by Steve Holzinger
This ancient form of cooking, which may date back as far as 750,000 years ago is practiced world wide, but the name most likely came from the Spanish "barbacoa," a frame of green wooden sticks used to hold the animal to be cooked over the fire pit. There are those who hold that it is derived from the French "barbe e que," "from the beard to the tail," roasting whole animals. In a "Dissertation on Roast Pig," Charles Lamb would have us believe that the practice began in China, when a house with a pig inside burned down. Texas proclaims itself, among other things, the true home of the Barbecue, and I remember a memorable party at the Hotel School Houston where slow cooked brisket was sliced and served with cole slaw, baked beans, and "Texas Toast," which is thick slices of untoasted white bread.
Barbecue can be dry or wet, sliced or chopped. In the late 50's I worked for a Maryland company that did barbecue sandwiches at the Maryland State Fair. We had steel drums cut in half on pipe legs with diamond wire grating on top. The charcoal was banked high to the back and left, so we started the split prime top rounds (that were 'pre-blanched' at the commissary) and moved them towards the front right as they cooked. We had pots of basting sauce with new cotton floor mops in them to 'mop' the meat with as it roasted. This basting sauce had stock, dark beer, vinegar, Tabasco, garlic, bay leaves, dark mirepoix, crushed peppercorns and Lord knows what else in it. What it did NOT have was tomatoes or sugar. When we needed to hurry things a bit, a few blanched roasts would go Kerplunk into the simmering basting sauce, as did all meat trimmings and crumbs from the carving board. This stuff just got better and better, we never cooled it off. If things got slow, the boss would say "Suck 'em in, Steve," and I'd run the mop loaded with the basting over the grills, sending an atomic plume of smoke out over the fair grounds to lure customers by the nose to our booth. My hair smelled of barbecue smoke for weeks. The carver would slice the meat into a chafing dish with some commercial barbecue sauce....catsup, vinegar, corn syrup and red pepper being the main ingredients, and it was served on hamburger buns.
True barbecue, in my mind is slowly dry roasted, sliced, and any sauce is put on afterwards. It can be chopped and mixed with a sweet and sour sauce (we used sweet pickle relish in ours) on buns. Personally I have grown to like as little sugar in barbecue as I can get away with. I use a base barbecue sauce called Woodys that has almost no sugar in it at all. I found it when I visited my son in Florida. Right near the barbecue pit was a tree with small bitter tangerines. Boy were they bitter! I used the juice of the bitter oranges with Woodys and I got the best orange flavored barbecued chicken and pork I ever made. Recently, in my local Hispanic supermarket, I saw bottles of Caribbean sour orange vinegar on the shelf, so I won't have to wait for my next Florida visit. I did a whole brisket, rubbing in the Woody-bitter orange marinade overnight, and cooking in the oven at 210F about an hour a pound, or about ten hours for the Choice brisket I bought that came out a dark mahogany on the outside with a juicy well-done center. Barbecue is supposed to be well done. The meat carved like a dream, thin and even slices. My double gas barbecue just got a new thermometer, and with just one side on set at Low, it holds 210F just fine. The meat goes in a pan on the unlit side. A foil pan of damp cherry wood chips smolders on the hot side, for a little smoky taste...
John David Auwen contributed this gem to rec.food.cooking:
"Almost all brisket gurus recommend 21O F. A great many excellent briskets are cooked at this temp...
"While evaporation is an important consideration, the amount of time the meat spends "simmering in its own juices " is important as well. The key is to cook it very slowly. The natural process by which bursting cells release proteases which tenderize the meat (sometimes called aging) is accelerated when the meat is cooked very slowly. In fact, if a brisket is properly coated with a dry rub and cooked fat side up, not much evaporation takes place. The outer crust seals the juices in, the fat renders, and the brisket self-bastes with a little help from gravity.
"...I cook mine (a 10 lb. brisket) for about 12 hours at 210 F .."
Thanks John, you were right on the money there.. I use a thin meat thermometer that registers instantly, and I took the meat to 170 F, which is almost well done. The heat in the roast finished it. When you overcook the meat dries out.
For mise en place, this summer I'm going to do the "Great American Beefsteak" eGGsalad, so e-mail me all the great stuff you want to share with the world. I'll be telling you all I know about how to choose and cook the perfect steak, America's gift to the culinary Gods.
When I was in China, I ate roast duck very often. There was a place just across the street that did ducks every day. Here in America, we use the white Pekin duck that came from China. In Shanghai, they barbecued a brown duck that looked like our Muscovy duck. Much less fat than the Pekin. The ducks were dipped in boiling water and closed up with five fragrance powder inside. Then they were hung to air dry. In the barbecue oven they hung by an S hook through the head with their legs close to the fire bucket below. I think that they were mopped with canesugar juice and water after roasting.
Once they were in the oven, the fire bucket burned out and they finished slowly in the heat remaining in the oven. The tail bone and legs always had a little burn on them, the breasts were rosy pink and dripping with juice. I've drawn you a picture of a Duck Oven.
The roast pork, char sue, was too fat in China, not nearly as good as I get in my favorite NYC Chinatown Restaurant. By the way, e-mail me before you visit New York City, and we can meet and go eat the best barbecue pork, duck and baby pig in the City. That is where I took the pictures. I know all the best places....it is to burn a house down. After we eat the barbecue, its off to Little Italy and La Bella Ferrara for Italian Pastries, gelati and espresso. It's the way I want to die.
I don't try to do my own ducks, but a former student of mine, Bill Farran, managed to apprentice in a Chinatown restaurant, and I am passing on his recipes for Chinese Barbecue to you. They are as close as you can get to the real thing. I tested this recipe very carefully, and I can guarantee you it is a winner. The first thing Bill does it to soak the meat in hot running water for 20 minutes. I would have never done this unless I trusted Bill. It does cook the meat. Trust Bill! When you roast the meat, using the given times and temperature, the interior gets to about 150-155 F or about medium. The precooking soak insures proper well doneness, and yet the meat is juicy and tender. I used a wire coat hanger (well Brillo'ed) to thread the meat on and twisted it on to the oven rack. The meat, rack and all went into the oven in one quick shot, with a pan of water under it to catch the drippings and become the glaze. . After I glazed it with the reduced stock and honey, I just twisted the meat off and threw away the wire. I used the butt end of a fresh ham (on sale $ .99/lb) and the char sue (roast pork ) was extra lean. Surprisingly enough, I would have been happier with more fat. You pays your money and takes your choice. I sliced the meat and served it on garlic bread roll. It was great. I wish you were there.
P.S. The leftover marinade works fine on chicken breast that you can then do right on the grill on medium heat.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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This page modified February 2007
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