By Big Daddy
What does it mean to barbecue?...
It means that you cook with smoke and that you cook for a long time over low heat, between 200 and 225°F. Smoke does flavor the meat but that is simply a side benefit. The smoke combines with the natural moisture in the cooking chamber and coats the meat. This very important coating process seals in the natural juices of the meat ensuring, barring a gross miscalculation, that the resulting cooked meat will not dry out. The slow cooking process causes the connective tissue in the meat, the stuff that makes meat tough, to dissolve, allowing you to turn the toughest of meats into melt-in-your-mouth delights.
Barbecuing was an essential part of the poor man's culinary repertoire for that very reason. They could spend little, often nothing at all as tough cuts were sometimes given away, and eat like kings. Cuts of meat like a pork butt, a beef brisket or spareribs can come out of the oven tough and gnarly, or much too fatty, unless, of course, they are cooked very slowly.
There are many techniques associated with what has is often considered America's only indigenous culinary style. Here we explore these techniques ranging from cave-man to backyard-man.
Open Pit Smoking
Cooking meat and fish over open fire pits is a technique that goes back to the cave man. The art and science of pit smoking reached a zenith in the days of our grandfathers and great grandfathers. Pitmasters would use closely guarded secrets to produce succulent results. With a whole, skinned animal on a spit lowered into a pit layered with rock, screening materials and selected hardwoods the pitmaster had to control the temperature of the pit; keeping it low enough to work its magic. Meat drippings falling on the coals below flavored the smoke which infused the meats.
This method is seldom used today mostly because ingenious devices came along which allowed the same spectacular results without the hassle of digging and preparing the pit. Even long standing barbecue joints in the South that began by using open pits have long since switched over to smokehouses, some using gas- or electric-fired equipment.
Sometimes referred to as "cold smoking," curing with smoke was an important means of preserving foods in the days before the widespread availability of refrigeration. Smoke curing is done at low temperatures (100 degrees or less) for long periods. The resulting foods are smoked but not cooked. They require additional cooking before they are ready to eat. This is the difference between a barbecued pork shoulder and a cured country ham -- similar processes but very different results.
Almost all the barbecuing done today, with a few notable exceptions, are variations of smokehouse barbecuing. Meaning that food is cooked in a closed, vented chamber surrounded by smoke. As you'll see when investigating different types of smokers that will seem like the only thing they have in common.
Open pits were vulnerable to the weather and required too much of the pitmaster's time. Around the turn of the 20th century commercial BBQ joints figured there must be a better way and smokehouses were invented. Brick contraptions sprung up behind the restaurants. There was space for the fire and racks built along the inside walls that could not only hold more meat than an open pit but was easier for the pitmaster to tend the meats. Ingenious devices were developed to allow controlled venting and the fire was moved to one end of the smokehouse while the meats were stacked at the other end. This too made things more convenient for the pitmaster but more importantly it marked the end of a key feature of open pit cooking: the meat juices no longer drizzled on the hot logs below and an era of dry smoking was begun.
Wet or Dry?
The use of additional moisture is controversial -- even among seasoned veterans of the barbecue wars. It was never an issue with open pit barbecuing in part because the nature of the open pit makes it difficult to do and with the flavored, steamy smoke produced by fat drizzling on hot logs additional moisture wasn't needed.
Smokehouse barbecuing, however, didn't have the natural moisture produced in the open pit. Nevertheless many enthusiasts insist it isn't required believing that barbecuing should be a dry process. In large part it depends a little on just what you're cooking. Traditional cuts such as briskets, pork butts and ribs are fatty and moisture laden. Introducing moisture into the smoking process doesn't hurt but these meats will turn out fine without it. Leaner cuts and especially fish and chicken benefit from the additional moisture and helps prevent them from drying out during the long cooking times in the smoker.
What's most important is to ensure that the moisture inside the smoker doesn't get hot enough to steam the meats. If guidelines for maintaining the proper temperature inside the cooking chamber are followed this shouldn't be a problem.