By: Bill Heavey
Armed with a notebook, a hairnet, and appetite, and plenty of Dr. Pepper, a novice backyard warrior enters the hallowed halls of meat science for an intensive lesson in fire, wood, smoke, and plain old great Texas ‘cue.
The secret to making great barbecue is simple—good airflow. Without steady airflow through your cooker, you get dirty smoke and bitter meat. A guy like Bryan Bracewell, who runs Southside Market & Barbeque in Elgin, Texas, knows several blocks before he arrives at the store what kind of day he’ll have by what’s coming out of the chimney.
Wait. Actually, the real secret—this is so obvious that people forget it—is a great piece of meat, because what goes in your smoker is what comes out. Great meat, like Our Savior, forgives your mistakes. At least, also like Our Savior, the smaller ones. Then again, great pit masters—I mean somebody with smoke in their veins—can turn a so-so hunk of meat into something that makes you want to holler. Which explains why plenty of competitions have been won by guys using USDA Choice, a grade lower than Prime.
Still, when you get right down to it, you and your cooker will never make beautiful ’cue together unless you know yours like your spouse, maybe even your dog. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a $99 Weber or a $25,000 A. N. Bewley that can do 450 whole chickens at once. No two cook the same. You’ve got to break it in, learn its hot and cold spots, and keep it clean. Cold spots, incidentally, aren’t a flaw. Most professionals rely on those cooler areas to keep smaller cuts from overcooking. While we’re on the subject, if it rains, get that wet ash out pronto. I didn’t quite follow the chemistry, but here’s the gist: If it’s metal, it will rust. And wet ash is to rust as Miracle-Gro is to tomatoes.
So there’s no one secret. There are a bunch, and sometimes they contradict one another. This is what I’m learning at the seventh annual Barbecue Summer Camp, a weekend immersion into the science of barbecue put on each June by Foodways Texas and the Meat Science Section of the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University in College Station. Not everything is bigger in Texas, but the colleges sure are. Texas A&M is about the size of Rhode Island, with its own airport and buildings that probably have their own weather systems set about a bicycle ride apart. Looming up out of the prairie over all of it is the 102,733-seat Kyle Field, which has a video screen larger than the lot my house sits on and acoustics that make visiting teams go deaf. It would make an ideal venue for the next Hunger Games.
For more information regarding news from the Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M University, please contact Maggie Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or (979) 845-1542.