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The art and science of cooking low and slow barbecue

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Next up, your weekly dose of wonder.

GEORGE LOVING: We got two cases, so about 160 pounds of pork butts that we're getting ready to throw in the smoker.

CHANG: That's right - smoking. Science editor Gisele Grayson is amazed by the way that tough cuts of meat transform in her smoker when she cooks them for a long time at a low temperature. Gisele wondered, what is the art and science behind this metamorphosis? So she asked some experts.

GISELE GRAYSON, BYLINE: George Loving got into smoking while tailgating at his son's football games.

LOVING: When he went to college, I said, you know, I'm going to get one of those big smokers made and pull it behind my truck and just tailgate in the parking lot. And somebody said, George, why don't you, you know, do it as a business?

GRAYSON: And SmokeDatt BBQ Catering was born in Washington, D.C. During the pandemic, when gathering outdoors was the way to go, it took off.

LOVING: I get to go and cook barbecue all day long and then go to people's parties. So - and everybody wants to talk to the barbecue guy.

GRAYSON: And he says brisket is the hottest topic.

LOVING: It's the epitome of smoking 'cause it takes the longest. You put it in the smoker, and you just let it cook.

GRAYSON: But not at high temperatures.

LOVING: You always want to stay around that 225 to 250.

GRAYSON: A good brisket is juicy, practically melts in your mouth and tastes beefy, mildly smoky with just a bit of char. But why does it take so long for a cut of meat, like a pork butt or brisket, to achieve this desired result? Well, meat is muscle. And, says American University food chemist Matt Hartings, the tougher cuts have a lot of a protein called collagen.

MATT HARTINGS: The purpose of collagen in our muscles is to make them resistant to strain. All these cuts of meat that have lots of collagen, they are coming from proteins and animals that are constantly moving, right? So the legs of a cow, chicken legs, chicken thighs.

GRAYSON: Collagen is basically shaped like a coil, and cooking on low heat over time gently uncoils it.

HARTINGS: The magic of low and slow is when you cook collagen the right way, it breaks up into gelatin - and gelatin makes Jell-O, right? - and you go from something really firm and chewy to fall-apart tender.

GRAYSON: Key to that tender texture is retaining the moisture. Cook it too fast, and the water evaporates. The muscle fibers crowd together into a dry, chewy cut of meat.

HARTINGS: So you can cook it at a super-high temperature, but it's not going to taste as good.

GRAYSON: Both Hartings and Loving say you can't hurry this chemistry.

LOVING: I've seen some briskets cook in eight to 10 hours. I've seen some take 14, 16 hours. It's something you just don't rush. And when it's done, it's done.

GRAYSON: Knowing when it's done is something a thermometer can definitely give you a clue about. But really, you want a certain texture.

LOVING: Make sure you cook it to where it has time for, you know, the muscle fibers to break down and get nice and tender, where you can cut it with a fork. You pull it up. It's just about ready to, you know, break on its own when it bends over your finger.

GRAYSON: Loving says you want to do this with smoke you can barely see. Billowing white smoke - not good. It may mean the wood is burning too fast, creating bigger smoke particles that give the meat a harsh smoky taste. Lower-temp burning, says Hartings, means molecules in the wood, especially the lignin, are breaking down into smaller particles, providing all sorts of complex flavors and aromas.

HARTINGS: Things like guaiacol, which is spicy and smoky, or vanillin - right? - which tastes like vanilla.

GRAYSON: It's that carefully crafted combination of wood, temperature and patience that makes the meat stand on its own. Loving, in fact, has a motto.

LOVING: We have nothing to hide. We put the sauce on the side.

GRAYSON: Other factors are involved in smoking meat to perfection - the rubs, the bark creation, achieving a smoke ring - fodder for more chemistry stories as my family gears up for a savory summer with a little science, a little art and a lot of napkins. Gisele Grayson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARRDEE AND CAT BURNS SONG, "HOME FOR MY HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gisele Grayson
Gisele Grayson is a deputy editor on NPR's science desk. She edits stories about climate, the environment, space, and about basic research in biology and physics.