Barbecue basics- charcoal, wood, cooking temperature and fun time

Barbecue basics- charcoal, wood, cooking temperature and fun time

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It’s time I go there. I’ve fielded way too many questions to ignore it. Now is the perfect time for me to opine on this highly controversial topic: when it’s called barbecue.

How do you define “true” barbecue?

I have three parameters to cooking that I’d like to address that should help explain my justification for what qualifies as barbecue basics.

Barbecue Basics- Temperature Comes First

People are often surprised that I don’t include equipment in my considerations but if you’ve followed our recipe blog “Cooking With Dr. Smoke”, you’re well aware that we include a wide array of equipment to demonstrate wood flavor infusion to all types of foods. One area we do focus on, however, is temperature when cooking.

Extremely Low Temperature (below 80° F):

If the first thing that comes to mind is a temperature under 80°F is just not cooking, you’d be right. Basically, this is a temperature that is ideal to complete cold smoking. Fish, cheese, and some meat products can be exposed to this low temperature process when a combustible plant material is used. In most cases, that is wood to smolder and produce a gas or vapor. The smoke vapor produced from the smoldering wood invokes flavor and preservative qualities to the foods without causing fragile items such as cheese, chocolate, and similar food items to have their molecular composition destroyed by heat. When meats are exposed to this low temperature environment with smoldering wood, the smoke vapor penetrates completely through the meat since there is no high heat surface hardening that occurs like with hot smoking temperatures.

Low Temperature (180° to 300°F):

We’ve all heard the term low and slow cooking. This is the low temperature reference to cooking tougher cuts of meat. However, for me, even more tender cuts can be done using low temperature cooking, especially when paired with an indirect cooking set up or two-zone cooking. Additionally, this temperature range is not just for meats and poultry, but fish, fruits, and vegetables also benefit.

our thermometer at 350 degrees F is the beginning of high temperature cooking.
high temperatures

High Heat Temperature (350° to 550°F or more):

Higher temperatures are generally for cooking smaller cuts of meat and poultry that don’t require a lot of cooking time. Plus, high heat temperature can develop the char crust exterior on foods that many people crave with outdoor meals. Know that you can use traditional grills for both direct, high heat cooking as well as indirect set up. The indirect will allow you to cook the food through by placing on the indirect, non-heat side and then use the direct side for adding a sear to the finished foods.

Barbecue Basics- Combustible Barbecue Material

If you agree with me that barbecue is cooking with smoke then you’ll understand the need for a combustible material. Some type of plant material must be used to generate the smoke. The most popular material is wood or hardwood to be specific, since you should never cook with softwoods due to their higher sapwood content, resin, and air space in the cell walls.

Smoke is a key ingredient to Barbecue
Smoke is a key ingredient to Barbecue

First, understand smoke is a gas or vapor and can result from juices and fats that drip off foods into the fuel area of equipment, result from a fuel source like charcoal emitting smoke at it gains temperature to produce hot coals, and result from wood or other plant material (think herbs, teas, etc.) that is ignited. You’ve likely experienced the first when cooking hamburgers, hot dogs or steak on direct heat of a charcoal or gas grill and watched the flames start with each drip of the fats/juices. Just as you’ve likely experienced lighting charcoal and having a plume of smoke sit until the charcoal begins to gray over and produce high heat. Come Fall and Spring, if you are a leaf burner, you’ve experienced the thick sometimes choking smoke that results from burning leaves, certainly not a pleasant plant material to use for food cooking.

Once you have a source for the smoke understand that not all smoke is good. For detailed information on this, see our published article on the types of smoke and what they mean for cooking.

Barbecue Basics- Length of Time for Cooking

our Dr Smoke clock, Always keep track of your cooking time.
Cooking Time is Important

Although you’ve likely read that true barbecue is done low (temperature) and slow (length of time to cook), I will tell you that you can still produce smoked foods using temperatures considered above traditional hot smoking levels and in shorter time periods. I’ve done bone-in beef shanks on the gas grill using a two-zone cooking method with wood chunks and had these done in about 75 minutes using a temperature close to 300°F. They, to me, are a true barbecue item, right down to the wet rub, wood flavor infusion, and smoke infused color.

Yes, tougher cuts of meat and poultry benefit from longer cooking times to allow the connective tissue to dissolve. Plus, my preference is to use a temperature closer to 275°F for most of my animal protein cooking. For my vegetables and fruits, though, I turn up the heat still using wood for true smoking. I use the tenderness of the vegetable and fruit to guide me on the timing.

Double Filet hardwood chunks pure wood and bark free!
Double Filet hardwood chunks pure wood and bark free!

In short, true barbecue is cooking with smoke and for me that is cooking with suitable hardwoods known to present pleasant flavors to foods you cook. You can introduce hardwood to pretty much any type of equipment including home made smokers whether for the outdoors or on your indoor stove top.

The key is to utilize an ideal temperature to generate quality and flavorful smoke gas production, as well as a tempered hand in the amount of wood to use at a time. You’ll find that you can produce the flavors of barbecue with any equipment and any food. After all, barbecue seems to have gone beyond just animal proteins.

How do you define barbecue? Leave us a comment to opine and subscribe for more great recipes, techniques, tips, and the science behind the flavor, that’s SmokinLicious®.

SmokinLicious® products in this blog:

Wood Chunks- Double & Single Filet

More related reading on when its called Barbecue basics and other smoking & grilling tips-techniques.

More related reading on when its called Barbecue basics and other smoking & grilling tips-techniques.

More related reading on when its called barbecue material and other smoking & Grilling tips -technique see our directory on previous blogs!

More blogs on this topic:

Using the Foil Pan in Smoking

How to Use the Water Pan to Add Moisture

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Grilling


Dr. Smoke- Get into the Barbecue basics and let's have some fun!

Dr. Smoke- Get into the Barbecue basics and let’s have some fun!