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Turning a slab of meat into tender deliciousness: secrets of the low and slow cook

Brisket is a classic cut of meat for the low and slow cook.
Joel Villanueva
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Getty Images
Brisket is a classic cut of meat for the low and slow cook.

Editor's note: Goats and Soda usually covers stories about the Global South and sometimes looks at how life there holds lessons for all of us. In this story in the Weekly Dose of Wonder series, we look at a culinary technique that had the opposite trajectory: With roots in the Americas, it has spread out around the globe. It's the story of slow cooking meat via smoking. Senior editor Gisele Grayson, a slow-cooking aficionado, says the results are wonderful. Anyone who has had the privilege of tasting her slow-cooked chicken would agree 110%.

As I walk in SmokeDatt BBQ in Washington, D.C. early on a Sunday morning, George Loving and Wendell Headley are seasoning 15 racks of St Louis-style ribs. They plan to smoke 30 of them as well as about 160 pounds of pork butt (which comes from the shoulder, despite the name). Smoking means that they'll cook the meat at low temperatures for a long time – the "low and slow" cook many of us smokers relish –– with the meat not directly on top of the fire.

Something wonderful happens to meat cooked for a long time over relatively low heat. A few low-and-slow gurus shared their wisdom on the history, art and science of the experience.

Let's take the brisket – the lower chest area of the cow. "It's the epitome of smoking 'cause it takes the longest. You put it in the smoker, and you just let it cook," says Loving, for whom brisket is his current favorite cut. But not at high temperatures. "You always want to stay around that 225 to 250" degrees Fahrenheit, he notes.

A good low-and-slow cooked brisket is really hard to describe on the page – it's 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? Matt Hartings is a chemist who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and wrote a book called Chemistry in Your Kitchen. Meat is muscle, he says, and the proteins actin and myosin are present in all of them. Cooking breaks them down, in essence unraveling their coil-like shape. The tougher cuts of meat also have a lot of a protein called collagen.

"The purpose of collagen in our muscles is to make them resistant to strain," Hartings says. "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." Collagen also is basically shaped like a coil, and cooking on low heat over time gently uncoils it. When you do that, says Hartings, the collagen "breaks down into gelatin. Gelatin makes Jell-O, and you go from something really firm and chewy to fall-apart tender."

Key to that tender texture is retaining the moisture. Cook the meat too fast and the natural moisture inside meat evaporates. The muscle fibers crowd together into a dry, chewy cut.

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

Both Hartings and Loving say you can't hurry this chemistry. As many of us who've attempted brisket can tell you, patience is key. "I've seen some briskets cook in eight to 10 hours. I've seen some take 14, 16 hours," says Loving. "It's something you just don't rush. And when it's done, it's done."

A thermometer can definitely clue you in to when it's done. But really, you want a certain texture, not just a temperature reading, says Loving. "Make sure you cook it to where it has time for 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 break on its own when it bends over your finger."

If you're cooking with wood, you want to do this with smoke you can barely see. say both Loving and Hartings. 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. "Things like guaiacol, which is spicy and smoky, or vanillin, which tastes like vanilla," he says.

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

Other factors are involved in cooking meat to perfection – the rubs, the bark creation, achieving a smoke ring (a pink ring just under the surface of smoked meat, fodder for a whole separate chemistry story).

Smoking itself had been used for food preservationaround the world for thousands of years. Its cousin, cooking over a pit, is a low and slow cook with the meat more directly above the fire — and that likely has deep roots in Native American cooking, which Europeans and enslaved Africans saw when they arrived in North America. "Eventually, enslaved Africans learned from the many thousands of Native Americans who were also enslaved," says self-described soul food scholar Adrian Miller, author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. "Then they started honing barbecue into what it becomes." By the 19th century, he says, the idea of slow cooking a whole animal over a pit was widespread — and eventually spread around the world.

"Barbecue came from the Americas to West Africa because they embraced all this other stuff from the Americas, like chilis and tomatoes," Miller says. And now, with the aid of YouTube tutorials, he says he's seen American barbecue go global. Case in point, while traveling overseas, he visited The Land Smokehouse in Oman – named after Cleveland, where the owner said he had great barbecue in Ohio and brought it home, pledging that he cooks beef Texas-style for some 14 hours.

And as you head to your weekend barbecues, for those of you who enjoy smoking meat, here's how our trio of experts do a low-and-slow cook of ribs: the binders they use (that's the layer of sauce applied to meat so the rub sticks to it) and their rubs (the spice mixture applied before cooking).

Loving and St. Louis style pork ribs. The binder: olive oil but with a spritz of apple cider vinegar first. He's not sharing his recipe for the rub: "Well, you know, most ribs have the same thing in it," he says, "but we do put a few extra things in there to give our ribs and flavor."

Hartings and pork baby back. His binder: olive oil. His rub: paprika ("regular or smoked, depending on my mood"), a little brown sugar (to help with a crust), cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, cumin, dried mustard. "I do change my rub quite a bit. Sometimes I'll use Chinese 5-spice, sometimes I'll go sweeter with cloves and nutmeg."

Miller and pork spare ribs. He'll skip the binder as a rule but sometimes goes for "a spritz of apple apple juice" and then puts on the rub. He advises, "go light on the sugar so it doesn't burn."

The end result should be your weekly dose of culinary wonder.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.