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Barbecue 101: The Basics

by John Raven


John Raven's Column Barbecue (BR bi kyoo'): A method of cooking, the product of such cooking, or a gala featuring barbecue.

Whatever the definition, it's great.

Barbecue is man's oldest method of cooking his food. It probably began when some prehistoric man or woman wandered up on the remains of some animal that was the victim of a wildfire... "Hmmmm, this is better than raw meat."

Today, the art of barbecuing has evolved into three basic methods, all called barbecuing. First of all we have the most popular method, grilling; food is cooked on a grill over a bed of coals. Next we have smoked viands that are dry cooked by the heat of smoke. Finally, the method of cooking that is accepted by most authorities is "meat or other foods, cooked in close proximity to a fire of coals or wood, usually with a sauce applied."

We will concern ourselves here with the latter method. Whatever barbecue is prepared in is called a "pit." That name derives from the fundamental barbecuing method of digging a hole in the ground to contain the fire and using a grate, grill or a platform of sticks on top to hold the meat or other foods. A cover of some sort serves to contain the smoke and heat.

We will occupy ourselves here with meat only for this discussion.

Barbecuing Temperature and Sauces

Purists insist that the temperature in the pit not exceed the boiling point of water. In theory, if you don't exceed the boiling point, the natural, flavorful juices will remain in the meat keeping it moist and tender. This is a slow method of cooking. Eight, ten or even twenty-four hours on the pit are the norm. Barbecue is never cooked rare. It is always well-done to the center. A meat thermometer is essential here for the novice. The pros calculate cooking time by the amount of beer consumed or when the wife yells out the window, "Ain't that stuff done yet? These people are starving."

Barbecuing at a higher temperature is acceptable. You just have to be sure you are not burning the outside of the meat. Meat of any sort gets really tough when overcooked. There are those who choose to smoke the meat for an hour or so and then wrap it tightly in foil to bring the temperature up and reduce the cooking time. This works fairly well, but seems to cook a lot of the smoke flavor out of the meat.

Whatever the temperature used, a basting sauce is in order. In barbecue terms, this is called a "mop sauce." Mop sauce should be non-tomato and non-sugar. Tomato and sugar tend to burn at a very low temperature and turn bitter.

A "finishing sauce" is applied to the meat in the last minutes of cooking. Your favorite homemade or bottled sauce is in order here.

Barbecue Meats

The meat that is barbecued is at the discretion of the individual cook. Where you live has a lot to do with the meat in favor. In Texas, by far the meat of choice is beef. The beef of choice is the brisket. The brisket comes from the breast of a bovine, between the front legs. It's boneless and usually very fatty. But if your heart can stand it, the fat imparts a delicious flavor.

In South Texas, cabrito (baby goat) is favored for the barbecue. Adult goats are also very popular. Authentic Texas barbecue can also include beef ribs, pork spareribs or country-style ribs (which are in reality cut from pork shoulder), pork shoulder roast and chicken. It's all delicious. You will also find a lot of sausage at Texas barbecues. It's not really barbecue, but it just tastes better prepared on the pit.

[] When you go east of the Mississippi or north of Oklahoma, pork is the meat of choice for barbecue. A barbecued whole hog is a delight to behold and even more delightful to consume. You will also find a lot of "pulled pork"; that is, pork roast cooked to falling-apart tenderness and then shredded and served with a generous dollop of sauce.

The folks in Kentucky lean toward mutton as the barbecue of choice. Very good.

In New England, there are the seaside, seafood barbecues. Whole lobster, clams and fish are prepared in barbecue style.

On the West Coast, giant sirloin roasts are skewered and cooked over an open fire. It's barbecue to them.

No matter the location, your barbecue is best. Charly McTee, the late, noted Texas outdoor writer, once told of his trip to "Yankee Land" where he ordered barbecue and got "something brown on a bun." Charly said, "No wonder them folks are so contrary. They never get nothing good to eat."

Now that you've graduated Barbecue 101 and are ready to have at it, we will leave you with recipes for basic mop sauce and finishing sauce. In the future we will explore what barbecue pit is best for you. We will also expound on various recipes, and look into grilling and smoking.

Basic Mop Sauce for Barbecue

  • 1 pint (2 cups) water
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
Mix together all ingredients. No cooking necessary.

This is the base you use to develop your own mop sauce. You can experiment by adding onion, garlic and your favorite spices. The mop sauce is applied to the meat with a brush or small rag mop at intervals during the cooking process. A good indicator of when it's time to mop is when the meat begins to appear dry on the surface. Don't overdo it. Every time you open the pit, you lose heat.

Basic Finishing Sauce (Texas Red Style)

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper, fine grind
  • 1 to 2 garlic cloves
  • Juice of half a lemon
You will mix all these ingredients in a stainless steel saucepan and simmer for a half hour or so. You might want to add a little brown sugar if it tastes too tart for your liking. A little cayenne gives the sauce authority. Add water or stock to get the consistency you desire, but it should be a little on the thick side. Here again, you are encouraged to experiment and develop your very own best sauce.

The finishing sauce is applied to the meat in the last fifteen to thirty minutes of cooking. Be careful not to scorch the sauce (remember that ketchup, which contains both tomato and sugar, burns easily). Serve the remaining sauce with the meat for dipping.

Until next time, keep 'em smokin'.

TexasCooking.com contains a wealth of information about barbecue, grilling, briskets and other traditional Texas foods. Read John Raven's continuously updated section Traditional Texas Food for a complete listing of his articles.
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