Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Get Some Wood On It; A guide To Smoking With Hardwoods

The dangers of Ignus Amplus Laetus
I got an email the other day from Joe in Illinois who said, "You make it sound so easy, but every time I try it it, it has a funny taste, sort of bitter."  Well first off I am sorry his BBQ is coming out so bitter but I can easily diagnose this as a case of Ignus Amplus Laetus or Big Happy Fire syndrome.  It is actually quite common with a lot of people who either smoke or grill with hardwoods.  We all know who we are, and it has happened to everyone at least once or twice when we started to cook outdoors.  The temperature dropped or we got nervous because although the coals were smoldering and we had plenty of heat, there was no flame.  We decide to throw on another log or two and in a few minutes we see plenty of fire and the temperature takes off like Oregon's De Anthony Thomas down the side line after breaking through the line.  We take possession and pride when we cook outdoors.  Just like the guy who won't give up the tongs because this is 'his grill, his domain,' there are people who are fascinated by seeing large puffs of white smoke coming out of the smoker that they created and that is just wrong.

There is something exotic, tantalizing, mouth watering and hypnotizing about the smell of hardwood smoke when BBQing.  If you have ever been to a large BBQ festival, you have probably noticed a slight bit of drool coming out of the corner of your mouth when you got within a mile of the festival.  Its natural and along with the camaraderie and competitive spirit is why a lot of us do it.  But one thing you need to understand is that we are smelling the smoke as it is diffused into the air, outside the smoker at a much lower temperature.  What is going on inside is a much denser cloud that is cooking at (hopefully no more than 225° F) a low temperature that opens up the pores in the meat just enough for the dense clouds of smoke to penetrate up to 3/4" into the meat. 

BBQ is a skill that great pitmasters will tell you is more about patience then it is about cooking.  Fire and temperature control are key and let me tell you from first hand experience that twenty minutes of cooking above 275° can be so detrimental to your finished product.  If you can't control your temperatures then your product runs the risk being more dry and bitter than a Bills fan around Superbowl weekend.

Use of chips and blocks are great for
quick temperature adjustments

There are a few things you need to know when cooking with hardwoods.  First, "More is never better."  You don't want or need smoke billowing out of you smoker.  It should be a thin blue line of smoke that dissipates quickly after it leaves the smoke stack.  To achieve this keep your fire around 225°F at all times.  Any more and creosote starts to carry in the chamber.  Creosote, which is highly carcinogenic,  carries a bitter flavor that can ruin not only the meat but leave a bitter stench similar to pine tar in you smoker (This is why we do not use pine and other softwoods, they contain higher amounts of sap which when burned adds creosote to the mix).    Opening and closing the dampers help to raise and lower the heat in small amounts but proper wood management is key.  This can be achieved by using your wood in three ways.  When in competition I always bring chips, blocks and logs with my charcoal.  

Natural charcoal is a great fuel source

Charcoal is a great base and is wonderful for maintaining a constant temperature over long periods of time.  I use the blocks to add smoke as the flavor accent, not the heat source.  If the temperature starts to suddenly drop, I use the chips and open up the damper.  Since it has a higher surface to mass ratio, a few handfuls of chips will light faster and provide a quick heat boost.  You can put charcoal on top to light and they will be ready by the time the chips burn out.  I use logs for smoking larger cuts like briskets, whole hog and up.  They have the longevity that I am looking for and work well with self basting meats.  The point being here is that hardwood is best used as a flavoring tool and takes a lot of trial and error before using it as a primary fuel source.  You need to know not only how much to use to hit a certain temperature but how long it lasts.  This can be affected by many factors which brings us to the second point.


Thin blue smoke like this is ideal,
not a thick bellowing white smoke
"Know how your cooker reacts at different temperatures and climates."  I might use 45 pounds of charcoal and fifteen pounds of chips, blocks, and logs for 24 hours of smoking in Austin, TX during a hot July weekend festival while three months later in Kansas where the temperature is 30° lower I might use 1 1/2 times more of each.  Outside temperature is the largest factor in temperature issues that I have seen in big competitions.  People get so used to cooking in their hometown they don't realize that a sudden drop in temperature at night can drop the temperature of the smoking chamber quite quickly.  They panic and throw three or four logs on and the next thing you know the smoker has become a bottom broiler.  If you ever purchase your own small smoker for home, make sure it is an insulated cooker or at least has an insulated fire box for those who are looking at offset models.  For those looking for a an offset style or large trailer model, all I can say is weight is the key.  I first started smoking my BBQ in Oregon twenty-five years ago and let me tell you, rain can make controlling temperatures extremely challenging.  Fabricated sheet metal is nice for grilling, but for smokers, the thicker the steel, the easier it is to maintain temperatures.  A minimum of 1/4" steel is a prerequisite for me.  If  you can get an insulated fire box all the better.  You will be amazed at how much less fuel you use with an insulated fire box.

The third and most important point I wanted to make is "Use the right hardwood."  Use of hardwoods is a bit more subjective and there are most definitely differences in the flavor of woods regionally.  The Oak in the hill country of east Texas has a much different flavor from the Oak in Illinois.  This can be because of mineral content in the soil as well as other factors but you will need to decide what flavors you like.  I for example like to start my briskets off with a few hours of Mesquite and switch to Pecan for about four hours.  Some people like to use all Oak on theirs.  Some will say Hickory was made for pork ribs and shoulder but I find that Apple and Cherry work much better.  Just like dry rubs and marinades, experiment and see what you like.  Below, I have included my Hardwood Matrix Chart that I have developed over the years.  It is a good starting point for most BBQ enthusiasts if you want to cook a certain item and want to know what goes well with what.  The key thing is to know when enough smoke is enough. 

 Just as easy as it is to let your temperatures fall and spike, it is easy to over smoke.  Meats can only take so much smoke before it starts to get supersaturated and become bitter.  I smoke my briskets at a very low temperature (about 205°F) for eighteen hours but I only use hardwoods for the first six.  On thinner items like chicken and ribs, I only smoke for 60-90 minutes and finish with charcoal.  Fish is another example of less is more because I only smoke for about 45 minutes and with mild woods.  Anymore and its like licking an ashtray.

You see, hardwoods are comprised of three main components, lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose. Lignin is a thin but very strong material that acts like a skeleton for the cell walls in wood. It is about 25% of the total dry weight of the wood and it burns at high temperatures, somewhere around 750°F. When it does burn it gives off a sweet spicy smell like vanilla and cloves. This is what is usually left over in lightweight chunks after the fire goes out. Cellulose makes up the cell walls and is comprised of very dense glucose.   It burns at a slightly lower temperature, about 550°F to 625°F, and because of its density it is what allows hardwoods to burn for long periods of time. Cellulose makes up about 50% of the dry weight of the wood. Hemicellulose is the contents of the cell and this is where most of the flavor comes from when smoking. While largest in volume, its mass is only 25 % of the dry weight of the wood and burns at lower temperatures, around 400°F.  It is a make up many botanical amino acids and chemical compounds but all hardwoods have these main ones; Acetaldehyde, Acetic Acid, Diacetyl, Furans and Lactams.
Acetaldehyde when burned has a tart and citrus fruity taste to it.   Acetic Acid burns and gives a flavorful bitter tang, like vinegar, to smoked meats.   Diacetyl offers that warm buttery flavor.  Furans have that sweet brandy smell that most of us recognize when smoking and Lactams have a sweet fruity smell that is sort of tropical.   Different woods have different amounts of each compound and therefore have different flavor profiles.  Some of the fruit woods also contain Syringol which has a unique smell similar to a spicy sage. This is why most fruit woods are great with pork. 

Mesquite pile aged at least one year.  never use freshly cut
hardwood.  It can ruin the smoker as well as what you are cooking

Grilling and smoking with hardwood can be fun and please the crowd but remember.  This isn't Iron Chef America where you are moving non-stop for an hour and your hands are moving like a blur at points.  This is a relaxing activity that requires patience and a good understanding of not only what you are cooking but what you are cooking it on and with what fuel source.  I once heard someone refer to smoking BBQ  like raising a toddler.  They can bring joy to your life but if you turn your back on them, for just a second, anything can happen.  Good luck babysitting. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

How BBQ Actually Was Started In New Mexico

I always get questions about the origins of barbeque and have done my fair share of research on the subject.  While there are a few different variations on its beginning, it is the consensus that the most plausible theory states that the word "barbecue" is a derivative of the West Indian term "barbacoa," which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals. So we know the etymology of barbeque, but what about the actual process?  When did man first start to cook large pieces of meat over open coals using smoke?  We already know that mankind has been cooking meat over fire long before Columbus’ voyages to the new world, but where did the process begin and how?  Did early cavemen come out of the cave and see lightning strike a tree and set it afire?  Did somehow the smell of burning wood tempt early man to combine that with the raw meat of his recently speared prey for something that did not tug on his assuredly fragile teeth?  Most likely he scavenged a dead or dying carcass from a forest fire and said (or grunted) to himself, “Hmm, tasty, not so chewy, does not spoil as fast, yum!”

Sure it seems like a bit of a stretch, but what if it’s not?  Being a fairly open minded guy and taking on this task like a dog with a bone, I decided to do some of my own research and hypothesize like the others.  What I did not know was how close to home the research would be.  I had always thought that mankind’s first use of fire in cooking meats started in Asia or Africa and later, after nomadic migrations became common, worldwide.  As I delved into the history and etymology of barbeque it led me to a discovery of some unique information that made me wonder about where and how barbeque actually started.  

To do this we need to understand a few circumstances which would make it plausible to consider “open fire cooking” as an original act.  We know mankind has been an omnivore during all of its existence.  After all, it’s not like we were all Vegans and suddenly one day, a man thought to himself, “I think these berries would be a nice accompaniment to a porterhouse.”  So, when did man start hunting animals for food?  When did man start cooking these animals over the open flame and where?  And most importantly, when did man start to cook large pieces of meat over an open flame and smoked hardwood, (also known as BBQ)?  To be convinced, I would need proof man hunted these larger animals which meant tools.  There would have to be evidence of these tools being used in conjunction with these large animals and most importantly there would have to be evidence of cooking these animals over an open fire or pit.

Although there is evidence of mankind’s’ use of fire found from 1.9 million years ago, fire was not used in a controlled fashion until 400,000 years ago1, and then it was used primarily for heat during colder periods.  Determining when mankind first started to cook meats with fire has led to a number of theories but do to the age and lack of evidence no date or time period can be claimed as the actual first neighborhood cookout.  What little cooking evidence has been found does not indicate cooking large pieces of meat but rather scraps and some anthropologists believe it was only used to clean the bones for tools and drying hides(What can I say, early Homo Sapiens were not too bright). 

Now how can one determine where barbeque originated when we can’t even determine when cooking with fire started.  We would need to first determine a window of probable opportunity.  For a starting point, it would make sense that man started to cook with fire after he started to control fire 400,000 years ago.  Then we would need to discover when man started to kill larger animals.  Before I go any further, I want everyone who is thinking mankind hunted dinosaurs and that was the first real barbeque to go back to school and hang out a few years.  You are obviously too caught up in the tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World),  Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Land That Time forgot), and Hanna Barbera (The Flintstones).  As tempting as a rack of ribs from a stegosaurus would be to smoke (Can you imagine that smoker pit), the dinosaurs were extinct 65 million years before the existence of man2.

To determine this we need to study what tools mankind used for hunting.  Mankind used tools as far back as 2.5 million years ago in what is known today as Ethiopia but what about tools for hunting and more importantly, hunting large game?  There is evidence of mankind’s use of rocks, clubs as tools in the Paleolithic age 300,000 years ago3, but use of tools as weapons for hunting (bow and arrows, and spears) is not prevalent until after the last ice age 10,000 years ago3.  Mankind still gathered in tribes, clans, packs and it would be necessary to kill a larger prey in order to feed the collective.  In order to kill a larger animal man learned that it would take a larger and heavier spear to take down the larger beasts.  These finds are all over the planet in areas that are within 35 – 40 degrees of the equator.  North or south of these regions was covered by ice for 95,000 years prior to the end of the last Ice age.  This is where it gets interesting.  While the indigenous inhabitants of North American were first thought to have come from India and labeled as Indians, it was only because the 15th century Spanish and Portuguese explorers initially thought America was India.  However, as we know better today, it was perhaps premature for science to call them all 'Paleo-Indians'.  These 'Indians' are actually of Asian descent, not from India (it isn't known for certain whether all the indigenous peoples of North America were of Asian descent or closely related enough to be lumped together).

Considered by most anthropologists as the first group of arrivals, it is believed the 'Clovis people' came across from Asia at the end of the last glacial period or Ice Age about 11,500 years ago4 (circa 9,500 B.C.) and their culture lasted for about 500-1000 years. The Clovis People are associated with the large fluted spear-points which were first found; wait for it, near Clovis, New Mexico in 1932.  The area is at the bottom of Tornado Alley which was carved into the North American landscape by the start of the ice age and was a fertile valley supporting life near the end of the last Ice Age.  It is in these finds that anthropologists also found fossilized remains of Mammoths next to evidence of fire pits leading me to believe that they had one heck of a cookout from time to time back then (Someone pass me a couple gallons of my dry–rub and a chord of mesquite).

Now there is evidence of mankind in Egypt laying out food in the hot sun or using salt to dry out and preserve it dating further back then this and there are many assumptions that mankind has cooked over fire but this the oldest evidence of both weapons used to kill large animals and fire used to cook it.  It may not have been called barbeque but I think it had that wonderful smoked flavor, was enjoyed by the clan, and that gave birth to America’s iconic cooking style.

I am sure that there are plenty of people who would enjoy disproving my theory and they can have at it.  What I can say for sure, is that mankind was barbequing here in New Mexico for over 10,000 years and that leads me to my next question.  On that big old mammoth, did they use dry rub or was there some Paleolithic version of BBQ Sauce used?

1.       Bowman DM, Balch JK, Artaxo P et al. Fire in the Earth system. Science. 2009;324(5926):481–4.
2.       Rey LV, Holtz, Jr TR (2007). Dinosaurs: the most complete, up-to-date encyclopedia for dinosaur lovers of all ages. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-375-82419-7.
3.       Plummer T (2004). "Flaked stones and old bones: Biological and cultural evolution at the dawn of technology". Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. Suppl 39: 118–64. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20157. PMID 15605391
4.       A.O. Kime  Prehistoric Cavemen of North America Paleo-Indians, Clovis, Folsom and pre-Clovis... the American cavemen,(7th edition - February 2008)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

BBQ Professor Videos Have New Look

This is the new opening credits for the BBQ Professor videos.  I will be posting my Smoked BBQ Brisket instruction video here soon for all to see and get some buzz going on the videos.  Tell me what you think in the comments section below and thanks for checking it out.  Also as always, if you have any questions, just list them here as well and I will answer all of them.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

New Mexico's Famous Green Chile Cheeseburgers

I often get asked about my time here in New Mexico and people want to know about the weather, my proximity to Mexico and Texas and somewhat on the culture.  I’m a foodie and I now live in the Green Chile capital of the world.  How come they never ask about the food part of the culture? 
Las Cruces, NM is in the middle of the Mesilla valley and is divided by the flowing Rio Grande, just 35 miles upstream from Juarez, Mexico and the western tip of El Paso, Texas.  Well that is a bit of a misnomer, because the Rio Grande (translated Big River) is more like pequeña cala or small creek.  This time of the year it is actually just a sandbar as it passes under Interstate 10 in Las Cruces.
This city has an interesting mix of people with the Snowbirds from all over the country, the students at NMSU, the farming community, and the locals.  It is fairly well spread out for a community of only 100,000 and considering it is the second largest city in the state it still has that small town charm.  There are only four golf courses in town (one is private) which are all amazingly affordable compared to what I am used to in Oregon, California and Colorado yet it is fairly easy to get a tee time and you can golf year round.  There are the major food chains here from Fast food to QSR and even full-service casual style dining.  There are five BBQ joints in town and some are good, some not so and one that should not even be in business (I am not here to slam anybody).  Obviously there are a number of wonderful Mexican restaurants, both independent and chain, and I have enjoyed trying them and most importantly the various sauces and other concoctions created from the local chiles.
The local university, NMSU is also the home of the Chile Pepper Institute ( headed up by director Paul Bosland, who in my opinion is freakin’ Yoda when it comes to chiles and how to grow them.  He has recently done some work on intensifying (is that a word?) the Bhout Jolokia, which was the first to surpass the 1,000,000 Scoville units mark and now the Red Scorpion, or ghost chile, which has reached even higher marks on the same scale.  To give you a bit of perspective on how hot that is, one Bhout Jolokia pepper would be like eating over 350 jalapenos or a half dozen Habanero peppers.  Aye, Mui caliente!!!  You see Chiles are the main crop down here.  More than Pecans and New Mexico supplies 10% of the world’s pecan consumption.  We are only 30 miles south of Hatch, where chiles became famous, and you can even ask for them on your Big Mac© here.  Every grocery store has roasters out front during harvest season and of course there are a number of festivals dedicated to Salsa and the chile during the year.
So being surrounded by numerous varieties of chiles it makes sense that I would apply them to my cooking and I do.  Your standard Nu-Mex or green chile, some call them Anaheim’s, comes in a variety of heat levels and has amazing nutritional and medicinal properties that I love.  They are higher in Vitamin C than an Orange, great for your heart and most importantly, in my case do amazing things for keeping blood normal.  Forget an apple a day to keep the doctor away.  I recommend two Serannos and jalapeno for overall health.  I bet you can probably lower your cholesterol level 15 points just by smelling the air here as they are roasting chiles in the fall.  Well maybe, besides it can’t hurt and I love the smell of fresh roasted chiles.
The Owl Bar and Cafe in
San Antonio, NM
The Buckhorn Cafe and Pkg goods
in San Antonio, NM
One of the big things down here is obviously the green chile cheeseburger.  Everybody does one.  Many restaurateurs claim they have the best but I always think it is a bit subjective and everyone should try a few to see which ones they like.  That brings me to the point of this week’s blog. I recently took a drive up to San Antonio, NM to try out the Owl Bar and their neighbor across the street, the Buckhorn, both known for their green chile cheeseburgers.  San Antonio is about 140 miles north of Las Cruces and 90 miles south of Albuquerque.  It is a very small town, population at less than 1,000 and is the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, (I can’t imagine Paris Hilton ever visiting her great grandfather’s hometown). It is near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge which gets an enormous migration of Sandhill Cranes and Winter Geese in the late fall, similar to the Swallows in San Juan Capistrano.  It is also about ten miles west of the north entrance of the Trinity test site (now White Sands Missile range) where they tested the first atomic bomb.  It is a quaint little town that most Interstate travelers would just pass on by and I would have done the same except for two reasons.  First off, a lot of the locals here In Las Cruces have told me about the town and the green chile cheeseburgers there and they talk about one place or the other.  A majority will say the Owl had better burgers but my next door neighborhood told me that Bobby Flay went up against the owner of the Buckhorn on his show Throw down with Bobby Flay and he lost.  I have been to Bobby’s place in Las Vegas, Mesa Grill and I love the Mesa Burger with its Vidalia onions and the Spicy horseradish mustard all under melted cheddar.  Bobby knows burgers and has been a pioneer of infusing Southwest flavors and chiles into his cuisine.  There is a reason why he is who he is and let’s faces it, the guy can cook and he knows what people like and executes it very well.

Manny Olguin defeats Iron Chef Bobby Flay on
Food Network's Throw Down with Bobby Flay
So I’m hooked and already drooling at this point, and decide to head up with a friend one Saturday.  I have a light breakfast, toast and juice, because I am going to have two burgers that day and head on up.  It was a great drive through the Southern New Mexico desert that day, early February and still 68°F without a cloud in the sky.  We got into San Antonio about 11:45 am and decide to go to the Owl first.  We pull up and I see this typical light brown stucco building with heavy thick wooden doors.  We walk in and it’s dim lighting with dark wood everywhere, the floor, tables, walls, booths and even the ceiling.  

You cant miss this sign as
you pull of the highway and
head east a few hundred yards
Only one booth has customers. There is a long bar opposite the door and the five booths up front.  Funny the building looked bigger out front.  We walk to the end of the bar and I see entrance to another dining room behind the bar.  We step in, having to duck from the low clearance, and I see eight more booths in a rectangular room with four tables in the middle, two of which are occupied.  Guess what, it is all wood in here to.  From my first impression I would say it was a greasy spoon that aspired to be a dive.  MY KINDA PLACE!!
The back room of the Owl has
more woods then my golf bag
  The waitress comes by and hands us the menus and takes a drink order.  I look at the menu and there are a few Mexican items on the menu but right there in the center is why I came here.  It reads like this:
Green Chile Cheeseburger (with lettuce, onion and tomato)…………………. $5.50
Green Chile Cheese Fries at the Owl Bar and Cafe
That’s it.  No other fancy burgers with fifty toppings and a choice of cheeses.  There is only one burger option.  Now I am intrigued.  I order a burger and a side of chile cheese fries when my friend Tom tells me the cheese fries are just the fries, cheese sauce and diced green chiles.  I was used to either red or green chile stew on my chile cheese fries but had an open mind.  The Cheese fries came out first and I decide to play it safe and use a fork because if it weren’t for the few fries sneaking out from underneath the mound of chiles and sauce I would have thought it was soup.  They were fresh cut fries.  The kind that darkens when fried from the starch that had not been completely rinsed away and add great flavor to a fry.  The cheese sauce was a scratch béchamel sauce with what, I am assuming, was a mild cheddar cheese added to it.  The chiles were finely diced and lightly sautéed and piled, more like shoveled, because there was a ton of them, YUM!   I stabbed the fork into the middle and made sure I got a good tasting of all three ingredients.  The chile flavor was wonderful.  It tasted like they were roasted five minutes ago.  The flavor of freshly roasted chiles is simply amazing.  Once you have had that taste I guarantee you will never buy that little can of diced chiles in the ethnic food aisle of the grocery store ever again.  It is so incredible and you get to know the difference between roasted a few hours ago and a few days ago.  The cheese sauce was dripping smoothly over the fries to coat them from end to end with its lacteous blanket.  It was lightly seasoned which is good because I really did not want anything from hindering those chiles.  The fries, well I am a bit of a snob on fries and I thought these fell a little short.  A good French fry is first, fresh cut, not frozen.  It is blanched a first time about two thirds of the way in oil that is about 300° F and cooled and then finished at 375° F to make a crispy outside but a creamy inside.  It is in my opinion the only way to cook a French fry, not only for its taste and texture but it also keeps the fry from becoming to greasy.  If done right, Fries done this way remain crisp and are capable of supporting sauces much like what was on top of these.  The owl definitely skipped the second fry on these so the steam from the inside of the potato could not get hot enough to push out all of the oil from the fryer and well they were soggy and partially cooked at best. 
The Green Chile Cheeseburger at the Owl
is worth the 2 hour drive I made to have it
Thank God for the chiles and sauce on top or I might have refused to even try the burger.  The burgers came out a few minutes later and let me tell you this, WOW!!!  It was a simple burger grilled on a flat top and had some sautéed diced onions, a slight spread of mustard with the diced green chiles and, wait for it, American cheese.  There was absolutely nothing special or fancy about this burger.  It had a standard white bun and was not huge, maybe a ¼ pounder.  No mystery sauce or special ingredients but I have to say, it was the best burger I have had in last couple of years.  They did it right you see.  No one ingredient was overbearing and dominant.  They all worked together to present a wonderful flavor profile that highlighted the fresh chiles.  This burger alone was worth the two hour drive.   I am now starting to understand why the people in Las Cruces all stop here on their way up to Albuquerque. 
Tom gave me some of the history of the place on how the customers have been tacking up dollar bills and other foreign currency on the walls for years.  I had noticed there was a wall near the front door with the foreign currency but I did not see any American currency.  The waitress told me that they finally had to take down all of the money and the owners used it to help out one of the locals who had some problems and apparently it was up in the thousands.  I love local support from local business owners.  I liked the wood walls unclutterd a bit better but I have to admit it reminded me of the Little Bear Tavern in Evergreen, CO.  Only they don’t nail money to the walls there.  They nail bras on the wall there.   I started to wonder if this place had the same kind of nightlife, hmmm???   I smiled and went back to this wonderful creation of a burger and thought what a great idea it was to come up here.  I finished my burger very happy about the experience.  As for Tom, well he had two. 
The Buckhorn boasts about their burger being ranked #7
on the GQ top 20 bucket list burgers
We settled up and decided to go across the street to the Buckhorn.  It was 12:45 now and the middle of the lunch rush.  Maybe we did not plan this just right.  This is the place that beat Bobby Flay and I was looking forward to it.  I just ate one burger but was still a little hungry, so I knew I was going in with a clearand open mind.  The sign out front reads “#7 in America.” A good omen hopefully.  As we walked inside, I notice that it is an even smaller place than across the street.  There are maybe eight tables and four seats at the bar.  All of the tables are full and there are two parties waiting ahead of us.  There is a sign written on cardboard that reads, “We are not fast food, if you are in a hurry, we are sorry.”  I thought it was a little cute but I would not expect a place that beat Bobby Flay and received a decent amount of praise from the media, former governor and native New Mexicans to be a fast food joint, but hey, we can roll with it. Tom pointed out the sign and said, “I guess we will be waiting for a bit,” with a slight grin on his face.  I smiled back but then all of a sudden, it apparently inspired a dirty look from the guy in front of us who said, “It’s not McDonald’s, what do you want?”  Now Tom is 6'7” tall, a former lineman at Colorado State and one thing I have learned over the years is whether its humor or an insult, you don’t say that to someone who is 6'7” tall and pushed other big guys around for sport.  Tom looked at the guy and smiled and looked at me as if I was going to squash him myself.  Twenty minutes later, we saw two seats open at the bar and decided to sit there.  Mine had an empty plate and cup in front of me but I just pushed it forward for the server/bartender to clear when we were greeted. 
The warm and cozy front dining room and bar
at the Buckhorn Cafe in San Antonio, NM
The Buckhorn is different from the Owl.  The walls are painted white and the wood trim is stained a light Oak color.  There are definitely some brighter colors in here and exposed windows that light can actually get through.  Overall, it does seem like a warmer environment.  I noticed on the wall next to me a plaque on the wall with a cover of GQ magazine and a page that says “The 20 hamburgers you must eat before you die."  The Buckhorn was #7 on this list.  This explains the sign out front.  I really hate when places make false claims so after seeing this, I am getting excited for more of that green chile goodness.  A gal came from behind the bar and gave us a couple of menus.  I knew what I came for but I wanted to look it over anyways.  
The Buckhorn was ranked #7 on
GQ's 20 burgers to eat before you die
There was variety here.  They had the Buckhorn which is their “signature” green chile cheeseburger as well as 5 others that basically featured other toppings besides green chiles.  There were also a few other options which, as I thought to myself with confidence, could wait until another trip up to this quaint little town.  The decision was quick.  We both ordered the Buckhorn and a Pepsi.  I had the cheese fries at the Owl and that was enough for me on this trip.  

Now I have been in the restaurant business for almost 20 years now.  I have worked Front of the House Manager for some, Back of the House Manager for others, worked up to General Manager and even Multi-unit Manager for some.  I have also worked for independent owners as a GM and I prefer that over corporate but I value the systems and organizational skills I learned in the corporate environment because it made me understand from an early part of my career the importance of a team effort in providing great customer serviceand I apply those today.  You know that WOW factor that brings people back on a regular basis.  It is essential for survival in a business where 50 % fail in the first year.  I am sure that the average Joe on the street will overlook one or two mistakes a restaurant makes if great food is accompanied by great service.  I am the same way.  It takes a lot for me to get upset at a restaurant.  I never complain about anything unless the food is cold or cooked completely wrong.  I know when a problem is the kitchen’s fault and when it’s the server’s fault.  I expect the server to recognize the problem beforehand but I also know some owners and managers push bad product and service in order to meet costs and numbers without realizing how much this causes many restaurants to fail.
This appeared to be the case as the wheels definitely came off the wagon here.  First off, the waitress never cleared the plate and glass in front of me let alone wipe down the surface.  My Pepsi was delivered in a can with a paper cup and no ice.  If ice is a premium, I will pay for it.  A cold soft drink poured over a full glass of ice tastes ten times better than without.  Try it some time, you will see.  The next thing is that we waited 52 minutes for our two burgers.  I spun around on my stool once to count people in the restaurant and I counted 23 people total sitting down at tables.  The kitchen which was open and next to the bar had two guys working in it.  One was working the cold station, building the buns and also doing fries while the other guy was working the grill station.  Manny Olguin, the owner was standing nearby talking with one server and occasionally ringing out checks.  The flat top was a standard 27” griddle so it could probably handle 16 burgers at a time with plenty of room for peppers and onions to be sautéed.

It always amazes me how some people handle their work flow.  There are a number of ways to do multiple things at once, whether it is multi-tasking or repetition of the same task.  This would be like a cook who puts out orders while completing their prep and all the while, cleaning as they go.  Then there are some who only can do one thing at a time or they lose concentration.  I am quite sure we had the latter with our grill cook today.  The fact that the owner is standing there and knows his customers are waiting for the food and still does nothing to help a cook who is struggling to do one ticket at a time says a lot about how much he cares about guest satisfaction. 
So here I am waiting for about forty minutes, my Pepsi has been empty for about twenty-five minutes and I have not seen my server come by to offer a refill, I am thinking I should have had a second burger at the Owl and Tom looks at me and makes and suggests I go out back and help them slaughter the cow.  The server finally comes up and says “Your burgers will be next”, (she never asked if I wanted another Pepsi).  I smiled as I realized my thirst would have to wait another few minutes and figured the #7 burger in America will fix all of these issues in my mind.  About ten minutes later the burgers were delivered and I ordered another Pepsi for me and a beer for Tom.  I looked at my burger.  It was a little thicker than the one at the Owl, maybe a 1/3 of a pound I figure.  The bun is a standard 5” white bun and I see the toppings seem to be the same ones.  I cut in half and take my first bite. 
The Buckhorn Cafe's signature burger, the Buckhorn came
with a huge case of Topping overload
“Holy Root Vegetable, Batman!!” My head jerks back in shock as I set down my burger.  The first bite was a blast of onion that would knock over a Rhino.  I peel up the top bun and look inside.  There is ton of yellow mustard that is acting like glue for maybe a tablespoon of chiles and ¼ cup of fresh cut onion chunks.  The patty on the bottom bun has a semi melted slice of American cheese with another ¼ cup of those onion chunks sitting on it.  Onions are a simple thing.    You only need about a tablespoon of diced onions on a burger, not a 1/2 a cup.  I think the ratios are a little off and there are obviously some execution errors here as well.  Also, onions are sautéed for burgers because they mellow out quite a bit when cooked and provide a nice sweet component to balance off with the savory of the burger and chiles.  You only need a slight bit of mustard to add the bitter component.  What I had here was a slathering mess of mustard with an overkill blast of onion.  The purpose of spread toppings like mustard, mayo, “the secret sauce” or whatever you put on your burger is to coat the bun and prevent the juice from the burger from making it soggy.  Smart chefs will also use it as a canvas for additional complimentary flavors, for example, Chipotle Mayo or Avocado Honey Mustard.  A simple rule of thumb for you grilling enthusiasts out there, if you can’t taste the hamburger, you need to cut back on toppings.    

I scraped off the onions and what I could of the mustard, reassembled my burger and tore off a piece of the burger s I could see how the beef tasted.  Other than being well done it was actually seasoned quite nicely and was still moist.  It is a shame it was blocked by everything else here.  That is everything except the chiles.  I did not even taste them on the next few bites.  I finally put down the burger and lifted the top bun and scooped some out of the sea of mustard still on the bun to try them.  I saw the guy sautéing them on the griddle but these were lacking that freshness I had across the street. They were very bland and well tasted like they came from, wait for it… a CAN.
All that is going through my head right now is this guy beat Bobby Flay?  I think either the judges were biased or Manny cooked one thing for the throw down against Bobby and puts out something different for his restaurant.  I am just a simple man with simple tastes who writes a simple blog.  Sure I don’t pull punches and I call it as I see it, but how could GQ Magazine, The Food Network and the many people of Southern New Mexico be so wrong about this place?  Well I can make assumptions from years of experience and say The Buckhorn probably was not always like this with plugs from the aforementioned groups above.  Maybe they probably have new help and the kid behind the grill is still learning.  He should be helping him through it though. It is an owner’s responsibility to monitor the current state of the restaurant.  That means having the systems and tools to measure performance on a shiftly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis on all facets of operations.  I have always said that great restaurants don’t fail because the food is bad or the service is bad alone.  Most fail because it is a great chef who makes amazing dishes but he may not have a good head for business or sometimes a GM micro manages a thing to death and sacrifices quality to hit numbers.  Poor customer service is always a cancer.  The point being is that if the Buckhorn does not do something to improve upon these short comings.  It is going to be one of those places.
Overall it was a good trip.  If I had to rank the two places I would say this.  The Owl is one of those off the beaten path dives that is a true diamond in the rough.  They are keeping it simple but doing it right.  They skip the fancy fanfare and give you a solid product.  I give them a thumbs up on value, décor, and service.  I give the burger two thumbs up and I almost never do that.
The Buckhorn dropped the ball in every possible way and I admit I was extremely disappointed.  This being said, I will try them again because I always give a place a second chance to earn my money and see if it was the one freak set of circumstances that occurred while the planets were all aligned or something like that.  Either way, I will send a copy of this post to both owners because as an operator myself I like to get feedback and try my best to improve upon the processes that ensure great guest satisfaction.  So on my next trip I will try the Buckhorn, that is after I get one at the Owl Bar and Café.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Science Behind The Perfect Brisket

Nothing is better in BBQ than a brisket that is so tender it comes apart with a slight tug.  Obviously low and slow is the key here but how low and how long depends on a few factors.  If you don’t cook it long enough, you might as well soak your shoe in beef broth and serve it up because it will be just as tender.  If you cook it too long, it will surely come apart with a slight tug but it will be dry and pasty (Yes, I said P-A-S-T-Y) on the tongue and lose a lot of flavor.  BBQ brisket has baffled some of the best chef’s around the country.  There is a small window with minimal margin for error to cook the best brisket.  Everything you need to know is comes from the brisket before cooking and knowing a little physiology about muscle tissue in mammals.  The thickness of the brisket, fat cap and marbling can tell you just how long you need to cook your brisket and at what temperature is best.  My goal is to show you how to increase that window between tender and moist to dried out and ruined so your briskets come out perfect each time.  The following is a description of what is the best way to cook your brisket combined with a little science and research data to help you understand the crown jewel in Texas BBQ, the Brisket.

USDA Stamps (trusted)
Corporate Mktg. Stamp
(Not USDA Certified)
The first thing you need to do is buy quality brisket.  I only have two musts for my brisket and that is a USDA grading of Choice or better and it has to be Angus.   You will not find anything better than Choice in the grocery store and very few butchers have Prime cuts and they generally reserve that for special customers only.  If you have a regular butcher and you do BBQ a lot, I recommend putting him on the Christmas card list and buddying up to this guy because he will eventually go out and buy the better cuts for you when there is a price break and such and it will pay great dividends in your Q.  As for the latter, I personally prefer Angus cuts.  They are naturally a higher marble content species of bovine with the higher altitude and climates around here and the breeds around this part of the country are fed better than those in the Midwest.  Either way, find one you like or that your new best friend the butcher recommends and go from there.

Some people recommend never freezing a brisket but I personally have not had any problems with it and I am fairly sure it was frozen at some point between the meat processing plant and my local butcher or Sam’s Club, who carries Angus choice briskets, so I won’t talk about positives or negatives other than to tell you it takes about three days to thaw in the refrigerator.

I try to buy mine three days before smoking and keep it refrigerated until about an hour before brining.  This allows the pores in the tissue to open as much as possible to soak up the brine deeper in to the tissue.  While it is warming I look at my brisket on all sides and get a feel for the fat cap.  The harder and denser the fat cap usually is a good indicator of how thick it is.  I trim the fat cap down to ¼ inch thick.  You will also need to trim the thick dense part along the vein between the Flat and the Point.  The Flat is the deep pectoral muscle that runs across the chest of the cow between the front legs.  The Point is the supraspinatus muscle on top of the flat or simply put the breast of the cow.  Trim the fat by cutting a V shape along the vein separating the flat and point.  You may want to start by trimming a little at a time to make sure you are not trimming too much fat and start cutting away tissue.  It comes with practice and of course every brisket is different.  Another thing I like to do is cut the brisket in half.  For starters, a whole brisket is 14 -18 pounds.  I love BBQ but the average family of four won’t eat that in a month eating brisket every other day.  I also like to have a lot of bark around my brisket because I like to do various things with the “burnt ends.” (I will have to put my burnt ends uses in another blog someday.)  The other reason is I like to get a good look at the cross section to check the marbling, amount of fat under the lip or top piece of brisket and of course, check the thickness.  These are indicators of what I should expect to see during the smoking process and I will get into those with more detail in a bit.

So now we have our brisket cut in half and trimmed.  One last cut I make is a slight trim on the corner of the brisket on the thin end.  I cut off a small piece of the corner against the grain so I can mark it when it is time for slicing.  After 18 hours in a smoker it is not going to always be easy to determine the grain of the flat. 
Trim fat cap down to about 1/4"

Make half of the water for brine
 ice so you can cool it when done
While it is warming up a bit in a roasting pan, or any vessel that can hold it, prepare the brine solution.  You can flavor the brine any way you want to but it needs to have these three ingredients in the following ratio at minimum:  12 cups cold water/ ½ cup kosher salt/ ¼ cup sugar.  It can be brown sugar, cane sugar, honey, whatever you like it all comes down to your preference.  I add two tbsp. of Cider vinegar to get the acid in my brine and help tenderize the beef a little more.  Do not use more than that or it can turn the outside of your brisket to mush.  Combine six cups of water, salt, sugar and whatever flavor enhancers you are using in a sauce pot and heat to a boil so all ingredients dissolve.  I then remove from heat and add the remaining water in frozen form or ice cubes so the brine can cool quicker.  Do not brine your brisket in hot brine because it will begin to cook your brisket.  When your solution reaches 40 degrees, pour over the brisket and cover it by at least a half of an inch.  Cover and put in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.

The next day, take your brined brisket out of the refrigerator and remove the brisket and dispose of the brine.  Pat the brisket dry and put in a wide and deep pan.  Six inch hotel pans are great but you can use the disposable roasting pans from the grocery store.  At this point you are ready for seasoning with rub.  Many people will tell you that in East Texas it is salt, pepper, garlic and chile powder.  The purists in Central Texas will tell you salt and pepper only.  I use a few more because that is what I like and it has some positive effects on the meat during cooking. Please don’t send me 1000 emails telling me I am a traitor to Texas BBQ.  There are hundreds of Texas companies and Pit-masters from Texas who sell brisket dry-rubs with a listing of ingredients that looks like the spice aisle at the grocery store. I use eight spices including kosher salt to bring out a little moisture for my crust and some brown sugar which will melt during early cooking and help to form a shell around the brisket sealing in the moisture.    

Let sit for 30 minutes while the smoker is getting to temperature
Do what you like, experiment and have fun.  Apply your rub and apply a lot.  Do not be shy here.  Work it into every crevice and inch of surface area of the beef and work it in good. This will only affect the outer 1/8 inch or so but a good rub makes for a good crust and that is BBQ gold in parts of Austin I hear.  After rubbing in your rub or spices, allow to sit for about two hours. 

While your brisket is sitting again, start up your smoker.  I always like to start off brisket with Mesquite.  It has a stronger smoke taste than other woods and I want that early penetration to take hold.  After the first hour, I switch to Pecan or Hickory.  They are mild compared to the Mesquite and add a sweetness to the flavor as well.  After six or seven hours I stop the wood and go with straight charcoal or oak for consistent temperatures only.  There is more than enough smoke in your brisket at this point and I am sure your smoke ring is set.  You don’t want the meat to get to bitter which can happen if you over smoke it.

Get your smoker up to 210 degrees and make sure it is holding temperature.  Place your brisket in the smoker with plenty of room on each side.  Insert a temperature probe in the brisket and seal off the smoker and keep an eye on temps.

Many will tell you that it should take 1½ hours per pound of brisket to smoke properly and I can tell you that is a load of crap someone probably found in a Better Homes and Garden cookbook.  I cut mine in half and I can tell you it takes almost as long to cook my 8 pound half as it does a whole sixteen pound brisket.  This is a primal cut and stretches close to twenty inches long and as thick as four inches in some places.  My rule of thumb is to cook it for approximately four hours for every inch thick it is and that is still an approximation because the fat layer between the flat and point as well as the amount of marbling and collagen are mitigating factors as well. 

This is where the science comes in.  When I looked at the cross section of the brisket I obviously measured the thickness to know approximate cooking times but I also wanted to see the amount of marbling as well as connective tissue.  Marbling is the natural fats in between muscle tissue that adds flavor to beef, pork, chicken etc…  Fat varies from animal to animal and can even vary inside the same one.   It looks like the salt deposit veins in well “Marble”, hence the name.  One thing fats do have in common is that the molecules are tied together by a Carboxylic acid, also known as Glycerol, on the end.  These Glycerols start to break down between 150 and 170 degrees but do so very slowly.  If heated to fast, they tend to bind with the nearby connective tissues and curl up.  Have you ever seen bacon cook completely flat?  I didn’t think so.

Connective tissue is made of three types of protein, Elastin, Reticulin and Collagen.  Elastin and Reticulin are found largely around ligaments and joints and do not break down during cooking.  You may have had a cheaper cut of steak and had some gristle that chewed like a rubber band or seen silver skin in the roast beef.  This is Elastin and Reticulin.  The majority running through muscle tissue is Collagen and when heated it turns into a soft gelatin.  These three together form a good wall of protection for the muscle fibers and you will notice as your internal temperature rises in the brisket it begins to level off as it approaches 180 degrees.  This is the collagen breaking down and becoming a nice soft gelatin.  The process is known as “temperature plateauing.”  It is the connective tissues fighting off the heat and eventually subsiding when the collagen breaks down.  The chart shows the brisket approaching this wall, hitting a plateau and then starting to rise back up again after the collagen has broken down.

The brisket will plateau twice before it is done
If you look at the chart, the brisket starts off hour one at or around 40 degrees and is rising in internal temp at around 20 degrees per hour.  This allows the Dry-rub to form that crust or shell around the meat.  The sugars in the rub begin to melt around 200 degrees in the smoke box and this forms a shell around the brisket.  However it will dry out and begin to crack after 5 hours when the crust is set.  At this point, I spray a solution of four parts water/ 3 parts apple juice / 1 part cider vinegar as a moisturizer on the brisket every hour until I pull it from the smoker.  This will help keep the moisture in the crust where it needs to be while the moisture in the brisket stays trapped in the brisket.
Spray on mop every hour after the
second hour to keep the brisket moist

When all of the collagen has dissolved, the temperature will rise again eight to ten degrees in one hour.  At this point you want to remove the brisket and place it in a few layers of aluminum foil, fold up the sides, pour in a half cup of apple juice and close it off.  Put it back in the smoker for one or two more hours to let the juice cook in and flavor the meat once more.  You’ll know it is done when the internal temperature levels off again around 195 degrees.

At this point I remove the brisket and place it in an Igloo cooler or thermos and let it rest for 45 to 60 minutes.  This allows the muscle tissue, which constricted and shrunk during cooking, to cool a bit and re absorb the juices it squeezed out during cooking.  You have waited a day of brining and nearly another day cooking.  You can wait one more hour.

When you are ready to slice, remove the brisket from the foil but save the juices in the foil packet.  You can skim the fat and this makes for a great base to a great BBQ sauce when reheating the leftovers (another recipe for another time). If you did your job right you will notice the brisket has a nice little jiggle to it and I tell you it always puts a smile on my face to see it quiver that way.

When smoked properly, you can separate the point with a wooden spoon
When ready to carve or slice your brisket you will need to separate the point from the flat.  The grain of the flat is generally the length of the brisket with a slight angle to it.  The grain on the point is going in a perpendicular direction and will mess up your slicing.  If you have high heat gloves you can pretty much just pull the two pieces apart.  If not, it will cut fairly easy.   Just make small cuts across the fat seam and start to pull away.  The point is popular sliced or used for Chop or burnt ends.  It is just as delicious as the rest of the brisket it is just a different muscle.  The flat is going to be fairly uniform in thickness.  It is good for sandwiches for everyone and just plain good BBQ, it is also the best part to use for judging and presentation especially if you want to show a quality smoke ring which will be quite noticeable on your brisket.
Slice against the grain in 1/4" to 3/8" slices

So what science helped increase the window of success here?  Physical reaction #1- Trimming the fat to a consistent layer over the brisket reduces the cooking time by reducing the insulated blanket provided by the fat and allows the brisket to cook evenly.  Chemical reaction #1 – The vinegar and salt in the brine reacts with the outer ¼ inch on the brisket.  The vinegar helps to tenderize the beef while the salt is in a higher concentration and will repel moisture from leaving the beef early.  Physical reaction #2 – The Dry-Rub coats and when melted, forms a layer or shell around the brisket holding in the moisture when heated.  Chemical reaction #2 The bond between the Collagen, Elastin, & Reticulin is broken apart by the slow and steady heat.  The Collagen becomes a soft gelatin and moisturizes the meat even more.  Physical reaction #3 – The fat melts from the heat and moisturizes and flavors the brisket as it drips away.  Choice cuts have modest to medium marbling and require a bit more time to cook properly.  Seeing this I knew that 210 would be the best temperature to cook at.  You can speed up the process by raising the temperature to 225-250 degrees but then your window of success shrinks again.  I recommend this method for continued enjoyment of tender brisket.

I like mine without sauce.  I want to taste the smoky flavor balanced with the flavor of the rub and the meat.  Sauce is ok for leftovers but you did an amazing thing here you should be proud of what has happened in both a culinary and scientific viewpoint.  The chemical and physical reactions from the last 48 hours of your labor have produced a culinary delight that has baffled many chefs over time.

See Mom, I was paying attention in Chemistry and Physics.

Bon Appetite!!!