Barbecue is serious business, and some of the most serious about it hail from Texas. Chemist and backyard chef Jeremiah Gassensmith is so serious about it he has even taught a class on it to his science Honors students.
The University of Texas at Dallas associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry has closely examined the process of preparing the perfect beef brisket on a molecular level, which he believes can make or break much of your barbecue success.
Barbecue in the US has a long history, dating back to around the 1500s when Native Americans slow-cooked meats. Meanwhile, Southside Market Barbecue in Texas has been operating since 1882, and has continued to expand across the state.
However, if you want to master the art in the backyard, Gassensmith has said all you need to do is add a little science to your smoker.
“The chemistry is interesting,” Gassensmith said. “It comes down to how well you can make those proteins in the muscle do what you want them to do, as opposed to what they would like to do.”
Firstly, consider the collagen. In the meat, it looks like three strands of twisted yarn that untwist as they melt. These then bind with water to keep the meat moist at 160 °F to 180 °F (71 °C to 82 °C). If the temperature is too low, they won’t untwist and the meat will be tough; too much heat and the collagen will entangle tighter, shutting out moisture, and you’ll end up with a dry slab of brisket.
This collagen equation is particularly important when you’re tackling brisket, the cut from the muscular lower chest area of the cow.
“Hardworking muscles tend to have a lot of collagen, which is important for holding muscles together while in use so they do not tear easily,” Gassensmith said. “Collagen is also what makes meat tough if it isn’t cooked right.”
The other key chemical reaction to keep in mind is the interplay between smoke, proteins and water, which is crucial for the tasty, dark crust that forms around the meat, also known as the bark.
“Proteins slowly migrate from the muscle to the meat’s surface, then at high heat bind together with the rub onto the brisket, creating a tight matrix known as the bark,” Gassensmith said.
“To get a smoky flavor, the smoke has to have something to sit on and bind tightly with,” he added. “Smoke, which is actually an aerosol of water and minuscule particles of roasted wood, prefers to sit on a wet surface.”
And while you may be tempted to lubricate the meat with oil, he says you should only spray it with water. Oil and smoke do not play nicely together here.
After its eight-hour slow cook, the brisket doesn’t need to be rested, contrary to popular opinion, as it won’t absorb any of its juices. Instead, Gassensmith said to wrap it in butchers paper and finish it off in the oven. This ‘Texas Crutch’ traps water so the meat can reach an ideal temperature of around 200 °F (93 °C).
“Once the meat is cooked, it doesn’t take much of the liquids back in – that barn door has been shut,” Gassensmith said. “You’re just not going to get more absorption.”
The professor, who taught an Honors class called The Science & History of BBQ recently, also added that like anything in science, variables will always make it difficult to get the same results every time.
“There’s a very complicated circus of chemicals that you have to get just right to have the perfect brisket,” he said. “There is also the fat in the meat and myriad other factors that go into turning brisket into something amazing. The simplicity of brisket, being just a few ingredients, often fails to capture how complicated the resulting flavors are once it’s cooked. That is not science; that is art.”
Keeping an eye on these few aspects of the cook should stand you in good stead to deliver your best brisket. But if not, dropping a few facts about collagens and proteins while standing around the smoker should at least impress any other amateur barbecue enthusiasts in your company.
Check out the video below to see Gassensmith in action.
UT Dallas Professor Discusses the Science of BBQ
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