Kimberly Decker, Contributing Editor

July 21, 2009

17 Min Read
Barbecue: From Pit to Production

To its diehard devotees, barbecue is less a hobby than a way of life. Competitive pitmasters travel a nationwide circuit in pursuit of personal glory and pit-cooked perfection. But for civilians, barbecue is a meal. A store-bought sauce will often suffice, despite the purists faith that barbecue cant come from a bottle.

But even a purist would agree that in the absence of the real thing, manufacturers of barbecue sauces, rubs and prepared barbecue meals can deliver the best convenient cue possiblewhen armed with the right ingredients, technology and a firm grasp of barbecue fundamentals.

Low and slow

Barbecuing and grilling are not synonymous. The latter burns hot and cooks fast, searing thin foods over high, direct heat in a matter of minutes to char the surface and leave the center relatively tender, and sometimes quite rare.

Barbecue is all about low and slow. Large, collagen-rich cuts cook at a smolder for hours in pits or smokers whose indirect heatoften from an offset fireboxwarms the surrounding air and imbues the meat with the flavor of smoke. You need a certain temperature to convert those heavy connective tissues to something thats more succulent, says Stephen Giunta, CMC, culinary director, Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, KS. And this doesnt happen quickly.

Kell Phelps, publisher, National Barbecue News, Douglas, GA, notes that temperature is the key to good cue. The thermometer tells you everything you need to know, he says. Thats the whole secret of barbecue. The typical range stretches from about 200 to 275°F (compared to a grills surface at 700°F). Your job as a cook is to render the fat out of the meat and get that meat to an internal temperature, he says. If youll slow that down and give a little bit of time for the fat thats rendered to trickle around a little before it just drops out, youll have more flavor in your meat.

In time, as fat renders, collagen melts into gelatin, and smoke permeates the fibers, the meat turns flavorful, luscious and fork-tender.

How much time? Giunta says that to raise meats internal temperature to 150°F, youll need about six hours of cooking at 180 to 220°F per every two inches of thickness. But its not so much the cooking to an internal temperature thats important, he says. Rather, its the uniformly tender texture that such cooking creates. In barbecue, youre not trying to get a medium-rare center, or a moist, juicy center, he says. Youre trying to get the productfrom top to bottom, all the way throughone texture.

When moving from the pit to production, manufacturers have a number of tools at their disposal to help them create excellent barbecue. Vacuum tumbling cuts marination time, and injection permits even distribution of marinade. Also, grill, smoke and other flavors help replicate the flavors of the pit. Finally, combination ovensusing both steam and heatdeliver a consistent product.

Smoke signals

A lot of people will fuss and argue about using gas or electric smokers, Phelps says, but as long as its got real wood flavor, its authentic. Hickory, pecan, maple, alder, apple, cherry, cedar and mesquite make most pitmasters greatest-hits lists, depending on what theyre barbecuing, and where.

Phelps often cooks with pecan, which is plentiful in his state of Georgia. Its actually a member of the hickory family, he says, which is a mild smoke. So, if I cant get pecan, Ill get hickory, and itll be very similar.

Hickory, in fact, is the granddaddy of all the woods used, says Jud McLester, corporate chef, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI, with a nice, subtle flavor thats also sweet and strong, and thats always good for just about anything that you smoke.

Giunta has had success pairing fruitwoods like apple and cherry with mildly flavored pork and chicken. And, with salmon, he says, I love alderwood. You see a lot of that out in the Pacific Northwest.

Meanwhile, the name of the game in Texas is mesquite, which is a trademark of that states beef-based barbecue. To me, its a harsh smokealmost an over-smoke, Phelps says. But thats what a lot of guys out there like.

Some smoke-substrate pairings just taste better than others. There are quantitative differences in smokiness between woods, says Gary Underwood, vice president of research and development, Red Arrow Products Company, Manitowoc, WI. We dont necessarily know why, but gas chromatograms of smoke condensates made from various woods reveal no real differences in most cases from the majority of the compounds, he says. Yet serve a taste panelist a brisket cooked over mesquite and one cooked with hickory, and hell pick up the difference on first bite. As a result, he says, we rely heavily on the use of flavor mapping, using smoke lexicon technology in describing degrees of ashy, creosote, smoky, scorched and green wood, to name a few.

But smoke does more than lend its own flavor to barbecue. It interacts with and changes the sensory profile of the barbecued foods themselves. From the meat block, smoke reacts with the seasonings and spices, fat, and protein to develop savory notes, says Bill Anderson, innovation group manager, Red Arrow. Depending on the fat content and the protein sourcebeef, chicken, pork, etc.the savory notes will vary with respect to flavor and intensity. Because the phenolic part of the smoke, which he calls the flavor portion, is oil-soluble, it adsorbs into the meats fat and skin to develop yet more smoke notes that the food wouldnt otherwise exhibit. Maillard reactions between meat proteins and carbonyls in the smoke also brown the food, he says, with only 100 ppm of carbonyls applied directly to the meats surface sufficient to yield a nice, golden-brown color. And where theres brown color, theres often brown flavor, which can be savory and somewhat sweet in nature, he says.

In the olden days, smoldering wood coals were the only means by which to obtain these effects. These days, even the pros get a boost from liquid smoke now and again. A lot of people say they wont use liquid smoke, Phelps says, but to him, the product is just another tool. If liquid smoke is used correctly, he claims, it can take the place of a good barbecue.

Building a better barbecue

Manufacturers of prepared barbecue foods focus on generating the flavor, texture and appearance created during traditional barbecuing, says Stephen Williams, director of R&D, Kraft Food Ingredients (KFI), Memphis, TN. This can be accomplished through the use of sauces, dry rubs, and/or marinades.

Manufacturers apply dry rubs composed of flavor and spice blends topically at the beginning of the cook cycle. Flavor from the rub penetrates the meat as moisture from the meat, in the form of steam, hydrates the rub and extracts its active flavor components, Williams says. Liquid marinades deliver flavor when applied in closed containers or tumbled, often with vacuum pressure to increase the porosity of the protein matrix and allow the marinade to penetrate deeply into the meat. As for liquid sauces, topical application near the end of cook is standard protocol.

Manufacturers have a lot to consider when formulating these adjuncts, whether for industrial, foodservice or home use. Most liquid barbecue sauces are based on tomato, vinegar or mustard, says Peggy Iler, flavor applications manager, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI. Some styles are a two-part system, beginning with a dry rub followed by the liquid portion. In her experience, tomato bases are the most widely requested, and tend to be traditional and all-purpose. Their substrate suitability varies with the formulation. A savory red sauce, such as found in Texas, is a rich, all-purpose sauce, she says. A hot and spicy red sauce can be used for almost any kind of meat. A sweet red sauce, such as a Kansas City or Memphis-style sauce, would be great for beef, while vinegar- and mustard-based sauces are very complementary to pork.

When fielding requests for red-sauce spice blends, Iler says, we begin by determining the basic makeup of the base before we focus on the spicing profile. They build that base with tomatoes, mustard, onions, vinegar, garlic, brown sugar and smoky or grilled notes. Optional ingredients include beer, wine, molasses and other spices, from sweet browns like allspice, clove, cinnamon and ginger to more-savory candidates like cumin, black pepper, oregano, bay, celery, paprika, orange, lemon and heat. Some nontraditional ingredients include olive oil, bell peppers, honey, corn syrup, orange juice, specialty peppers, thyme, cilantro, soy sauce, tomato juice and lemongrass, she adds. The sweetener selection, which she notes can change the flavor and cling of the final sauce, may range from the aforementioned molasses and honey to white or brown sugar and maple syrup. Another sweetener choicecommon in industrial barbecue saucesis high-fructose corn syrup, which has earned favor for its ease of use; its sweet taste that blends cleanly with other sweeteners, acids and flavors; and its all-important participation in Maillard browning in the barbecue or on the grill.

To demonstrate the general profiles flexibility, Iler and her colleagues vary the base ingredients to create a Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, western North Carolina or South Carolina sauce, she says. The base ingredients include different levels of ketchup, brown sugar, molasses, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, prepared mustard, honey and water, to which they add unique seasoning blends made from the flavorings listed above. To get the regionalized authenticity, we also add smoke, chili seasoning, jalapeño, crushed red pepper and caramel color, as needed, she says. Its a very fun demonstration, showing the versatility available using a focused list of ingredients.

Other processing considerations run from adjusting pH, total titratable acidity and salt levels, to determining thermal processing parameters, Williams says.

Avoiding flare-ups during cooking is a particular concern. When youre making a rub or a mop, Giunta says, with the latter referring to the sauces used to baste during cooking, dont use oil at all. I would also be really sensitive to using things that burn. Anything like onions or garlic burns, and becomes especially bitter.

The heat of a pit, grill or oven can turn a velvety sauce watery, but the addition of a heat-thickening stabilizer like hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC) can improve cling, and its relatively pH-stable. Guar gum is another common stabilizer in tomato-based sauces because of its pH stability and reasonable price.

As for working with rubs, McLester says: You have to keep in mind the substrate its going on and what your target use level and pickup are going to be. You can make a great rub and apply it at 3% and not have any flavor, but if you put it on at 5%, then it might be too salty. So its a balance of knowing what your target use and pickup are, and reverse-engineering from that.

Still, Giunta stresses the importance of developing flavor through the cooking process, and not just through sauces or rubs. You really need to cook these cuts of meat to allow the flavors to develop and the meat to cook almost all the way through to tenderness before you put any glaze or rub on the outside to finish it, he says.

In an industrial situation, this can be trying, but Shane Boling, R&D chef de cuisine, KFI (and a competitive barbecuer with several Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest top placements to his credit), offers some production-friendly suggestions. Ovens are excellent in production, he notes, but they cant quite match the flavors of true cue. This is where technology comes into play, he says. Grill and smoke flavors replicate barbecue profiles in a fraction of the time. For instance, theyve prepared a flavored brine that contains slow-cooked meat flavors using pork-pan-drippings, roasted-garlic and wood-fired-applewood flavors, he notes. These flavors deliver a slow-cooked, grilled-meat profile with a clean, smoky, applewood finish.

Vacuum tumbling also saves time, cutting the 8 to 12 hours required for still marination to a mere 40 minutes. Injection helps achieve even distribution in larger cuts, too. Processors tend to lean toward thicker cuts of meat, such as shoulders and Boston butts, for ready-to-eat products, Boling says. Manufactures will inject- or tumble-marinade the product, apply the flavored rub and use combination ovens to prepare the product for the consumer. This combination of steam and heat in a confined space produces a consistent product.

Barbecue for the future

Its nice when you can give the familiar a twist, says Giunta. You can have Kansas Citystyle barbecue, but put your own flavor twist on it.

Of course, not all styles need twisting. Our goal as R&D chefs is not to reinvent barbecue, but to enhance the regionalized style and natural flavors of the meat to produce a better-flavored barbecue that is consistent, manufacturing-friendly and as memorable as the place that created it, Boling says. A simply flavored Santa Barbarastyle barbecue might include garlic, salt, pepper and a splash of red wine rubbed into a sirloin or tri-tip that you set over smoldering wood chips and sear on a metal grate to medium temperature. With technology, he says, we do not have to complicate this simple style. His chefs may simply enhance the natural beef flavor with beef-broth flavor, wood-fired-mesquite grill flavor, or a flavor enhancer specifically designed for beef.

Weve done Cajun barbecue, where weve taken a Cajun blackening seasoningwhich has some blackened, caramelized notesand added it to a barbecue sauce so its as if you blackened that sauce in the pan before using it, McLester says.

International influences come into play, with Asian inspiration bringing sesame, soy sauce, fresh ginger and palm sugar to formulations. Latin American barbecue styleswhether Brazilian churrascaria, Argentine parrillada or Mexican barbacoaincorporate chile peppers, oregano, garlic, olive oil, parsley and vinegar.

Giunta suggests finishing barbecue dishes with a splash of alcohol or fruit juice. Some of the whiskeys and bourbons just go phenomenally well with barbecue, he says. He also likes the effect of beersales, porters, stouts. Fresh fruit juices are another way of adding more creative stuff, he says. You can do a pomegranate splash or wash on top of pork thats great.

As for smoke, traditional hardwoods arent the only options. I wouldnt hesitate to experiment with the whole pantry of dried spices, Giunta says. You can do a nice cinnamon smoke along with a more-neutral wood, like apple. Hes gotten great results with allspice and clove. Anything thats woody or fibrous, like ginger peelings, is fair game for smoking. And tea leaves make flavorful adjuncts to smoke blends. Theres a lot of tea-smoking going on, especially with duck breasts and pork tenderloin and some of these others cuts, he says.

Barbecue is also crossing menu categories and dayparts. I see a lot of appetizers coming out where youre seeing empanadas and fried raviolis and traditional items that could carry barbecue, but in a different, smaller, more-approachable and lighter way, Giunta says. The substrate neednt even be protein-based. A lot of those fleshy vegetables, like squashes, with their inherent sweetness, do phenomenally on the grill, he says.

For his part, McLester is starting to play with some ideas for barbecue breakfasts, and not necessarily steak-and-egg types of things, he says. Why not take that flavor and apply barbecue to an untapped area? Why couldnt we do a poached egg with pulled pork and a smoky-sweet barbecue Hollandaise sauce?

Why not, indeed? As Iler says: The possible seasoning combinations for creating a barbecue profile are too numerous to name, as witnessed by walking the aisle at any retail market. Let creativity, eating quality, personal preference and your own signature be your guide.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].


The Meats of the Matter

Pros generally agree that treating lean meats, like chicken breasts or filet mignon, to barbecues slow-cooking, low-heat methods is a fools errand. You really need that fat, says Stephen Giunta, CMC, culinary director, Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, KS. He offers beef brisket as an example. The top part, what we would call the deckle, will have a little more fat than the bottom partthe flap or point, as its called. But if you actually put the whole piece on the grill without trimming away any of the fat, you get a lot of self-basting.

Cuts of meat still hanging on the bone also take well to barbecuing. Some of the whole-hog barbecue is really fascinating to me, because you actually get three eating experiences, Giunta says. You get this crackling, crispy skin. You get this really nice bark on the outside. And then you get this soft, succulent, very tender meat in the middle. So, if you can leave the bone in a pork butt, or if youre talking about a whole chicken, those things are going to perform just wonderfully, as opposed to getting the boneless, skinless chicken breasts and trying to barbecue that.

That doesnt disqualify leaner meats entirely. Salmon, though fatty for a fish, is decidedly leaner than a pork butt, yet it remains a smokehouse staple. In a nation that watches what it eats (or claims to), barbecued chicken breasts and smoked pork tenderloin will be in demand. This is where brines come in handy. You may brine the meat first to help keep some of that moisture in there when there isnt fat to keep it moist on its own, says Jud McLester, corporate chef, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI. We will brine the product, add some flavor to itwhether chicken flavor or smoke, liquid or dryand maybe some sugars to help with the caramelization.


Genie in a Bottle

Notes Shawn Kohlmeier, marketing manager, Red Arrow Products Company, Manitowoc, WI: There is a common misconception that smoke flavors are created by flavor technologists in a laboratory setting. This is very far from how smoke condensatesor flavorsare actually created. And smoke flavors have come a long way. Thanks to new production technologies and greater knowledge of smoke chemistry, the flavor gap between traditional smoke and natural smoke condensates has been significantly reduced, he says.

If natural smoke condensates arent made in test tubes by white-coated scientists, how are they made? Red Arrows process starts with sawdust and wood chips dried to an optimal moisture level for smoke production. The dried sawdust is pyrolzed in a generator, creating smoke that then enters a primary condensing column with a countercurrent water flow. The smoke components that are essential for providing smoke color and flavor to foods are water soluble and therefore are absorbed, Kohlmeier explains.

A recirculation pump at the columns base keeps circulating the condensed smoke until it reaches a specified concentration. Then the newly created liquid goes through a phase separation wherein naturally occurring, yet undesirable, components settle out, polymerize, and agglomerate at the bottom of holding tanks. The product moving out from phase separation is our base smoke condensate product, Kohlmeier says. The base smoke condensate is stored in fresh production tanks in which there is a continuation of the separation stage. From the fresh production tanks, the base smoke is further processed into the numerous smoke condensate varieties.

The company uses hickory, mesquite, maple, oak and beech, as well as fruitwoods like apple and cherry, to manufacture its natural smoke flavors.

There has been continued investigation into new and exciting resources, Kohlmeier adds, resulting in the recent creation of corncob-, peach- and pecan-based smokes. Thus, smoke condensates not only replicate the wood character of traditional smoke, he says, but offer consistency, increased throughput, and decreased energy, cleanup, and maintenance costs relative to traditional smoking.


About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing Editor

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected]

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