Barbecue

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Barbecue [bahr-bi-kyoo] (BBQ; ‘barbie’ in Australia and New Zealand; ‘braai’ in South Africa) is a special type of grill. It is also a way to prepare meat which is then cooked with that instrument. Barbecue cooking means to cook very slowly. It is not as hot or fast as standard grilling. Some meats must be cooked slowly to be tender, and easy to chew. Sometimes, meat may be slowly cooked for 8 to 24 hours in a barbecue. People in the United States barbecue chicken, beef and pork, depending on the part of the country.

Barbecuing is very popular in the Central and Southern U.S., especially in Texas with beef and Kansas City with pork. In the United States barbecued meat is usually covered in barbecue sauce, a type of thick, dark red sauce that often contains spices, tomatoes, and honey. Very often, American barbecue grills get heat from hickory wood. In California, it was common to barbecue beef in a hole in the ground rather than a grill. This is called a ‘pit barbecue.’

The term as a noun can refer to the meat, the cooking apparatus itself (the ‘barbecue grill’ or simply ‘barbecue’) or to the party that includes such food or such preparation methods. The term as an adjective can refer to foods cooked by this method. The term is also used as a verb for the act of cooking food in this manner. Barbecue is usually done in an outdoor environment by cooking and smoking the meat over wood or charcoal. Restaurant barbecue may be cooked in large brick or metal ovens specially designed for that purpose. Barbecue has numerous regional variations in many parts of the world.

The origins of both the activity of barbecue cooking and the word itself are somewhat obscure. Most etymologists believe that barbecue derives ultimately from the word ‘barabicu’ found in the language of both the Timucua of Florida and the Taíno people of the Caribbean, which then entered European languages in the form ‘barbacoa.’ The word translates as ‘sacred fire pit,’ and describes a grill for cooking meat, consisting of a wooden platform resting on sticks. Traditional barbacoa involves digging a hole in the ground and placing some meat (usually a whole goat) with a pot underneath it, so that the juices can make a hearty broth. It is then covered with maguey leaves and coal and set alight. The cooking process takes a few hours.

There is ample evidence that both the word and cooking technique migrated out of the Caribbean and into other languages and cultures, with the word (barbacoa) moving from Caribbean dialects into Spanish, then Portuguese, French, and English. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first recorded use of the word in the English language in 1697 by the British buccaneer William Dampier. The related term ‘buccaneer’ is derived from the Arawak word ‘buccan,’ a wooden frame for smoking meat, hence the French word ‘boucane’ and the name ‘boucanier’ for hunters who used such frames to smoke meat from feral cattle and pigs on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

The word barbecue has attracted several inaccurate origins from folk etymology. An often-repeated claim is that the word is derived from the French language. The story goes that French visitors to the Caribbean saw a pig being cooked whole and described the method as ‘barbe à queue,’ meaning ‘from beard to tail.’ Another claim states that the word comes from the time when roadhouses and beer joints with pool tables advertised ‘Bar, Beer and Cues.’

In the southern United States, barbecue initially revolved around the cooking of pork. During the 19th century, pigs were a low-maintenance food source that could be released to forage for themselves in forests and woodlands. When food or meat supplies were low, these semi-wild pigs could then be caught and eaten. Because of the effort to capture and cook these wild hogs, pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. In Cajun culture, these are called ‘boucheries.’ These feasts are sometimes called ‘pig-pickin’s.’ The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings.

It was the Spanish who first introduced the pig into the Americas. The indigenous people of the Americas in turn, introduced the Spanish to the concept of slow cooking with smoke. Each Southern locale has its own particular variety of barbecue, particularly concerning the sauce. North Carolina sauces vary by region; eastern North Carolina uses a vinegar-based sauce, the center of the state enjoys Lexington-style barbecue which uses a combination of ketchup and vinegar as their base, and western North Carolina uses a heavier ketchup base. Another distinguishing characteristic of Lexington barbecue is barbecue slaw, which has no mayonnaise, is composed of cabbage, ketchup, vinegar, and black pepper. Eastern North Carolina slaw contains cabbage, mayonnaise, yellow mustard,and salt with pickles and/or celery seed optional.

South Carolina is the only state that includes all four recognized barbecue sauces, including mustard-based, vinegar-based, and light and heavy tomato-based. Memphis barbecue is best known for tomato- and vinegar-based sauces. In some Memphis establishments and in Kentucky, meat is rubbed with dry seasoning (dry rubs) and smoked over hickory wood without sauce; the finished barbecue is then served with barbecue sauce on the side. The barbecue of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee is almost always pork served with a sweet tomato-based sauce. However, several regional variations exist as well. Alabama is particularly known for its distinctive white sauce, a mayonnaise- and vinegar-based sauce, originating in northern Alabama, used predominantly on chicken and pork. A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw. Pulled pork is prepared by shredding the pork after it has been barbecued.

Kansas City-style barbecue is characterized by its use of different types of meat (including pulled pork, pork ribs, burnt ends, smoked sausage, beef brisket, beef ribs, smoked/grilled chicken, smoked turkey, and sometimes fish), a variety attributable to Kansas City’s history as a center for meat packing in the US. Hickory is the primary wood used for smoking in KC, while the sauces are typically tomato based with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles. Burnt ends, the flavorful pieces of meat cut from the ends of a smoked beef or pork brisket, are popular in many Kansas City-area barbecue restaurants. Pit-beef prevails in Maryland and is often enjoyed at large outdoor steer roasts, which are common in the warmer months. Maryland-style pit-beef is not the product of barbecue cookery in the strictest sense, as there is no smoking of the meat involved; rather, it involves grilling the meat over a high heat. The meat is typically served rare, with a strong horseradish sauce as the preferred condiment.

The state of Kentucky, particularly Western Kentucky, is unusual in its barbecue cooking, in that the preferred meat is mutton. This kind of mutton barbecue is often used in communal events in Kentucky, such as political rallies, county fairs and church fund-raising events. In much of the world outside of the American South, barbecue has a close association with Texas. Many barbecue restaurants outside the United States claim to serve ‘Texas barbecue,’ regardless of the style they actually serve.

The word ‘barbecue’ is also used to refer to a social gathering where food is served, usually outdoors in the early afternoon. In the southern USA, outdoor gatherings are not typically called ‘barbecues’ unless barbecue itself will actually be on the menu, instead generally favoring the word ‘cookouts.’ The device used for cooking at a barbecue is commonly referred to as a ‘barbecue.’ In North Carolina, however, ‘barbecue’ is a noun primarily referring to the food and never used by native North Carolinians to describe the act of cooking or the device on which the meat is cooked. Often referred to as ‘The World Series of Barbecue,’ ‘The American Royal Barbecue Contest’ is held each October in Kansas City, Missouri. The largest pork barbecue contest, however, is ‘The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest,’ held annually in Memphis, Tennessee, during the ‘Memphis in May’ festival. ‘Ribfest’ in Chicago and other cities is another popular annual barbecue competition.

Barbecuing encompasses four or five distinct types of cooking techniques. The original technique is cooking using smoke at lower temperatures (usually around 240-270 °F or 115-125 °C) and significantly longer cooking times (several hours), known as smoking. Smoking can be done with wood or charcoal, although many common commercial smokers use a gas, such as propane, to heat up a box of wet wood chips enough to cause smoke. The heat from the propane fire helps cook the meat while the smoke adds its unique flavor. The distinction between smoking and grilling is the heat level and the intensity of the radiant heat; indeed, smoking is often referred to as ‘low and slow.’

Additionally, during grilling, the meat is exposed to the open air for the majority of the time. During smoking, the BBQ lid or smoker door is closed, causing a thick, dense cloud of smoke to envelop the meat. The smoke must be able to move freely around the meat and out of the top of the apparatus quickly; otherwise, foul-tasting creosote (coal tar) will build up on the meat, giving it a bitter flavor. Smoked meats such as pork exhibit what is known as a smoke ring: a thin pink layer just under the surface which is the result of the smoke interacting with the water in the meat.

Another technique is baking, utilizing a masonry oven or any other type of baking oven, which uses convection to cook meats and starches with moderate temperatures for an average cooking time (about an hour plus a few extra minutes). The masonry oven is similar to a smoke pit in that it allows for an open flame, but cooks much faster, and uses convection to cook. Barbecue-baking can also be done in traditional stove-ovens. It can be used to cook not only meats, but breads and other starches, and even various casseroles and desserts. It uses both direct and indirect heat to surround the food with hot air to cook, and can be basted much the same as grilled foods.

In some cases, the grill can also function like a bakery oven by putting a drip pan below the cooking surface rack of a barbecue grill, as well as a baking sheet pan on top, combining two techniques simultaneously, or one right after the other, cooking twice, with a duration slightly longer than grilling. Meat can also be baked in a pit in the ground, with hot coals and stones surrounding meat wrapped in wet burlap, wet leaves or aluminum foil.

Yet another technique is braising, which combines direct dry heat charbroiling on a ribbed surface with a broth-filled pot for moist heat, cooking at various speeds throughout the duration (starting fast, slowing down, then speeding up again, lasting for a few hours). It is possible to braise meats and vegetables in a pot on top of a grill. A gas or electric charbroil grill would be the best choices for what is known as barbecue-braising, or combining dry heat charbroil-grilling directly on a ribbed surface and braising in a broth-filled pot for moist heat. To braise, put a pot on top of the grill, cover it, and let it simmer for a few hours.

There are two advantages to barbecue-braising: the first is that this method allows for browning the meat directly on the grill before the braising, and the second is that it also allows for glazing the meat with sauce and finishing it directly over the fire after the braising, effectively cooking the meat three times, which results in a soft textured product that falls right off the bone. This method of barbecue has a varying duration (depending on whether a slow cooker or pressure cooker is used), and is generally slower than regular grilling or baking, but faster than pit-smoking.

Finally, grilling is done over direct dry heat, usually over a hot fire (i.e., over 500 °F or 260 °C) for a short time (minutes). Grilling may be done over wood, charcoal, gas (natural gas or propane), or electricity. A fifth and emerging type of barbecue technique involves the use of the slow cooker. Slow cooking is untraditional in that it involves no smoking, however, since the flavor of the meat is remarkably similar to that of the other four styles, slow cooking is considered a legitimate technique.

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