The following information will help you gain the knowledge that will guide you to the “next level” of mastering barbecuing and grilling. These are not necessarily tips or techniques but BASIC RULES or SKILLS for developing consistently better, high quality barbecue results.
Know the internal temperature of the meat that you are cooking – Because not all different types of meat cook at the same rate, constant monitoring of the cooking process is essential to achieving perfectly cooked meat each time. This monitoring is easily accomplished by using an inexpensive meat thermometer (they usually sell for $10, or less). Better, digital reading thermometers sell for $25-30, and the latest ones even read meat temperatures by remote sensors.
Always use the cleanest fuel available – You can use lump charcoal anytime, as it contains no impurities; use charcoal briquettes only when they have burned down to a gray ash. Do not use lighter fluid if at all possible, as there are petroleum distillates in the fuel that will taint the taste of the meat. If you must use lighter fluid, always allow the briquettes to burn for at least 40 minutes in order to remove any traces of the fumes.
Mixing and storage containers – The pros have long known that when using spices, rubs and other ingredients, they have a tendency to interact with various types of metal bowls and containers. During this interaction, the rubs and sauces will pick up a slight metal flavor if used with such reactive material such as aluminum, copper or other common type of mixing bowl.
Always try to use glass or plastic to mix and store your seasonings – that way they won’t pick up any undesirable flavors. Also, whenever you store your seasonings for re-use, always use non-reactive glass or plastic containers.
Use of Marinades – Whenever using a marinade that had been mixed or prepared at an earlier time, be sure to boil it for 2 to 3 minutes! The reason for this is that there are bacteria on all meat. When the meat is cooked, any germs which may be present will be killed once the temperature rises above 150-165°. However, the same bacteria that was on the raw meat will remain in the leftover marinade. So, for safety’s sake, always boil the marinade to destroy any bacteria that may be in it.
Marinating – The basic premises of preparing a marinade for any piece of meat centers around three basic parts: The first is the cooking oil, the second is an acid based product such as vinegar and the third ingredient(s) are the spices and/or herbs you’ve selected. There are two expert rules for making a quality marinade:
Rule 1 – Make the oil/vinegar proportions equal, e.g., ½ cup each.
Rule 2 – Don’t overpower your marinade with spices. Salt, sugar and garlic are considered to be universal flavorings, as are peppers, basil, oregano, dried mustard and onion, etc.
To prepare the marinade: add the vinegar to the bowl first and then with a small/medium wisk, begin blending in the oil in small quantities, until it is all blended well together. If you try to do it all at once, the vinegar and oil will not blend thoroughly. Then, once the oil and vinegar mix has been thoroughly blended, begin adding your spices and herbs.
The fun part is that you can be creative in making the favor of your choice. You might want to try some of the following in your marinades – but keep a good record of what you added, so that it can be duplicated and even handed down to others.
The following are recommended oils, acids and spices and herbs that you might try in making your marinades:
Oils: Olive (Virgin, Light), Vegetable Oil, Butter, Canola, Sesame, etc.
Acids: White Vinegar, Red Wine Vinegar, Lemon Juice, Lime Juice, Dill Pickle Juice, Grapefruit Juice, Cider Vinegar, Pineapple Juice, etc.
Spices/Herbs: Basil, Pepper, Sugar, Salt, Garlic, Dry Mustard, Onion, Honey, Soy, Molasses, Brown Sugar, Parsley, Rosemary, Ginger, Celery Seeds, Mint Leaves, Zest, Chicken Stock, Cumin, etc.
Never over-cook the food by trying to make it too tender – This is a very common mistake made by most beginners or otherwise uninformed cooks. Whenever you overcook meat, it will dry the bone, releasing the meat from the bone. Meat falling off the bone has nothing to do with being tender – it is just over-cooked. It is not only not tender, it has probably just dried out (though it will certainly come off the bone easily). If you judge tenderness in this method, you should rethink your definition.
Keep it Sanitary – When handling and preparing fresh meat, always thoroughly wash your hands and the preparation surface areas regularly to remove bacteria and other germs. This is particularly true with fish, pork and chicken. Unsanitary habits and conditions can make you very ill. Also, if you wash your hands and dry them on cloth towels, be aware that you may be merely transferring the bacteria to the towel for the next time you touch it. Therefore, clean paper towels are recommended for drying your hands and cleaning up around the grill.
Grilling grates must be hot! If you are “grilling” (fast cooking directly over the heat), as opposed to “barbecuing” (low temperature and not directly over the heat), always make sure the grates are very hot. This means making sure you have the fire at maximum temperatures and the cooking grates over this heat for at least 10 minutes. By pre-heating the cooking grates, they will sear the meat to make it look pretty, but more importantly, it will keep the meat from sticking to the cooking grate when turning it over (meat that still sticks is not ready to be turned). When the meat releases from the cooking grates (or if there is the only the slightest pull) then the meat is ready to be turned. BUT, for this to work properly, the grates must be HOT!
Cook more than you plan to eat! Always barbecue, grill or roast more than you intend to eat at that meal! Barbecued meats freeze very well and quite often becomes more flavorful as the seasonings and blends are reheated at a later date.
Always exercise caution with tomato sauce – The use of barbecue sauce during the cooking process is probably the most misunderstood technique used by the backyard cook. Tomatoes and sugar, some of the primary components in barbecue sauce, both have low burning temperatures, meaning they burn very easily and quickly.
The misconception is that placing a lot of barbecue sauce on the meat helps keeps the meat moist and tender, when in reality what is happening is a build-up of a charred crust of sugar and tomatoes. The correct approach is the use of the basting sauce during the latter part of the cooking process. Just before you remove the meat from the grill, and while it is not directly over the heat of the grill, place the barbecue sauce on all sides of the meat and allow it to sit (away from the direct heat) for 15 to 20 minutes. This sets up a nice tender surface and prevents the sauce from being burned.
Enjoy the process – Never rush the barbecuing process, i.e., allow yourself time to enjoy the process. You can do this by relaxing, planning ahead, taking your time and having the necessary ingredients available before you start. You may want to season the meat the night before and place it, covered, in the refrigerator for marinating or a dry rub. Having enough charcoal/gas to complete the task is also important – and most importantly, have plenty of good beverages and friends over to enjoy not only the process – but also the results.
Understanding Spices Better
At one time, spices were extremely expensive, but today the price of spices is the least expensive ingredient in any dish, and often, it is the spices that make the most significant difference in the final outcome of that dish.
Good barbecue cooks know the importance of selecting and purchasing the best spices. However, finding the best is often a problem. There are four major determining factors in selecting spices: flavor, aroma, heat and color.
Volatile oils are largely responsible for a spices’ characteristic flavor and aroma, and the higher oil content, the more flavor, and the better spice.
Also, the country origin of herbs and spices, the growing conditions such as soil content, rain and heat are all factors which will give you information on the quality of a specific spice. Just like wine grapes, whose flavor differs depending on where they are gown, a spice’s flavor is characteristic of the environment in which it is grown. Pepper, as well as most other spices, grows in a band within 10 to 20 degrees of the equator around the world. Pungency is the hot sensation produced in the mouth by constituents of spices such as pepper, chilies or ginger, which also contribute to flavor.
Freshness is also a critical factor in flavor and aroma – While whole spices retain their flavor fairly well, as soon as spices are ground, their flavor and aroma begin to fade, with the aroma deteriorating first. If you can’t purchase whole spices and grind them yourself, whenever possible, try to demand freshly ground spices. Fresh herbs and spices should always have a fresh, clean, distinct aroma. Heat is another determining factor when selecting a spice. This heat is measured in the spice trade in scoville units. Heat or scoville units may run from mild (1,200 units) to a very hot (6,000 units). Chilies particularly are bought often by selecting the amount of heat units. Chilies have been known to run as high as 20,000 units!
Generally, peppers and ginger are less hot and are more often described by their pungency. Peppers can be purchased that are more or less pungent, with Tellicherry pepper being the most pungent and Sarawak pepper being the least pungent.
Color is the most important characteristic of a spice or herb as far as the visual impact of a dish. Tellicherry is the blackest of the black peppers, while Brazilian black pepper is often closer to gray in color.
The color in paprika is determined by ASTA levels. The ASTA level is the amount of color that can be extracted in water. These levels run from pale (90 ASTA) to rich (140 ASTA). As you can visualize, a pale paprika would be unappealing to the eye on potato salad.
Learning how to select spices for flavor, aroma, heat and color, and how to combine flavors adds a tremendous amount to one’s cooking abilities and food presentations.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT FLAVORS
Most of us know a great deal intuitively about flavors; when you think about it, we have all been interested in flavor and playing with flavors for years. To increase your confidence in dealing with flavors, begin by carefully tasting one flavor and asking questions, then as you understand that flavor, add another one, and then another.
Be aware of the flavor’s aromas because our sense of smell heightens our sense of taste. Because barbecue is always so aromatic, we may have a tendency to forget this important area. Do the flavors come together to form a brand new flavor, i.e., something superior or something entirely new? Chili powder is an example of such a flavor marriage. The secondary flavors marry with the primary ones and create a new flavor much greater than the sum of its parts. When ginger and molasses marry, they create a flavor superior to either alone.
In another kind of marriage, one ingredient acts as a catalyst. Its function is not only to marry with another ingredient, but also to change it. Salt is the most common catalyst. It marries with other flavors and makes them brighter.
Acids are superior catalysts. Vinegar, lemon and lime, as well as wine, keep primary flavors from disappearing. White wine vinegar punches up the flavors of herbs and is often used in sauces for fish, while red wine keeps the flavors of beef stew intact. Vinegar lifts certain flavors out of the background and makes them more prominent.
Ask yourself the following questions: Are the flavors opposite? Do they balance? Do they cancel each other out or do they emphasize the flavors? Sweet/sour, sweet/salty, sweet/hot are all opposites, which emphasize the flavors. No cuisine is more dependent on opposites than barbecue – a perfect example is sweet and sour. Getting the right balance is the trick – e.g., equal amounts of sugar and salt actually cancel each other out. Remember that sour flavors balance salty ones, sugar cancels bitterness – as in sugar cancels the bitterness of cocoa to make wonderful chocolates. Spicy flavors are balanced by fruity flavors, which is why pepper is good on strawberries and great in a sweet wine sauce.
Savories – Did you know that almost anything that is available wet, is also available dry? For example, dry Worcestershire sauce comes in several varieties. Most spice companies have one or more types that are great in rubs for adding depth and complexity, and rounding out flavors.
There are several dry acids that add the sour to balance the sweet in rubs and seasoning mixes. Dry vinegar not only creates balance, but also adds interest and sparkle. You can try vinegar in combination with citric acid for a more complex flavor. Citric acid is very close to lemon and can be substituted for lemon in most recipes.
Soy sauces is the primary ingredient for barbecue in many other countries and Americans are missing out on a great flavoring ingredient by ignoring this versatile cooking ingredient. Soy sauces not only add a salty flavor, they can also add a wonderful chocolate color as well as a hard to describe, delicious flavor to your meals.
All varieties of smoke flavors are sold today – not only in oak and mesquite, but apple, cherry, and many others, as well.
Yeast – Yeast is one of the major secrets of manufacturing companies to enhance flavors. Most often yeast is added to increase the perception of salt and spices without adding salt, and some will produce a creamy feel, or a fatty feel without adding either cream or fat. These are terrific for low fat barbecue sauces.
SWEET SPICES FOR SAVORY DISHES
Allspice, is a spice that is often neglected, though it can be of particular value to the barbecuer. Its flavor and aroma marries well with meat and with other spices, and its sweet peppery flavor combines particularly well with chili peppers, creating a wonderful sweet, hot flavor. Allspice is the native of the New World and was unknown elsewhere until the Spanish introduced it to Europe in the 16th Century.
Whole allspice is the dried, unripe, but mature, dark reddish or purplish brown berries from an evergreen tree. Their fragrant aroma is very similar to cloves, and the pungent aromatic flavor suggests a blend of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and pepper, hence its name allspice. The best berries are grown in Jamaica, which produces most of the world’s supply today. The flavor of Jamaican allspice is warmer and more spicy, fuller bodied, slightly pungent and peppery, with a fruity cinnamon clove-like flavor, and an astringent after-taste. Today, allspice is the secret ingredient in Jerk seasoning, and in northern and eastern Europe, it is an essential ingredient for pickling and preserving meat. It is used throughout the Mediterranean to sweeten bitter vegetables and balance the acidity of tomato sauces. In the Caribbean, allspice berries are thrown into cooking fires to add a richer, smoked flavor to foods.
Use whole spices whenever possible and grind them fresh. As soon as allspice is ground, it begins to lose its flavor and aroma (up to one half of its flavor will dissipate within three months). Allspice should be used carefully because it is very potent. As little as 1/8th of a teaspoon of ground allspice is sufficient to flavor 1 quart of soup, stock or marinade.
Rubs are a great way to use low and slow cooking, as well as in grilling and sautéing. Rubs produce more intensely flavored dishes because they are composed of spices undiluted by liquids and because they will adhere to the surface of foods better than marinades. In addition, they don’t require the soaking time that marinades do – you can simply rub the spices onto the meat and place it on the grill.
Curry and Chili powder are combinations of spices which, when combined, form a superior flavorful blend that is very different from either of the single ingredients. This same marriage of flavors is what is achieved with a great rub. A knowledge of how to combine many flavors and aromas to achieve a simple result, and, knowing when not to combine flavors, is often the difference between a good cook and great cook. As we have never had the variety of spices or the knowledge of world cuisines that we have today, so many more flavor combinations are possible.
THE VALUE OF SALT
We all take salt for granted, perhaps because we use it everyday. In fact, we would die without it.
How salt functions as a flavoring for food remains a bit of a mystery, even today. Salt adds its own flavor to a dish, though it enhances some flavors and inhibits others; it will help decrease bitter tastes and reduce other harsh tastes, enabling flavors to blend more harmoniously.
Originally, all salt came from the sea. Today, some salts are mined from deposits left after seas receded or dried-up. The salt is extracted, boiled down, and then crystallized in various degrees of fineness. Sea salt is actually extracted from ocean water. For virtually all Americans, table salt, which is finely ground, and highly refined with both added iodine and free-flow chemicals, is the only salt they’re aware of.
“Coarse salt” is a common name for kosher salt. Many people feel that this is a far better tasting salt than the common table salt because it is less harsh, less bitter, and less salty. It is also a great background salt that can be used to enhance other flavors.
Sea salt is saltier and with a brighter flavor. This salt is obtained from the evaporation of sea water, either naturally or artificially from evaporation pans.
For centuries, salt has been used for many other purposes, especially as a preservative. Today, it is still widely use for preserving olives, cheese, and seafood, as well as for curing. Salt preserves by drawing out the moisture, therefore, limiting the humid environments that promote the growth of bacteria.
STORING HERBS AND SPICES
Whole spices will retain their flavor indefinitely, but ground spices begin to lose their flavor and aroma as soon as they are ground. Different spices deteriorate at different rates, with the differences resulting from the different amounts of oil in each product. Oils, like fat delivers flavor and once product is ground, the oil will dissipate.
Now, some spices are so difficult or dangerous to grind that they should always be bought already ground. The different chilies would be a good example because of how strong they can be; fortunately chilies retain their flavor and heat fairly well for up to 10 months.
Herbs will lose their flavors and aromas as they age. Also, as soon as herbs are crushed or cut the oils dissipate, their flavors begin to diminish. The best way to prolong the flavor and intensity of herbs and spices is to keep their containers tightly closed and away from light or heat. Most people prefer glass bottles with tight fitting caps because they have the added advantage of being able to have either caps or fitment lids with openings for sprinkling or spooning out spices while cooking.
The best test for freshness is still to use your nose, as the aroma of herbs and spices is the most important determinant of freshness. Once the aroma is no longer strong, fresh, and fragrant, it is time to get rid of them (should you not realize the importance of fragrance, remember how tasteless food is when you have a cold). Since most spices are harvested ten to twelve months of the year, acquiring fresh products should not be a problem (so long as you buy them from the smaller spice houses, which turn their products over more frequently.