hands thoroughly in hot water before you touch anything else.
    • Portion out the amount of rub you think you need before you start. Throw out any leftovers from that portion. You can keep your rub, but not if it has come into contact with meat, and chances are good that the process of applying it leads to contamination from your hands.
  • Store meat at an appropriate temperature. Refrigeration slows down bacteria, so keep meat at 40 degrees or lower until shortly before you want to cook it. (In Chapter 4, I tell you about the benefits of letting meat sit at room temperature before cooking. That’s fine as long as you don’t go overboard.) Throw out any meat that has been outside the fridge or freezer for more than two hours.
  • Throw out any leftover marinade. It may have been your best batch ever, but if it came into contact with meat, it’s fit only for the garbage disposal.

Stocking Dry Ingredients

In contrast to the bland look of herbs and spices as you so often see them — in rows of identical jars in grocery stores — herbs and spices have a long and colorful history of intrigue, one with power struggles, transcendence, and poetry. Seasonings have inspired dangerous travels, treated illnesses, fueled spiritual practices, and defined and refined cultures. More to the point here, they’ve transformed many a dinner from bland to enchanting.

The difference between herb and spice depends on where on a plant the flavorful bit originates :

  • Herbs are the leafy green bits of plants that grow upright and aren’t woody.
  • Spices include plants’ bark, seeds, roots, fruit, or flowers. Cinnamon comes from bark, for example; cloves are dried flower buds.

Must-haves for your spice cabinet

As you continue to cook, your stock of seasonings will grow. To get going, you want a collection of adaptable flavors in your spice rack. Here’s a list of the seasonings you can’t cook well without, the ones that provide the basis for your barbecue cooking collection :

  • Allspice
  • Black pepper
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Cumin
  • Curry powder
  • Dry mustard
  • Garlic powder
  • Ginger
  • Salt
  • Sweet paprika
  • Sugar

Spices can be extremely spendy, particularly if you buy them a little at a time. If you’re even moderately committed to cooking, buy spices in bulk at discount stores. You end up paying about a tenth of what you would by using those teeny jars that the supermarkets sell.

Storing spices, but not too long

Dried herbs and spices are pretty stable. You don’t need to baby them, but a few tips go a long way toward keeping your seasonings at their flavorful best :

  • Avoid heat. Ideally, you want your spices to stay under 70 degrees, so storing them next to your stove or oven is not the best way to go.
  • Keep dried herbs dry. Moisture leads to mold; avoid it by storing your spices in airtight containers. If you keep your seasonings in the fridge or freezer (which frankly isn’t the best idea, given the humidity of those environments), make sure you put them back right after you use them so condensation doesn’t get a chance to infiltrate your herb.
  • Let there be no light. Light is hot, and it saps strength from your spices. Keep your herbs in a cupboard, safely tucked away from any light source.
  • Date your containers. A safe bet is to throw away any spice that has reached its first birthday in your cupboard. When you buy a new container of this or that, mark the date on the label and save yourself any confusion or unsatisfying concoctions down the road.

If you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it. Whenever you’re on the fence about throwing away a spice, take a whiff. Unless you get a clear waft of the aroma (and it’s the one you want it to be), you can’t expect to get the taste you’re after from the seasoning. Toss it out.

The Stuff of Sauce

Given the importance of sauce in many barbecue enthusiasts’ eyes, making your own may sound a little intimidating. Nuts to that.

Every great sauce follows a straightforward formula, and the differences among them come from the nuances — from basically the same stuff you’d do to tweak prepared barbecue sauce you picked up at the store.

In this section, I give you the basic ingredients for smart saucemaking.

Balance is the critical element of sauce, and you find it by mixing sour, sweet, heat, and seasonings. In Chapter 11, you find guidelines for mixing and matching these components for killer sauces.

Even the most assiduous note-taking and recipe-following is unlikely to produce the same results in a sauce over and over. Sauces are greater than the sum of their parts and frankly feisty — their parts are in a battle; meanwhile you’re working for balance. Getting a grip on how various flavors work together helps keep your sauces in line, and practice and experimentation make correcting to find the balance you want second nature.

Smart bases

The first rule of the sauce-making is to match your sauce to the stage of cooking during which you plan to use it: Add tomatobased barbecue sauce too early in the cooking process, for example, and you’ll burn it onto your meat. (Chapter 1 tells you about how to use sauces at various stages.)

Every sauce starts with a base — a foundation ingredient that makes up the largest part of your recipe and carries the rest of the flavors.

How you like your sauce has a great deal to do with where you grew up. For many people, tomato-based sauce is the be-all and end-all of barbecue, but Carolinians would tell you differently. For them, sauce is thin and sour.

The skinny on fresh herbs

Dried herbs fill the bill for most of your barbecue projects, but you may at some point want to experiment with the fresh version. Especially if you have a garden — fresh herbs are much pricier than their dried and jarred counterparts.

The flavor in fresh herbs is not as concentrated, so you use more of fresh herbs than you do dried. If you’re substituting fresh herbs in a recipe that calls for the dried version, a ratio of 1 teaspoon dried to 1 tablespoon fresh is about right in most cases.

Fresh herbs have a much shorter shelf life than do the dried varieties — about a week in the fridge. So if you find yourself swimming in fresh herbs and want to hang onto them, try drying them yourself. Here’s how :

  • Cut only healthy stems from the plant. Pick off any browned leaves from the stems.
  • Shake them to get rid of any dirt and bugs that may be clinging to the leaves. You also can rinse them in cold water, but be sure to blot off all the water with a paper towel.
  • Bundle several stems together, and tie the bundles with string near the cut end of the stems.
  • Hang the bundles in a dark spot that provides plenty of air circulation and little moisture.
  • Check back in five or six days. Complete drying may take a couple weeks. When the leaves are crumbly, you know the herbs are ready. Crunch ’em up and put ’em in an airtight container.

Bases for barbecue sauces typically are one of the following, in order of most to least commonly used :

  • Tomato: Sauce, paste, or ketchup — tomatoes provide a rich base that lends itself to sweet or hot sauces, and anything in between. Tomatoes are the most-used base for barbecue sauces.
  • Vinegar: Thin, vinegar-based sauces have a (not surprisingly) strong, sour finish. Apple cider vinegar is the type most often called for. You can use these acidic sauces at any stage of the cooking process or as dips alongside your meat.
  • Mustard: A great complement to pork, mustard-based sauces are thick and also can be used as marinade, mop, finishing sauce, or dip.
  • Mayonnaise: Mayo-based “white sauce” is a favorite in the Alabama. Treat it like a tomato-based sauce and save it for the last few minutes of cooking.

Finding balance

When working toward balance in your sauce, you need sweet, savory, and sour elements, and you probably want a little something to give you heat.

Within those broad guidelines are about a gazillion possibilities, but keeping in mind those three elements when you’re cooking can save your sauce from unpleasant imbalance. If something doesn’t seem quite right, run through the elements and try to figure out which one’s not pulling its weight.

No way can I give you a comprehensive list of bits that may improve your sauce, but in order to give you a notion of what kinds of things fit into each category, here are several ingredients that have been proven to do good things to a barbecue sauce :

  • Sweet touches :
    • Brown sugar
    • Fruit juice
    • Honey
    • Molasses
    • Soda (the Coke or Pepsi kind, not the fizzy water variety and not diet, which turns bitter when it cooks)
    • Sugar
  • Something sour:
    • Lemon juice
    • Lime juice
    • Mustard
    • Vinegar
    • Worcestershire sauce
  • Savory additions:
    • Beef stock
    • Chicken stock
    • Ketchup
    • Soy sauce
    • Tomato paste
    • Tomato sauce

Using seasonings

If it exists as a plant, someone at some time has thrown it into a sauce. Safe starts are anything that you’d use for a barbecue rub.

Check out Chapter 5 for recommendations and to find out about flavor combinations that stand out — in good ways and in bad.

Season your sauces slowly. You can always add more, but taking some back is impossible.

 

 

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