Ten Ways Rookies Ruin Good Meat

In this part . . . More morsel than meal, each chapter in this part offers quick hits of information. You find ten common mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself and ten bits of critical barbecue wisdom straight from the horses’ mouths. I give you ten great sources for more information about barbecue techniques, equipment, recipes, and a whole lot more, as well as ten places to kick up your heels or pit your cooking skills against competitors at a barbecue festival.

You will make mistakes as you find your footing in barbecue cooking. If you don’t, you’re probably not trying anything new.

Mistakes are part of the adventure, but they aren’t so much the tasty part.

In this chapter, I direct you away from ten mistakes that many people before you have made. The advice in this chapter comes from centuries of other people figuring out the hard way, and it frees you up to walk a smoother path to delicious barbecue, as well as to invent some new mistakes all your own.

Being in an All-Fired Hurry

If you want fast, cook a grilled cheese. If you want barbecue, chill out. Slow is the essence of barbecue. Cooking at low temperatures for a goodly amount of time is what makes barbecue barbecue and makes the meat melt in your mouth. Before you cook, put some thought into how much time you’re going to need, how you want to season or sauce your product, and the sides you want to serve with it. Planning ahead makes you less likely to get distractedwhen your meat needs you most.

The prep work you do before you even get the meat near the heat keeps it tender and gives it your unique touch of flavor. Why rush past the prep or try to hurry the cooking? Savor the process as you will savor the product.

Sprinting Past Your Experience Level

Barbecue creates converts faster than the smoothest-talking televangelist, but you’re better off letting your enthusiasm simmer before you take on intense barbecue projects for a party of friends and family. You may be eager to show off your new bullet smoker, but don’t let your mouth make promises your barbecue can’t keep.

Barbecue comes with a lot of variables, and although most of what you do will become second nature after you get the swing of things, you have a lot to keep track of in the beginning. Better to take it slow, making subtle changes in your recipes or processes, than to rush ahead and bring frustration to your table.

Using Wood Before Its Time

When you cook over wood, the flavor of the smoke that rises from the chips or chunks of hickory or oak or whatever seeps its way through your meat. Given the cooking time you’re investing, that’s a lot of flavor, so it’d better be a good one. Using wood that hasn’t been aged properly is a sure way to throw off your flavor, and in some cases the texture of your meat — some green woods blacken meat, and that’s because creosote is abundant in fresh wood (and light in aged wood).

Freshly cut wood has a lot of moisture, which means a lot of smoke — and oversmoking overpowers the natural flavor of the meat and can make it taste bitter.

Because the wood chips or chunks provide a flavor source rather than a heat source, you don’t want to burn them. A solid soak in cool water keeps them moist enough that they slowly release smoke. Shoot for half an hour to an hour of soaking time.

Taking Meat from Fridge to Fire

Temperature being one of the gods of great barbecue, you want to keep a handle on the temperature of your meat as well as that of your smoker. Putting meat onto the grate right from the refrigerator adds a lot of cold air to your smoker, and that’s likely to lead to condensation of creosote from the charcoal. The creosote floats up via the smoke and onto your meat, adding a flavor and texture that’s probably not what you’re after.

Let your meat sit at room temperature for about an hour before you cook it. Most recipes count on your doing so and advise cooking times that are based on the meat starting at about room temperature.

Letting meat rest at room temperature for more than an hour is a bad idea. When it gets too warm, it also becomes susceptible to bacteria.

Lighting Charcoal with Lighter Fluid

If you drink naphtha for breakfast and chase it with benzene, by all means, coat your charcoal with lighter fluid before you light it.

You’ll enjoy the acrid tang the flammables impart to your brisket. If you’d rather taste the sweetness of the apple wood you smoked it over and the bite of your rub, skip the lighter fluid and use a chimney starter instead. You can find them at just about any hardware store, and they enable you to skip the lighter fluid. All you need is the charcoal, some paper, and a match. I tell you about using a chimney starter in Chapter 2.

A chimney starter comes in handy when you want to add more charcoal to increase the heat in your smoker. Get the charcoals going first in the chimney instead of throwing them in cold. Doing so gives you better control over your heat and lets any odors in the briquettes burn off before they have a chance to waft up into your meat.

Overcorrecting, Overzealously

A steady temperature is kindest to your meat, meaning it’ll be kindest to your tongue when all’s said and done. Fluctuating temperatures make for uneven cooking and can dry out your meat. Adding heat is always easier than reducing it, so start conservatively, erring on the side of too little charcoal and slowly adding more briquettes as you need them.

Keep your eye on the temperature with a good thermometer, and keep the lid on your smoker as much as possible. Peeking in is tempting, but it’s the enemy of a steady temperature.

Load up the grate with meat, and you may think the answer is to add more heat to cook it. Stop right there. More heat is just going to dry out your product and may even burn it. Instead, remove some of the meat to allow air to flow throughout the unit and keep the temperature steady throughout the smoker.

Getting Sauced Early

Sugar has low heat tolerance. So do tomatoes. These two mainstays of barbecue sauces are the very things that give your chicken a black, crackling coating if you try to cook with them. The chicken (or any other meat) takes longer to cook than does the sauce, which burns right around it. Wait until you’re almost finished cooking before you add a sweet sauce with tomatoes. A minute or two on each side of the meat over a low to moderate flame is all the time the sauce needs to add taste and texture.

If you prefer to baste the meat while it cooks, use a sauce with a low sugar content or one that you’ve thinned with water or vinegar.

Relying on Eyes, Not Numbers

Your eyes may deceive you when it comes to figuring out whether your meat is cooked. This is particularly true when you smoke meat because smoked chicken and pork tend to pink as they cook instead of taking on the white color that reassures cooks and eaters that the meat has been thoroughly cooked.

Find meat’s internal temperature to determine whether it’s ready for sampling. Chapter 4 gives you a rundown of the internal temperatures you want to reach for different cuts of meat.

Poking Holes into the Meat

You want to keep the precious juices inside the meat, so use tongs anytime you move it. Stab it and you provide a sure route for the juices to ooze out, taking with them any hope you had for great barbecue.

Forgetting Rest Time

The hours of preparation behind you, the cooking complete at long last, pulling apart your pork shoulder is quite a temptation. Do so too soon, and you throw out all your hard work in an instant.

Meat’s juices go where the heat is lowest, so give them a chance at your cutting board, and they run for it. If, instead, you let the meat rest after you take it off the heat, the juices have a chance to be reabsorbed by the proteins that set them free in the first place. Cut into a well-rested piece of meat, and you find tender juiciness rather than a puddle around your desiccated pork chop. Chapter 4 gives you the specifics about letting meat rest.


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