by Steve Johnson
Barbecue is one of the most polarizing forms of cooking in the culinary world. Different regions have different styles of cooking, different styles and flavors of sauce, different woods for different flavor of smoke … and in each region, there is no other way than their way and that’s that.
Barbecue, in the simplest definition, is one of the most raw forms of cooking known to man. It involves – heat, – generally from wood or charcoal – smoke, seasoning – sauce or dry rub – and a less expensive and generally larger size cut of meat. Less expensive cuts of meat are less expensive because they are usually a little more difficult to cook to perfection. The most iconic cut of beef used in barbecue is brisket. The brisket is roughly a 10 pound, particularly tough piece of beef that comes off the front of cattle, between the front leg and the neck. It is also very delicious when prepared properly. Each head of beef contains two briskets.
Tough meat can be very difficult to eat. Traditional cooking methods for tough cuts are roasting, broiling and boiling; and none impart a great deal of flavor into the dish. Enter “barbecue”. While the differences in philosophy on the best way to barbecue can vary pretty widely, and the debate over the best way to barbecue are a hotly debated topic … the basic theory, at least from the physics perspective, is pretty much the same. A long duration of relatively low cooking heat – WITH SMOKE – to break down the proteins and render the fat out of the meat and impart a smoky flavor. This type of cooking can really help to turn a very tough cut of meat into something that is tender, juicy and amazingly delicious.
Why low and slow? The answer is simple: Physics. When it comes to cooking a larger piece of meat it has to cook evenly throughout. If too much heat is applied too rapidly the outside will burn to a crisp and the inside won’t cook. If the heat is applied slow and steady, the whole piece of meat will heat up evenly. When the internal temperature of the meat reaches around 140° F, the fat will begin to render or melt and drip out. Rendering the fat helps to remove the fat from the cut of meat being barbecued, as the fat finds its way out of the meat, it frees up space for the muscle cells to expand as they cook, also making the meat more tender. This helps to keep them from rupturing and releasing cellular fluid inside them, which is what helps keep the meat juicy. If the internal temperature of the meat is allowed to get much hotter than 205° F the cellular fluid can expand to the point the cell walls rupture and cause the meat to be dry and chewy.
Rest time is absolutely critical. Getting the meat to the appropriate internal temperature without burning it is only about 2/3rds of the cooking in the barbecue process. After the whole piece of meat reaches somewhere between 195 and 205° F, it needs to rest for a while. The best way is in what the restaurant industry refers to as a “hot box”. A hot box holds the meat at a prescribed serving temperature which is usually in the 150 to 170° F range for extended periods of time. Meat should rest at least an hour and resting for multiple hours won’t hurt a thing – and will probably help in most cases. In lieu of a proper hotbox, a small cooler will work great. It is important to wrap the meat securely in aluminum foil and then fill any airspace in the cooler with old towels or something similar and tape it shut. This will provide an ideal resting situation for the meat. Resting allows all of the muscle cells and fibers to cool down some and relax. As they relax, they become more tender. After the resting period, a properly cooked large barbecue cut should almost fall apart on its own.
Another thing that makes barbecue very unique, it’s actually a sub-culture unto itself is “Barbecue Sauce”. Barbecue sauces vary a great deal based on the region where the particular sauce originated, and some regions are even broken down further and defined by a particular style of sauce. North Carolina seems to favor a vinegar based hot pepper infused sauce – Tabasco or Texas Pete thinned with vinegar. Traveling down the coast to South Carolina, vinegar based mustard infused sauce is the standard. Georgia barbecue is known for taking South Carolina’s mustard sauce and adding tomatoes (or ketchup) to thicken it. Alabama stakes claim to a very unique white barbecue sauce. It is a mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar and peppers. Moving to the northwest, St. Louis and Louisville claim their tomato based sauces are thinner than the thick, sweet, smoky and syrupy sauce that Kansas City has made famous. Texas favors a “mopping sauce”, which uses molasses, tomato paste and vinegar along with peppers. It’s a thinner sauce, some even describe it as more of a “glaze” but leaves a thin layer of flavor on meat as it cooks which also helps to seal in the juices.
Barbecue has become much more than a way to cook things, the United States in particular, has embraced barbecue and made it its own. Barbecue isn’t bound by types of meat cooked, or wood used for heat and smoke. The variety that each barbecue region brings to this style of cooking give it a very broad and deep personality.