No matter the meat, barbecue must be well seasoned. In Our last publication we presented the players common to great tasting barbecue. This week will discuss the methods used to apply these seasonings judiciously. Whether it is brines, rubs, slathers, pastes, injections, marinades, bastes or glazes. A well researched plan, with some fundamental knowledge will pay off on the dinner plate.
Most of the experts use brines or dry rubs to season meats. This process was a holdover from the early methods of curing. Meats are generally barbecued for long periods of time in an oxygen limited environment. This environment is well suited for the growth of microbes associated with food borne illnesses. Salt based rubs and brines help keep meats safe for consumption.
Brining is a process used in the early days to pickle and preserve meats and vegetables. In most early brines salt was added to liquid until it would float an egg or a potato. We now use much weaker brines to prepare our meats for the smoker. Salt is still the workhorse, for without salt it wouldn’t be brine. The addition of herbs, spices and sugars help develop flavors and make the brine to our own taste. Soft drinks are also being used to bring a pleasant added dimension to the flavor of brine. They contain water soluble flavorings and sugars that balance the “saltiness” of the brine. Try to find soft drinks that use natural cane sugars rather than high fructose corn syrup. Read the labels carefully. You may find success in RC Cola, Dr. Pepper, NeHi and imported Coke products. Always taste your brine before you add meat. It should be salty, but pleasant. In the words of Mario Batali: it should be salty as the sea. Large cuts like turkeys can be brined over night, while smaller cuts like chicken pieces only need a few hours. Trial and error will be your guide to proper brining times.
Dry Rubs work on the same principle as brines only without the water soak. Herbs and spices are applied to the outer surface of the meat and stay there to develop a flavor during the cooking process. When salt is applied to meat it draws out free moisture, dissolves and can then penetrate a bit into the meat. As meats warms the process accelerates. This is why many Pit Masters leave meat out for a period of time before they put it in the smoker.
Slathers and pastes come in many different forms. Many are mustard based. Many rubs become pastes when mustard is introduced. Mustard acts as an emulsifier and helps to adhere the rubs to the meat. Since prepared mustard is oil based it helps prevent bastes from beading up and will help thinner sauces spread evenly.
Marinades are useful for grilling but serve little purpose for barbecuing. Generally, marinades are acid based (vinegar or fruit juices) mixed with oil and herbs & spices. Marinades are well suited for thinner cuts like steaks or chops since the flavor compounds will not penetrate the meat all that much. Meat tenderizers such as papaya, pineapple, and ginger maybe added with caution. Too much exposure to these tenderizers will turn meat to mush. Salt should generally be restricted from acidic marinades. As meat become more acidic, salt has less effect on protein, making its presence relatively useless.
Injections are very popular in barbecue. They are generally salt, water, and any flavor enhancer that is not found naturally in meat. For pork, the base is usually apple juice for its acidic quality and natural sweetness. These mixtures are forced into the larger cuts with syringes or meat pumps. Many competition Pit Masters use an injection. However, it’s not as popular with the at home hobby cook. Commercially, turkey producers have been using injections since the middle 1960s. Product researchers for the poultry industry found that many consumers were over cooking the breast portions of the turkey leaving it tasteless and dry. A quick injection of a saline solution made the turkey a much more pleasant dinner. This practice is spreading into our red meat products. Be careful to buy only unenhanced red meats. Meat should not need an ingredient label.
Basting is the most misunderstood and misused process in barbecue today. Bastes serve two different roles during the cooking process. First, the liquids used as the base add moisture to the surface of the meat, cooling the exterior and slowing down the cooking process. Bastes can be applied anytime during the process but are best applied during the second stall or after the meat reaches about 160 degrees. Most of the free internal moisture has traveled out toward the surface of the meat and evaporated. Outer surfaces may be approaching the ambient temperature of the cooking vessel. Controlling the cooking process allows more time for internal collagen to continue to break down while still developing a nice “bark”. Second, adding tasty ingredients to enhance bark formation can only serve the good. Be careful not to use white sugars or salt as part of your baste. Sugar can burn and leave a bitter taste. If salt was a main spice in your dry rub, the application of more salt may become adverse. Contrary to popular belief, basting does not add moisture to meat. Cooking expels moisture regardless of the cooking environment.
Glazes are generally sugar based sauces that get applied to hot meats just before or just after meats are taken out of the vessel. Generally speaking higher heat is needed to melt the sugar. Melted sugar will crystallize and make a very nice sheen that will enhance the appearance of moisture.
The method chosen to apply seasoning is extremely important to the success of barbeque. If seasoning is done correctly, you will develop a taste for barbeque without the thick sweet sauce that so often covers up a shortcoming. Whichever process you choose, make sure to do your research, and develop a good plan for your cook. The efforts will pay huge dividends at the dinner table.