The Myth of Smoke Rings
So, it’s recently come to my attention that everything I know about barbecue is wrong. In fact, it told me so on the front cover of Gary Wiviott’s book Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons.
I’m currently working my way through the lessons one at a time with some really great results, partially because I took Chapter 2: Lighting the Low & Slow Fire as a lesson in itself. To me it was one of the most important lessons I’ve yet to learn on the barbecue. Once I learned when to add the burning elements to my firebox I was pretty much set.
Long story short – thick, billowy, white smoke is bad. Very bad. So bad in fact you should never let it come into contact with your food. Focus on the thin, blue smoke or the even better nearly invisible smoke and the barbecue world is your oyster.
Most books don’t take the time to break down what good smoke should look like and concentrate instead on recipes you should tackle without ever concerning themselves about the mechanics of building a decent fire. Thanks for setting me straight, Gary. Smoked food doesn’t have to be black. Evidently, I may have been serving creosote to my guests in the past, for which I sincerely apologize.
Gary’s book also breaks each recipe down 3 ways, so you can see how it should be approached depending on what your smoker is (bullet smoker, offset smoker, or kettle grill), which is very cool. I may just work through the book 3 times to help me get a better handle on each piece of gear.
Now, although Gary’s book insists I don’t look at other barbecue references while working through the 5 lesson course, I didn’t know that when I bought it, so I’ve also been spending time recently with Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book (which I bought at the same time) written by Chris Lilly, who I first became aware of through the show Best in Smoke (where he won second place overall). I’m resisting temptation to try out any of the recipes (so as not to incur the wrath of Gary) and focusing instead on the history of Big Bob Gibson’s as well as Chris Lilly’s meditations on the art of barbecue. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Gary on everything. Such is the nature of art & artists, I guess.
Chris includes little sidebars, called Pitmaster’s Tips, and some of them just blew my mind. The biggest one for me was on page 199. It’s all about smoke rings; you know, those pinkish tinges just under the skin of smoked meat where Guy Fieri will insist on telling you the smoke has actually penetrated the meat. Well, according to Chris, Guy is dead wrong.
Apparently the smoke ring comes from a chemical reaction between the chemical nitrogen dioxide & the natural pigment of the meat. And, according to Chris, presence or absence of the smoke ring may or may not have any effect on the taste of your food. There’s great barbecue without smoke rings, and some terrible barbecue with it.
He even goes on to tell you ways to artificially enhance smoke rings, should that be all you care about, such as keeping your meat moist, using only green, fresh-cut wood, using lower heat to give the reaction more time, building an intentionally smouldering fire (which Gary will tell you is an absolute no-no), and using a curing agent that contains sodium nitrate (which I would insist is a no-no, seeing as how I’d love to eliminate all chemically processed food from the world).
Pros & Cons
If you know nothing about cooking real barbecue, or you have a strong suspicion that you could be doing better, then Low & Slow‘s no-nonsense and decidedly opinionated basic training program could really help. The biggest problem I had with the book is the lack of photos. Instead, the sometimes very specific instructions are illustrated using line drawings, some of which don’t seem to show what’s being called for in the text (for example, specific positioning of chicken wings & legs to protect the breast meat from drying out). In fact, some of the chickens in the drawings look downright deformed.
Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book, on the other hand, is chock full of brilliant photos that make me salivate every time I open it up. However, it is one of the books that concentrate more on the recipes than specific techniques. Also, barbecue enthusiasts might balk when they realize some of the recipes call for direct heat. That’s probably due to pressure from the publisher to make the book more accessible (not everybody has a smoker, yet), so I can forgive it. Besides, good food can also be grilled (I’d just prefer it smoked if I had my druthers).