Barbeque is one of America's great artforms. It depends on America's bountiful supply of meat and fuel. It depends on American's love of meat, our spirit of innovation. It depends on a tradition of cooking that is older than civilization. And it relies on a kind of improvisational skill that takes into account the mastery of the basics. Barbecue is a kind of culinary jazz. It is American cooking at its best.
Barbeque is a relatively low-temperature cooking method where smoke from the fire slowly penetrates the meat, flavoring it strongly.Smoke, heat, and sauce make all the difference in barbeque. Get the heat right and you will have cooked meat. Get two of the three right and you will have good cooked meat. Get all three perfect and you have ambrosia. Food that makes the angels sing. But it is not easy. Even some of the world's most famous barbeque restaurants will occasionally turn out meats that are just good.
Barbequeing is best suited for hunks of meat large enough to serve four or more people. Because of this, getting the smoke to penetrate the meat is a slow and painstaking process. In fact, it is frequently true that barbeque only nods in the direction of this tradition but makes up the difference with flavorful and innovative sauces. It is, therefore, either silly or naive to think of barbeque apart from sauces.
There are two sorts of sauces. One is called a 'mop.' The purpose if this sauce is to keep the surface of the meat from getting too dry. One could mop with water, but the flavor of the meat is enhanced if the mop material contains other ingredients. To keep food moist and juicy, the mop sause is applied periodically to the surface. How often depends on a number of factors , but mostly it depends on how hot the barbeque is.
There are lots of potential problems to barbeque are just a few of the most obvious and serious ones:
Since barbeque is made with a large chunk of meat, cooked at a relatively low temperature, the cooking time can be quite long. This means that if you underestimate cooking time by 20% you can be off by an hour, two hours, or more. It is not uncommon to bring a big hunk of barbequed meat to just short of perfect an hour or so before serving, and to let it rest, keeping the outside surface below boiling temperature.
It's clear that one of the reasons people who have mastered the art of barbeque are so proud of it, is that it is difficult to do perfectly. The good news is that with some good guidelines, good equipment, and a good recipe, one can make really good food for lots of people with not a lot of fuss.
Equipment is important. One can do barbeque on a gas grill and get reasonably good results, especially if the hunk of meat is very big and one has a good sauce to serve with it. More and more gas grills provide spaces for wood chips, so the wood smoke flavor that is unique to good barbeque is available to owners of gas grills. Furthermore, gas grills provide flames that are easily modulated - one can cook at a low and even temperature for a long time. Thus, a grill becomes a barbeque.
Charcoal grills can be used as barbeques, as well. They have the advantage that they are already built to accommodate solid fuel. But this comes at a cost. Solid fuel does not provide a steady temperature, and so the size of the hunk of meat is very directly controlled by how one is able to build, sustain, and modulate the fire.
Smokers are specifically designed to smoke meats. But many smokers are designed to do it with cold smoke rather than hot smoke. It's important to understand the difference.
Once one has a good barbeque, one needs tools. Long-handled tools are popular for grilling, but the intense heat of grilling is absent in most barbeque recipes, and almost any stainless steel tongs will work. And almost any good stainless steel spatula will work. A spatula with good riveted hardwood handle can save a few blisters. This particular model also features a bottle opener - an essential amenity for a grilling/barbeque tool.
I have yet to find a suitable 'mop.' A lot of cheap products with long handles use nylon bristles that essentially melt if they touch anything other than the food. This is not an acceptable solution. Nor are bristles very good at carrying sauces or mops. What is needed is a cotton barbeque mop on a long handle - one that is constructed along the same lines as the kitchen mop, only just a little bit smaller.
Barbeque is one of America's great culinary offerings. It exists at the juncture of fire and meat and this is precisely where human society formed. So it is an expression of our most fundamental human selves. Also it is delicious.
Eat well and prosper
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.