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SMOKE 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM | Barbecue is a sensory experience
What's Up food & drink columnist, boucanier extraordinaire, Pat Momany muses on how to tell true barbecue.
Good barbecue comes from a humble restaurant, joint or shack.
In addition to plain tables, disposable paper placemats, and chairs with wooden seats, it will likely also have a row of old wooden school chairs facing the American landscape and maybe even a rocker outside that seats the owner. A portrait of a smokey old caugurer on the wall near the entrance is always a good sign. So are pictures, statues, and other well-used likenesses of pigs, horses and cows. A parking lot packed with a mixture of Harleys, pickup trucks, and Eldorados is an even better sign.
The smokers themselves are generally housed outside in a separate building or lot to avoid burning down the place in the event of a flame up. The smoking wood in the yard nearby will be of various ages. You may not see smoke coming from the smoker chimneys except when the wood is being burned to coals. But you will always be able to smell it.
If you find copper lines leading to the pits from a white tank the size of a small pregnant slug out where the wood yard ought to be, drive on. You’re not there yet. The owner has sold his soul to the devil for the ease of that modern-day bane of barbecue: propane. Come back in a couple of years and you will find a brand new Wal-Mart there with a garden department selling grills right where the pits once stood. Good barbecue is a hard way to make a buck, so patronize good barbecue places whenever you can.
Let’s get right to the meat of things, no dancing around the bush. Good ribs are not boiled in any way shape or form. Pulled pork doesn’t come out of a frozen package and isn’t heated in a crock pot. Brisket is the same way. Anytime you get served barbecue smothered in sauce without having a choice, it’s time to move on.
Good ribs, along with all smoked barbecue — and it shouldn’t be called barbecue unless it is smoke onsite — comes with a distinctive “smoke ring.” A smoke ring is a pink discoloration of meat just under the surface crust (called bark). It can be just a thin line of pink or a rather thick layer. The smoke ring is caused by myoglobin in the meat reacting with carbon monoxide from the wood combustion in smoke and mixes with water in the meat. Basically, it is a chemical reaction between the smoke and the meat.
Good barbecue must have this ring. If you can’t see it, leave! A boiled rib will look gray with no ring; some have figured out a way to flash smoke after boiling to imitate real barbecue. But there is one thing they can not hide, and that is the cartridge and bone will still be gray. Check it out. Also the bark should be substantial, not tough, and just substantial.
You should be able to order your pulled pork without sauce. If you can’t get it that way, leave. If you can it should arrive with both pink and white meat (like pork) not Brown!
It will also have burnt ends and thick bark through out it. Anything less and you are compromising your experience. Brisket will be the same except that its beef and can come chopped, sliced or pulled.
A perfect rib is one that, when bitten into, will leave teeth marks, easily pull away from the bone and the bone will be clean. Boiling and other short cut methods are presented as having the meat “falling off the bone”...this not what you want. It’s overdone, dry (sauce covers that) and the producer of pork stock!
Make sure your pork is not dry, a result of holding the pork for an extended period of time. Brisket will become dry and/or chewy when it is held to long.
All barbecue should just melt in your mouth. Now, this is something that may throw you for a loop. Smell your food, yup you heard me right, smell your food. If the barbecue smells bad, it probably is. Or if it smells more of the sauce than the meat, there’s a good chance that there is something wrong with the meat. The aroma of wood smoked barbecue should attack your senses with happiness, goodness and joy. If not, leave.
After going through all of this you will be able to sit down and taste the goodness that tradition wood smoked barbecue brings.
No matter from what region or what style, try them all and when you find the one that makes you dance...dance there often.
Life is too short to have just OK barbecue — eat the best and leave the rest.