Ten Truer Words Were Never Spoken

Barbecue became a sport for good reason, and part of that is because barbecue cooks tend toward the competitive and opinionated. Each recipe and each fine-tuning of this or that cooking technique is held by someone to be the critical element of his or her barbecue success.

In this chapter, I give you ten points about barbecue that everyone can agree on.

The Truth Is in the Cook, Not the Equipment

You find advantages to higher-end smokers, the ones that keep a steady temperature as long as you need them to and do everything but give you a backrub while your pork shoulder cooks.

But do you need them? Nah.

Just consider the origins of barbecue: The culinary tradition that we now call hobby and follow as sport started out of necessity, with people who had very little in the way of resources. They cooked the worst cuts of meat in holes they dug in the ground, and in doing so, they stumbled onto some great science and created an enduring cuisine.

True enough — top-of-the-line equipment makes cooking easier.

But at its heart, barbecue is a way to get around the need for expensive paraphernalia. And although new, shiny, technically enhanced cookers are tempting and marketers will assure you that they’re even necessary, all you need is almost nothing.

Cook Low and Slow

What went down in underprivileged, rural areas — by necessity and by trial and error — has some hard science behind it. When you cook meat slowly, over low heat, hydrolysis occurs.

Hydrolysis means that the tight collagen fibers in the tendons are interrupted by molecules of water from the moist heat and from elsewhere in the muscle tissue. The tough collagen becomes soft gelatin, and the meat becomes tender. Voilà !

Hydrolysis takes place only at relatively low cooking temperatures.

You don’t get the same reaction when you sear meat on a grill or griddle.

If You’re Lookin’, You’re Not Cookin’

Playwright Oscar Wilde said he could resist anything but temptation, and for most rookie barbecue cooks, the temptation to take just a peek at what’s going on inside the smoker is too much to resist.

Resist. For the love of brisket, resist.

When you open your smoker to eyeball your meat, you gain nothing but the satisfaction of knowing that a very unlikely rib robbery hasn’t taken place in your backyard. Plus, you harm what’s there.

Maintaining a steady temperature throughout the smoker is the best way to produce evenly cooked, tender meat. Open the smoker and you throw the temperature balance out of whack, create hot and cool spots, and usually lose several degrees along the way. You abuse your good ingredients and all the care you’ve put into the product. And for what? Everything you need to know is in the temperature and the timing.

There Is Such a Thing as Oversmoking

The smoke that wafts up from whatever wood you use in your smoker cushions the meat you cook from the direct heat of the charcoal below and infuses it with subtle flavors. It’s a big part of what makes barbecue barbecue, but too much of it makes barbecue inedible.

You can get a bitter smoke flavor from using too much wood in your cooker. The surest way to avoid that is to add small amounts of wood to the smoker over a long period of time rather than a whole heap at the start. And if it’s heat you’re looking for, make sure that you add charcoal instead of wood.

Sauce on the Side, Nothing to Hide

Although many barbecue eaters (and even some cooks) equate the whole of barbecue with the sauce, ideally even the best sauce serves only to complement well-prepared meat.

Any barbecue meat that has been adeptly prepared and cooked stands without a lick of sauce. On the flip side of that, sauce is like a barbecue muumuu, something bold and big used to hide what the cook doesn’t want you to see — overcooked or oversmoked meat, a flavorless preparation, or a past-its-prime cut.

Sauce is a great part of the barbecue equation and a great way to experiment, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You have to have a foundation of great meat before you can boast your barbecue prowess.

Hot Dogs and Hamburgers Are Not Barbecue

Not that there’s anything wrong with hot dogs and hamburgers.

Just please don’t confuse them with barbecue. Barbecue takes place slowly, over low heat in a closed cooking apparatus with smoke from aged wood.

Grilling is what you do with steaks or weenies. It involves high heat and quick cooking. It’s good stuff, but it isn’t barbecue. When you grill, you typically use different cuts of meat and cook them by a completely different technique. The only similarity, really, is that you cook by either method outdoors. Oh, and you use charcoal either way.

Refer to grilling as “barbecuing,” and you’re going to raise hackles in a hurry.

Time Is on Your Side

Never has patience been so beautifully rewarded as when you sink your teeth into a perfect pulled-pork sandwich that you babied from rub to rest time.

Timing your barbecue project is critical for getting the result you want. Make sure you allow plenty of time for preparation and cooking, and keep notes of your cooking exploits so that you can best narrow down the cook times that give you the best end product.

Meat That Falls Off the Bone Has Been Cooked Too Long

Fall-off-the-bone tender usually is used as a term of endearment when applied to barbecued ribs, but meat that literally falls from the bone is overcooked.

What you want to shoot for is meat that pulls cleanly from the bone. You want to “bite ’em, not fight ’em,” and the bite part of that equation means you don’t want the ribs to be something you don’t need teeth for. Texture is an important part of the deal when it comes to ribs.

Watch for meat that shrinks away from the ends of the bones (about 1⁄4 inch to 1⁄2 inch at the most). That’s a good indication that it’s ready to come away from the heat.

Cleanliness Is Next to Tastiness

Buildup on your cooking grate can impart some unwelcome flavors on your barbecue meats. And a grunged-up grate is sticky — it’ll grab whatever you’re cooking and hold it, meaning you leave food on the grate or pick up remnants from the chicken you cooked three weeks ago.

Clean your grate with a wire brush after you’ve heated it up but before you put anything on it, and clean it again after you’re done cooking. Have at it while you let your meat rest. (Turn to Chapter 4 to find out about meat’s much-needed rest after cooking.)

Fat Is Flavor

This is a hard one to drive home, given the current nutritional climate, in which fat has become such a villain that it practically wears a black cape and twirls a handlebar moustache.

Quite simply: Fat is flavor, especially when it comes to barbecue cooking, which relies on the slow breakdown of fat to add moisture and tang to whatever you’re cooking.

Fat serves as storage, and that means that the flavors of the animal’s diet stick around in the fat cells. As I tell you in Chapter 5, smell has more to do with taste than anything that happens on your tongue, and fat holds most of the aroma-producing molecules, meaning that it lets loose a lot of good scents that you read as taste.

Look for meat that has heavy, even marbling to get the most flavor out of your barbecue cooking. Don’t be afraid to apply rub to the fat on the meat — it’ll infuse that flavor, too.

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