|Sausage, Beef, and Pork Ribs from Black's Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas|
There are some people who think that to cook good barbecue they need fancy gadgets, elaborate rubs with 15 to 30 ingredients in each, exotic woods to burn in their smokers, and laborious preparation routines. Some believe that the only way to cook good barbecue is to cook it at extreme low temperatures for long periods of time. I know of several barbecue cooks that are literally horrified when they hear of someone cooking barbecue at temperatures above 225 degrees F. Others think that the perfect barbecue flavor is found in a bottle of barbecue sauce. And there are those who go to the extreme like the fellow that says his barbecue secret is only using wood from a tree that was struck by lightning. And, of course, the 30 or so ingredients in the rub are secret, the brand of barbecue sauce they use is secret, and the tedious preparation routine is secret.
In this little blog post, I am going to reveal the first and foremost important secret to cooking exceptional barbecue. In fact, this secret is so top secret among the great barbecue cooks that few dare speak of it except Edgar Black, Jr. The most important, supreme, over arching, first and foremost secret to cooking delicious barbecue is don't mess it up.
Good barbecue is less about recipes than it is about cooking technique. For example, if you had the exact same brushes, canvas, paints, and subject that Leonardo da Vinci used to paint the Mona Lisa, could you do it? Regardless of how great a painter you are, it's doubtful. The magic of the Mona Lisa as a painting doesn't lie in the paints or the canvas or the brushes. It lies in the technique and ability of the artist. So it is when cooking barbecue. It's not enough to know a good recipe. You must practice and perfect your technique.
Remember, it's not the seasonings on the meat, it's the meat that makes barbecue delicious. This is the cardinal rule. It is the immutable fact of the physics of gastronomy. It is the cornerstone of every great barbecue cook in the world today. If the barbecued meat isn't well prepared there is no sauce or seasoning or tree that fell victim to a lightning strike in the world that can make it truly delicious.
The truth is, before we even think about getting into the details of the Maillard reaction, mouth feel, aroma, the "X" factor, piquancy, seasonality, or flavor affinities you have to learn to properly cook using your grill or smoker. To cook delicious barbecue means that you must learn to do it in a way that preserves and enhances everything in the meat that makes it delicious. That means moisture content, tenderness, fat, and flavor. That means that before you start making or buying rubs, sauces, or looking for a "secret" recipe, you need to learn to select, trim, and cook meat in your barbecue cooker in a way that doesn't mess it up.
For example, if you get a fresh, well marbled, quality beef brisket everything you need to make delicious barbecued brisket is already in the meat. You can inject it with liquid but it won't add moisture to the meat after it's cooked. You can marinade it in acids or enzymes (like vinegar or papain) but it won't make it tender. It may make it mushy but not tender. You can put seasonings on it but that won't make it taste more like beef. No, everything that the meat will ever be is already in it. Now, it's your job as the barbecue cook to preserve and enhance all of that beefy goodness throughout the cooking process. If you don't do that, you will not have exceptionally good barbecue.
So, here is what you need to do to progress further on your barbecue cooking journey:
1.) Learn to control and maintain temperature in your barbecue cooker. Whether you are using a Weber kettle or a Jambo pit, learn to use it. A constant temperature in your cooker is vital to preserving the desirable flavor qualities in meat while it's being barbecued.
2.) Learn to keep the fire burning clean. What I'm talking about here is smoke produced by the fuel in your cooker. Remember, white smoke is bad for flavor. It's basically just ash. Learn to control the temperature of the fire in your cooker so that the smoke coming from the outlet vent is clear vapor or, at the very least, only random whiffs of bluish smoke. This is vital. Remember, smoky flavor should be like salt and pepper. A little goes a long way. The smoke should mingle with the flavors of the meat and the seasonings in a way that's not over powering. Smoke flavor should be subtle, not up front.
3.) Learn to cook delicious barbecued meat first with nothing more than salt & pepper for seasoning. Go find the freshest, best looking brisket or pork butt that you can afford. Season it simply with salt & pepper and practice cooking it until you can turn out delicious barbecued meats without the need for other seasonings for flavor or sauces for moisture. This is the foundation. Everything else you do with "secret" spices or wonderful sauces will be built on the meat itself. If you can't cook the meat properly, you can't cook exceptional barbecue.
4.) Once you learn to control the temperature and smoke in your cooker, know how to select a good cut of meat, and you can cook it to perfection with only salt & pepper for seasoning, then begin to add in some of your "secrets." Try some granulated garlic with a little chili powder. Or, how about some brown sugar too? Perhaps, adding a delicious glaze during the last 15 minutes of cooking made from your favorite barbecue sauce?
5.) Don't be afraid to fail. Learning to cook exceptional barbecue is much like learning to ride a horse. At first, you may be thrown off a couple of times. Just get back on the horse and try again. Soon, you will be riding. You may ruin a couple of briskets at first. You may dry out some ribs or cremate a pork butt. Don't let that stop you. Make notes of what went wrong. Make adjustments and try again. Cooking barbecue is a journey. You will learn something new every time you cook.
6.) Remember, don't mess it up! The meat is the foundation. Learn to cook the meat. Then, build on that foundation. If you want to learn to cook delicious barbecue remember that you must be able to cook meat in a way that preserves and enhances the qualities of the meat that can't be added to it with rubs, injections, spices, herbs, or sauces. That's the real secret to delicious barbecue.
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