With the 4th of July just around the corner, families across the nation will be firing up their gas and charcoal grills in pursuit of grilled meat bliss.
But if you really want a juicy, tender slab of barbecued meat, the secret lies in old-school steel ovens and wood. The traditional way of cooking meat is ironically the future of barbecue, argues Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly.
In an interview with Austin pit master Aaron Franklin, Vaughn says that's the trend among the really serious barbecue enthusiasts right now. And Franklin is right there with him: He uses Post Oak wood and open fire at his restaurant, Franklin Barbecue, which Vaughn named the best barbecue joint in Texas in 2013.
The latest grilling gadgets, they both agree, aren't the answer to good barbecue. And science suggests they may be right.
Gas grills offer the advantage of speed: They heat up quickly and make it easy to serve hungry family members and guests in a jiffy. But what you end up sacrificing is tenderness in the meat — that's achieved only when you slow down the cooking.
You see, meat is primarily muscle, which is supported by something called connective tissues, explains biologist Joe Hanson in a recent episode of PBS' It's Okay To Be Smart. These tissues are made primarily of a protein called collagen, which has long twisted protein chains that make it strong and hard to break down.
The harder muscles work, the more collagen they contain. And the cuts of meat most sought out for barbecue often come from parts that are used to support an animal's body weight. Brisket, for example, comes from the chest area of the cow and has to hold up more than half of the cattle's weight, says Hanson.
If the collagen is cooked too fast, the proteins will "snap up tight like rubber bands," giving the meat a tough texture. But if you heat the meat at a low temperature for hours and hours, the protein chains break down and allow water to work its way in, turning collagen into gelatin and resulting in what Hanson describes as soft "meat jello."
Then there's the animal fat, which is made mostly of saturated fatty acids that are tightly packed together. Heated slowly and that fat turns, more or less, into liquid – a process pit masters call rendering.
Plus, there's a bonus that makes a big difference between meat flash-cooked on a grill and a meat slow-cooked over an open flame. Wood contains two aromatic organic compound – cellulose and lignin — that when burnt slowly, gets absorbed into the meat for that smoky flavor.
So yes, it's not an easy – or fast – task cooking meat over fire the way our ancestors did. But when it comes to barbecue, patience is a delicious, mouth-watering virtue. And it may be well worth your wait.