Best BBQ Tips from Pitmasters

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We’ve rounded up some expert advice on key topics that has been dealt with by every aficionado of this cooking we call barbecue. We’ll look at what they have to say and dig deeper as to the why behind each piece of advice, and how it will; benefit you in your BBQ cooking journey. We’ll start with the seasoning on the meat, the wood to smoke it, saucy or not, the stall, and when it’s time to put a fork in it.

Seasoning The Meats

Man Seasoning the brisket

Now it seems that Harry recommends using very simple ingredients to make your own rub. This includes whole black pepper, kosher salt, and celery seed. Harry Soo aka Slap Yo’ Daddy BBQ

We love this advice. His simple rub is 2-3 parts black pepper, 1-2 parts kosher salt and 1 part celery seed. This is the kind of rub that will let the flavors of the meat shine through. With your heftier cuts of meat, we’re talking about brisket, pork shoulder and such, the seasoning is a coating on the outside. These cuts are too thick to have the seasoning permeate to the inner parts. They do build the bark, and certainly have an impact on the flavor profile of the whole dish when served. Most importantly though, a simple rub will not let the flavor of the meat and the smoke shine through, it will noticeably enhance those flavor profiles. This is true of bone in and skin on chicken or turkey pieces.

The biggest exceptions to this rule however are ribs. The thin nature of ribs lends themselves to showing off a rub as a three-part taste that encompasses the meat, the smoke, and the rub. Pork is also very friendly with sugar as a seasoning component. Obviously, this is used sparingly, we’re making savory food not candy.  But there is a place for some sugars in the seasoning process.

Choosing Your Wood

Woods For BBQ

“What makes Central Texas barbecue is post oak—that’s our regional white oak. Barbecue’s just kind of gotten homogenized in a lot of ways, so I encourage people for whatever region you live in, use the local wood, if it’s hickory or it’s mesquite or it’s pecan or if you have red oak or almond. But that’s kind of what makes a regional specialty.” Aaron Franklin

Interestingly, wood that is being shipped across state lines needs to be kiln dried to kill any bugs that may be making the wood their home. Getting wood this dry makes it light quickly, and it makes it burn really quickly. Our goal with making BBQ, and the smoking process, is low and slow cooking, the exact opposite. Having your wood combust too easily makes that more of a challenge. You will also, literally, burn through more fuel with kiln dried woods. Moisture content in wood is a thing, and somewhat more is good. Seasoned wood will drop down to about 30% moisture content, sometimes slightly lower. Kiln dried wood will get below 20%. In addition to what we mentioned above, this impacts your smoking process. The science involves the flavor of the smoke binding with water vapor, landing on the meat in the smoker, and being left behind when the water evaporates. This is why most smokers have a water pan or such in their assembly. So, wood that is not completely dried out helps.

There are all kinds of woods to be found in most every region. Or, at least close enough that you can get it without the drying process. In general, fruit woods will impart somewhat sweeter overtones. Hardwoods will tend to impart bolder flavors. Be cautious with mesquite, it can easily overpower foods with a flavor leaning towards creosote. Learn what you have to choose form locally and nearby, play with that, and you are on the way top making your own distinctively flavored BBQ.

Getting Past The Stall

Meat wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil

After the internal temperature of your brisket reaches 155-165 degrees Fahrenheit it needs to be wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil.  – Doug Scheiding from Rogue BBQ Cookers

The stall. Most of us know of it, but to be certain, here is a basic description. As you cook meats, part of the process is bringing the moisture out of the meat. This shows itself as condensation on the surfaces. Much like the sweat we produce, this can have a slight cooling effect. It reaches a tipping point, where the moisture on the surface evaporation is cooling quickly enough that the heated air can no longer increase the temperature of the food. Welcome to the stall. You can patiently wait and the meat will overcome the balance, usually an hour or so, and the cooking process will resume.

Choosing 155-165 degrees is no accident. That is the most common temperature range to experience the stall. Wrapping in foil keeps the heat more internal to the meat and keeps the cooking process. The target for almost all barbecue is meat with an internal temperature of about 205 degrees. Yes, you want to hit that target slowly, but the stall can make it too slow, possibly diminishing the quality of your end result.  As an added bonus, when you use a foil wrap you will collect some of the juices that can be used as a jus or sauce with the meal.

Doneness Goals

Checking Doneness

“Always cook by doneness of the meat and not length of time on the grill” – Myron Mixon

We could summarize this in three words: use a thermometer! Mr. Mixon has been doing this long enough he can probably tell by feel, by time, by look, or by just about any metric you want to pick. But he knows the absolute best way to determine doneness is using a thermometer. Of course, the conversation doesn’t end there or that easily. After all, what is the right internal temperature? For brisket, pork shoulder, and most cuts the sweet spot is 203 degrees. Some will say pull it at 195 and the carry over will take it to 200 or just above. A valid point most of the time, but with the density and size of these cuts, we recommend getting all the way there.

This is also a great way to sharpen skills. When it reaches temperature put a fork in it and twist. You should only get mild resistance, the fork should turn easily. Some like to stick it with a skewer, saying that the texture feels like poking peanut butter. Matching your metric to the thermometer will help in the event that your have a failure of your thermometer.

We are also big fans of using multiple points of measurement. The idea is that you find the deepest thickest point to insert your piercing thermometer. Yes, do that. But it can be hard to find, and we do like easy. You can get a multiple lead thermometer system for pretty low prices so you can measure a variety of points, or even a variety of meats. You can even get Bluetooth models that will allow you to monitor it from anywhere. The best aspect of both of these is that you do not have to open the smoker to check, so you are helping maintain that constant cooking temperature.

Last notes on temperature. Chicken, turkey and most fowl are considered done at 165 degrees. If you want to shred them you can run that a little higher, pushing 180, the risk being drying out the meat. If you are using your smoker fior prime rib or such (not BBQ but dang tasty!) your temperatures will be based on how you like the meat done. Typically, 130 Rare, 135 Medium Rare, 140 Medium and so on.

Barbecue Sauce

Barbecue Sauce in Bowl

“Some backyard cooks think that sauce is what makes barbecue, a fallacy encouraged by the makers of sauce…it’s how you cook it, not what you put on it, that makes good barbecue” Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed

Don’t misunderstand, we love us some barbecue sauce. However, anytime we have the barbecued food in front of us, the firs taste will be plain. The food has to stand on its own or all the barbecue sauce does is mask some flavor you want to hide. It is easily possible to consume massive amounts of barbecue and never add a drop of sauce. It is equally possible to find the right combination of flavors, between sauce and meat, that is even better with the sauce. The thing to keep in mind is that the barbecue sauce is there to enhance the flavors.

That starts us on the road of wet barbecue versus dry barbecue. For most authentic barbecue, dry is the style that you will see. This is also true in the competitive arena of barbecue. We are using dry as in the absence of barbecue sauce. Mop sauces are not the same, often water and vinegar mixes with juice added. These are used regularly commercially and competitively. This harkens back to the idea that smoke flavors bind with moisture to better adhere to the food surfaces and helps develop a better bark.

As a backyard barbecue aficionado, you do not have to follow all the same rules. Some exceptions are ribs. A finishing step with your barbecue sauce of choice can give you a nice glazed surface to enjoy. The sugars in the sauce caramelize, same as if you finished chicken pieces with the sauce. So, while there is a place for sauce in the cooking process, it is usually not with the low and slow larger piece cooking common in barbecue.

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