This is the science behind barbecuing the perfect brisket

As 4th of July approaches, one professor is sharing science-based tips on how to barbecue.
Loukia Papadopoulos

The upcoming July 4th festivities mean two things: fireworks and barbecues. While one might be fun to watch the other if cooked properly is delicious to eat. 

But how do you get just the right barbecue? Dr. Jeremiah Gassensmith, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Texas at Dallas told the institution's paper all about his superior technique in an article published last week.

It all comes down to getting the right amount of heat to get the collagens in the meat to melt but without tightening them around each other, squeezing out all the water and making the meat dry.

“The chemistry is interesting,” Gassensmith said. “It comes down to how well you can make those proteins in the muscle do what you want them to do, as opposed to what they would like to do.”

Gassensmith is so familiar with this process that he taught a UT Dallas honors class on it called The Science & History of BBQ. He pointed to brisket, which comes from the front of a cow’s chest, being the most challenging meat to barbecue because it contains heavily worked muscle that the cow uses to stand.

“Hardworking muscles tend to have a lot of collagen, which is important for holding muscles together while in use so they do not tear easily,” Gassensmith said. “Collagen is also what makes meat tough if it isn’t cooked right.”

“Proteins slowly migrate from the muscle to the meat’s surface, then at high heat bind together with the rub onto the brisket, creating a tight matrix known as the bark,” Gassensmith said.

Smoky flavor

“To get a smoky flavor, the smoke has to have something to sit on and bind tightly with,” he said. “Smoke, which is actually an aerosol of water and minuscule particles of roasted wood, prefers to sit on a wet surface.”

Gassensmith shared some useful tips such as spraying brisket with water rather than oil, which poorly interacts with smoke.

Now, he hopes that sharing the science behind barbecuing will make for better meat everywhere.

“There’s a very complicated circus of chemicals that you have to get just right to have the perfect brisket,” he told UT Dallas

“There is also the fat in the meat and myriad other factors that go into turning brisket into something amazing. The simplicity of brisket, being just a few ingredients, often fails to capture how complicated the resulting flavors are once it’s cooked. That is not science; that is art.”

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