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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Barbecue Secret Number 8 - Aluminum Foil

Tootsie Tomanetz, Pitmaster, Snow's BBQ in Lexington, TX
There is an old saying among KCBS barbecue competition cooks that goes "If you ain't using you're losing!" What that means is, if you are not wrapping meat in foil at some point during the cook it will not be moist enough or have an appetizing enough appearance to win a KCBS competition. During my visit to Snow's BBQ in Lexington, TX Ms. Tomanetz gave me the grand tour of her cooking area and all her smokers. She mentioned that she likes to wrap briskets in foil because it helps to keep the meat moist. Snow's BBQ, if you didn't know, was named best barbecue in Texas by Texas Monthly magazine in 2008. That seems to be a strong endorsement for the use of foil in barbecue cooking.

In spite of the fact that great barbecue cooks create delicious, award winning barbecue using foil, it is not a practice that all barbecue cooks appreciate. While some swear by it, others look at the practice with disdain. Some even refer to foil as the "Texas crutch" insinuating that those who use it lack the skills needed to cook barbecue in the "proper" way. Others believe that foiling is almost as bad as the commonly held belief in the worst cardinal barbecue sin which is boiling meat before barbecuing it. They point out that sealing meat in foil causes it to braise in its own juices which is, to them, a type of boiling.

The fact of the matter is, barbecue cooks have been wrapping barbecued meats for hundreds of years. History teaches us that wrapping barbecue is a long held authentic and traditional barbecue cooking technique. There is an account of a barbecue in Kentucky back in 1806 where the meat was "covered with green boughs to keep the juice in." In the Caribbean, southern Texas, and Mexico barbacoa has been made for hundreds of years by slow cooking the meat in a pit while wrapped in leaves. And in Hawaii they have been cooking kālua for at least 110 years by wrapping the pig in leaves while being cooked in a pit. The leaves perform the exact same function as aluminum foil.

As you may have surmised at this point, I like to use foil when cooking barbecue and I make no apologies or excuses for it. Foiling meat offers several advantages to the barbecue cook. Knowing when and how to use foil when cooking barbecue can make cook times more predictable, give you more control over the appetizing appearance of the barbecue, and it can cause the meat to retain more of its natural juiciness.

When cooking larger cuts of meat like pork shoulder or brisket, I reach for the foil. I put the seasoned meat in the smoker and let it cook until it reaches the stall stage. The stall stage for pork butt and brisket is right around 165 degrees F internal temperature. Pork butts and brisket may reach 165 degrees internally relatively quickly. But it may take hours for the internal temperature to begin to rise above 165 degrees. That's why this stage is called the stall. Once the pork butt or brisket has reached the stall, I wrap it in a double layer of heavy duty foil. The foil does three main things. It helps keep the meat looking a very appetizing mahogany color because the foil acts as a shield against scorching. The foil also holds and concentrates the heat closer to the meat causing it to exit the stall stage faster than without using foil which makes cook times shorter and more predictable. And the third main function of the foil is that it helps the meat retain moisture. I have cooked many a pork butt without using foil and ended up eating dinner at 10:00 PM simply because the meat needed that much time to cook. If I had used foil during those cooks I would have eaten dinner at dinner time instead of bed time.

Barbecue Secret Number 8 - Use aluminum foil to shorten cook times making them more predictable, control the amount of smoke and caramelization that impacts the appearance and flavor of the barbecue, and to help the barbecue retain its natural moisture.


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2 comments:

  1. I spent six days going through Central Texas specifically looking for those who were wrapping the meat during cooking. Of all the great and storied BBQ joints in this part of Texas, Snow's was the only one I found that wrapped. Most every pitmaster I talked to uttered the words "Texas crutch" with a bit of disdain. I'm not saying foil is the devil, but it ain't common in the region where Snow's is located.

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  2. Yep, it's not universal and I never meant to claim that it is. But, Snow's and Franklin both wrap. There is also one place in that area that does the equivalent of wrapping but it's technically not wrapped even though it is.

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