Barbecue: Low and Slow

You’ve chosen the perfect cut of meat, perfected a flavorful rub and found your favorite sauce. But you can’t just cook the meat any ol’ way and call it barbecue. Cooking technique is one of the defining elements of this type of fare, and it’s all about low and slow.

“A lot of people think that grilling is barbecuing. That is really not how most professionals view it,” said Terry Black of Super Smokers BBQ. What’s the distinction? Grilling refers to the quick cooking of foods directly over high, hot heat – between 350 and 600 degrees. Barbecuing refers to the slow cooking of meats using indirect, low heat. Grilling takes minutes, while barbecuing is measured in hours.

Lower temps and an indirect heat source are crucial for barbecuing since the meat used for this type of cooking is typically large and the cuts frequently have tough connective tissue that requires a longer time to break down. Moreover, a longer cooking process enables smoke – created through the burning of wood chips, wood chunks or whole logs – to add more flavor to the meat. “If it’s a higher temperature, smoke doesn’t permeate the meat as well. Meat takes on smoke when the meat is colder,” said nationally acclaimed pitmaster Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar and Grill.

Every pitmaster will claim that his way is the right way, but the pros do agree on one thing: Maintaining a constant grill temperature is critical. Most experts shy away from using a gas grill for low-and-slow preparations because this type of grill is limited in its temperature range, so keeping a low temperature is a challenge. Mills’ solution is to use an Ole Hickory Pit smoker, which enables him to “cook with wood, charcoal or a combination and assist it with gas to maintain a constant heat.”

And when it comes time to light the fire, “always use the cleanest fuel available,” said Trent Toone of Barney’s BBQ, who makes his own charcoal using reject oak barrel staves. If you are using charcoal briquettes, Toone recommended using a chimney starter rather than lighter fluid. Otherwise the meat will “pick up the taste of the lighter fluid,” he noted.

And finally, how do you know when the fire is ready? The easiest solution: a thermometer. Otherwise, said Toone, if you are grilling, the charcoal should be covered in a white-gray ash; for barbecuing, there should be no visible red glow.