BARBECUE 101: A BRIEF COURSE IN TEXAS BARBECUE
by Andrew Chalk
Some time ago I mentally stored an idea for an article which would argue that barbecue was the simplest type of restaurant to run. The reasoning was first: once set, the menu is fixed - this is not a field where innovation is rewarded. The customer wants what he had before. Second, cut to its core, the menu could have just four proteins: brisket, pork ribs, chicken, and sausage. Third, the cooking technique, slow cooking under dry heat, was straightforward and basically the same for each protein. Fourth, preparation of the sides was a stretch only in the same sense that doing a 100m sprint in under a minute was a stretch for Usain Bolt.
With these conditions in mind, what made the difference between Aaron Franklin and the common or garden barbecue chain was consistency. His was always the same. Chain X, not so much.
Items 1-4 in my thinking took a fatal blow this morning. Barbecue is much harder and more involved than I thought, if you want to do it well. The revelation came when I joined half a dozen other guys (as a media rep.) for a course in the basics of barbecue at the pit of Michael Lane, founder, and head of the culinary side, of Oak’d -- Handcrafted BBQ in Dallas. We students were mainly enthusiastic amateurs but one member was in the process of opening his own barbecue restaurant, his first, and was taking the course for business advice.
THE MOTLEY CREW
We assembled at 8am in front of Oak’d’s three massive Oyler wood-fired barbecue pits at the back of the restaurant on Greenville Avenue. Lest anyone felt inclined to complain the hour was so early it had disturbed their recovery from their Friday night binge, Michael woke at a refreshing 3:30am every morning because that was what the meat demanded. Up to 100 briskets lay passively on the shelves of the rotisserie smoker, like pods from some sci-fi movie waiting for orders to come to life. The briskets went on at 11pm the previous night courtesy of pit boss Nathan Morison, Michael’s right-hand man.
MEAT CHOICE AND PREPARATION
He previously cut all but a quarter inch of fat from the brisket. Too much and it will not all render. Too little and the meat will be dry. Plus, he wants them to be consistent. The trimmed briskets were coated with a rub designed to create a ‘bark’ on the cooked brisket. Each barbecue restaurant has their own recipe for rub, and they usually defend it fervently. The simplest recipe is salt and pepper. Oak’d’s adds paprika, and other ingredients but Michael snaps “house secret” when I ask what they are. The rub is padded onto all sides of the uncooked brisket as a speckled grey and deep red powder, cooking transforms it into a jet black ‘cake’ with a bumpy texture. Prior to rubbing he removed the silverskin on the brisket. When an establishment doesn’t do this you find a tough membrane layer in the meat as you eat.
Michael Lane reminds me of a winemaker when he talks about the importance of good quality ingredients to create a good quality product. Winemakers refer to grapes. Lane refers to the meat. He puts his money where his mouth is, sourcing Wagyu from Rosewood Farm, where Oak’d is now the largest Wagyu customer, and using only Prime Texas Black Angus (grass fed prior to going to processing, then a grain mix) for their brisket. Switching brands is not the kind of instant decision it can be for a home cook. A commercial establishment must test numerous batches of a new meat brand before offering them as a standard to their customers as they all differ. Furthermore, using a single producer may require the herd to be increased in order to offer enough, a cattle-raising process that takes around 30 months.
THE PIT AND THE WOOD
The pit must be maintained at 220 degrees Fahrenheit but that isn’t as simple as just throwing wood on. From a cold start the post oak (near ubiquitous in Texas barbecue) has to burn until the smoke is white/blue “not simulcast brown”, says Lane, which can take one to two hours. The first smoke to come off is “simulcast brown” and contains sap and bad wood particles that have a deleterious effect on the flavor of the meat. Seasoning of the oak before use (a process that takes moisture down 20-30%) reduces but usually does not eliminate these. Ironically, these are the same compounds actively sought after when the parent species of post oak, American white oak, is used in the form of barrels for ageing wine prior to bottling. Given the time-consuming nature of a start up, Oak’d, like other commercial barbecue pits, keeps its smokers running 24 hours. Water is supplied to a trough along the bottom through a nozzle in the case.
Behind us sits a rack of chopped post oak ready for use. When burned, it imparts sweet smoke flavors to the meat. Other types of wood impart other flavors and have their proponents.
WATCH THOSE TEMPERATURES!
There is no automatic temperature control. Nathan monitors the oven temperature and feeds the fire pit located at the back of the smoker with supplies of new oak. Michael recalls one night (before Nathan joined) when the night crew neglected this and the smoker temperature fell to 165 degrees. The consequences show how barbecue is still subject to nature in this technological world. The meat smoking fell behind schedule so the meat was not ready to be removed around the regular time of between 5:30am-7:30am (depending on size and meat properties). As a result, it was not ready for the lunchtime rush starting around 11am and the restaurant lost sales as it was short of brisket (although faster cooking poultry was available). Adding in the loss of future custom as well, letting the temperature drop was an expensive mistake.
The normal routine involves basting the meat around 3am with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and apple cider to mainly help develop bark and color, although this keeps it moist as well.
TESTING FOR DONENESS
Lane’s test is an internal temperature of 202-206 degrees for prime brisket, 193 degrees for Wagyu brisket, and 165 degrees for chicken.
THE WOBBLE TEST FOR RIBS
Racks of ribs get a different doneness test: the wobble. Nathan demonstrates with a rack that is cooking. Holding it by the two bones on one end he lets the rack stretch out. As he moves his hand up and down The other end of the rack wobbles due to the cooking process. Nathan knows the exact amount of wobble required as a result of years of experience. These homely artifacts are actually proxies for the results of some pretty complex chemistry going on. The soluble collagen (structural proteins) start to melt at 160 degrees and transform into gelatin. This process continues through 180 degrees. The result is a rack that is juicer and less stiff.
When done, they wrap the meat in butcher paper. The precise method is akin to wrapping a baby in swaddling clothes. It is left to rest for three hours at room temperature to allow the proteins to re-coagulate. Before service, it is moved to a warmer at 155 degrees so that it is ready when service starts at 11am.
The final step, proper presentation, depends on how the barbecue is being used. Nathan chopped brisket for some of Oak’d’s formidable sandwiches, and sliced whole slabs for plates of brisket. The first slice was always to separate the lean and fatty ends (respectively, the flat and the point) and present the faces of each cut to the customer. The fat is rendered and the collagen becomes gelatin. Eating right after cutting is absolute heaven!
THE REST OF THE SHOW
Careful execution of these steps may ensure perfect meat but no barbecue place shows more clearly than Oak’d that there are lots of other pieces of the equation. For example, the friendly service, and the atmosphere. Oak’d represents a departure from a type of traditional barbecue joint in adding additional features. For example, a large range of baked desserts (reflecting Lane’s past in high-end cuisine at Texas legend Café Annie) and a full bar with local brewer Oak Highlands Brewery (coincidentally showcasing their Oktoberfest Beer on the day of our class). Regardless whether it wants to spread in these other directions or remain a traditional barbecue ‘shack’ they can’t get away from the fact that the meat must be perfect.
Michael Lane’s barbecue courses have become a regular event! Going forward, they will be offered every last Saturday of the month. The course lasts one and a half hours and is being tweaked relative to the first production that I took. If you want to make better barbecue I thoroughly recommend it! Call 214-242-8671 to sign up.