Cooking Barbecue...

Dear BBQ Friend:

Just exactly what happens when you are cooking barbecue? And when I say "cooking barbecue", I mean slow smoking barbecue - not grilling directly over high heat. First of all... meat is made up of mostly protein muscle fibers held together with collagen strands along with a little bit of fat. Three things happen when you apply TOO MUCH heat to meat...

  • Some of the collagen liquefies and turns into gelatin. This process starts when the meat temperature is around 140 deg barbecue collagen
  • Some of the fat also starts to melt at around 140 deg F.
  • Note - melting collagen and fat is a slow process, so applying too much heat for short times will only melt some of the collagen and fat.
  • Too much heat will cause the muscle proteins to contract, curl, and squeeze out the natural juices mixed with the liquefied collagen and fat. The result is dry, tough meat. Just think about what happens when you slap a steak on a hot grill... it firms up and the juices start to flow out. Cook it "well done" and you basically get shoe leather.

Cooking barbecue (slow smoking) is different because of the lower heat involved. Here's what happens when meat is cooked at a lower temperature for a long time...

  • The process of liquefying collagen and turning it into gelatin is a slow process. It does not happen instantly when the meat temperature hits 140 deg F. It takes time - low and slow. So the longer you hold the meat temperature above 140 deg F, the more collagen will turn into gelatin.
  • Same thing with the melting of the fat - it takes time.
  • The protein muscle fibers start to relax and the juices are absorbed rather than squeezed out. Cooking barbecue in this low and slow fashion results in tender, succulent meats.

If you are experienced at cooking barbecue, you know about the "barbecue plateau" where your meat tends to get stuck at a certain temperature (around 165 deg F) and stay there. An experienced pit master knows this is when all the "good stuff" is happening... your collagen strands are unwinding, your fat is melting, and your muscle proteins are slowly relaxing instead of seizing up.

So... the "barbecue plateau" is a good thing. When your internal meat temperatures start to rise after the plateau, you need to start checking for doneness because any further cooking will tend to dry your meat out.


Bill Anderson