Now that we have been through the process of selecting proper cuts for barbecue, we ought to try to make it all taste good. Cooking barbecued meats is all about proper management and manipulation of the cooking process from start to finish. Part of this manipulation includes seasoning. On its own, meat is relatively tasteless. There is an extremely fine line between roast pork and barbecue. The transformation of meats into barbecue happens at the later stages of the cooking process. When our meat gets above 170 degrees most of the free moisture has been cooked out, fat starts to render, collagen begins to break down and we begin to see and smell the usual characteristics of what we recognize as barbecue. Spices and seasonings should enhance these senses not overwhelm them. For this occasion we will use a broad definition: Seasoning is anything that is applied to meat that affects its basic qualities. These qualities are not only flavor and aroma, but texture and tenderness too.
Without further adieu we will introduce the players in the seasoning game:
Salt: Without a doubt the most important ingredient in barbecue cookery. It is absolutely essential in whole hog cooking. When used with other seasonings, salt balances flavors, tempers bitter, sour and sweet tastes, and intensifies the all mighty umami. Herbs and peppers owe their success to salt. Simply put, salt makes things taste better. Interestingly, when sodium ions from salt join together with glutamic acid, produced from the aging process we discussed in a previous article, the result is natural MSG (monosodium glutamate). Monosodium glutamate enhances flavor.
Salt does not make meat dry. It has many uses in the cooking process. Most poultry products are injected with a saline solution to enhance flavor and moisture. It also serves as a preservative, protecting meat while it slowly warms up during the slow cooking processes inherent to barbecue.
Salts are different by variety. The best way to measure it is by weight. Table salt is denser than kosher salt and dissolves more readily. It may take more kosher salt to equal the same salinity as table salt in brines or rubs. Sea salt contains other salts and minerals and may take even more volume to produce the same effect.
Sugar: Usually used in conjunction with salt to moderate flavors and enhance moisture. It has the ability to readily dissolve and “hook up” with salt to penetrate into the meat during preparation. It also aids in aids in browning and bark formation during the latter stages of the cook. Thus, sugar is always an important part of many rubs. However, choosing the right sugar is critical. Some sugars can burn or scorch leaving behind an unpleasant taste. Rubs are best with brown sugar or raw sugar. Brines and bastes do well with honey and molasses.
Vinegar: A staple in barbecue cooking. Vinegar adds “brightness” to sauces and bastes and provides a necessary acid that acts as a solvent to reduce the greasy characteristics of some barbecued meats.
Spice: Spices play a healthy and hearty role in the seasoning process. Spice blends like Chile Powders, and Curries can change the entire outlook of the finished product. Heat, savory, citrus and peppers are all great additions to meats.
Herbs: Herbs generally don’t bring much to the table in rubs. They tend to lay on the surface of the meat and are not soluble until the later phases of cooking. This makes them susceptible to burning. Herbs do better in sauces and bastes where liquids can steep the flavors.
Tomato Products: Tomato products often find a special place in barbecue cooking. They provide sugar for bark formation in bastes. Ketchup, tomato sauce, chili sauces and others are often used as platforms for popular sauces. Tomato products should be used with care. They often mask some of the flavors you have worked so hard to produce.
Milk Products: Milk products are often used in poultry brines. Enzymes in buttermilk tenderize meats and add a very flavorful acidic quality to most meats. Butter and creams are crucial to the manipulation of sensations and can add depth to any sauce.
The Dark Secret: Many cooks use chocolate, cocoa and coffee to add a certain depth or bitter to a sauce. It serves as that “taste you can’t quite put your finger on” when you are sharing your creation with others.
The Aging Process: The aging of beef should not be discounted as a flavor enhancer. Aging enzymes add color and flavor to the final product.
Smoke: The flavor that is inherent to true barbecue. Without smoke, barbecue is roasted meat. Smoke should be subtle and pleasing, never predominant, bitter or harsh. Fire control is the most important part of imparting smoke flavor into meat. A Pit Master has to keep a clean well managed fire so as not to smudge the meat with the black burnt flavors of creosote. The proper introduction of a good mixture of hardwoods during the cooking process can make a huge difference to your finished product.
The judicious use of seasonings is a cornerstone of great barbecue. After all, if we are going to spend the time it takes to make great barbecue, we should at least make it taste good. Sometimes all you need is a simple salt and black pepper rub, we call it Dalmatian Rub. At GrateTV, we always use a simple Dalmatian Rub for our control sample when we are testing new profiles. Try different combinations of spices, herbs, and smokes every time you make barbecue, and enjoy the flavor ride.