Thursday, June 03, 2010

Making better barbecue pt. 2

This one is about meat. Oh yes. Meat.

In Part 1, I covered educating yourself about types of smokers, learning to control your temperatures and practicing. Now, assuming you have a grill/smoker, have good temperature control and/or are ready to practice getting there, today we’re going to cover some basic tips concerning meat preparation and cooking.

In keeping with my Kansas City Barbeque Society affiliation – I am going to cover the four categories they judge: Chicken, Ribs, Pork and Brisket. I am not going to talk about preparing them for a competition, just some simple tips to make good ‘que.

There are some things to keep in mind before you begin preparing your meat and getting ready to cook. I feel I need to reiterate what I said in my prologue. One of the easiest and certainly one of best things you can do to make your barbecue better is to stop using lighter fluid. Lighting coals with a chimney starter or paraffin cubes is a very simple way to make this very effective change to your cooking.

The next thing you need to think about is weather. When are you going to cook? How long is it going to take? What’s the weather supposed to be like and will that impact your cooking. I have a small overhang on my patio. I can scootch my smoker or grill under there and cook away, but plenty of folks out there have uncovered cooking areas. Keep this in mind and make sure you don’t cause any fire hazards if you do need to move your cooker under cover.

Give a little thought to what kind of wood you’re going to use to smoke with. I was watching the Food Network last night and on both Good Eats and Unwrapped they referenced some grilling statistics. Something like 3 in 4 homes in the U.S. own grills and more than 50 percent use them year-round. That says a lot about the popularity of outdoor cooking. As we continue to seek out different ways to do the same thing, we seek out obscure and exotic spices and materials. The nationalization of our goods and services went a long way toward normalizing the kinds of goods we find across the nation. It’s true there are still regional specialties, but the majority of products you find can find in a Walmart in Dothan, Alabama, are going to be the same that you’ll find in a Walmart in Bend, Oregon. Let’s not argue the merits or pitfalls of this, rather I bring this up to say that, in general, a cook can now find pretty much the same spices and cooking products just about anywhere in the U.S. It wasn’t that long ago that regions outside the Southwest had a hard time finding mesquite, now it’s everywhere. Anyone who wants to should be able to easily find the following four hardwoods for smoking: Hickory, Mesquite, Apple and Cherry. You may only be able to find chips, you may only find chunks, but these four kinds of wood have become very common.

What wood gives you is that deep, rich smoke flavor associated with good barbecue. As a point of reference the four woods I mentioned above will provide you the following flavor profiles:
Hickory – A very strong, deep smoke. This is the wood most commonly associated with Southern barbecue. You have to be careful with this because too much hickory can be bitter. Hickory is great with every meat.

Mesquite – Provides a distinct, sweet, strong smoke flavor. While many of the fruitwoods have similar flavor profiles and vary in strength, mesquite has a quite different taste. It’s very common in Southwest (particularly Texas and Arizona) barbecue. Mesquite compliments chicken and pork very well, but in the Southwest you’ll find it used on everything.

Apple – Lighter and fruitier than hickory, but still leaves a good smoke flavor. It’s a great wood to compliment hickory. By itself, Apple goes well with everything, but pork particularly benefits from a good application of apple.

Cherry – Fruiter and lighter still, cherry compliments all meats.

Other woods you may have access to and make for good smoke include oak, pecan, alder, maple, and peach. Just about any hardwood or fruitwood can be used. Just don’t use softwoods and particularly avoid pine or cedar.

Play around with amounts and combinations. The only wrong way to do it is to use too much.

One of the most important things you can do when considering what meat to cook is to give some good thought to where you’re going to buy it from. There’s nothing like developing a good relationship with your nearest butcher. I compare prices between Walmart, Kroger and my meat market and not only does my market often have the better price, they ALWAYS have the better cut of meat.

The last thing I want to talk about is restraint. Less is more. This applies to the spices you use on your meats and the amount of wood you smoke with. Start with a little. Go crazy with how you make your rub or whatever, but be careful in how much you put on your meat. You can always add more. You can’t take anything away once it’s there.

While one of the most common foods on plates around the world, chicken is difficult to smoke or grill. We all know the dangers of underprepared chicken, so cooking thoroughly is a must. But cooking the chicken to doneness while maintaining juicy tenderness is challenging. There are many, many ways to prepare your chicken, but I want to just briefly touch on some generic issues.

Smoking is usually done at low temperatures while grilling is normally done at high-heat. Chicken kind of needs some in-between. The basic rule of thumb is to follow baking instructions. So you know that cooking in the 350-degree range is going to yield good results. If you’re cooking individual pieces, you’ll cook for less time than cooking a whole chicken (duh). Personally, I like to cook beer-can style chicken (where a rack of some kind suspends the chicken butt-down and a can of liquid is inserted and provides steam to the bird). Cooking that way, I know I can do a full-sized bird in about 30 minutes at 350.

Some tips in preparation – chicken soaks flavor like there’s no tomorrow and it’s easy to overpower the natural flavors. Be careful how much spice you put on. If you leave the skin on, lift it up where you can to season the meat directly. Spices won’t get into the meat through the skin very well. A bird sprinkled with a little lime juice and rubbed with some fresh-cracked pepper is pretty amazing – even more so smoked with some apple wood.

There are probably as many different ways to prepare and cook ribs as there are people cooking them. Add to that the different cuts and styles – spares, St. Louis cut, baby backs, short ribs, rib tips, country-style, etc. – and you can easily see how one person’s idea of ribs can vary greatly from someone else’s. The tips I’m providing here are generally applicable to pork spareribs, but are equally applicable to St. Louis cut and can be easily adapted to baby backs just by cutting the cooking time a little.

Ribs can be very flavorful and very tender when cooked properly. They can be bland and tough as sin when they are not. Following a couple of simple steps can improve your ribs tremendously.

First, you have to select your ribs. Look for racks with plenty of meat. Also look for ribs with a bit of fat on them. You don’t want there to be fat pockets all over them, but you do want to see some. The fat is going to provide moisture and flavor while cooking.

The next thing you have to deal with is the membrane. On the back side of the ribs, there is a thin, tough membrane that covers the ribs. If you want your rub to penetrate into the meat on this side, that membrane needs to be removed or scored. It’s a fairly simple process and if you Google “rib membrane removal” you will find tons of information. However, if you get your ribs from a butcher, you can just have him remove it for you.

I like to prep my ribs the day before I cook, but you certainly don’t have to. You should rub them no less than an hour before you cook them, though. This gives it a bit of time to sweat into the meat. Regardless of what anyone tells you, rubs, marinades and the like aren’t going to penetrate far, if at all, into your meat. With a rub, the sweating pulls some of the moisture out of rib and helps create a nice coating that caramelizes and adds a lot of flavor. You can help this process out by coating the ribs with a little mustard first – a very light coat – and sprinkling on your rub. Your ribs can take more spice than chicken, but still be careful. You want a nice, even light coat; you don’t want the rub caked on. If you prepare much in advance, wrap the racks in plastic wrap in put in store in the fridge until about an hour or so before you’ll put them on the smoker.

If you do some research into cooking barbecue, you’ll hear the term “Low and Slow” a lot. Generally that means cooking for a long time between 225-240 degrees. While it’s perfectly fine to cook ribs in this range, I’ve found that ribs, spareribs anyway, can handle temps in the 275 range. The outer bark (that nice crusty exterior) is a little crustier and the ribs seem more moist.

To ensure jaw-droppingly awesome and consistent results, the best way to cook ribs is to follow the 3-2-1 method. The first time you do this, aim for a 240-250 degree temp range. Once your cooker is at temp, put your ribs on and let them cook for three hours. Don’t lift the lid, don’t mess with them, just make sure your temp stays steady. After three hours, pull your ribs, wrap them in heavy duty foil (you can add a little moisture – apple juice, wine, sauce, whatever – and some brown sugar to add some more flavor) and put them back on the smoker for another two hours. After those two hours, remove the ribs, unwrap them, and put them back on the grill for one final hour. During the final 30 minutes, you can, if you like, brush on some sauce so it will caramelize.

This 3-2-1 method will guarantee good results, however, it is a guideline. Some people find that this makes the ribs too tender so they only go with one hour in foil (3-1-1). Some like the two hours in foil, but cut down the initial cook to two hours for a 2-2-1 cook. It’s going to have a lot to do with your individual preferences. I find 3-1-1 is about perfect for me, but my wife likes ‘em a little more tender, so I’m going back to 3-2-1 next time I do spares.

Ribs are fun to cook and allow you a decent margin of error.

Pork butt
Blah, blah, it’s not really a butt, blah, it’s a shoulder, blah. The internet, books, articles and Alton Brown have talked about the cut of meat enough. All you need to know is that if you’re cooking pulled pork and you want to cook what the pros do, look for a bone-in Boston Butt. Boneless may be quicker to cook, but something about that bone-in produces better results and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as pulling that bone out barehanded when it’s all done.

Choose a butt that has a good fat cap on it and looks like it has some good marbling throughout. These things are going to cook for so long, you need that fat to keep the roast moist through the cook.

When you get ready to prepare the butt, you have to decide if you’re going to rub, if you’re going to marinade and whether or not you’re going to inject. I’ve done all three and the only one I always do and am suggesting that you always do is to make sure you apply rub. Not only does this help create tasty and thick bark, it’ll help flavor the entire batch of pulled pork when you go to pull it and start mixing it all together. I personally think a marinade is worthless on a piece of meat this big. Alton Brown’s recipe calls for a 24-hour brine. I haven’t done it, but he suggests doing it because he worries that the butt will not stay moist enough for the entire cook. Well that’s crazy. A Boston Butt has the largest margin of error for success than any other cut of meat you can throw on your smoker. A butt with a good fat cap will stay perfectly moist your entire smoke if you follow some simple steps, but more on that in a minute. The last flavor-enhancement method is injection. The jury is still out on this, IMHO. Pros like Myron Mixon swear by it. It has been said that if you want to win the pork category, you have to inject. Again, I’m not sure about that. I’ve done side-by-side butts where the only difference was one was injected and the other was not and I could not tell which was which. More than any kind of pre-cook liquid, I think a post-cook finishing sauce does much more to enhance flavors, but more on that later, too.

So, basically, rub your roast. It really does help.

The butt is where the low-and-slow term really applies. These hunks of meat require a nice, long cook at low temps to shine. So make sure your cooker keeps a 225-240 temp range and throw your butt on. It will cook for an hour to an hour-and-half per pound. It is not uncommon to have 20-hour cooks for 8-to-12-pound roasts. When you put your meat on to cook, let it go five-to-six hours without messing with it. Do make sure your smoker is maintaining those steady temps, but leave the meat alone. After that initial five or six hours, you can wrap the butt in heavy-duty foil, or put it in one of those disposable foil pan and cover with foil. This does two things – it protects the meat from drying out and it helps you collect the drippings from the roast which will become important later.

Once you get three-quarters of the way through your cook you need to start checking the temperature (for an 8-pound roast, estimate that the earliest you would be done would be 8 hours, so at six hours into your cook). You’re shooting for temps between 195-200 degrees. You need to check your temps hourly. Keep in mind that pork roasts plateau around 170 and can, in fact lose temps as the connective tissues begin to gelatinize. So you could see your 175-degree roast dip to 172 and not rise more than a few degrees for a couple of hours. What’s happening is all the heat energy is being transferred into the gelatinization process. Once that has completed, your butt will begin to rise in temp pretty quickly. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of it.

An aside – one of the best devices I ever bought is a remote digital thermometer. It has a temperature probe with a long wire. You stick the probe in the roast and it connects to a sending unit that sits outside the cooker. Inside your nice, climate-controlled home, you have a receiver that tells you what temperature your meat is at. This obviates you from having to check the temp hourly since you’ve got your remote sitting next to you.

When your roast hits 180-ish, remove it from the foil. This will ensure that the outside bark crisps up before the cook is done. BE CAREFUL in this step, because all those nummy juices in the foil are going to be put to use. Bring them inside and use 1/4 to 1/2 cup of them in your finishing sauce. Basically, mix that amount of the juices with about 1/2 cup of wine or apple juice or apple cider vinegar or whatever floats your boat. Add about 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon soy sauce and some rub. Bring all that to a boil and simmer for half an hour or so. Or concoct your own combo – but remember to collect those drippings from the roast – it adds so much.

Once the roast has reached temp, pull it off the smoker and wrap in foil. You want it rest at least 30 minutes before doing anything to it. It can rest in foil, on the counter for about an hour. If you need to go longer than that, a competition trick is to use a towel-lined cooler. Put a towel in the bottom of your cooler and put your foil-wrapped butt in then put a towel or two on top. I’ve held pork butts up to five hours this way and they were still too hot to touch when I got them out to pull.

When you go to pull the roasts – like I just mentioned – the meat is going to be hot. You can use forks or chop when knives, but nothing works as well as getting your hands in there and pulling and mixing the meat. So, a pair of gloves is a nice thing to have for this. A thick pair of disposable latex gloves works OK, but there is food-grade, heavier-duty gloves out there perfect for this very thing. I’ve not yet procured them for myself (I’m stuck with latex right now), but it’s something that’s on my list.

As you pull, be conscious of getting pieces of the bark mixed in with the interior, this will help get the smoked flavor better distributed. Once you’ve got everything pulled like you like, it’s time to add some finishing sauce. A good rule of thumb is to add 1/2 tablespoon per cup of meat. Be careful! A little of that sauce goes a long way. You’re just looking to add a little bit of flavor, not overpower the meat. You may also want to throw a little more rub in there. Hey, whatever is your preference.

I STRONGLY suggest that you do not add barbecue sauce to the pulled pork. Put your sauce on the side and allow the individuals to add sauce to their liking. Barbecue has a lot of strong flavors and some folks prefer their meat without it.

The last meat on the KCBS competition turn-in is the mother-hunk of beefiness – the brisket. Probably the worst cut of meat on the cow, this huge roast becomes one of the most flavorful, beefy, tender roasts when cooked properly. Unlike the pork butt, there is not a lot of a margin for error on this roast. If you don’t get the meat within a pretty tight temperature range within a pretty tight timeframe, it will be tough or dry or mush.

When shopping for brisket, it’s important to realize that there are two main parts to a full-sized brisket – a “flat” which is the thinner, leaner side, and a “point” which is thicker and fattier. If you look at the picture I posted here, the “A” is the flat portion and the “B” is the point. There is a section of fat in between the two and after a long smoke, they are easily separated.

Cooking a brisket is considered the more expert level of barbecue. Because there’s not as much margin for error and it requires such a long cook time, many cooks shy away from them until they have more practice. But if you have some tools (a remote thermometer is a VERY handy tool for a brisket cook) and use some technique and some patience, you can produce reasonably consistent results every time.

If you want to cook brisket like most competition teams, you’ll need to look for a brisket with the flat and point intact. This, in barbecue and butcher circles is known as a Full Packer. However, if you want to try your luck with a less ambitious cook, you can purchase just the flat portion, but for the purposes of this post, I’m only talking a full packer.

As with the pork butt, you want to find a brisket that has the fat cap untrimmed. One side of the brisket will have a solid fat cap across the entirety of the flat and a lot of the point. It’s important to have this intact, but you will be trimming a portion of it off. Your butcher could probably help you out if you ask. When trimming it yourself, you’ll want to leave 1/4-1/2 inch of the cap behind.

Preparing the brisket is similar to the pork butt also. You should almost certainly rub it, but think of spices that compliment beef. You may have a rub that works well for both, but often pork rubs are sweeter than ones for beef. Many Texas rubs use a simple salt and pepper mix. There is the marinade and injection debate with briskets too and as with marinade, I don’t think there’s much point for a brisket, however, injections can help the brisket a lot. A simple injection of apple juice can add a ton.

Briskets require a well-controlled temperature. They don’t like fluctuations very much. If you get outside your range, which should be 225 – 235, for too long, you can wind up with a dry brisky. Foiling, which in the brisket world is known as the Texas crutch, can help keep this from happening. As with your pork butt, you want to cook the brisket on your smoker for about four to six hours and then foil. The brisket will take one to one-and-a-half hours per pound and you want to look for a target temperature of 190 – 200 degrees, measured in s thick portion of the flat.

Ideal brisket is generally judged via slices from the flat. You cut 1/4 – 1/2-inch thick slices. Take the slice in your hand and pull from both sides. The slice should pull apart easily, but offer a little resistance. The brisket should be moist and have a good beef flavor. This is what a brisket consumer is looking for.

Now the point is another matter. When you pull the brisket, the flat will be done, but the point probably needs some more time on the grill. Put it back on the smoker and bring it to the same temp. That will help render out some more of the fat in it. While the flat is best sliced, the point is great if you chunk the sides for “burnt ends” and pull the rest.

So, what now
Now you need to go out and find yourself some meat and start practicing. There are a lot of recipes and resources out on the net. Work yourself up a craving for something and then make it.

Let me know how it turns out!


Mr. Bingley said...

Excellent! The only thing I'd add is with regard to butts. The 195-200 degree range is just the target; what you really are looking for is that the butt feels like butter when you put the temp probe in. That's when the baby is done.

Cullen said...

Yes, of course. I kept meaning to put in something about fork tender or testing the tenderness with a probe.

Mr. Bingley said...

Kevin Kruger's 'butter' description is to me perfect.