Barbecue is perhaps the iconic American form of cooking. We borrowed everything else, but the various regional styles of BBQ in America are ours. Today, the interest in BBQ is growing like never before, with local competitions springing up all over and slow-cooked, smoked meats making their way from hard-to-find back-woods shacks into manicured suburban neighborhoods. Americans love barbecue and are expressing that love by learning how to do it. If you’ve decided to learn the craft, or even if you have cooked a few butts in your day, you’ve probably come across the million blogs, forums, books, and magazines that are available to those that want to perform carnivorous alchemy, and you’ve likely been overwhelmed by it all. I know I was.
That is why we’re bringing you this BBQ 101 guide. In this series, we’ll distill the basics of what you need to know about smoking meat, from smoker to sauce. In Part 1, we’ll go over the history and origins of barbecue as well as some of the major thermal processes, from smoke and combustion to collagen dissolution and smoke rings. So strap in, there’s a lot to cover!
- BBQ history
- BBQ thermal principles
- BBQ thermometers
- Smoker fuel types
What is BBQ?
First, there’s one thing we need to clear up: Grilling and barbecuing are two different things. I remember talking to a pit master from Tenessee who had moved to Utah and hearing about how his new neighbors had invited him over for a barbecue, for which he was very excited. On arrival, he and his wife looked at each other with disappointed chagrin as they surveyed the stacks of burgers and hotdogs and realized that the well-meaning neighbors meant a grilling party, not a barbecue. We’ve written a whole post on the topic of the distinction between the two cooking methods, but for the sake of brevity, we can boil it down to one key difference: the cooking temperature. Grilling is a high-heat cooking method, while BBQ is a lower heat method. You’ve heard people talking about “low and slow” cooking, and that is the heart of barbecue.
Where did BBQ come from, though? There is no straightforward answer to the question, and entire books on that history have been and still could be written on the subject because there are many cultural influences and historical twists in the origin and regionalization of American barbecue. The name “barbecue” comes through Spanish from the native Arawak barbacoa, meaning “a wooden frame on posts,” a reference to the drying and cooking fo meats on a raised bed over hot charcoal. American barbecue most likely started with slaves brought from the Carribean. As the cooking method spread, it changed—morphing with the availability of local ingredients and flavors. In regions across the American South and Midwest, sauces were created, regional favorites for cooking-wood choice emerged, favorite meats became local standards, and rubs evolved as they moved not just from state to state but even city to city and kitchen to kitchen.
Today, slow-smoked barbecue is a staple of American regional cuisines. From sticky St. Louis ribs to vinegary North Carolina pulled pork, the long, slow application of heat and smoke to meat is perhaps the most celebrated of America’s home-grown culinary traditions.
Low and Slow: BBQ Temperatures and Smoke
If you have listened to anyone talking about barbecue cooking, you have certainly heard the term “low and slow” being thrown around as if it were an article of faith. If you’ve ever wondered why that is, then your answer has arrived!
Collagen in BBQ
Classic BBQ meats are chock full of collagen—a tough connective tissue that is plentiful in animal muscles that undergo heavy use. (Beef tenderloin is tender because it is a muscle that is almost never used, while brisket is used all day, every day by the cow, meaning that it will have a lot of tough collagen.) The long, tightly wound strands of proteins that compose collagen’s makeup make provide strength and endurance for the animal but make things difficult for eating. If you were to cook the classic BBQ meats at a high temperature for a short time, serving them medium rare like a steak, they would be inedibly chewy and tough.
Collagen, then, seems like a terrible thing to work with, but it is not! In fact, collagen is responsible for barbecue’s delicious meat alchemy. When collagen is cooked slowly at lower temperatures, its long, tightly bound fibers unwind, releasing water and melting into soft gelatin. With the collagen melted an replaced by hydrated gelatin, the meat becomes bite-through tender, juicy, and delicious. The process begins at about 160°F (71°C) but really picks up at 170°F (77°C), with the collagen melting faster at higher temperatures.
There is one more thing to know about how proteins react in BBQ cooking, and that’s the stall. The stall happens when the protein fibers in the meat contract (when the meat is going through and passing “well done”), expelling water from within. That water makes its way to the surface and evaporates in the heat of the smoker, causing evaporative cooling. In essence, the meat sweats. That evaporative cooling keeps the temperature of the meat from rising for a long, long time. (The stall on a large brisket can last over 6 hours!) The stall starts at about 150°F (66°C) and runs up through about 180°F (82°C) on all the beef and pork cuts. If you are monitoring the temperature (as you can with the Smoke Gateway and its accompanying free app) you’ll see the temperature plateau off, staying maddeningly flat for hours and hours.
If you want to speed through the stall, you need to create an environment where the water can’t evaporate and this is done by wrapping your smoking meat in either foil or butcher paper. Wrapping your cooking meats creates a micro-climate around the surface of the meat that rapidly reaches 100% relative humidity, meaning that no more evaporation can happen. The meat will continue to expel water from its tightening muscle fibers, but it will not be venting that water to the air and cooling itself down. This can shave hours off of your cook, and that is its greatest merit. However, it can, if improperly done, make for lousy bark. To avoid bad bark, make sure your bark has set well before wrapping. If it hasn’t you won’t get it back.
The great thing about how this all works out is that while it seems as if the meat will dry out by squeezing out all its water, but as we approach the end of the stall, starting at about 170°F (77°C), the collagen starts to melt more rapidly, creating gelatin that can absorb the water that is being shed and releasing and absorbing its own liquid. Thus brisket, which is cooked way past well done, is both juicy and tender.
BBQ smoker temps
In general, most barbecue cooking is done in the 225–275°F (107–135°C) range. That range allows the internal collagen to melt without the exterior of the meat drying out. Those relatively low temperatures may take longer to cook at, but the time sacrifice is well worth the results.
Proper temperatures don’t happen by themselves, however. As we’ll see below, the kind of fuel and the kind of smoker you are using can greatly affect the stability of your BBQ cooker temperature. Monitoring your smoker’s temperature is not as simple as just sticking your hand in a hot box of air and saying “yeah, that’s hot!” For the best results, and results that you can reproduce every time, you need real measurements. You need a thermometer.
We’ll cover measurement in more detail below, but to help understand why it’s important, you should understand that cooking in this range not only allows the meat to cook properly but it also affects the kind of smoke that is created in the combustion of your fuel, and therefore the end product of your cook.
Kinds of smoke
BBQ gurus will spend a lot of time talking about the right kind of smoke, but what does that mean? Combustion of wood and charcoal produces heat, gasses, solids, and water vapor, and those byproducts affect the way barbecued meat tastes. Wood and charcoal burn in different ways based on the amount of available oxygen—meaning you can change the character of your smoke by changing how much air it has access to.
A fire that is starving for air will produce a sooty, black smoke that tastes acrid and offputting on food. A fire with plenty of air will have a very efficient combustion, producing white, billowy smoke. That’s fine for cooking smaller cuts, but not great for longer cooks because the smoke flavor can be more intense and too heavy if meats are exposed to it for a long time. What you want is a fire that has a Goldilocks amount of air..not too much, no too little, but just right. If you hit that level, you’ll get a light blue, slightly billowy smoke. That blue smoke is the goal.
Smoke from wood or charcoal for cooking can range from bluish, to white, to gray, to yellow, brown, and even black. The most desirable smoke is almost invisible with a pale blue tint…Blue smoke is the holy grail of low and slow pitmasters, especially for long cooks.”AmazingRibs.Com
The smoke ring—what it is and what it tells us
And while we’re talking about kinds of smoke, we may as well talk about smoke penetration and the “smoke ring.” On properly executed smoked meats you can see a red ring just below the surface of the meat, hovering between the bark and the brown-grey cooked meat. That red ring is called the smoke ring. Why is it red? Because of nitrous oxide! When wood or charcoal burn, they produce nitrous oxide as one of the byproducts of their combustion. That nitrous oxide combines with the myosin proteins in the meat, changing their composition. Myosin is the protein most responsible for meat’s red color, and by changing its structure, the nitrous oxide prevents the myosin from denaturing in a way that turns brown. Thus, it stays red/pink. It is the same reaction that keeps ham and corned beef red instead of turning brown when cooked.
The smoke ring also points us to an interesting truth. The depth of the smoke ring is the maximum depth of smoke penetration, and therefore of flavor penetration from the fire. It doesn’t matter for how many hours you smoke your pork butt or how perfect your fire management is, the dead center of the butt will not taste like smoke. The gasses and particulate matter that sm is made of just can’t penetrate the muscle fibers that far down. In fact, almost all of the penetrative smoke flavor in barbecued meats is achieved in the first couple hours of cooking. That’s why you can put a few chunks of hardwood on a charcoal fire at the beginning for the sake of smoke and not have to add more wood later on. The flavor will go just as deep as if you had smoked it over wood for the whole cook. Now, it is a popular thing to add some more hardwood at the end of a cook to throw a little more smoke flavor on the outside of the meat, but that will be surface smoke, not deep smoke.
Barbecue is all about temperature control—keeping the smoker a the right temperature, applying various anti-stall methods, and even knowing when to pull your meats from the heat. The biggest necessity for successful barbecue, no matter the smoker type or fuel, is an accurate, durable BBQ thermometer. Leave-in probe thermometers are the best choice for BBQ thermometers because you can use them without having to open the lid/door to your smoker to check on things, releasing precious heat and precious smoke out into the world, away from your spareribs.
You can find a BBQ thermometer for just about any budget, from our DOT® to our ThermaQ® Blue, with a wide assortment of probes to fit your needs. A great option for a BBQ cook of any skill level is the Smoke™ with the optional Smoke Gateway Wi-Fi bridge. This is a dual channel system that, when paired with the Gateway, allows you to monitor your cook via your smart device no matter where you are. But no matter what thermometer you get, get a thermometer. Having the control over your cook that comes from that thermal knowledge will improve your barbecue skill faster than anything else.
Whatever temperature it is that you need for your recipe, and no matter what thermometer you use to track that temperature, that heat has to come from somewhere, and that brings us to fuel. Each kind of BBQ fuel has its advantages and disadvantages, so a run-down on each is a good idea.
Stick burners are smokers that use actual chunks of wood for fuel. They are usually, but not necessarily, offset smokers (about which you will be able to read in Part 2). Depending on the size of the smoker these may burn anything from large chunks and whole logs to split wood and thin tree limbs. They are often finicky and require close attention to keep the fire burning and to keep the smoking chamber at the right temperature.
Because of the uneven burning properties of different wood chunks, a BBQ thermometer like the Smoke is a necessity for cooking with a stick burner. They are not great for beginners and are often the realm of well-seasoned pitmasters. However, the smoke flavor that can be achieved in a stick burner is fantastic! It takes work, but the results can be fantastic.
For a slightly easier fueling method, consider charcoal. Charcoal still requires some attention being paid to the smoker, but not quite as much. Charcoal briquettes work well and are a great way to start out, but most barbecuers prefer lump charcoal, claiming it produces better heat (by which they seem to mean more or longer lasting heat) and better flavor. Whether those claims are true or not, the more traditional feel of lump charcoal appeals to many.
Of course, charcoal doesn’t produce as much smoke as wood, so to compensate for the lack of flavorful smoke, people will often add a chunk or two of hardwood to the fuel bed at the beginning of the cook. The wood smolders and makes enough smoke to flavor the meat but is not the primary fuel source. But even without extra wood for smokiness, you can still get the lovely smoke ring in your meat. The products of combustion that create it are still present in the gasses escaping from the burnt charcoal even though there is less visible smoke.
Charcoal cookers are easier to run than stick burners and are great for intermediate level barbecue cooks. The fuel burns at a more constant rate, making temperature control easier, but still necessary. Monitoring the air temperature in your charcoal smoker is essential, and a tool like the dual-channel Smoke makes it easy to do.
The easiest of all smokers! Pellet smokers use pelletized sawdust for fuel, pulling them from a hopper via an auger into a heating pan where they are burned via a hot plate or some other method of combustion, creating smoke. A processor monitors the smoker temperature, adding more pellets for burning when the temp drops too far. The advantage of this smoker is its extreme ease, being as easy to use as an oven. They are not, however, perfect. The internal thermometers on many pellet smokers are often inaccurate, sometimes by as much as 50°F (28°C). You should test your pellet smoker’s temperature accuracy just like you should check your oven’s accuracy. (A ChefAlarm® can help with that!)
Also, some BBQ lovers say that the smoke flavor imparted by a pellet smoker is not as strong or good as that obtained by use of, say, a stick burner. That may be a matter of taste, and I can vouch for many delicious meals that have come off of our pellet smoker. Ultimately, if you’re new to BBQ and want to focus on the meat rather than the fire, a pellet smoker is a great choice.
If you want to perfect the traditional art of American barbecue you need to be aware that it is a highly temperature sensitive process. Yes, it originated in a pre-technological world, but it can be perfected with our modern understanding of science and technology. Understanding the processes of collagen dissolution and the stall gives you the knowledge-power you need to make choices about your cook and having a high-quality, accurate thermometer like the Smoke will help you to keep everything on track, from the kind of smoke you’re making to the pull temperature of your meat, no matter what you’re using for fuel. Dust of the smoker, lube up the hinges and check your thermometer batteries…BBQ season is back in session!
Check out Part 2 of BBQ 101.
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