Buy The Devil's Food Dictionary here.
Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Last Edited on 03/02/2012
Hi. Alton Brown here. You know, fans have sent us a number of questions through the years via e-mail, faxes, late-night anonymous phone calls, and we’ve attempted to keep a record of them all. Well, in going back through them, an interesting factoid has emerged. The number one question that you guys have sent me through the years is not:
“What’s my favorite food to cook?” Eggs.
It’s not, “What’s my favorite cocktail?” Martini, straight up, three olives.
It’s not, “What’s my favorite guilty pleasure food?” Doughnuts.
It is simply this morbid query: “What would you request for your last meal?”
Now most of us don’t actually realize when we’re eating our last meal, unless, of course, we’ve got a date with the state, if you know what I mean. Well, I can tell you that, were I in the position to order up my final mortal morsels, I would choose something spiritual, symbolic, southern, sacrificial, succulent, spicy, smoky, and best of all, long-cooking.
This combination of characteristics can point our culinary compass in but one direction. That most American of edibles - barbecue.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, “No way, Brown. I’m not dropping a grand on some big smoker. I’m not buying a cord of wood, or raising my own pigs.” Well, don’t get your side towels in a wad. The way I see it, any American who can gain access to open sky has barbecue as a birthright. And all that’s really required is heat, smoke, meat, and time. If you’ll give me 30 minute... ah, let’s make that an hour, I will guarantee you some seriously smoky, sumptuous, lip-smacking...
[“Good Eats” theme plays]
GUESTS: Three federal agents, one of whom is AB
You know, before we seriously pursue barbecue, I think we ought to define it. It’s actually kind of tricky, seeing as how it’s a verb, meaning either “To broil or roast whole or large pieces of meat over an open fire, on a spit or a grill, often seasoning with vinegar, spices, salt, and pepper.”, or “To cook in a highly seasoned sauce.”
Barbecue is also several nouns. For instance, “Any food cooked in a barbeque style.” or, “A grill-like device used to cook barbeque.”, or - I like this – “An outdoor event, often with a social or political focus, at which meats are cooked outdoors.
And it’s an adjective as in “Barbeque tofu.”
In order to control interstate trade, the federal government states...
Agent #1 (as AB): In the Code of Federal Regulations Title 9, Chapter 3, Part 319, Subpart c, Section 319.80 that “barbecued meats, such as product labeled ‘beef barbecue’ or ‘barbecued pork,’ shall be cooked by the direct action of dry heat resulting from the burning of hardwood or the hot coals therefrom for a sufficient period to assume the usual characteristics of a barbecued item, which include the formation of a brown crust on the surface and the rendering of surface fat. The product may be basted with a sauce during the cooking process.
My favorite definition is from Barry Foy, who in “The Devil’s Food Dictionary” writes, “Barbecue - a term for one or another of several approaches to cooking one or another type of food, usually meat, except when it’s something else, which makes use of one or another cooking technique that most often involves smoke, though not always, and in which a sauce of one sort or another plays an either essential, prominent, or negligible role.”
You know, perhaps we should step outside for a breath of fresh historical perspective.
GUESTS: Two beachgoers
Three pig hunters
Although the exact etymology of “barbecue” is a complex and twisted tale, most historians agree the term first entered white ears around 1492, when a highly ambitious navigator, name of Christopher Columbus, stumbled onto the island of Hispaniola while searching for a back door to the orient.
Christopher Columbus: ¿Permiso, Donde está Calcutta?
AB: Uh, sorry, no habla español. Sorry.
Now soon after landing, Columbus encountered the Taino peoples, whom he dubbed “Indians,” for no other reason than that he was hoping to find India. Now while snooping around for gold and valuables, Columbus and his men noticed the locals cooking meat on curious wooden racks. These devices always followed the same cunningly simple design - freshly cut wooden cross members which would not burn very easily were lashed to a frame, and then set at a distance above a smoldering fire.
A few years after Columbus landed, a Spanish historian known today as Oviedo toured the new world, and his writings record his translation of the Taino word for this device as “barbacoa,” a word that other writers of the period latched onto, not so much because they were interested in native cooking styles, but because the word sounded so much like “barbarian.” It helped to support a sensational and more exploitable attitude towards the “Indians.”
Now barbacoa’s notorious mystique got an additional shot in the arm from the French, who somehow managed to reinterpret “barbacoa” as “boucane.”
All right, now here comes the really cool part. Flash-forward a couple hundred years, all right? Pigs, who were originally dropped off by Columbus and his cronies, have overrun the Indies, and seagoing outlaws and scallywags often land on these small islands to hunt said pigs. [pigs squeal, as the pig hunters run off, chasing the pigs, and as “The William Tell Overture” plays]
Personally, my money’s on the pig.
So fond were the scallywags of roasting their catches on boucanes, that they became known as buccaneers. Texas notwithstanding, by the way, the pig, with its sweet, fatty, and smoke-friendly flesh, has been the poster critter for ‘cue ever since. This was especially true in the case of the antebellum south, where the barbacoa gave way to the pit. Rich southerners and plantation owners roasted their pigs perched on green sticks or even metal rods, over direct heat emanating from smoldering wood coals in long, shallow pits or trenches, dug and tended in most cases by slaves, who also endlessly mopped the hogs with bucketfuls of peppered vinegar. Now with the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the plantation system, barbecue was adopted by churches and political rallies, who used the heady aroma of slow-cooked pork to gather sinners and potential voters alike. But our modern notion of barbecue would have to wait for one nonculinary technical development.
South Carolina legislators passed a “truth in barbeque” law in 1986 requiring restaurants to tell diners whether they used hardwood or gas.
[AB is dressed in early 20th-century formal clothes, and driving on a highway] Our modern-day notion of barbecue had to await the invention not only of the automobile, but specifically the highway system constructed to carry them. You see, as people began to wander the countryside, driving through the southland, the old pit technology was adapted. Barbecue stands began to pop up to feed hungry travelers. And because most of these joints were takeout only, they were typically interracial, even in the days of Jim Crow, and therefore attracted a melting pot of locals and travelers alike, kind of like the roadside taverns of a couple hundred years ago, only without the booze.
Eventually, pit masters installed tables, and the American roadside eatery concept was born. Still with us to this day.
Now as industrial meatpacking gradually replaced the down-home whole-hog concept, pit masters at restaurants like this adapted, and began to concentrate their efforts on cuts that were a) easy to package, and b) that could stand up to long cooking times, and that meant shoulders, as in chopped shoulder meat, and of course, ribs. And it’s upon these two foods that we will focus our appetite and attention.
But first we’ve got to deal with the mechanized end of the equation.
Memphis in May Barbecue Cooking Contest
GUESTS: Competitive barbequers
[AB takes a seat, on a golf-cart-like machine that rides him around the cooking area] America, the modern notion of barbecue, the one that 99.97% of you have in your heads, hearts, and stomachs can only be conjured in an enclosed vessel, where indirect heat can maintain close smoke contact, and a relatively moist environment. In other words, smoked ribs and shoulders are actually kind of braised dishes, where smoke is acting as the liquid. But more on smoke in a minute.
This kind of ‘cue requires a device known as a cooker or a smoker. And there is no better place to survey the wide world of smokers than the Memphis in May barbecue competition, which takes place in Memphis - in May, no less.
AB: [waves to the people] Hey, guys.
AB: Oh, beer.
These guys and gals have some sweet toys, like this all-custom rig made out of quarter-inch steel. Nice welding, by the way. Of course, if you look around, you can also find showroom models representative of the major smoker forms.
Coffin-style smokers are the closest to open pits, but they usually have a lid. Barrel smokers were originally hacked from 50-gallon oil drums. They almost always feature a side fire box to isolate the heat of the fire from the food. Stack smokers are vertical cabinets with shelves, and can be fired either by wood or electricity. Then there are the ceramic smokers, which are famed far and wide for their heat-retention capabilities. Although the differences might seem insignificant to the un-’cued eye, each style has passionate proponents.
If you’re a fan of this program, you know darned well I never buy what I can hack. I realize this approach is not for everyone. But perhaps you, in humoring my madness, can come to better understand the requisite parts of the smoker, so that when you do head down to Smokers-R-Us with a fistful of hard-earned dollars, you won’t be distracted by shiny, costly unnecessaries.
First, you must have containment. Although most smokers are made of either metal or sometimes ceramic, as you can see, my favorite is a reinforced wooden box manufactured, I think, by the Swedish army sometime in the ‘70s, and procured at my local army-navy concern for a mere $30, customizations not included. Now you might ask, “Why make a smoker out of a flammable material?” Because low heat is key to all forms of ‘cue for reasons we shall soon discover. And therefore I never intend to allow the temperature in this vessel to exceed 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
Next, very important - air flow is critical, as the target food will be better served by a constant flow of light smoke, rather than being enrobed in billows of thick smoke, okay? I simply drilled a few holes down here for air, and up here for smoke, which I control with corks.
And you’re going to need racks, at least two. Thanks to the Internet, I found a couple of cheap oven racks that fit handily inside.
Now let’s talk for a moment about the heat source. Okay, although I agree that hardwood is required for smoke, the truth is, when it comes to the residential environment, electrical heat sources produce the tastiest, most reliable barbecue. [shouting, and people from off-camera throw things at AB, who has shielded himself with a chicken wire fence] Oh, really, I’m telling you, it’s not the most authentic way or the best way, but come on, not everybody finds true romance in tending a fire for, you know, 4 to 40 hours the way that I do. So just, just everybody calm down, okay? [shouting stops] Food doesn’t like violence, okay?
Now as you can see, I have two electric hot plates which I have set inside a disposable aluminum pan. Those will provide the heat, while the smoke will be generated in an old iron skillet, okay? And I’ve got a second pie pan in the back on top of the burner just to catch drippings.
The Outdoor Patio
Although traditional barbecue pits are fueled exclusively with hardwood logs, which are first burned down almost, but not quite to coals, so that they provide heat and smoke via a smoldering action, most modern ‘cue-heads use wood, and therefore smoke, strictly as a flavorant, kind of like an airborne marinade, if you will.
Now some high-end mechanized automated smokers feed on pucks or pellets of compressed sawdust. I prefer a more natural, old-school approach. I find that hardwood chunks are best for slow smoke release over a very long cook time, whereas... [throws a large piece of wood into the...] Chipper! [loud buzzing] ...smaller chips are better for shorter durations, mostly because of their higher surface area.
Now for this application, I will use four ounces of hickory chips. Remember, more is not always better. To the pork!
Maple, hickory, and oak chunks and chips are available at many hardware stores.
[AB is finishing a plaster model of a pig] Now when it comes to buying meat, a skeletal view can be ever so helpful. Now I had hoped to present an actual Sus domesticus skeleton for you, but they’re, a little pricey. So paper and plaster’s going to have to do.
Let’s consider the location of the two most popular barbecue cuts, okay? There’s, of course, the shoulder or butt, which is not named for something you’d sit on, but rather a barrel that cured, corned, or pickled shoulders were packed in back in 18th century America. The shoulder - here, obviously. There is a lot of bone. There’s a lot of joint. It’s load bearing and hard working, and therefore encompasses a great deal of connective tissue running every which way.
Then of course, there is the rib cage. Now as long as the hog is alive, it’s breathing, and so this entire structure is constantly flexing. And since it contains less actual muscle than, say, the shoulder, it’s even more difficult to cook, especially when you get down here close to the diaphragm. Luckily, a range of rib products can be cut from the side, depending on your needs. Let us flesh out both subjects, shall we?
GUEST: Dave, the butcher
Say hello to my butcher, David, who will be our rib guy today. Take it away, Mr. Butcher Man!
Dave: Hi, everyone. Welcome to my meat department. I’ve got a fun and informative tour for you today. Here we have a full rib section. We’re starting on the top of the spine - the chine bone.
AB: I’ve been told I need to get one of those.
Dave: Then we’re going to go down here to the sternum and lower part of the belly.
AB: If you clean it up, it makes for some good cooking - or dog food.
Dave: Next we’re going to take a look at our baby back ribs. Here we go.
AB: The most popular ribs in America. A lot of flavor, easy to cook, not a lot of meat.
Dave: This is the loin, from the eye, going towards the shoulder. You can see how it diminishes throughout the cut.
AB: Thanks, Dave. It’s a great cut of meat, but that’s really another show, so let’s move on.
Dave: Now we’re going to remove the rib tips or ends.
AB: Now that’s the part that makes spare rib cooking so difficult, so good riddance.
Dave: Here we have the St. Louis ribs.
AB: Ah, there it is, named after St. Louis, Missouri. As far as I’m concerned, the finest ribs known to man.
Dave: And finally, the fat cap and skirt.
AB: Anything else?
Dave: Absolutely. Every time you’re buying ribs, always visually inspect the top of the meat for any shiners. That’s anywhere where the bone may show through.
AB: Let your butcher know you’ll accept no shiners. He’ll respect you for it. All right, David, I’ll take three St. Louis racks and a Boston butt.
Dave: Sounds great. Would you like that bone-in or boneless?
AB: Excellent question. Bone-in shoulders take too long to cook under the low-heat conditions of barbecuing, so boneless is for me. Sure, you can save a few cents a pound by boning your own, but unless you’re a whiz with a knife, I suggest you bite the bullet and leave it to the pros. [takes meat and starts to leave] Oh, um, David, no shiners, right?
Dave: Mr. Brown, why do you want to hurt me like that?
AB: I don’t know. It’s just my nature.
Country-style ribs come from the shoulder or “butt” but don’t actually contain any ribs whatsoever.
Let us now contemplate our pre-smoke flavor enhancement options, which will be determined by size, shape, and surface-to-mass ratio.
Now the blocky hunk of shoulder is high mass, low surface, and therefore will require an overnight soak in brine, which will season the meat and coax proteins to the surface, which will help smoke stick when the time comes.
[at the sink] Measure three quarts of cold water into a 10- to 12-quart vessel. Move that to a scale. Then zero out the weight of the water and container, and add eight ounces of molasses followed by 12 ounces of salt. Then stir to dissolve.
Now since the salt is by weight, it doesn’t actually matter what type you use, but obviously the finer the salt, the easier it will dissolve. Pickling salt would be ideal.
All right, when everything is dissolved and combined, transfer a pint of the brine to a zip-top bag. Just measure it out roughly. Get most of the air out and then seal it. Place the pork in the brine, and then top with the bag. That will keep it submerged.
[at the refrigerator] Refrigerate for not less than 12, and not more than 15 hours.
As to the ribs, as you can see, the slab is flat, with a high surface-to-mass ratio, and so will receive a spice rub immediately prior to smoking, composed of...
[at the pantry spice rack] ...two teaspoons paprika, one and a half teaspoons black peppercorns, one teaspoon each coriander seed, cumin seed, onion and garlic powder, and a quarter teaspoon each of cayenne and freshly grated nutmeg. I always have one with me. It all goes into your spice grinder, which is nothing but a dedicated coffee grinder, right? Excellent.
[at the refrigerator] Well, it’s the next day. How can you tell? New shirt. Time to get this out of the drink.
[at the sink] So open up your container and, of course, remove the brine. And we’re not going to save any of that. We’re going to discard it, right? Right. Good.
Now remove the shoulder - it’ll be a good bit heavier - onto some paper towels. And just dab it as dry as you can get it. Now you could let this dry in the refrigerator on a rack for up to 24 hours. This would allow for the formation of a protein film called a pellicle, which some barbecue-ists believe to be crucial to the smoke absorption process. I, however, do not. So let’s to the smoker.
The Outdoor Patio
Here now, the goal. Bring the temperature inside this box to as close to 225 degrees as is possible, until the meat cooking inside the box reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees. To do this does not require a specialized smoker, but it will require accurate thermometric monitoring equipment. That’s right -thermometers.
You’re going to need two of them. Now you could use two consumer-grade probe thermometers, like this. Manufacturers even make grill editions that have either a little detachable remote, or they talk to your SmartPhone via Bluetooth. So you can go off and do chores and things, you know, like mow grass while barbecuing, which defeats the purpose, if you ask me. Besides, if you’re going to get serious about this, you want to go online, open up your search engine, and type in “barbecue accurate thermometers.” There, you will find several manufacturers that make thermometers like this - high-end digitals that have interchangeable probes. This one measures air, this one measures the meat. The very definition of multitasker.
Remember, good barbeque depends on controlling time and temperature.
The Outdoor Patio
As you can see, the meat probe is in place, and the air probe has been clipped onto the rack.
Now if you end up needing to use a regular probe like on this consumer thermometer, just clip it in place with a standard office-style alligator clip. The wires are routed up out of a three-quarter-inch hole I have in the top. I’m going to leave that open for the smoke to flow. I also have two small holes open in the lower back for air inflow.
Now both of the hot plates are set to high for now. You can always turn them down if you find that the heat creeps above 225. The drip pan is in place. Smoke generator is in place. We close up, and expect four to five hours before moving to the next phase of cookery. And, no, during that time you will not open that box.
Meanwhile, we turn our attention to the ribs. Now there is a membrane on the concave or underside of the ribs, and I like to remove it, okay? Just insert an upside-down spoon or some other blunt instrument, and work it under to get it started. Now do you have to do this? No, some people simply make slit marks across the back with a knife. But let me remind you, this is the kind of connective tissue that absolutely, positively will not ever dissolve, no matter how long you cook it, okay? So I’d just as soon completely remove it from our meaty equation. So work that spoon in until you can get hold of the edge. And then use a piece of paper towel and just pull it right off.
All right, good. Now it is time to season the ribs, following a very specific order, all right? We are going to sprinkle the three racks with a combined total of four tablespoons of kosher salt. Now you may not need it all, but we’re looking for a very, very uniform covering of salt. There, that looks good. Follow that with a smearing of spicy brown mustard. One-third of a cup should be just enough to provide adhesion for the rub. And of course, it’ll also provide a fair amount of its own flavor. This is, of course, the fun part. Just squeeze it on and rub it out. It’s really just kind of a primer coat for the rub to come. Both sides, please. There.
Next, the rub. And I prefer to dispense with a pizzeria-style shaker, the kind that they put parmesan and pepper flakes in. Now personally, I like to go heavy on the rub, because as moisture sweats out of the meat during cooking, it will mingle with the powder, creating a delectable coating, while not impeding the penetration of the smoke. There. That’s just right.
The Outdoor Patio
All right, we can add our ribs to the smoker already in progress and... [turns to see that a gas grill has entered the scene] Oh, that’s, that’s crazy talk, man. You can’t make good barbecue on a grill, all right, much less a gas grill. Come on, we’re going to... we, we’d have to maintain a temperature as close to 225 as possible. We’d have to use indirect heat, and... No, believe me, we’re a lot better off over here, because we... All right, fine. But there’s some real challenges. And not every gas grill on the planet is capable of doing this, all right?
I mean, first, does the grill in question have zones? All right, most full-size modern grills have three, if not four zones. Sometimes they run side-to-side, sometimes front-to-back. This model is front-to-back, but either will work.
Next question: Is there a thermometer in the lid, like this? Well, good, because either a screwdriver or fingers will be able to get that off. It’s pretty much useless. Even the best grills rely on bi-metal coil-style thermometers that are about as accurate as a sniper scope on a Nerf gun, and we... [a projectile from a Nerf gun hits AB] Not the best analogy. The good news is that we can use this hole for our probe cables, because we’re going to have to rig this just like our box over there. Don’t complain. You started this.
[after setting up the probe system] As you can see, I have installed the air temperature probe here on the little back rack, which is good, because it’s nice and out of the way. Now we must perform a heat test. Crank up the gas, and light the grill, using whichever burner is labeled as the main igniter. It’s usually the front one. Leave it on as low as it’ll go. Close the lid and let the grill come up to heat, five to ten minutes. Again, we’re looking for 225 degrees tops.
[later, the probe reveals that the lowest setting is actually a little over 300 degrees Fahrenheit] Okay, that’s a bad thing. Ribs go in at 300-plus degrees, jerky comes out, only not the good kind. There are a couple of things that we can do. First, just choke down on the tank valve a couple of turns to lower the flame even more. Don’t turn it off all the way. But maybe a half-turn open from closed will do it.
Now what we could really use here is a thermal load inside the grill. Something with a high specific heat, that is, a substance that can absorb a lot of energy without actually increasing in temperature itself. It would also help if that material would go through a phase change, absorbing even more energy as needed.
[at the sink] Anyone who’s ever watched a pot boil knows that water heats up very, very slowly, even when you’re pouring the B.T.U.s into it. And as it does heat, if provided enough surface area, it evaporates as vapor. And that phase change itself absorbs a considerable amount of heat energy, which is why you’re cold when you step out of the shower. In other words, water is a fantastic heat sink, which is why they put it in radiators and rocket kettles, although that’s - that’s a different matter.
[back at the gas grill] Admittedly, most gas grills are not made for water pans. And I want this underneath the cooking grate, so we’ll have to improvise a little bit. Remove the grates. And I’m going to take off these two heat bars, because I’m not going to use those two burners. Make a nice shelf for a pan that will hold two quarts of water. And just about any pan will do, although I’d certainly keep it on the cheap side.
Believe it or not, this is going to absorb vast amounts of heat. And when it starts to evaporate, it’s going to absorb even more. Will it provide moisture to keep the meat from drying out? Well, if you’d ever had my Aunt Vanessa’s beef stew, you would know darned well that meat can dry out as easily in a moist environment as a dry. So, no, that’s got nothing to do with it. It’s all about heat absorption. All right, we have to work some wood into this environment.
[looking into the interior of the grill] Now I notice there’s a “v” shape right here. Hmm, that makes me think. I’ve got something here that’ll work. [retrieving a “disposable” aluminum pan from a kitchen drawer] You know, the people that call these things disposable just lack vision. Perfect.
[back at the grill] Four ounces of wood chips just as before - hardwood, of course - sealed. And just push right down in front of that heat bar. There. Replace the grates, and we are in business - the barbecue business, that is.
Like Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can where you are with what you have.” Now I am going to crank up on the heat just a bit to help get the wood to smolder. Now let’s load up. I like to use standard off-the-shelf rib racks from the hardware store. Two, slightly interlaced so that they will hold these longer St. Louis-style racks, which I place with the meat facing the heat, and with an aluminum foil heat shield to guard the first rib. Drop the heat back down, and hopefully hold at 225 degrees.
The goal -bring the temperature of the meat to 185 to 190 degrees within four to five hours. Overcooked, you say? Well, yes, and then again, no.
Lyndon B. Johnson was the first President to host a barbeque at the White House.
GUEST: “Thing”, the hand
Let’s say for just a moment that we simply seared our ribs, and then roasted them to a nice medium-rare, say 130 degrees internal. You know, like a nice steak, huh? They sure do look good. And they smell good, too. All right, let’s give one a try, shall we? It’s going to be fantastic. [strains to chew on it] You have some of that... [“Thing” hands AB some dental floss] Yeah, a little floss. I think I’ve got a - um, excuse me just a second. So here’s the deal. Although the meat is indeed nicely done and very moist, there’s still a lot of connective tissue to consider, all right? Collagen. Now under the right circumstances, this dense protein matrix that runs throughout the meat dissolves into a liquid state we call gelatin, as in... [shows a gelatin mold, shaped like a pig] gelatin. That’s right. When melted, it is lip-smacking good.
But this conversion does not take place until the meat hits between about 160 and 170 degrees, which is technically overcooking the meat. But by reaching that temperature very, very slowly, we not only convert more collagen to gelatin, we preserve the meat’s natural juices. And of course, we give the smoke time to work its magic.
[using a chalkboard as a visual aid] Speaking of smoke, wood is made up of three major components - cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. The cellulose and hemicellulose are both composed of glucose and other sugars, and provide the structural framework and filler for the wood. The third - the lignin, acts as a reinforcer, and it’s made up of a complex mash-up of chemicals called phenols, which are chemicals based upon hydroxyl groups married to aromatic hydrocarbon groups.
Now when the proper amount of heat is applied, pyrolization occurs. That is, the wood degrades into smaller compounds released as smoke. If the temperature is properly maintained and/or the flow of oxygen restricted, pyrolysis will slowly march on. And look what you get. Flavors of coconut, butter, and caramel are released by the celluloses from between 400 and 600 degrees, as well as fruity and bready flavors. From 600 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, lignin releases chemicals very similar to those found in many spices, and flavors resembling, oddly enough, sausage.
Interestingly, most of these tasty compounds reside in the invisible or vapor component of the smoke. You can’t see them, but you can smell them. Now the part of smoke you do see is actually suspended droplets in the vapor phase, which means that smoke is actually a colloid. These droplets are mostly tar and the dreaded P.A.H.s, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known carcinogens.
So the hotter the fire, the more visible the smoke, the heavier the concentration of chemicals that can harm both you and me. Bad eats. So you always want to keep the heat low. Of course, if you keep boosting the heat, a chain reaction will be set off, and the gasses released from the wood will reach ignition point. Bingo, you’ve got flames, which you really don’t want licking your ‘cue if you can help it, because at that temperature, the good flavor compounds in smoke break down into nastiness. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that several components of good smoke, especially phenols, have antimicrobial and antifungal properties, which explains why smoke has been used to preserve meats for eons.
SPEAKING OF BAD: Never smoke meats with mesquite as it burns very hot and releases some nasty chemicals.
The Outdoor Patio
Now if my calculations are correct, our shoulder should be right at 150 degrees. [the probe shows a temperature of about 152] Not bad. All right, it’s time to evacuate. Carefully open the lid. There’ll still be a little bit of smoke. And you’re going to want to really get a good grip on it and pick it up. So I use heatproof and waterproof gloves, so I can kind of squeeze it as I carry it. There.
Now look at that exterior. That is good smoke penetration. Exactly what we wanted to see at this point in the cooking.
[at the oven] Wrap tightly in heavy-duty foil, insert your probe thermometer, and cook in a 300-degree oven until the internal temp is 200 degrees. It shouldn’t take more than three hours. Conversely, you could cool and refrigerate the wrapped shoulder until the next day, then move directly into the oven and cook until the target temp is attained. At 300 that’ll probably take, uh, four, four and a half hours. Why use the oven at all? Because we need an enclosed, moist environment to break down all that connective tissue. And, no, there’s no need for any added liquid. There’s plenty still in there. Cheating? Ha! Believe me, the pros do this all the time.
[back at the grill] All right, five hours have passed since our ribs went in, and it’s time to give them what I call the “shrink, temp, bend, crack, tear” test. You notice that they have shrunk. That’s the shrinking part. Now the temp part. We should be seeing 185 to 190 across the board. And the best thing to do is just kind of spot-temp them with your instant-read. And it looks like we are indeed in the zone.
Now we will look for the bend test. Do the ribs bend? Yes. And they crack at the surface when they do. That’s very good. Now we have, of course, the tear test. That does seem... well, maybe just one other test. Hold on. [tastes] Mmmm. That...all right, one more? One more. One more. One more tear test. Okay. And then there’s the taste test. And these? These definitely are done. So I’m going to put them back in the rack, and evacuate to a warm oven to await the completion of our shoulder.
[back in the kitchen] Speaking of, when the internal temperature of the shoulder hits 200 degrees, we will employ the pull test for doneness. Just dive in with two forks, split that fat, and check out the meat. That is exactly what you want to see.
Now I know what some of you ‘cue-heads are thinking. Where’s the smoke ring? That pink layer just under the skin, penetrating to a depth of eight to ten millimeters in some smoked foods, resulting from a reaction between nitrogen dioxide in the smoke and myoglobin in the meat? Barbecuers just go crazy about it, because they think it’s a marker for time spent in smoke. But here’s the thing. It only happens at certain times under certain conditions. It’s not a marker for flavor. It has been disallowed as a judging criterion in most competitions, because it can be induced by applying certain meat tenderizers to the surface of the meat. This is fine, delicious.
Wrap it up, let it rest for half an hour. At that point you may dismantle it according to any of three traditional methods. First we have the slice. Although that’s usually reserved for smoked hams, it works here as well. And then there’s the chop - very dramatic, and the old-school pull, which I think is probably the best way to go.
There are more than 20,000 barbeque competitions staged annually in the US.
Although some people like chopped pork, I’ve got to tell you, on a bun I think pulled may edge it out, especially if you add a couple of hot sauce and maybe a couple of pickle chips. As for the ribs, well, they don’t need anything but a bib.
[“Thing” slides a bottle of barbeque sauce to AB] Hey, what? Barbecue sauce? We don’t need no stinking barbecue sauce. Barbecue sauce is what you put on bad barbecue to try to get people to think it’s good barbecue, okay? As far as I’m concerned, barbecue sauce is the last refuge of a barbecue scoundrel. Look, I don’t want to scare you off your ‘cue, but if I didn’t shoot straight with you concerning this, my last-request dish, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself.
[“Thing” tosses AB a chunk of charcoal] What? I see. So what you’re saying is, is you don’t think it’s real barbecue unless it’s cooked with charcoal. [sniffs] Hard chunk natural pieces in there, too. Even after you’ve tasted this plethora of smoky succulence, you want to push this with me? Do you? All right, I’m your huckleberry.
The Outdoor Patio
GUEST: A delivery man
I believe you’re all familiar with my associate “Fireball”. As pure an expression of the charcoal grill as exists on this planet or any other. But he ain’t no smoker. No, Sir, even with constant adjustment to the top and bottom vents, there’s no way to control the heat to the degree required. Of course, I remember once, long ago, when Fireball and I were young...
[in the garage. AB is wearing clothes better suited to the 1980’s, and he has a lot more hair] Back then I was obsessed with high heat. And I figured if I could up the volume of air going to my charcoal, I could really get my sear on. So I got an old, cheap tailpipe extender, and fetched down one of my many, hair dryers, and put one and two together. Luckily it fit. I slid that bad boy right up inside one of the vents, and lit myself a charcoal fire. Of course, I was pretty heavy into lighter fluid back then, but it was just a phase. I grew out of it.
Once the coals burned down, I flipped that switch, and found myself looking down at 45,000 B.T.U.s. It was like the business end of an F-14. Cool.
[back in the present] Ah, the ‘80s. You know, it only stands to reason that if you can generate high amounts of heat by blowing a lot of air across burning charcoal, you should be able to create very low amounts of heat by allowing just a little bit of air to move across the charcoal. Of course, that would require some kind of special device like...
Delivery Man: Delivery. Delivery for Mr. Brown.
AB: I’m Mr. Brown.
DM: Oh, there you are.
AB: Excellent. Thank you very much. And you know what? This is for you.
DM: What is it?
AB: It’s a nutmeg.
AB: You’re welcome.
Let’s see what I got.
Regardless of what kind of temperature control unit you buy, they all basically work the same, all right. This manifold thing that looks kind of like a dog dish screws onto one of your grill’s vents just with finger pressure. All right. And then you seal up the other vents. Now I like to use just foil tape for this, because it’s cheap, efficient, and I always have it around. There.
Now here’s the cool part. This hose connects the manifold to this digitally controlled blower unit. All right, there’s a little fan in here. You set the temperature, and the fan blows just enough air to the charcoal to maintain that level of heat. It’s so cool.
All right, let’s put this thing into action. Flip your grill. And the first thing you want to do is cover two thirds of your coal grate with heavy-duty aluminum foil. And position it so that the foil’s over the manifold. Then pile three pounds of charcoal briquettes on the other side. Natural briquettes would be good. We’re going to light that with one paraffin tab. You can find these in most hardware stores, certainly any grilling store, a lot of culinary stores. You’re going to light that and let it burn all the way down. It’s going to take eight to ten minutes. And at that point, you’ll only have maybe five, maybe six briquettes actually lit. That’s what you want to see.
Now place two chunks of hardwood, two ounces a piece or thereabouts, on either side of that ignition point. Place an aluminum pan on top of the foil, and engage your heat control. Set for 225 degrees. The fan will come on almost immediately. Perfect.
Now we attach the heat sensor on the far side of the grill, away from the charcoal and load up. Still two rib grates. The meat facing the heat, and protected from direct radiation by heavy-duty aluminum foil.
As long as you stick to the manufacturer’s instructions that came with your controller, a unit like that should be able to maintain the temperature regardless of wind and weather to plus or minus, say, 10 degrees. Believe it or not, with a short cooking time like four to five hours, like our ribs, you won’t even have to replace the charcoal or the wood. Could you manage all this without a controller? Sure, but you might want to pick up some extra dental floss. You get my drift? Umm-hmm.
To land your own heat controller just search the web for automatic bbq temperature control.
The Outdoor Patio
GUESTS: Invitees to a barbeque
[at the grill, AB has invited a bunch of people to share in his barbeque] Usually around the four-and-a-half-hour mark, I check my ribs for that shrinking and bouncing and bending business, just in case they’re done a little bit ahead of schedule. Usually they’re not, so just put them right back on. Slap on the lid for another half-hour.
[about a half hour later] Well, I guess you can make barbecue ribs in a charcoal grill after all. So riddle me this, America, is there an easy, fast, certain road to barbecue-ville? The answer, of course, no, and that’s one of the many things that makes this culinary tradition so enduring, endearing, and downright American.
Time, as it turns out, is actually the most precious of all the ingredients in barbecue. And in this case, it is worth lavishing. [serving guests] Here you go.
Now I want to close with an entry from the diary of one George Washington of Virginia, dated May 27, 1769, long before the author was a president or even a general. He said, “Went into Alexandria to a barbecue. Stayed all night.” You see, back then a barbecue was neither a food nor a device nor a flavor, but a social event where community, family, and friends were the main ingredients, along with some tasty pork, and probably a little of that whiskey that Washington was distilling over at Mount Vernon.
In other words, America, what I’m saying is that this is what a real barbecue tastes like. And you know what? It’s most definitely Good Eats.
[AB is talking to one of the pigs in Scene 3] I think you beat the pirates, buddy, but now it’s me you got to worry about. Oh, come here, come here. [pig grunts and tries to run away]