What makes good BBQ? I consider successful barbecue to be the combination of seven basic characteristics happening at once: tenderness, juiciness, smokiness, proper fat rendering, enhanced rub, good exterior bark, all with a firm texture.
Good-tasting brisket, ribs and pork butt are s-l-o-w smoked at l-o-w temperatures using a real wood fire. Most importantly, BBQ should be left undisturbed on the pit and should not be hurried at all. Be aware of smoldering fires, which produce bitter tasting creosote that destroys the natural flavors of properly cooked meats.
The meat is done when it’s tender, the fat has rendered and it's still juicy as hell. When BBQ is cooked slow, good things happen. Deep, rich flavors are created and absorbed from the wood fire. The marbled fat in the meat renders down making it juicy and tender and imparting a wonderful flavor mixed with the rub as it absorbs smoke.
Good barbecue has just enough smoke to create the richness and flavor without overpowering the natural flavors produced slow cooking the meat. Exceptional barbecue with the characteristics listed above can be produced when the pitmaster strikes a balance of these three essential elements:
- Smoke produced with a proper fire and clean fire burning wood logs. Hickory, oak and pecan are my favorites. You can also use mesquite sparingly, just don't overpower the meat and rub.
- Flavorful rub that combines with smoke to enhance but not overpower the meat.
- Low even heat to impart the rich flavors and allow the fat to render.
When you do it right, the brisket sort of just slowly melts down and gets really juicy and tender. It's bathed in good smoke and has salty-peppery flavors from the rub which all meld together into a heavenly taste that some consider downright sensual. It's damned good!
On the other hand, mediocre barbecue is dry, tough (but sometimes tender), flavorless meat that requires the use of BBQ sauce. It is typically cooked fast in a non-wood fired device that will not produce the true flavor that an authentic wood-burning pit produces.
Many BBQ joints that do know how to cook good meats don't want to spend the time to train staff or the money to pay a pitmaster to run a wood fire all night. They use gas-fired ovens and compensate for missed smoke flavor with liquid smoke in the sauce. Mediocre cue is usually undercooked leaving it somewhat tough and rubbery, reducing shrinkage and thus increasing profit.
However, mediocre cue can result from a wood-fired pit. If a wood pit builds up an overabundance of hot coals from logs, then the smoke is gone. If you add more wood the pit will overheat. When a seasoned wood log in placed on hot coals it typically will create smoke for 15-30 minutes depending on it’s size.
What you are left with is an overly hot fire that produces no smoke, resulting in roasting the meat, aka: roast beef, instead of smoking it! At some point the hot coals should be shoveled out so more wood can be added to the fire to produce smoke to get the flavor on the meat. Running the pit too hot even while burning wood logs, combined with cooking the meats too fast will often result in dry and smokeless meats.
Tending a wood fire takes time and labor, which is something many barbecue joints want to eliminate with automated ovens and liquid smoke. So the next time you visit your favorite BBQ joint check out their smoker, type of wood and cooking techniques and determine if their meats have the seven characteristics of damn good BBQ!
Also, if you have thoughts about what makes good barbecue, please let us know so we can share with others.
Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse