One of the great things about barbecue is that just about anyone can quickly and easily learn the basics and cook good meals right away. There is also the fact that barbecuing is as much a science and an art as it is a method of cooking meat.
Learning the techniques that take an average barbecue experience to an unforgettable meal takes time, patience, and practice, but once you are able to consistently turn out phenomenal pulled pork, beef brisket, and chicken breast, the effort is totally worth it.
This guide is a great place to start learning how to use your barbecue in interesting ways to enhance the results you'll get. We will explain how and when to cook hot and fast, why cooking low and slow is better for certain cuts, and ways to use your barbecue to create tender meat loaded with flavor.
Cooking BBQ Hot and Fast, Low and Slow, and the Reverse Sear Method
Before we get into the when and how of barbecue cooking techniques, let's talk a bit about some of the terms we are going to be using. This way, we'll be on the same page going forward and there won't be any confusion.
What Does Hot and Fast Cooking Mean?
Hot and fast is what most people think of when they think about barbecuing. The hot and fast method is what it sounds like: you crank the temperature up and quickly sear and cook meat so it remains juicy and gets a great smoky flavor without overcooking the inside of the meat.
The Dry Cooking Method
Hot and fast cooking is also referred to as the dry cooking method. Hot and fast is always done with the lid open, so you'll want to pay attention to the doneness of the meat rather than the actual temperature of the grill. Dry cooking temperature isn't as important as making sure the meat doesn't burn on the outside.
What Does Low and Slow Mean?
The low and slow method is most often associated with smoking meat but is also a great way to use a barbecue for cooking thicker, tougher cuts to get juicy meat. Low and slow requires that you learn how to properly control temperatures on your grill, so you'll want to learn about how to use the vents and different methods of stoking the fire for great results. Ideally, you'll be shooting for a temperature inside your grill of less than 250 degrees.
The Difference Between Searing and Reverse-Searing
Another set of terms we are going to kick around is searing versus reverse searing. Both techniques are useful ways to enhance the finished texture, appearance, and flavor of the meat.
Searing is done by placing raw meat on a hot grill and quickly searing the outside over high heat without increasing the internal temperature too much. Once all sides are seared, then the temperature is lowered and the meat is allowed to cook properly.
Reverse searing is exactly the opposite. You'll cook a piece of meat at a lower temperature until it is nearly done, then switch to a hot surface and quickly sear the outside of the meat. We've got a great video that shows how to reverse sear one of the most intimidating cuts of meat around – Prime Rib.
Goals of Searing and Reverse-Searing
The primary goal of both methods is to lock in the moisture that makes tender meat juicy. Searing helps by creating a barrier that prevents moisture from escaping when cooking and is a common practice when cooking steaks.
Reverse searing also helps to lock in moisture by sealing a piece of meat before it starts to rest, ensuring that the juiciness that developed during the barbecuing process is retained. Reverse searing is often done with larger cuts that require a longer time period to cook.
When to Cook Low & Slow or Hot & Fast
Understanding when and how to use either the hot and fast or low and slow cooking method depends entirely on the cut of meat you are working with. The purpose of both techniques is to properly cook meat without overcooking it. It's pretty simple when you get down to the basics: low and slow is appropriate for thick cuts, while hot and fast is a better choice for thin cuts.
Examples of Cooking Hot and Fast
Probably the easiest way to describe when to use a hot and fast method is when you are cooking ground meat. Because of the loose structure, ground meat reaches internal temperatures very quickly. Since there is no skin, there is nothing to hold the moisture in. So by cooking meat that is ground (hamburgers, for example) you'll want to employ a hot grill surface and you are going to want to stay on top of the cooking process.
Some other examples of hot and fast barbecue include fish, skirt steaks, and other thin-cut meat. You can cook both fatty and leaner cuts using this method.
Challenges With Cooking Hot and Fast
There are a number of things that can go wrong when cooking with hot and fast methods. The biggest one is when the cook gets distracted. Cooking for too long on a high heat results in tough, dry meat. If you forget the burgers for even one minute, you are running the risk of ruining the meal.
Another aspect that causes challenges is flare-ups. Flare-ups happen when melted fat drips into the direct flame, igniting, and sending a column of fire through the grill. This is particularly common with chicken legs that often end up with a charcoal-like burned exterior from flare-ups caused by the high heat of dry cooking techniques.
A spray bottle with water is a simple way to avoid flare-ups when making burgers, chicken, or thin meat that is high in fat. Spritz the meat lightly and regularly to help prevent flare-ups and use it to put them out when it happens.
Examples of the Cooking Low and Slow Method
One of the more challenging cooking methods to master is the low and slow method. The first thing you'll need to learn is how to create indirect heat in your barbecue. What this means is that you'll need to have a fire burning on one part and the meat on another part of the grill.
There are lots of tips and tricks to make this happen including using a water tray, stacking the coals against a fire brick, and even using pieces of metal to block the flame from directly hitting the meat. You'll also need to use the top and bottom vents to prevent the coals from getting excessively hot.
Two of our favorite examples of the awesomeness that is low and slow cooking are smoking brisket and pork butt. Both of these cuts are fairly fatty, have lots of connective tissue, and lose moisture easily when exposed to too hot of temperatures.
Using a Water Tray in a Gas or Charcoal Grill
One of the most effective ways to create an indirect heat source in a gas or charcoal barbecue is to use a water tray. Water trays are simply some type of heat-resistant pan (usually one of those disposable aluminum pans works fine) that is placed directly over the burner or coals. The meat is then placed on the opposite side of the grill and is allowed to cook over a longer period of time.
Why a Water Pan Helps Make Juicier Meat
Water pans help with low and slow cooking in a couple of ways. One of the ways is that the water absorbs and retains heat, helping to minimize the fluctuations that naturally happen in a barbecue. This keeps the barbecue temperature consistent and results in juicier meat.
Benefits of a Moist cooking environment
As the water heats, it also evaporates slightly, which raises the humidity in the cooking area to create a moist cooking environment. The humidity helps to develop a crisp bark on the meat while ensuring the meat remains juicy. The moist heat interacts with proteins and sugars to develop that perfect meat sear on smoked brisket and other slow-cooked meat.
How Does Low and Slow Retain Moisture in Barbecued Meat?
Low and slow cooking methods help you cook juicy meat by breaking down connective tissues. The melted and softened fats don't reach a high enough temperature to be forced out of the meat, ensuring the internal juices remain intact.
Can You Cook Thin Pieces Low and Slow?
When cooking a thinner meat cut, low and slow doesn't work as well because it allows the meat to dry. This is how you make jerky, which isn't what you want brisket to be like. Low and slow is ideal for tough meaty portions that cook down to tender meat with a tantalizing smoky flavor. You'll have better results using a hot and fast treatment on thin meat.
What Is a Stall in Low and Slow Barbecuing?
The dreaded stall is something that everyone will experience sooner or later when cooking big hunks of tough meat at low and slow temperatures. Basically, the internal temperature of the meat stops climbing at around 165 degrees. The reason for this phenomenon is evaporative cooling. As the surface temperature rises, water begins to evaporate, taking heat with it. This causes the surface to cool, preventing the meat from continuing to cook. Eventually, when enough moisture has evaporated, the meat will begin cooking again, but this can result in dry, tough meat.
The stall is particularly common when cooking brisket and pork butt that often are cooked low and slow until they have an internal temperature of around 200 degrees. There are many different methods for handling the stall, but our favorite is a modification of the Texas Crutch.
The way we handle stalls is to remove the meat from the smoker or grill when it hits the stall temperature. Then, we wrap the meat tightly in peach butcher paper and put it back on the grill or smoker until the internal cooking temperature hits our goal. Once the meat is wrapped, you won't be adding any more of the distinctive smoky taste, so you can reduce the cooking time by slightly raising the grill temp. Stay below 300 degrees to prevent overcooking the meat.
Tips for Managing a Long Smoke
Probably the biggest challenge that faces barbecuers is properly maintaining the temperature of the grill for a long time when smoking meat. With cuts like beef brisket, you'll be cooking for about one and a half hours per pound of meat -potentially meaning you'll be manning the grill for 12 to 16 hours. Leaner cuts cook faster even when using low heat.
Ensuring that the cooking temperature stays within a narrow band of ranges is absolutely critical to getting good results, so you'll want to have a reliable thermometer to measure the grill temp and the temperature of the meat. You should also use an instant-read thermometer to quickly check temperatures in different areas of the meat. This is useful when smoking brisket because the brisket flat cooks quicker than the point.
Mastering the top and bottom vents is the critical step to getting a constant temperature. Cooking at too high of a temperature -even for an hour or so- can make meat turn incredibly tough. The main thing is that you'll want to get the bottom vent as close to closed as possible without the coals dying and use the top vent to make most of your temperature changes.
Finally, you'll want to have a safe system for adding fuel to the grill. With a gas grill, this is simply a matter of having extra propane on hand, but with charcoal, you'll want to add sighted coals to the grill. A charcoal chimney and a set of quality heat-resistant gloves are going to be your friends here.
Cooking Brisket Hot and Fast
Brisket is one of the few cuts that are basically always cooked low and slow. However, if you are short on time or if you decide to try something different, it is possible to smoke award-winning brisket in as little as five to six hours.
Fat Content Matters
First things first – if you want to have good results from a hot and fast brisket, start with the most heavily-marbled brisket you can find. USDA Prime is probably your best bet.
Separate the Point and Flat, Then Season
Begin the process by removing the flat from the point using a good, sharp knife. If you aren't sure how to do that, we've got a video that shows the process for you. Then, trim all of the fat so that it is no more than one-quarter inch thick. Remove the silverskin, too. Competition smokers will also trim the brisket into uniform shapes that help to speed up the process. Save these trimmings for ground beef.
The night before you are going to smoke the brisket, apply a rub liberally all over both cuts. The Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings make for excellent choices for a dry rub.
When you smoke a brisket, it's usually done between 225 and 250 degrees, but since we are trying to speed things up, you'll bring the temp all the way up to 325.
Cooking the Brisket
Place the brisket in the grill, barbecue, or smoker fat side down. This helps to protect the meat as the cooking process starts so that it isn't burned. After about 30 minutes, flip the brisket cuts over. You'll want to flip the meat every 45 minutes to one hour during this process to keep the meat smoking evenly.
The smoking brisket will hit the stall temperature in about three hours using this method. At that point, you can wrap the meat in butcher paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil, or you can even use a disposable metal pan and cover it with foil. Using the pan allows you to use a mop -basically a liquid marinade that you will brush onto the meat. You can add the mopping liquid directly into the pan and simply spoon or mop it onto the meat as it cooks.
When the brisket hits 195-200 degrees, you can remove it from the smoker or barbecue. We always recommend resting for at least 45-minutes to allow the meat time to cool slightly which helps to draw juiciness back into the meat.
By separating the two parts of the brisket, you'll reduce the overall size of each piece, which allows the meat to cook faster. Using a higher temperature also speeds up the process, sometimes cooking in half the time as a normal brisket. This fast cooking method gives you great results and ensures that your brisket is tender, juicy, and full of smoky flavor.
Hot and Fast vs Low and Slow
Using a gas or charcoal barbecue is a great way to cook low and slow brisket or hot and fast burgers and chicken. The versatility of the barbecue is one of the biggest strengths, but it will take practice to be able to successfully control the grill temperature during long outdoor cooking sessions.
Gas grills don't naturally impart a smoke flavor, but you can use a few tricks to get around this problem. one of our favorite ways to add smoke flavor without a smoker is to use a pellet tube. This device lets you burn pellets intended for a smoker in a gas or charcoal grill to add flavor even when using a hot and fast method.
Experimenting with various ways to create indirect heat is a great way to learn different techniques for using your barbecue. Many solutions (such as a water tray) are inexpensive and simple to do. You can even substitute the water in the tray for beer or apple juice to add even more flavor while your meat cooks.