Master of the Pit: Barbecue Technique
First, remember two things: low and slow. Barbecue uses low temperatures to achieve outrageous flavour and texture. Tenderness is a result of time and temperature breaking down the meat. This is no place for rushing. It takes anywhere from 12-14 hours at 225°F to get a brisket to full tenderness. Pit masters call this “cooking to the jiggle,” because when you shake the meat, it jiggles like Jell-O. Yes, that is what a perfect brisket should do! Similarly, pulled pork needs 8 to 12 hours at 235-250°F to shred with minimal effort, ribs need 4.5 to 6 hours at 235°F to pull clean from the bone, and chicken and sausage need time to absorb the delicious smoke flavours. You may have noticed that all the aforementioned temperatures are cool relative to grilling a steak at 400°F. Outside temperature plays a part in the process for sure, but as long as you control the heat to the desired range, you can barbecue in +30°C to -30°C. Keeping the heat low is actually easier in cold weather as you can always add more fuel. This low-and-slow technique is the first key to great barbecue technique. The second key is colour.
Colour is subjective, but it defines the final product. Smoke and spice create the colour of a barbecued ingredient. The nature of the rub and the length of smoke establish the delicious crust or “bark” on the outside that makes the food look and taste so amazing. Traditional southern US barbecue uses nothing but salt, pepper and smoke to get that lovely bark. Some throw in paprika for the deep red colour, and others add a variety of herbs. Creativity and flavour are the goal. But the most important ingredient in flavour and colour is the smoke and its penetration into the meat. Competition pit masters are evaluated on their smoke, and the smoke ring on the meat. The smoke ring is the 4-6mm of reddish “stain” on the outside edge of the meat and is a direct result of the smoke infiltrating the meat. This ring and colour are subjective to the chef and most pit masters will smoke to a set/desired bark and colour, then stop the smoke process by wrapping the meat for the rest of the cook. Once the bark is set, the final product only requires completion to temperature or tenderness. Wraps are typically either tin foil or butcher paper and are wrapped tightly in many layers so that the meat steams in its own juices, without steaming off the outer bark. Tight is critical and will ensure a quality final product.
Barbecue is an art, discipline, profession, hobby, compulsion, passion, and obsession. Research on techniques and recipes can be endless, and the outcome extraordinary. If you are new to it or want to start, go buy some equipment and a recipe book (or check out the recipes on Savour Calgary’s website), pour yourself a bourbon (pairs incredibly well), and start experimenting. For those who have some experience, go buy a barbecue cookbook and experiment. Barbecue is all about sharing with family and friends, so get outside and make some delicious meals.
Respect the ingredients, respect the tradition, and eat well my friends.
This is part four in a four-part series on the basics of barbecue. Also see: Barbecue 101: Grilling vs Barbecuing, Barbecue 102: Tools of the Trade, Barbecue 103: Wood and Spices.