Submitted by Mephysteaux
Hello Goons. Today I'd like to talk to you about American Barbecue. I'd like to preface this by saying that I think American cuisine is really underrated, even by Americans, and is often viewed as being low-brow, pedestrian food, and Barbecue is really no exception. But one of the things that makes Barbecue great in my opinion is that you can be infinitely creative with it, and make food that is exceptional, while still being good, hearty comfort food that almost anyone can enjoy.
Barbecue is a type of cuisine that's popular in the American South, notably in Eastern states like North Carolina and Tennessee, and in Texas (Not to say that these are the only good places that notable food). Barbecue is not unheard of in other countries, and they have their own ways of doing it. Depending on where you go, you'll find different preferences for meat and different ways of preparing it. That said, with respect to those choices, I'm going to speak on a fairly broad, general spectrum, speaking from my own experience, since different regional variations certainly have their merits. By no means am I an expert in this field, but I'd like this to serve as an intro to anyone interested. But first, two quick notes:
Grilling is not barbecuing! Don't get me wrong, I love my propane grill, but grilling and barbecuing are completely different things. And no, it doesn't matter if you add Kraft Bar-B-Q sauce, it still doesn't count. I've had people argue with me that they aren't, but quite frankly, those people are wrong.
Barbecue requires patience and planning. Just got home from work at 6PM and want to make some pulled pork for dinner? Sorry, not going to happen. From start to finish, the process of properly barbecuing a piece of meat, from my experience, takes between 1 and 3 days. Not just the cooking, but the preparation involved.
- The primary ingredient. You can probably barbecue pretty much any kind of meat, but beef and pork are the most popular, and chicken is pretty common too. The most famous cut of beef to barbecue is brisket, which comes from the cow's lower chest. One of the reasons this cut of meat is often barbecued is that it contains a lot of connective tissue, meaning that if it's cooked quickly, it will be incredibly tough, to the point where it's basically inedible. Slow cooking breaks down these fibers and turns them into tender meat. In pork, you have two cuts that are popular. First is the ribs, it's pretty obvious where those come from. Second is the butt, also called the Boston butt, or, more anatomically accurately, the shoulder. This is used to make pulled pork. Keep in mind, different cuts of meat have different properties and flavors, so recipes, times and temperatures that work well on one may not be so great for another.
- In lieu of a marinade, many barbecuists opt to use a dry rub, which is a blend of spices rubbed on the entire piece of meat. The contents of this rub vary greatly from place to place in flavor and complexity. Some can easily surpass a dozen ingredients, while others opt for a salt and pepper blend. Rubs are contain some spicy ingredients like paprika, and some earthier ingredients like garlic, and may also contain something sweet like sugar or molasses. After the rub is applied to the meat, it is left on the meat at least overnight, but sometimes for as long as a day or two. You can invent your own rub, or find a premixed one in a lot of grocery stores. Marinades are not totally unheard of, but they don't seem to have the same clout as the classic rub.
- Some cooks use what they call a mop, which is sort of like a baste applied periodically throughout the cooking process. As legend has it, the person who popularized it used an actual floor mop to apply it since he was cooking so much meat. The mop's main purposes are to keep the meat moist in the dry heat, and to impart extra flavor on the meat. When making a mop, be sure that it has a relatively low sugar content, as sugar burns easily and tastes unpleasant when it does.
- There are those who say the sauce is the boss. Party true, you do get a lot of your flavor from the sauce, but it doesn't do the job on its own. Most people think of barbecue sauce as a sweet, smoky, tomato based sauce. There are a couple problems with this. First, barbecue sauce typically isn't inherently smoky, that's usually just smoke flavor added by manufacturers, since most people who use it aren't smoking their food. Also, the notion that all barbecue sauce is sweet and tomato based is false. A lot of it is, but different regions will often opt for a tangier sauce, based on vinegar, mustard, or something different. One thing that most people agree on is that sauce is saved for the end, since, like I said, burnt sugar tastes bad. Sauce can be applied within the last hour or so of cooking, or even after it's already done cooking. Making your own sauce is best, since you can make it taste how you want it to taste. If you do, it's best to make it a day or two in advance in my opinion, since that gives the flavors time to come out. Obviously, sauce can be bought at a store, but if you're going this route, avoid the cheap stuff. If you're going to all the effort of barbecuing something, there's no sense in ruining it because you didn't want to spend an extra $1.50 on a bottle of sauce.
- There are two commonly used fuel sources: wood and charcoal. Each imparts its own flavor, and has different properties as a fuel source. I have rarely seen anyone use charcoal by itself, charcoal is typically used in conjunction with wood that has been soaked in water, which gives off a lot of smoke before it burns. Dry, seasoned wood is used by itself as well. In either case, popular woods for barbecuing are apple, pecan, hickory and mesquite. Each has its own flavor. Important Note: Wood from evergreen trees, like pine or cedar, should not be used, since they contain oil which can make you sick when burned.
- Smokers come in many shapes and sizes, from the basic steel drum smoker, to my weapon of choice the ceramic egg smoker, to large, cabinet smokers and even smoke houses. What you use is up to your preference and budget. Smaller, simpler smokers will often require you to build your fire directly under the meat, in which case a slow-burning fire is needed. Offset smokers will have a fire box or something similar, a separate compartment for the fire that allows the hot smoke to travel to the meat.
Time and Temperature
- Meat will typically cook for between 4 and 12 hours, approximately. Cooking temperature doesn't typically exceed 300F (150C). These two numbers are dependent on each other, and on what kind of meat you're cooking. Typically, a smoker will have vents on it, these vents can be used to regulate temperature. Closed vents = less oxygen = slower burning fire = cooler. After cooking is done, the meat should rest to reabsorb lost liquid.
- While barbecue mainly refers to the meat, I feel it also represents the greater cuisine. Fitting sides include greens, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, beans and rice... the list goes on. Having good sides really helps paint a complete meal, though.
- There are traditional ways of serving barbecue meats; Ribs stand on their own, brisket goes on white bread, pulled pork gets made into a sandwich. Don't be afraid to deviate from these, though, there's always potential for something spectacular. About 3 years ago I had a pulled pork quesadilla at a pub in New Jersey, I still remember that. However, I tried taking that a step further and made pulled pork enchiladas, but the flavor of the meat was heavily masked.
- If you decide that making barbecue is too large of an undertaking (I wouldn't blame you) and opt to go to a restaurant, there are a couple things to keep in mind. One is that since it is such a huge undertaking, most places that don't specialize in it don't do it well. Unfortunately, this is true of my favorite pub, whose pulled pork is mushy and bland. Second, take reviews with a grain of salt. I find barbecue is a big source of pretentiousness, and a lot of barbecue places will get terrible ratings because of that. Ask around, see what people you know recommend. Third, keep your eyes open for hole in the wall places. A place with terrible atmosphere usually has to have good food to keep it in business. Case in point, I went to a Rudy's outside of Houston, the place looked like a gas station from the outside, looked like a shed from the inside, and set out rolls of wax paper instead of using plates, but god damn they had some good brisket. Upon returning home, I got brisket at a Famous barbecue chain whose name I won't mention, but it was absolutely terrible, even by my stupid Northerner standards.