BBQ 101: An Introduction to Smoked Meat, part 3 of 3
Having covered smoker types, fuel types, meats, and the essence of what BBQ is, we are left with a few remaining questions. In Part 3 of our BBQ 101 series, we’ll address bark, rubs, sauces, competitions, and a few other odds and ends that have come up in some comments. To begin with, we’ll cover the one-two- punch of rubs and bark.
BBQ BARK, BBQ RUBS
While temperature control is the key to perfect BBQ doneness, the key to delicious flavor often lies in the bark. Bark is the tasty, savory-spicy crust on the exterior of barbecue-cooked meats and is made by the interaction of proteins, heat, and rubs. For this reason, rubs are an essential part of barbecue cookery. They season the meat, form the bark, and provide another opportunity for pitmasters to differentiate themselves from each other—competition teams often keep their rub formulations secret, and it’s understandable that they do! Bark quality can make or break a barbecue, and having the best bark can really set your ribs (or butt, or brisket…) apart. Let’s take a look at bark and rubs.
The first several times I ever applied rub to a meat’s surface, I wondered to myself how on earth it was going to stick. Wouldn’t it slide off as the juices run out of the meat? It barely seemed stuck on at all. I didn’t understand then how bark forms or what it is.
Bark forms when the juices from the meat are drawn out by osmosis into the salty/sugary rub. The uncooked juices that then lie on the surface of the meat mingle with the rub and cook in place, forming a solid protein network infused with spices, sugars, and salt. If allowed to set properly, this protein “glue” holds the spices in place throughout the cook, while a bark that hasn’t solidified will melt away once you wrap the meat for the stall.
So how can you know if the bark is formed? Scratch it! Many ‘Q pros simply check the bark by scratching it with a fingernail. If it adheres to the meat, it’s safe to wrap. If it comes off easily and leaves a bare spot behind, it needs to cook longer before crutching. It’s a simple test for readiness that will result in excellent bark.
The bark is made of the rub and protein, but the rub itself can be made of many things. A rub usually has an element of saltiness, sweetness, spice, and heat, but the basic proportions for a rub, according to Aaron Franklin, start with equal parts kosher salt and 16-mesh black pepper:
Every rub I make starts with a base of salt and pepper. Then I add other spices to complement the meat that I am cooking. The goal of any rub is to complement a nice piece of meat, not to obscure a crappy piece of meat. All spices should react well with one another. No one spice should stand out or be too recognizable, so add just enough to taste. It would be a shame to buy a nice piece of meat, spend a ton of time prepping and cooking it, and have it taste like an overzealous mixture of flavors. Restraint is the name of the game when using seasonings other than just salt and pepper.”
—Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue
When designing your own rub, you can experiment with using different amounts of paprika, chili powder, granulated (not powdered) onion and/or garlic, or sugar (Franklin recommends against sugar for long cooks as he doesn’t like the finished flavor). For an easy rub, substitute a portion of seasoning salt for your kosher salt in the salt/pepper mix and call it a day, but really the sky is the limit for your creativity. Other coarse or finely ground spices can be great additions if used judiciously. Crushed mustard seeds, ground cumin, powdered bay leaf…go for it. Be creative but cautious and you’ll come up with an amazing secret rub recipe of your own.
There are two more points regarding rubs that we should address before we move on. One is rub binders, and the other is wet rubs. Though the proteins will glue the rub to the meat, sometimes you want even more rub to stick from the get-go. In that case, you can use something to act as an adhesive, and the best thing for that is mustard. Pale yellow or dijon mustards have great binding properties already, and they taste great with pretty much every meat. They bring no extra sugar to the party and the vinegar they contain is essential for most barbecue anyhow. If you don’t much like the flavor of mustard (especially the hot stuff), don’t worry about that. The sharp, nose-burning mustardy taste actually breaks down in the heat, leaving only a faint mustard ghost in the flavor profile. The bark you get from using mustard as a binder for your dry rubs is fantastic and I highly recommend trying it out. Just slather all sides of the meat with mustard before applying your rub.
And that leaves us with wet rubs. Wet rubs are any rub that is made into a paste or liquid for application. They can be syrup, oil, or vinegar-based and often include fresh ingredients like fresh herbs or minced garlic. While they are great for relatively shorter cooks like chicken or smoked beef tenderloin, they usually aren’t great for long cooks like brisket, butt, or even ribs. The herbs and garlic can dry out and burn and the sugars can caramelize and burn. In general, use wet rubs for faster cooks and dry rubs for slower cooks. If you want a wet-rub type element for your long cook, you should look to sauces.
Most Americans seem to think that if something is slathered in sticky-sweet barbecues sauce, then it’s “barbecue.” Of course, the truth couldn’t be more different. Lots of kinds of BBQ don’t even have any sauce at all, and it sure isn’t the saucing that makes something BBQ. That being said, there is a long and storied tradition of BBQ sauces in American barbecue. But what they are, how they’re used, and when to apply them differs from region to region and from meat to meat. Let’s take a look.
BBQ SAUCE BASICS
BBQ sauce is a highly-regionalized food, and people have devoted serious efforts to mapping the styles and the regions of their use. We won’t be covering it in too much depth here (this is a 101, after all, not a grad-level post), but just as a sampling we can say that in North Carolina, no sweet-tomatoey sauces are permitted anywhere near the pulled pork because a cayenne-spiked vinegar is king. Large swaths of South Carolina are devoted to a mustardy barbecue sauce, while what the average eater knows as BBQ sauce stems from Kansas City. Alabama uses a mayo-based white sauce for chicken and pork. Different sauces are used differently. In general, they are added late in a cook or even after the meat is removed from the heat but which meats get which ones and how they work together is worth exploring.
KC/MEMPHIS BARBECUE SAUCE
This is the “standard” bbq sauce in America, and it originated in Kansas City. If you want to make your own, start with ketchup, add some brown sugar, maybe some liquid smoke, some black pepper and a good hit of vinegar and boil them together until they reduce to the appropriate thickness. Proportions are a matter of taste! For Memphis style, use molasses instead of brown sugar and up the vinegar quotient. Play with it. Add some peach jam instead of some of the sugar. Try different kinds of vinegar. Toss a little curry powder in there. It’s your sauce, so make it how you want. If you make it good enough, maybe you can spark a new regional style of your own!
Whether you make your own or buy a KC style barbecue sauce, using it is a bit of a balancing act. It is usually added in the last half-hour or so of a cook, just enough time for it to set in place and dry out a little bit, becoming sticky without letting the sugars in the sauce burn. Sticky sauces are most often used on chicken and ribs, and I don’t know of anyone that sauces whole brisket or pork butt. The sticky sauces are almost as much for the fingers as they are for the mouth, so if you’re not eating the meat with your hands, sticky sauces just aren’t that important.
Some people consider it a travesty to use barbecue sauce like this on brisket, and there’s a strong case to be made there! Properly cooked brisket needs no sauce, even in sandwich form. But if you like it, use it.
ALABAMA WHITE BARBECUE SAUCE
Alabama white sauce is a combination of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, sugar, and pepper. Some people add a little horseradish to it, and that’s a lot of fun. Cayenne is eschewed because it would ruin the color, but a light-pink sauce with cayenne sure would be tasty!
White sauce is added after a cook, painted on right before eating because the heat of the smoker would cause it to melt off. White sauce is used mostly for meats eaten by hand. The melty-gooey nature of it is fun and adds to the eating experience.
SOUTH CAROLINA MUSTARD SAUCE
South Carolina mustard sauce is much like Alabama white sauce, but replace yellow mustard for the mayo: yellow mustard, vinegar, pepper, a little sugar, and spices. It was almost certainly developed by the descendants of German immigrants that settled the area. Various butcher shops and restaurants with German names contributed to the popularity of the style, and it makes sense that the mustard-loving Germans developed a sauce to match the new American cuisine.
Mustard sauces can be slathered onto ribs while they’re still cooking, and could even be rubbed onto a pork butt while still whole, but in general it is used for dousing meat that has already been cooked, especially pulled pork. After all, pork and mustard are best friends.
CAROLINA VINEGAR SAUCE
Vinegary sauces become hard to talk about because of how they border on spritzes and mops, but we can certainly address them on their own as a sauce. Throughout most of the Eastern Carolinas, a healthy dose of firey vinegar sauce is showered onto pulled pork to help cut through the fatty richness of the meat. The sauce is simple: Vinegar (apple cider vinegar if you like), cayenne, black pepper, and some salt—traditionally, it contains no sugar. You can make up a quart of it and keep it practically forever, bringing it to cookouts and picnics—set unassumingly on the table for the enjoyment and appreciation of those that know what’s what. Oh, and use this on your fries, as well.
MOPPING AND SPRITZING BARBECUE
For flavor-addition during the cook, you can spritz or mop your meat. Spritzes and mops are usually made of spiced vinegar, juices, and/or booze. In fact, the NC vinegar sauce makes an excellent mop! Some people spritz with apple juice while some mop with vinegar. Bourbon is a popular addition in both cases.
By spritzing or mopping your meat every few hours, you build up a subtle layer of flavor that cooks into the bark. Now, the amount of flavor that gets into the meat from a spritz or a mop is not extreme. But flavor is not the primary reason for using them. The real reason to mop and spritz is to wet the meat:
Mops and sprays…add moisture to the exterior of the meat during cooking. This is essential when cooking meats like ribs, pork shoulders, or beef brisket for a long time… After the meat starts to develop a nice bark or sear is the time to give it a quick spray or mop. I then allow the meat to cook, spraying occasionally. Don’t be afraid to get creative by making your own mops and spritzes.”
—Tuffy Stone, Cool Smoke
As soon as your bark is formed (remember the scratch test), you can start spritzing or mopping. But know that the more you mop or spray, the longer the cook will take. You’ll be adding cool liquid to the surface of the meat that will cook off, causing evaporative cooling. Still, the results can be far better if you spray or mop your meat a little. It’s up to you to decide where the balance needs to lie in your cook.
A FEW NOTES ON OTHER BBQ MEATS
In Part 2 we discussed the main meats and cuts used in barbecue. Of course, that wasn’t a complete list and readers have asked about other meats for slow smoking, so here are some other things you can try cooking in your smoker.
Lamb racks or lamb chops are amazing when grilled, but that’s not BBQ. If you want to get the earthy, gamier flavor of lamb in your BBQ, look to almost any other cut! Lamb shoulder is amazing when smoked like pork shoulder, shredding in the same way for pulled lamb. It is smaller than a pork butt, which is nice for a smaller gathering, and the stronger flavor of the lamb lets you be more aggressive with the seasoning. Use a probe thermometer like the Smoke™ to cook it to 203°F (95°C) while keeping the air temp at around 250°F (121°C).
Lamb breast is also a great cut for the barbecue. It consists of some of the ribs and some of the belly. It is very fatty and filled with connective tissue, which means it’s delicious cooked low and slow to render everything down. Not readily available at your neighborhood grocer, this is a cut that you might find at a farmers’ market or a high-quality butcher. Cook it the way you would pork ribs and it should come out wonderfully well.
Goat is a popular BBQ meat in Mexico—where it is cooked in a pit in the ground, wrapped in leaves—and in southern Texas, where the cuisine is heavily influenced by Mexican food culture. Goat is often cooked whole, but the tougher meat of goat will do well to be parted out. Shoulder, leg, ribs, all are delicious when slowly cooked until tender. And if lamb allows you to be more aggressive with the spices, goat pretty much lets you go wild. Mexican or Middle-Eastern markets are your best bet for trying goat BBQ and you’ll find it to be nicely priced in most places.
Yes, you can BBQ your Thanksgiving turkey. Smoked turkey is delicious and not much harder to cook than a regular roasted turkey. But let me get this out of the way first: it is of the utmost importance when smoking a turkey that you make sure your turkey is properly and fully thawed. (Read about that in our comprehensive turkey post.) An icy-breast turkey will not cook safely, so use your Thermapen® Mk4 to be sure the deepest part of the breast is thawed to at least 32°F (0°C) before putting it in the smoker.
You can smoke your turkey whole or spatchcock it for a faster cook, but either way, be sure that you’re tracking the temperature in both the breast and the thigh. Breast meat is done at about 157°F (69°C), while thigh meat, with its greater collagen content, is best when cooked to at least 175°F (79°C). A two-channel thermometer like the Smoke really shines here. Or use the 4-channel Signals™ so you can also monitor your pit temperature.
I don’t personally like BBQ rub on my turkey because it clashes with the flavors of many classic Thanksgiving dishes, but if you want to rub your bird with your favorite mixture, you can. Even better, make a compound butter with it and stuff it under the skin while your bird smokes.
And speaking of skin, the low-slow cooking of a smoker doesn’t do a great job of crisping your turkey’s skin. A short, quick trip to a hot, hot oven after smoking can help it to crisp up and become delicious/crunchy.
A NOTE ON COMPETITION BBQ
Some people who begin to succeed at and then to excel at home-barbecue are tempted of themselves or encouraged by others to try jumping into a BBQ competition, and if you feel that’s the path for you then go for it! Just know that cooking for competitions is nothing like cooking for guests at home. Competitions are much more about timing and fitting your food into a pre-determined rubric of qualities. For example, brisket slices must bend but not break, winning BBQ must be 100% enjoyable in the first bite, and ribs must yield to the bite but not pull from the bone. Presentation is a critical part of competition BBQ—how things fit in the box and how it is garnished can all make a difference in the final analysis of the judges. It is neither better nor worse than what you strive for at home or hope to get at your favorite BBQ restaurant. It’s just a different way of doing things that is rigorous and exacting.
If you do decide to compete, remember that BBQ is unpredictable, so cook more than you will need to turn in. Make more chicken than needed, do up an extra rack of ribs. Then pick the best ones to turn in. And get enough thermometers to watch everything. If you go to a major BBQ competition, you’ll see stacks and stacks of DOT® thermometers at most of the tents. You can’t trust that one rack of ribs will cook up like another, so temp them both. Two of the major barbecue associations that regulate BBQ competitions are KCBS (Kansas City Barbeque Society) and MBN (Memphis Barbeque Network) and their websites will list the upcoming competitions in your area and how to get registered.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series on the basics of barbecue. As we have seen, there is no one way to barbecue. With a plethora of fuel, smoker, meat, rub, and sauce choices, there are thousands of combinations, methods, and ways to smoke meats. But there is one constant in any barbecue cook: temperature. No matter the eat, no matter the hardwood you choose to smoke with, you will always need to monitor the temperature. Tools like the DOT, the Thermapen Mk4, the Smoke, and the Signals give you the thermal knowledge you need to learn, improve, and perfect your BBQ cooking. This Memorial Day, as you start your summer cooking season, remember that in barbecue, temperature is everything.