Barbecue and smoking are fairly straight forward, apply smoke and heat, get tasty cooked food. The real key is to use lower to middling temperature, roughly 180-300°F, in a smokey moist environment to slowly cook the food. We wish it were that simple however, there is a surprising amount of nuance and variety within the context of barbecue and smoking.
It may seem counterintuitive, but we think it is easier to have a brief section about what Barbecue and Smoking is NOT. There is nothing wrong with any of these cooking styles, they each have a distinct place in flavorful food preparation, they are just not barbecue or smoking.
Here’s what we mean by that.
BBQ & SMOKING MEAT VS…
Grilling and broiling
Typically, these are high heat endeavors with gas, charcoal, or wood, as the fuel to supply the flame. The food is placed directly into the flame, typically above the heat source, sometimes underneath. This is a searing process that can develop a crust on the exterior of the food. There are also electric broilers that can execute some of these functions.
This is what many folks making dinner out of doors refer to as ‘barbecuing’, and as a result the devices used are often called ‘Barbecues’. This is not the barbecue we know and want to explore. Grilling is simply applying an open flame heat source directly to your food in order to cook, making true barbecue is a much lengthier process.
It must be mentioned that a grill is also the name for a heated slab of metal (we prefer the name griddle), perfect for bacon, taters or sandwiches…and also not what we are focusing on here.
Also often called grill roasting when done out of doors, this is a process of applying indirect heat to the food usually in an enclosed chamber to facilitate cooking. You likely know of roasting from cooking in your oven. There are also many charcoal or wood devices for this, most typically the kettle style cooker you have probably seen or used at one point.
This process allows heat to be generated near the food and then circulate to create a cooking environment that is both smokey and hot. This will typically be used to create temperatures of over 300°F. The higher temp is what really makes it different from the smoking and barbecue process. That being said, the same devices can often be used to create the lower temperatures that are effective for smoking.
This is a classic cooking technique that does use much of the same temperature ranges as smoking. However, the food is kept in a wet environment. Generally, the meat is seared in oil then put in a closed environment and cooked in liquid, from wine to broth to just water. Braising also shares with barbecue and smoking in that it is a great way to get tasty tender meat out of utility cuts that start out tough and fibrous.
Yes, this is a smoking technique, pretty much as it sounds. Smoking food at lower temperatures. Historically, this is deep in the roots of smoked food cooking. Most commonly it was a preservative technique. Long slow cool smoking creates antibacterial properties on the exterior of the meat, and dries it to create a less hospitable environment for other contaminants.
This is achieved often by having the source of the smoke far enough away that when the smoke is channeled to the food is well under 150°F. Therein lies the problem. Food, meats in particular, are in the danger zone when they are held between 40-140°F. That is the temperate zone in which unpleasant bacteria and such thrive. This process requires extensive experience and very specific pre-smoking preparation techniques to be done safely. As a result, this is not a technique we will be exploring here.
HOW TO BARBECUE (BBQ)
The most basic process for successful barbecue is to season the meat and smoke it to the desired internal temperature. The target temperatures will range form a low of 160°F for fowl and any more delicate meat to 203°F for heavier cuts like pork shoulder and brisket. There are variations within this:
- Beef to doneness, Medium Rare for example, will range from 130°F and up. This is meat like prime rib, large cut sirloins and such.
- Lamb and pork muscle cuts, loins or legs for instance, can be taken to a desired doneness, along with salmon or seafood, targeting the 140°F range.
We highly recommend a probe thermometer in the thickest part of the meat you are cooking to monitor or check your progress.
By far the most prevalent dishes to barbecue through smoking are pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket. Historically these were actually considered garbage cuts, so they became the easiest protein for poorer folks to obtain. Also, easy to get, wood.
All of these are taken to the higher internal temperatures and cooked for longer periods of time.
What those three cuts have in common are lots of fibrous structure and collagens. These have to be broken down to get the tenderness that great barbecue is known for. 203°F is kind of the magic temperature for the shoulder and brisket. Achieving that internal temperature at the end of an extended cook time will get you an excellent Barbecue meal.
Ribs require a bit more of an awareness of their tenderness to establish timing. The thinness of this meat makes it a challenge to rely solely on the probe thermometers.
You will find that there are a handful of primary components that barbecue aficionados will use to evaluate the quality of the smoked meats. They are the Flavor, the Bark, The Ring, and the Chew.
This is the spice of life, literally…we’ll circle back to seasonings. Because, no surprise, it does depend on the innate flavor profile of the meat you start with. The better the grade the better the end result in general. If you are splurging on a Wagyu brisket, a Berkshire pork shoulder, or top end Baby Back ribs, you will notice superior flavor. That being said you do have the ability to influence the flavor through a few different means.
Pre-treatment; This is wet or dry brining. Brine, as the name implies, is predominantly salt. Dry brining allows the salt to initiate the procedure of tenderizing the meat through a variety of chemical processes. When done properly it will impart a degree of saltiness, but not overpowering. This step requires time for the salt to do its thing, your typical formula is ½ teaspoon kosher salt or ¼ teaspoon table ground salt per pound of meat. Wet brining is similar except the salt is mixed in fluid, usually water. You can add other fluids; citric, vinegar, wine, etc. All of these will also aid in the chemical tenderization process, again over time, often as much as 24 hours or more in advance of cooking.
Rubs; These are the flavorful coatings that go on closer to cook time. There are countless types of rubs, with some of the variety coming in the form of regional variations. Memphis is a balanced sweet to heat, Texas will hold more heat, Carolinas will incorporate mustard for an aromatic side, and Kansas City can favor richness in its rubs. These same profiles will occur in their respective sauces for barbecue. The only limit to the rubs, and the serving sauce, is your imagination. Taking advantage of flavors from your locale, or whatever is fresh, is one of the joys of experimenting with barbecue.
Wood; It’s definitely a factor, what type of wood you use to generate the smoke. So much so that there is a huge amount pf information written about the topic, including those who say that it actually does not matter that much! Your basic rule of thumb is this. Fruit woods lean to milder and slightly sweeter flavors. Hardwoods can lend sweetness but are stronger in general with more distinctive flavors, say between oak and hickory. Evergreen woods are usually too oily for smoking, imparting chemical or turpentine flavors. Mesquite and such is very strong, and can easily be overpowering for smoking, although charcoal from mesquite is one of the best for high temp grilling.
There are some people who look at an extremely dark, gnarly, well smoked pork shoulder and they cringe. Ignore them. It is amazing how dusky a perfectly smoked brisket or pork shoulder can look. That, my friends, is The Bark. The crusty exterior formed over time from the smoke, the seasonings, the meat juices and just being cooked. As you continue your journey into the world of barbecue and smoked meats you will come to appreciate the bark and just how much it adds to barbecue.
Like everything it can be overdone and evolve into an actual crust that is dry and crackled. This is a result of either cooking too long or letting the temperature get too high in your smoker. As you will learn, there will be some variance in the smoker’s temperature over the course of a particular cook, especially when you are working in the double-digit hours for time cooked. Sustained periods of high temp are not good for your end product and make the bark a negative instead of a positive.
The Smoke Ring
Just inside the bark, you will find a thin layer of pink meat that is referred to as the ring or the smoke ring. While it technically is not caused by the smoke, it is a favorable by-product of the smoking process. Combusting wood releases traces of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) along with other gasses and particulates. Without going too deep in the weeds of organic chemistry, it interacts with the myoglobins in the meat.
A quick aside, when you cut a rare steak the ‘juice’ you get is not blood, it is myoglobins, which are red, mixed with water from the tissue cells. At 165°F the myoglobins shift to brownish gray, think the interior of a well-done steak for color. The NO2 binds with the myoglobin preventing it from turning gray, hence the pink ring that is so beloved in smoked meats. Since the NO2 can’t really penetrate more than 1/8-1/4 inch the meat appears to be wrapped in a pinkish ‘ring’. This shows that the temperature was low and slow enough for the NO2 to interact with the myoglobin before the temperature made it change color.
Texture. This certainly allows some variations based on your personal preference. Ribs are a great example of this. Some people like their ribs to fall off the bone. Some folks like to have to chew them a bit more. But nobody likes to have to gnaw them off the bone at the risk of loosening your teeth in the process.
The goal is a nice ‘Chew’ that is relatively easy to eat. This allows the diner to enjoy all the flavor components that have been brought to play in well-crafted Barbecue. Tender enough to be eaten safely and easily, and with the amount of resistance that you personally enjoy, that is the Chew. A slow ride to 203°F for your brisket or pork shoulder will achieve that. With slightly more diligence, and frankly experience, your ribs will get there too. Along with everything else you smoke along the way.
What we need to accomplish in smoking and barbecuing is achieving a safe, relatively consistent temperature environment filled with the proper type of smoke. What equipment you use will dictate exactly how you create the proper cooking environment. Shy of building your own smokehouse, you need to know the choices out there.
We have some great resources to help you purchase the best equipment to meet your needs here. But, let’s take a quick look at the types of smokers out there and cover some of the pros and cons. Remember, our goal is consistent heat and a moist smokey chamber to cook the food. Here are some of the ways to get there.
Pro Tip; the goal is not a billowing cloud of smoke that will cause the neighbors to call 9-1-1. The perfect smoke is light in color and wispy with a bluish hue to it. This carries the sweeter, prettier flavors of the wood without the acrid oils that make the smoke solid white.
These are made from metal barrels, originally a ‘drum’ container used for shipping liquids from A to B, cleaned out and refitted. Now you can get purpose-built drums, with a few size choices, to use for smoking. These are the simplest to operate on one level. A controlled heat source at the bottom, rods and metal hooks to suspend the meat in the chamber and you are on the way.
There is a learning curve to getting consistent temperatures, and these tend to run to the higher end of the temp spectrum. But maintaining 225 for hours on end will properly cook just about any barbecue you feel like crafting.
Cabinet style propane or electric smokers
Pretty much as the name implies, these look like an insulated smallish metal cabinet with a thermometer on the front or top, and often a window to view inside. For the smoke these use wood in chunks or chips or even pellets, chunk or briquet charcoal, or even pressed wooden biscuits. This type of smoker offers slightly more control than drum smokers.
The wood is put in contact with the heat source, propane flame or electric element, lit and allowed to smolder in a controlled fashion. These units will often have thermostats that monitor the cabinet temperature and apply heat accordingly. Often their wood capacity is small, so they will require replenishment over the course of long smokes.
Somewhat newer to the industry, pellet stoves offer a good set and forget option. With large pellet reservoirs and thermostatically controlled environments, you can fire up and walk away from an 18-hour smoke with a high degree of confidence that it will be well executed. There is also a good assortment of wood varieties in pellet form for you to consider.
One tradeoff is that pellet smokers will lean toward milder smoke flavors. Not the worst thing, but certainly something to be aware of. Along the same vein though, the thermostats will often allow you to cook at higher temps as well. So, a pellet stove can double as an outdoor oven that imparts some smoke flavor, perfect for roasting chicken, or potatoes, or virtually anything.
The trusty kettle cooker
We don’t want to forget about our little friend. You can outfit your cooker to create some delicious barbecue using the offset technique. There are even devices available to help you do a better job with the process.
In short, the meat goes on one side and the fuel goes on the other for an indirect heat set up. There is also the snake technique, where coals and chips are layered in a ring around the kettle with the food placed in the center. You can use just briquets, briquets with wood in them, or just toss some wood chips or pellets on top of you coals. Like a cabinet you may need to refuel over the course of a long smoke, but you can create some good barbecue with this piece of equipment, that you may already own.
Like so much of cooking, learning to make great Barbecue is a journey. There are many, many paths to get good results. We have taken a broad brush to the craft of tasty smoked meats. Hopefully this will give you some insight into the possibilities and some of the pitfalls to avoid. Now it is time to get your hands on, smoke flowing, juices running, and create your own flavors in this thing we call Barbecue.