What could be the association of technology with BBQ?
BBQ reflects the choices the pit-master makes, among: pork cut-of-meat; hard wood; temperature; time; cooking vessel. And, since BBQ involves low-temperatures cooked for long periods of time, it can help to have a helping friend – and in my case, that would be technology; most friends my age don't want to stay up all night any more!
BBQ, to my wife and me, means NC-style pulled-pork, cooked slow, over hard-wood charcoal. That's the style we grew up with, and it was the ghost that haunted us, as we sat in Arizona where I was working at the time, jonesing for BBQ. Thinking about it only made it worse.
There was none to be had, at any price, anywhere close to us. So all we could do was think about it.
This was 1983, pre-Internet, which made information hard to come by. In particular, it made information, which was secretive by its nature, nearly impossible to come by. Those that knew weren't talking.
We called back to NC to family and friends, only to be told that no, no one we knew, knew the secret of how to make it – they all just went out and bought it. Their view was – it's everywhere, it's cheap, and it's good, so why do you want to make it? Well, it may have been everywhere, but it wasn't in Arizona, so if we were going to have any BBQ, we were going to have to make it!
So, thus began my holy grail of finding out how to make BBQ. It started in 1983, and it was not until about 2000 that I felt like I was capable of producing consistently good BBQ. And yes, I'm still learning and still refining it.
Since we couldn't find any mentors or books, there was only one way to find out: to buy meat, and to start cooking it, to critically evaluate it, and to record the results for comparisons. Lots of meat, and lots of tests, spread out over many years.
The facts as we knew them:
It was pork meat.
It was somewhat spicy.
It could be pulled apart.
It went really well with Texas Pete, and a little coleslaw.
Burning wood (fire!) was involved.
It wasn't looking like BBQ was going to be happening anytime soon!
I cooked our first batch on a gas grill. It was a Boston-butt. I cooked it for about 3 hours, and sliced it up, as you sure couldn't pull it apart. It was good, but it wasn't BBQ – it was just cooked meat with store-bought sauce – we didn't know how to make sauce either.
I kept increasing the temperatures, until finally one day, I burned it to a toast. By now I had moved to a a small offset smoker. The wood fire got too hot, and the temperature shot up to something like 425 dF. It was literally toast on the outside, but the inside – why, it fell apart! I had done it! Only I hadn't. It fell apart, but it still wasn't BBQ.
By now, I was beginning to suspect that higher and higher temperatures weren't getting the job done; it was true that it was falling apart, but I was having to trim off so much of the black stuff – you couldn't call that meat, not crunchy-black like that, so it was just known as stuff, as in “the stuff you can't eat”.
Since I knew I couldn't keep going higher, that meant I was going to start going south – I was going to drop the temperature. I didn't know a lot about cooking, but I could infer that cooking at a lower temperature was going to mean cooking for longer periods of time. So that's what I did. I dropped the temperature by 50 dF, then 50 dF more, meanwhile jabbing the meat with a meat thermometer to determine when it got done, which at that time for pork per the USDA was something like 170 dF (last year the USDA dropped that to 145 dF for whole cuts of meat, not ground).
At some point, I got down to about 250 dF, and for a long time, this was my target temperature. But, as is the search for the holy grail, if this was good, what was better below it? And was lower safe? That was another big question. None of us had ever cooked anything at these temperatures – was it safe to do so? By now I had found a book that gave a lot of insight – not about BBQ, but about the science of cooking: Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The insight on pasteurization calmed us on the lower temperatures given the amount of time I was cooking for.
But even here I was tested: I started getting black-oily-tar on the outside of the meat! Where was this coming from? Well, it turns out I was cooking so low that the wood was smoldering, and the smoke, which up until now only meant good things, now was ruining my meat – it's known as creosote! So that meant there is a low temperature cutoff, at least as far as smoldering fires are concerned, so lower temperatures meant a different way of smoking the meat too.
So where have I ended up? I generally cook between 190 dF and 225 dF, depending on the amount of time that I have. I'll even go up to 250 dF if time is shorter. For the lower temperatures, I'll smoke it for 24 – 26 hours.
Which led me into a new direction: designing and building automated temperature controllers (Arduino is the latest) for controlling inlet-air dampers on my smoker, and into Sous Vide. For the Sous Vide, I bought a commercial cooker (SousVide Supreme), but I also have a controller I designed and built to use our crock-pot as a Sous Vide cooker. So if you get interested in Sous Vide and already know how to make BBQ, then you're going to recognize this isn't new, it was invented a long, long time ago – it's just immersing the food into a water-tight package and cooking it in precisely temperature controlled water. Well, duh; been there, done that.
So, when you start a journey for BBQ, you'll never know where you're going to end up! It was hard in the pre-Internet days to find out any information, but everything is available to you now, just a click away.
More on this topic at BBQ and Banjos! And, since this is one of my favorite topics, I'll have more to say here too!