Barbecue 101 Part IV-A: The Seasoning
By Dan Gill
Barbecue, by definition, is seasoned meat cooked slowly with wood or wood by-products (live coals or charcoal) until it assumes the usual characteristics. Raw meat is relatively tasteless: in order for a hunk of meat to be transformed into flavorful, succulent and savory barbecue, many natural processes must be managed and manipulated before, during and after cooking through the judicious use of seasonings, time, and temperature. Herein lies the true art of meat cookery in general and barbecue in particular. There is a fine line between "roasted pork" and "barbecue". The transformation occurs after most of the free moisture has been cooked out of the meat, allowing internal temperatures to exceed 170¡ F. During this late cooking stage, collagen melts, fats render, and protein breaks down to flavorful peptides resulting in the usual characteristics of barbecue in terms of taste, texture and aroma. You can tell when barbecue happens by the smell alone. Spices and seasonings enhance this process and complement natural barbecue flavors (but should not overwhelm them). They may be added before, during or after cooking – with different results for each method. Meat, poultry and fish cooked by other methods also benefit from the judicious use of seasonings. For this discussion, we will use the broad definition: Seasoning is anything applied to meat that affects its organoleptic qualities - not only flavor and aroma, but also texture and tenderness.
Salt: Salt is the real work-horse of seasonings and is the only essential seasoning for barbecue: The absolute epitome of the art is a whole hog, seasoned only with salt, and cooked about twenty-four inches above glowing hardwood coals for eighteen hours or so. Though best when pulled directly from the hot carcass with no further seasoning, it may be dipped in an "Eastern North Carolina sauce" consisting only of vinegar, hot peppers, salt and maybe a little sugar or molasses (though not for purists).
In conjunction with other seasonings, salt balances flavors, moderates bitter, sour and sweet tastes and intensifies umami or the savory quality of food (see PL January – February 2006). The heavy hitters (such as peppers and herbs) can swagger all they want, but most owe their real magic to a little salt. Salt is the vehicle which transports flavor into meat tissues: When applied to meat surfaces, salt draws free water and immediately dissolves into positively charged sodium and negatively charged chloride ions. Not only do these ions readily penetrate meat tissues by diffusion but they can also latch onto and drag some water-soluble flavor components along with them.
Salt simply makes most foods taste better. It enhances umami by participating in the alteration of protein during aging and cooking processes, then by combining with complex molecules (amino acids and inosinates) to create flavor. For example, when sodium ions from salt join with glutamic acid from protein, they form natural MSG (monosodium glutamate).
Contrary to popular belief, salt does not make meat dry during cooking. In fact, salt causes moisture to be retained within cells allowing the final product to be juicier – even when overcooked. Salt denatures protein, causing the component strands to relax. During cooking, protein strands do not contract as much and so do not squeeze out as much water. This is why turkey breasts are often injected with a saline solution during processing and why salt is the key ingredient in dry rubs and brines.
Salt acts as a preservative, protecting meat as it slowly warms and during prolonged cooking in an oxygen-poor (smoky) atmosphere. This is especially important when smoking fish. Salt also firms the flesh of delicate fish species, improving texture.
All salts are not created equal. The best way to measure salt (and many other ingredients) is by weight. Kosher salt is less dense than table salt and takes longer to dissolve. It may take a cup and a half of kosher salt to equal the salinity of one cup of table salt in a brine or dry rub. Sea salt contains minerals and other salts in addition to sodium chloride and may require more volume or weight for the same effect.
Sugar is used in conjunction with salt to moderate saltiness, enhance flavors and retain moisture. It dissolves and penetrates into the meat along with salt during the preparation stage and aids in browning and bark formation during the final cooking stage. Thus sugar is an important ingredient in rubs and bastes, but must be used with care so that it doesn't burn or scorch. Molasses (my favorite) brings its own flavors to the party and is used in brines, bastes and sauces. Dry rubs usually contain brown sugar, which now is just refined sugar with molasses added back in, or raw sugar, which has not had all of the molasses removed during processing.
Vinegar is used mostly in bastes and sauces as a solvent to reduce greasiness and to provide brightness. Strong acids break down raw muscle tissue and can make meat mushy; therefore they are usually used in the later stages of cooking or in condiments.
Herbs and Spices, including capsicum peppers, owe most of their flavor to complex fat-soluble molecules, which are released by acids and oils but don't move around much and are difficult to get into meat. Therefore, herbs and spices are used to advantage in marinades, bastes and sauces but only to flavor meat surfaces. For the same reason herbs and spices are of limited value in brines. In dry rubs they just lie on the surface, basically intact, until the later stages of barbecue when the flavors are released by heat and rendered fats and they can participate in browning reactions and bark flavor.
Tomato products play a special role in bastes and sauces: In bastes they provide sugars for caramelization, acids for brightness and amino acids for flavor. In sauces, tomato juice or catsup provide a platform for other flavors, but can also overwhelm or mask hard-earned barbecue characteristics. By the same token, tomato based sauces can be used to disguise inferior barbecue.
Milk products are included in brines for meats and poultry that are to be smoke-cooked. Milk provides calcium, which stimulates aging enzymes thereby tenderizing and improving texture and flavor. Fermented dairy products such as buttermilk and yogurt add mild acid and even more flavor.
The Dark Side: Chocolate and coffee, brewed or instant, are among the "secret ingredients" used to add depth to sauces and bastes. Many award-winning chili recipes contain a little cocoa powder and mole (moh-lay) sauce is defined by a small amount of chocolate.
Time and Temperature: Raw meat contains enzymes that break down protein and connective tissue as part of the decomposition process thereby improving flavor and tenderness. Under controlled conditions, beef, lamb and venison benefit most from aging. Vacuum-packed primal cuts can be "wet-aged" in the refrigerator for several weeks without going bad. If you discover that the packaging has lost vacuum, then open and evaluate the condition of the meat right away: Once air gets in the packaging, meats go downhill fast. If the package starts to swell, indicating the production of gas inside, the meat is probably bad or going bad. There is normally a strong smell to the juice when the package is first opened, so rinse meat well before giving it the sniff test.
Aging enzymes work best when the meat is in the danger zone (40¡ to 140¡). Allowing meat to reach room temp for a few hours after rubbing and before cooking accelerates the process. Also, low pit temperatures give meat more time to warm slowly, allowing the enzymes to work at top speed until they are de-activated at about 130¡ F.
Seasonings, primarily salt and sugar, need time to penetrate and to do their work. How much time depends upon meat thickness and temperature. Large pieces, such as pork shoulder and briskets should be dry-rubbed and refrigerated for 12 to 24 hours, or held at room temperature for several hours before cooking to accelerate rub penetration. Salt in the rub or brine helps protect raw meat from microbes as it warms. Thin pieces, such as ribs, can be dry rubbed shortly before going on the pit. I like to warm pork spare ribs in hot water (warming also makes the membrane easier to remove), then dry-rub about one hour before they go on the pit.
Smoke is a distinctive flavor component. I have discussed fire control and smoke quality at length in previous articles available in back issues of Pleasant Living and on our web page. Smoke flavor should be subtle and pleasant, never bitter, harsh or predominant. Though not a flavor, the "smoke ring", or pink zone below the surface of smoked meats can be either an indicator of proper technique or nefarious trickery: Nitrogen from smoke combines with myoglobin in meat to form persistent pink molecules; but the smoke ring can also be faked by including a little curing salt, containing nitrates, in dry rubs. Smoke is most effective during the first half of the cooking time while the surface of the meat is still moist enough to facilitate penetration, and enzymes and myoglobin are still active.
My next article will discuss seasoning methods: rubs, brines, marinades, bastes and sauces, and how each method can be used to advantage in barbecue and meat cookery. Previous articles in the Barbecue 101 series are available in the "Blurb Book" at Something Different Country Store, on our website under "Blurbs" and in archived copies of Pleasant Living Magazine online.
(c) Dan Gill 2-08
Published in Pleasant Living magazine March - April 2008
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