Monday, January 26, 2009

BBQ 801 - Meat Preparation

Last time we talked about the cuts of meat used in classic Texas BBQ. How to prepare your meat (with a focus on brisket) before cooking is the subject of this session. A basic method often used when preparing large cuts of meat like pork loins, turkeys and whole fish is called brining. To brine, your meat needs to be submersed in a mixture of water, salt, and sugar for several hours. This process promotes juicy flavorful meat by adding salt and sugar deep into the meat through diffusion (natural flow of elements from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration) and moisture through osmosis (diffusion of water) which also carries the diluted salt and sugar into the meat.

So should we use brining in barbeque? Not exactly. Unlike pork loin, turkey, and fish, beef (especially brisket) is naturally juicy because of the amount of fat, so extra moisture from a brine is not required. Although brining is not neccessarily beneficial, brisket can benefit from basic diffusion. Covering a brisket with a simple rub of salt alone will promote this. You see, salt is a solute which draws water out of moist objects that it comes in contact with. Salt on a brisket promotes diffusion while also acting as a solute which forces water and salt to continuously travel through the meat, depositing some of the salt along the way.

Any rub recipe you will find contains salt, spices (maybe herbs) and some form of sugar. All they really need for diffusion to occur is the salt, but what else can we successfully add to a rub? To a limited degree, diffusion will occur with brown or white sugar, and they will also promote carmelization and a good crust on the meat during the smoking process. Sugar is a keeper.

Spices are often used as well, but a tasting from Cook's Illustrated reveals some tips about which spices to use, and when to apply them so they don't become bitter. Spices on the "good" list include allspice, ground chiles, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin and mustard seed. Absent from this list are the popular paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder which were judged "putrid" when placed over direct heat. What also promotes bitterness is leaving the rub on for too long. Two hours is considered the maximum amount of time, while rubbing just before cooking is also successful.

Lastly, what temperature should the meat be before it's placed in your smoker? Well the point is to get your brisket up to 185-195 degrees, so starting it at 40 degrees (straight from the fridge) is counter productive, so let it set out on the counter for about 20-30 minutes before cooking.

To recap, rub your brisket with a salt and sugar, and refrigerate for anywhere from 2 hours to overnight. Take it out of the fridge and rub with your favorite spices from the "good" list, and let it sit while you prepare your fire (about 30 minutes). Now you'll have a brisket that is salted deep into the meat, with a god spice rub that's not too cold. Next time we'll work on that fire you've got to build.

- BBQ Snob

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blowin' Smoke 004 - Umami

You may have heard about umami in the past year, as it has escaped the culinary field to become quite the buzz word used more and more often in the common lexicon. It is now considered to be the fifth taste in addition to the commonly known sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University is credited with the "discovery" of the flavor in 1907 while studying flavors in seaweed broth...mmm! Umami (oo-mommy) has been written about in cookbooks, on NPR, and in my favorite magazine, Cooks Illustrated. Umami has been described as a "meaty" or "hearty" flavor in foods like mushrooms, red wine, soy sauce and most proteins. It exists in the glutamates which are naturally found in those foods. Umami has been synthesized into the much maligned food additive MSG, which enhances the flavors of any dish it is added to.

So how does this relate to this blog, you ask? Barbeque is a cuisine incredibly rich in umami. Start with brisket - proteins in beef are high in glutamates, and tougher cuts rich in collagen (Hello! Brisket!) are saturated with flavor from the Big-U. These flavors are heightened by both the smell of smoke, and a long slow cooking process...both characteristics of good 'cue. Sugar also acts as an umami enhancer as evidenced by barbeque sauce which uses tomatoes (high in umami) and worchestershire sauce (also high in umami) in combination with a sweetener (white or brown sugar or mollasses) to create the perfect umami-rich condiment. It's no wonder we crave BBQ. Who wouldn't want umami dipped in umami heightened by smoke and sweetness? Now get yourself some sliced brisket, a good sauce, and enjoy it with a nice cabernet and a few sauteed morels. Mmm mommy!

For more information on other umami-rich foods, check the UMAMI Information Center.

- BBQ Snob

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Randy White's Hall of Fame BBQ

FRISCO: Randy White’s Hall of Fame BBQ
9225 Preston Rd

Frisco, TX 75034


Open Sun-Thur 11-9, F-Sat 11-10

Pulling up to Randy White's (of Dallas Cowboys fame) Hall of Fame BBQ, you notice that Coach Joe's (also of Cowboys fame) Sports Grille shares a parking lot. I don't know if they always planned to share a parking lot in Frisco, but this restaurant rivalry seems odd. Even more odd is that they both have a chicken fried steak on their menu that they call a "Texas Fried Steak". Either way, I was happy to be here, and happy that my wife agreed to eat lunch at a BBQ joint with me rather than making me run in and grab something to go.

Thanks to my wife's generosity with the contents of her plate, I was able to try four meats here: brisket, pork ribs, black pepper sausage, and smoked ham. The brisket held great promise with a well-formed crust, a substantial smoke line and pull-apart tenderness. The presentation bordered on false advertising as these slices were pure roast beefyness. Even the crust held very little smoke flavor. Luckily the slightly thin and spicy sauce complemented this meat well. The St. Louis ribs didn't have much smoke flavor either. The crust was decent, but the meat below not very tender and had little flavor at all. The thick lines of unrendered fat that I had to cut away from the meat told me that this meat needed alot more time in the smoker. The ham had a mealy recontituted texture that often occurs with boneless ham. It also had little smoke flavor, so the wife really enjoyed it. The sausage here was the best of the bunch. They offer smoked sausage, jalapeno sausage, and black pepper sausage. The black pepper sausage lived up to its name. It had a medium grind, good snap, good smoke flavor, and tons of cracked black peppercorns. Randy may have made it all the way to the Hall of Fame, but his BBQ has a long road ahead for any such accolades.

Rating **
Randy White's Hall of Fame BBQ & Grill on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

BBQ 801 - Cuts o' Meat

I thought about calling this segment BBQ 101, but since I intend to get more in depth than your standard Wikipedia page, this is BBQ 801...a graduate level class. This course will take you from the butcher shop, to the smoker, onto your table and into your pie-hole. There's no need for the subject matter to travel any further than that.

Our first subject takes us to the butcher shop to explore the carcasses of our tasty friends, the cow and the hog. We'll start with the brisket. A whole brisket, or packer cut, is made up of two distinct muscles separated by a layer of fat. The flat cut (deep pectoral or pectoralis profundus) is the leaner of the two and the point cut (superficial pectoral) is fattier and because so it's considered more flavorful. Most joints smoke the full brisket, but first timers at home would be wise to start with the flat cut for a consistent thickness. A full brisket should be separated before carving as the muscle fibers of the point and flat run in different directions. A study by the University of Nebraska goes into the details of the tenderness of different beef cuts.

The brisket is located in the front quarter of the cow, just above the front legs as shown in this diagram:

The brisket is a fatty piece of meat in a region of the cow that gets quite a workout, so its tough. What makes it tough? Loads of muscle fiber binding collagen which needs to be cooked low and slow in order to melt into silky gelatin, but we'll get further into that in future 801 classes. The other popular portion of the beeve for Texas BBQ are the ribs. I trust that locating these is not a challenge, but the point here is that the meat connected to the ribs gets much less exercise, and is therefore naturally more tender. Usually, little meat is left on the beef rib, because the meat connected to it is trimmed off into expensive ribeyes. Much more popular throughout the country are pork ribs. Refer to the diagram below of a whole hog:

You'll notice the shoulder in the diagram, which is the Carolina BBQ standard, but we're talking Texas 'cue. Pork ribs someitmes play second fiddle to the brisket in Texas, but they're offered in every joint I've visited with the exception of the Hot Pit in Del Rio. Pork ribs come in three categories; baby backs, spare ribs and St. Louis style ribs. Baby backs come attached to the pork tenderloin, so like beef ribs, they can sometimes be light on meat and heavy on bone. The term baby back insinuates nothing about the age of the pig. Spare ribs start just below the baby backs, and continue down to the fatty ends of the ribs bones. St. Louis style ribs are simply spare ribs with the rib tips carved off. See the diagram below:

The further down the rib, the fattier the meat gets. Again, these muscles get very little exercise, so the meat is naturally tender, and the thinner meat takes less time to smoke than the larger beef brisket. Thin or not, the excessive amounts of fat still require the cooking to be low and slow to properly render the fat, and let it melt into the meat. I just don't suggest you slice it like the photo below.

I hope this gets you familiar with your favorite meaty parts, and I hope everyone understands why I didn't bother with a diagram showing where sausage comes from. Who really wants to know that? Next time we'll cover the science of meat preparation before it ever gets to the fire. Class dismissed.

-BBQ Snob

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Blowin' Smoke 003 - Planet Terror

I recently viewed the special edition DVD of Grindhouse featuring Planet Terror and Death Proof. I was pleased to see Texas BBQ featured so prominently in the Planet Terror half of this double feature. The Bone Shack serves as a the setting for a good chunk of the movie, but is finally destroyed in one of the movie's many over-the-top explosions. The joint's owner is J.T. who is working on his competition sauce recipe throughout the movie. The recipe is only perfected after he tries a taste of the sauce after a zombie attack where some of his own blood gets into the sauce. While the premise is as ridiculous as the rest of the movie, I still give the writers credit for using such a quintessential Texas theme. The sign (below) rocks as well. Instead of interrupting the business of a functioning restaurant, the historic Zedler Mills outside of Luling, Texas were used as the setting of The Bone Shack.

I got a chance to visit the abandoned mill last time I was in Luling, and just happened to be wearing an appropriate t-shirt.

- BBQ Snob

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Donn's BBQ

10003 FM 969

Austin, TX 78724


Open Daily 6-8

To get out to Donn's in far East Austin, start driving down MLK Boulevard until it turns into FM 969. Once you pass the new Agave development, Donn's will on the right. The exterior doesn't look like much, and the interior is sparse as well with large picnic tables for those eating in. Most of my fellow customers were ordering to go just in time for dinner at home. Signs beside the menu let customers know that the popular menudo was now available all odd addition to a 'cue joint's menu, but I was here for muscle meat rather than innards. As the knife man was slicing off of the juicy black brisket for me, the heavy aroma of smoke within the restaurant was making my mouth water. A quarter pound each of brisket and pork ribs set me back only $5. When I reached the car, I could wait no longer, so I opened the bag, peeled the foil to behold some good looking meat. The St. Louis ribs had little crust, but they did have a deep red color and good smoky flavor that permeated the meat. The tender ribs were perfectly rendered and nicely seasoned. The brisket was sight to behold with everything going for it but the flavor. The crust and smoke line were well formed with a perfect moist and tender texture. The thin line of fat was well rendered, but the kick of flavor I was expecting from the crsut was missing, and the smokiness was lacking. The slices had a good roast beef flavor, but not much more. I plan to make another trip out to Donn's during my next Austin visit to determine if it was the ribs or the brisket that was the anomoly.

Rating ***
Donn's Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

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The County Line

AUSTIN: The County Line
6500 Bee Cave Rd.

Austin, TX 78746


Open M-Thur 11:30-2 & 5-9, F 11:30-2 & 5-9:30, Sat-Sun 11:30-9:30

With The County Line being a national chain with real waitresses and cloth napkins, it would not normally require a review by the BBQ Snob, but this is not you ordinary national chain. The original resides in Austin, Texas, and it has a history of critics, magazine writers and television hosts falling over themselves to crown The County Line as the best BBQ joint ever. I had to give it a try. While sitting on the patio overlooking the Texas Hill Country, I perused a menu that gave more praise to the homemade bread than anything else (uh-oh), so along with an icy cold Shiner and a 5-meat sampler, I ordered some homemade bread.

When my order arrived, I had a half loaf of bread and a plate full of brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, sausage and peppered turkey with mac & cheese and green beans on the side. Oh yeah, how could I forget the sauce. Everything was COVERED in their sweet sauce. It was like someone in the kitchen already knew that nothing on this plate had enough flavor to stand alone. I started with the sides, both of which were excellent. Then, I mined the plate for untainted meat, and found some brisket slices and sausage beneath a protective rib umbrella. The brisket was just decent roast beef beneath the passable crust. The texture was good, but the smoke was lacking. Anyone would find the taste of the 1/3 slab of pork ribs palatable, in the same way that most people like candy. A sweet sauce was slathered over meat that had been previously covered in a sweet rub. The tenderness of the meat was just a little on the tough side, and no real meat flavor stood out. The sausage was the best item on the plate with good black pepper flavor, a fine grind, and not too fatty with a nice snap. I will spare the details of the beef ribs and peppered turkey. Go to the grocery store and get some beef jerky and deli turkey rather than bothering with these two offerings here.

Rather than surprising me with well prepared meat in a great atmosphere, The County Line affirmed this reviewers suspicion of BBQ chains that garner high praise from a national audience. In trying to please a ever growing audience, they forget to pay enough attention to that smoker. But hey, the bread was good.

Rating **
County Line on the Hill on Urbanspoon

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Friday's BBQ

7678 E Hwy 290

Johnson City, TX 78636


Open M-F 11-9, Sat 11:30-8, Sun 11:30-5

Friday's General Store is the home to a gas station, convenience mart, Mexican restaurant and Friday's BBQ which has recently reopened under new management just 5 months before this review. The new pit master inherited the unique converted Farmall tractor that sits out front with a smoker mounted to its belly. It functions as the main smoker for the joint, and has been coveted by none other than Earl Campbell for years according to the owner. The 'cue is served from a small counter within the convenience store, and the service is friendly. I grabbed my two meat plate, and sat at one of the two picnic tables inside. The meat smelled and looked great. The brisket was exceptional with good smoky crust, excellent flavor and well rendered fat at the edges. The smokiness went throughout these moist, if not buttery tender, slices. The ribs were confounding, because I couldn't figure out how they were cooked in the same smoker. There was no real crust, and the smokiness was lacking. The meat was tender, and red throughout with decent flavor, but were just average. Maybe with a few more months to work with, the pit boss will produce a consistently good rib to match that brisket. I'm optomistic.

Rating ***

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Blowin' Smoke 002 - Barbeque Sauce

Barbeque sauce....just those two words can start an argument. Mustard based, tomato based, or vinegar...sauce or no sauce...serve it hot or room temperature...baste with it while cooking, or only while eating. You've read reviews by the BBQ Snob that show disappointment when meats are sauced without asking, but this isn't because my palate is anti-sauce. In fact, I love sauce, I just like to have the option. I don't have an answer to all of the other arguments, but I can share where I've found the best or most unique sauces in my travels around Texas.

The City Market in Luling has a tangy mustard based sauce that is so good that a Houston joint called Luling City Market was founded because an original Luling employee defected to Houston and gave up the sauce recipe for a cut of the new restaurant. The imitator sauce is now sold in grocery stores, but I'd suggest you get the original from the source right in downtown Luling. You won't regret it.

The Salt Lick in Driftwood also has a mustard based sauce, but it's much sweeter and thinner due to the addition of oil. This consistency makes it perfect for pouring over hot slices of brisket and sausage. In addition to the delicious original, they also offer a habanero version if you like some spice to balance the sweetness.

Lambert's in Austin offers three sauces with each platter. Two are tomato based, one mild, one hot, and the other is mustard based. The server there suggested I mix the mustard based and the hot which worked nicely. Try your own combination.

Peggy Sue's in Dallas has a hot sauce so thick it turns solid in the refrigerator. My guess is that a significant amount of animal fat is used in this recipe along with the black pepper and sugar. I usually spread it on the Texas toast just to get a few more bites of it.

Cooper's in Mason and Llano as well as the Hard Eight chain all have a vat of thin, sweet yet vinegary sauce sitting next to the pits where they will dunk the cuts of meat you've chosen for your dining pleasure.

Another thin sauce is at Jasper's in Waco. They call it gravy rather than sauce, and it's kept warm in a large crock pot. I couldn't detect the base for this sauce, mainly because I couldn't detect any flavor at all.

E-mail me and tell me which joint has your favorite sauce.

- BBQ Snob

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Riley's Bar-B-Q

1111 Hwy 290 West
Dripping Springs, TX 78620
Open M-Sat 11-8, Sun 11-5

Update: This joint is CLOSED.

2009: Dripping Springs bills itself as the Gateway to the Hill Country, and Riley's sits in the heart of it in a strip mall that tries to look older than it is with artificially weathered wood and Austin stone. A sign outside welcomes bikers, but inside all I found was old timers hanging out around the TV's. I ordered a large spare rib and some sliced beef. The brisket was tender and moist with a decent smoky crust. Outside the crust it was just a little roast-beefy. The rib was picture perfect with a nice red crust and a red interior that was fall apart tender, but the flavor didn't keep up its end of the bargain. The smoke flavor was fleeting, as was any flavor at all. They really needed the sauce to give them some life.

Rating **
Riley's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

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Mann's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que

AUSTIN: Mann’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que
8624 Research Blvd.

Austin, TX 78757


Open Tue-Sat 11:30-8

A spot in Texas Monthly's Top 50 brings high expectations, so my mouth was watering after the disappointment at Texas Rib Kings down the street. Tuesday-Friday 11-3 were the temporary hours posted at the door, but there was no indication of the timeline for these hours. Upon ordering I was pleased that the pit boss quickly asked if I wanted lean brisket or "some with a little more flavor". I opted or the fatty brisket as well as two enormous spare ribs. As I paid the hefty total, the cashier offered me some complimentary strawberry ice cream...nice touch. As I settled in, I could smell the meat through the foil it was wrapped in. The brisket was outstanding with a deep black crust, a nice smokeline and wonderful smoky flavor throughout. The fat was well rendered, and the meat was tender and moist. This was just what I needed to restore my faith in Austin BBQ. Then I tried the ribs. What a disappointment. The meat smelled and tasted as if it had been stored in a steamer beyond its taste limit. The meat fell from the bone and the fat was well rendered, but the smokiness and overall flavor were missing. Usually a joint that can nail a brisket doles out god ribs without breaking a sweat, but not on this day. At least I got to finish it off with some free ice cream.

Rating ***
Mann's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

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Texas Rib Kings

AUSTIN: Texas Rib Kings
9012 Research Blvd

Austin, TX 78758


Open M-Thur 11-8:30, F-Sat 11-9

This joint does it's best to look like pure Texas in a strip mall, with walls lined with trophies and certificates from various BBQ competitions around the state. That alone was enough to temper my expectations. Not that winning BBQ competitions in Texas is a small feat, but the irony is that it rarely translates into quality mass produced 'cue. You see, the competition environment is geared towards paying meticulous attention to a small batch of meat for a very long time. That care can be hard to replicate when the lunch rush arrives, and you need to have food ready for all of them. On this day there was no lunch rush as it was the day after New Year's, and many folks were taking the day off. That allowed me to have the joint almost to myself to dive into ribs and brisket while watching some football.

The brisket slices here were fatty to a fault with a dark crust and mild smoke flavor. The meat had decent tenderness, but the flavor was pure roast beef. The crust on the ribs was not as well formed, but I still held out hope for a stand-out bone from the Rib Kings. Biting through the crust revealed tender meat with a mild smokiness but not much flavor. After two slices of brisket and a rib, I politely put the remains into a to-go container and left to search for greener pastures.

Rating **
Texas Rib Kings on Urbanspoon

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Blowin' Smoke 001 - BBQ (sp)

In researching and visiting hundreds of barbeque joints around the great State of Texas, I've come across more ways to spell barbeque than you can shake a stick at. In all that time I have witnessed and read about countless arguments varying from which wood is best for smoking, to whether sauce is a necessary addition to smoked meat. Not once have I heard an argument about the correct spelling of the very term whose definition these arguments try to refine. The most common spellings that I have come across include:

and even BBCue

According to Webster, both "barbecue" and "barbeque" are acceptable, and that easily translates to the shorthand "BBQ". In my humble opinion, the term has no room for hyphens, so I declare that we stop using them to describe our favorite smoked meats. I think three choices should be plenty.

- BBQ Snob

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Green Mesquite BBQ & More

AUSTIN: Green Mesquite BBQ & More
1400 Barton Springs Rd.

Austin, TX 78704


Open Daily 11-10

Green Mesquite has a wide menu including CFS, salads, jambalaya, and catfish. Usually this would preclude it from making the list at all, but it came with accolades from a recently published guide book on Texas BBQ. The exterior looked promising, and the parking lot smelled of smoke. The interior is small, but a large patio out back would be a great place to enjoy one or two of the beers on tap. I ordered to go.

The corners of my brown bag had gone clear by the time I arrived at home, and it got my hopes up for some good, moist protein. The ribs were large spare ribs with a nice salt and pepper crust. The rib meat beyond the crust held little flavor and even less smoke. The fat was poorly rendered, but the tenderness of the meat was satisfactory. The brisket was sliced thick because any thin slices would have fallen apart. The beef was overdone with a stringy texture. The fat needed more time under the smoke to render, and the resulting flavor was roast-beefy with a hint of smokiness in the crust. One thing they have nailed is their sauce that is tomato based, but with mustardy flavors and good spice. It was a needed addition to the flavor unrich meat. I should have followed my instincts about joints that take too much attention away from their 'cue.

Rating **
Green Mesquite BBQ & More on Urbanspoon

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Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.