I know, I know: usually I’m telling you to eat less meat and more produce. But summer barbecue is too much fun — and too delicious — to give up entirely. My attitude: eat less meat, but make sure it’s really good. And don’t let it go to waste: use or freeze leftovers right away.
My last post looked at the basic equipment you need to make true barbecue. (Starting with a smoker and a good meat thermometer.) But gear is only half the story.
Today, we talk about meat. Once again, our resident expert is our friend Craig, who knows from barbecue. And wine. And Postgres. You can follow him on Twitter @craigkerstiens or at craigkerstiens.com.
What kind of meat should I get? How much?
BBQ works best with big hunks of meat, so invite a lot of friends over. You don’t want any of that deliciousness to go to waste. (Food waste fact: if you’re worried about the amount of water it takes to grow almonds, consider that it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, and almost 600 gallons for a pound of pork.)
Craig suggests: “Buy a whole pork shoulder — maybe 15, 20 pounds — and three racks of ribs, say 10 pounds. The shoulder is actually two sections: the butt (or Boston butt) and the picnic shoulder. Pork butt makes the best pulled pork — it’s got more fat, more marbling. A lot of places won’t have a whole pork shoulder. Instead, they’ll try to sell you a little 3 pound roast. Don’t waste your time.
“You’ll have leftovers — that’s half the point of barbecuing. Once it’s cooked, pulled pork keeps in the fridge for days*. You can freeze it, reheat it in the microwave, and it’s fine. It makes great sandwiches, but go further… try pulled pork Benedict, pulled pork omelets. I want to try making crab cakes topped with pulled pork.”
*Note: Craig claims he keeps pulled pork in the fridge for a week or two. I’m a little more safety-conscious, and would recommend using or freezing cooked meat within four days.
“Sure, you can barbecue a single rack of ribs. But look: you’re spending all day on this. You’re burning through a whole bag of charcoal. Make at least ten pounds of meat. If you want to do something small, do ten pounds of ribs. Or get a pork butt, cook half, and freeze the other half for next time.”
Thirty or forty pounds is a lot of meat to buy. Fortunately, BBQ is made with the cheaper cuts of meat. In fact, lean, tender premium cuts are the worst for barbecue: the long, slow cooking will just make them tough and dry. It’s the less expensive cuts whose fat and tough connective tissue is the key to the fork-tender, succulent texture of good barbecue.
This is another reason to love techniques like barbecue: because they let you take advantage of the less-expensive cuts, you can buy better-quality meat without blowing your budget. I know that pastured, humanely raised meat is more expensive than the factory farm stuff, but I’ve read a lot about how factory farmed meat is raised and slaughtered, and how much crap (literal and figurative) makes it into the meat that we buy, and let me tell you, the ick factor alone is enough to justify the price of the good stuff.
Forget brining, flavor injectors, or basting with BBQ sauce every twenty minutes (and letting out all the heat each time). It’s all about the dry rub: a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar, and spices. Everyone has their own dry rub recipe: Craig’s is at the bottom of this post.
Start early. Really early. Ideally, a few days before your barbecue. Give each piece of meat a thick coating of the spice mixture, rubbing it into the surface of the meat and being sure to work it into all the nooks and crannies. Cover it with plastic and let it sit in the fridge overnight (or up to 3 days; Craig aims for 24-48 hours).
Never rinse or wipe off the rub — the sugars and salts are key to forming barbecued meat’s classic spicy-sweet glazed crust, or “bark.” With a good thick rub, your might find you don’t even need barbecue sauce. (But I won’t judge if you decide to add some anyway.)
Low, slow heat
Despite the connotations of fire and scorching spice, barbecue is a surprisingly gentle method of cooking. The ideal heat is low: 160° or lower. It’s indirect: no flames licking the meat. The atmosphere should have some moisture — you’re not steaming the meat, but a dish of water in the smoker will help keep the meat from drying out too much. And you’ll need to start first thing in the morning, because the cooking process is slooooow.
Why? Muscles are made up of bundles of long individual muscle fibers, tightly wrapped and bound together by a network of tough collagen fibers. When heated to around 160°F and held at that temperature long enough, the collagen fibers gelatinize, dissolving into a rich, slippery liquid and letting the muscle fibers slide apart, creating the fork-tender, falling-apart texture of pulled pork and barbecue brisket.
But as the meat heats up, actin proteins in the muscle cells denature, changing shape and squeezing moisture out of the cells. The goal is to balance the two, gelatinizing the collagen without allowing the meat to dry out completely. To do this, you need to raise the temperature slowly and gently, so that the entire piece reaches the target temperature — and then stays there for a few hours — without getting any hotter.
If you’re really into cooking science, you can research the time/temperature curves for denaturation of myosin and actin and gelatinization of collagen, then carefully control the ambient temperature of your smoker to perfectly balance the different processes.
Or you can do what Craig does: keep the smoker temperature around 160°F (give or take) for six to eight hours, or until the center of the meat hits 160°F (use a probe thermometer for accuracy). You don’t need to let it rest; just give it a few minutes to cool down so your guests don’t burn their fingers when they pull it apart. Trust me: anyone who’s lucky enough to be there when the meat comes out of the smoker will agree that Craig’s method is damn well good enough.
- ¼ cup cayenne pepper (dried, ground)
- ¼ cup salt
- ¼ cup pepper (ground, black)
- ¼ cup paprika (dried, ground)
- ¼ cup chili powder (dried, ground)
- ½ cup brown sugar
- Combine all ingredients and mix well. (Can be made in advance and stored in a sealed container until needed.)
- Rub spice mix generously into all surfaces of uncooked meat. Cover and let rest, refrigerated, for 8-24 hours.