For years, barbecue hounds planned their visits to barbecue joints with the precision of a Special Forces operation.
Why? Because they knew there was a narrow window when the smoked meat would be at its juiciest, smokiest best. Once the window had closed, a platter of would-be sublimity typically deteriorated into a pile of dried-out disappointment.
The problem was the "hold." After the meat finished cooking, it had to be kept warm for service through the day. That could mean anything from storing it on a steam table, which turned it to mush, or under heat lamps, which zapped the moisture from it, or leaving it on a pit, which further cooked it and dried it out.
With the red-hot interest in barbecuing, restaurateurs have looked for ways to deal with the problem. Their solution? Technology.
Barbecue restaurants increasingly now turn to warming units by companies such as Alto-Shaam and Cambro. The pitmaster can take the meat off the pit hours before service, keep it in a warmer at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (the minimum recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and required by city health codes) without fear of drying out. Indeed, the meat improves.
"My observation is that this rested barbecue, which could be two to four hours or more held this way, is the best ever produced," says Jeff Savell, professor of meat science at Texas A&M University, who organizes intensive barbecue camps throughout the year.
The challenge of keeping barbecue at its peak also bedevils the backyard host. The home chef can stay up all night, coddling a brisket, feeding the fire every two hours to assure it runs low-and-slow, and getting the meat just perfect for a 4 p.m. slicing, only to deal with guests who don't arrive until hours later. It's hard to know how best to time the meats.
The solution: Don't serve the barbecue fresh from the smoker or grill. "All cooked meat benefits from holding," says Savell. "Obviously, the larger the cut, the longer the holding period."
Savell points to the distribution of moisture as the key to successful holding. Raw meat, he explains, is 70 percent water. Cooked meat is about 55 percent. Heat disrupts the proteins in the meat. Resting, or holding, allows the moisture to regroup around the proteins. "When the meat is cut [after resting], the moisture does not rush out," Savell says, "and will remain somewhat bound back to the proteins, resulting in the product we all desire."
Celebrated Austin pitman Aaron Franklin — he of the recent James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, PBS show and cookbook — says holding is crucial. "Resting a brisket for a long time is really important," he told an audience in January at Camp Brisket, one of the A&M barbecue courses. He said he keeps his in a custom-designed warmer at 140 degrees F for two to three hours after coming off the pit.
Back before Franklin had a restaurant, when he was still throwing barbecues in the backyard in 2009, he looked into how best to hold meats. He used an old 1982 Henny Penny warmer, built for KFC. Upon opening the restaurant, he used an Alto-Shaam warmer, which uses what the company calls "halo heat," a form of gentle warming through uniform radiant heat.
But Franklin came to believe that the meats could benefit better from something more akin to convection heat. Now, he uses custom designed warmers. "Barbecue is such a variable," he tells The Salt. "You're trying to regulate every aspect, including how quickly it's going to cool down."
Wayne Mueller, the third-generation pitmaster at the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, says he improved an already fabled brisket a few years ago when he changed the holding method his family had employed for decades. For years, once a beef brisket was sliced, the pitman used to put it on a pit and it would be held around 150-160 degrees F.
But about five years ago, he made changes based on what he noticed when he catered. He pulled the meats off just before they were fully cooked, at about 98 percent, which he says is more a matter of feel than of temperature. He then wrapped the meat in plastic wrap, which acted as an insulator, and set it in a Cambro warmer for an even heat that did not further cook the meat but let it gently rest. Mueller has since changed from the plastic wrap to unwaxed butcher paper because it breathes better and it's cheaper.
"What I was finding was that briskets coming out four hours later were fabulous," he says. "Better than what we were serving in the restaurant."
He now holds his restaurant briskets from two to four hours in a Cambro. "It took our quality index from a low A to a high A," he says. "Our holding technique adds about eight points to our quality index, a whole letter grade."
Jim Shahin for NPR
This cooler may be the most important part of perfecting your barbecue.
Whether it's a brisket, ribs or a pork shoulder, the idea is the same: Allowing a big piece of meat to rest for a long period of time improves its texture and the overall eating experience. In other words, don't fear the hold, embrace it.
The good news is that a backyard chef needn't invest in some high-dollar gadget to get the same result. All it takes is a cooler, some tinfoil and a few towels:
- Pull the fully cooked meat from the grill.
- Wrap it in aluminum foil. Better yet, use unwaxed butcher paper to allow a little air flow, which will help maintain the crusty exterior.
- Swaddle a few old towels around the wrapped meat and place the whole shebang in the ice chest.
- Shut the lid and leave the meat alone for a couple of hours, depending on size. Big meats, such as beef brisket and pork shoulder, improve with a long hold. A rack of pork ribs also benefits from some time off the grill, but only about a half-hour to an hour of resting.
The technique simulates an actual warming oven and works wonders for home-smoked meats. "In my own limited experience," says meat scientist Savell, "when we prepare barbecue for these camps or in my own backyard, longer resting times always results in a better eating experience."
And there's one more benefit. Allowing the meat to rest provides flexibility for barbecue-trail pilgrims and home pitmen alike. Which means the traveling chowhounds and patio pitmasters can rest a little, too.
Jim Shahin writes the Smoke Signals barbecue and grilling column for the Washington Post. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly, GQ, Southern Living, Esquire.com, Bon Appetit.com and elsewhere. He teaches magazine journalism at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.