There are many places you can spend your vacation time this summer: The beach, the mountains, or some maybe in the comfort of your own home — while the kids are away at summer camp.
Or, as Seattle-native Jack Timmons said this past weekend, "My wife is going to Europe this summer with my daughter, so I decided to come to College Station for Barbecue Summer Camp.”
I was one of his camp mates. Offered by Foodways Texas in conjunction with Meat Science Department of Texas A&M University, Barbecue Summer Camp is a three-day intensive crash course on beef, pork, poultry and all the delicious ways you can rub, baste, smoke and eat them. It’s a tough camp to get into. It usually sells out within the first two days that tickets are released. (Like a teenage girl in hot pursuit of tickets to her favorite ‘boy band’ concert — it’s One Direction, these days, right? — I was poised and ready last November when Barbecue Summer Camp tickets went on sale.) Luckily, I was one of the lucky 50 to nab one.
Barbecue Summer Camp is a three-day intensive crash course on beef, pork, poultry and all the delicious ways you can rub, baste, smoke and eat them.
And so last Friday, I found myself driving a couple of hours east of my home town of Austin to Aggie Land, which in itself is like visiting a foreign country. I was off to answer a number of questions: oak or mesquite; simple rub or complex; sauce or no sauce; pork or beef; and just how do you get that sought after “smoke ring?”
We all staggered into a cold hotel conference room early Friday morning for a round of introductions. Among the group were handfuls of aspiring home barbecue masters and amateurs alike from all across Texas, and even a few from the likes of Las Vegas, Virginia, Arizona and the aforementioned Seattle. (Interesting note: I was one of only 4 women in our class. Five if you include Foodways Texas board member Elizabeth Engelhardt.)
Following introductions we enjoyed a mouthwatering visual presentation of barbecue lexicon from notable Texas barbecue blogger, Daniel Vaughn of Full Custom Gospel Barbecue, aka the “BBQSnob,” where we learned how “burnt ends” are formed, the scientific theory behind how the “smoke ring” is formed, and the definition of “sugar cookie,” which is that little bit of fat that turns slightly sweet and crispy after copious amounts of smoke. (It’s horrible for your health, but it’s a little morsel of heaven.)
The lengthy, yet entertaining presentation more than wet our appetites for a special kick-off field trip to the historic Martin’s Barbecue in Bryan where we got a quick peek at the giant smoke pit in back, a large oak-fired relic that has kept the Texas institution alive since 1925. We noshed on a family style meal of sausage, ribs, brisket and the customary sides of potato salad, cole slaw, beans, pickles and onions.
Was it the best ‘cue I’d ever had? No. But there was a sentiment beneath the smoke-laden ceiling tiles and within the greasy wood-paneled walls dappled with old framed photographs that brought our class of strangers together on one common ground. Funny how barbecue can do that to people, at least in Texas.
The rest of Day 1 went something like this: Brining basics, rubs and marinades, sauce science and BBQ Smoke 101 all at the A&M Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center. In between classes we had a chance to dawn hair nets and aprons and blend our own rubs for briskets and pork butts in a very cold meat prep room. We also got to taste the difference the smoke from different wood — hickory, oak, pecan and mesquite — imparts on chicken and prep a whole hog for barbecuing Saturday morning and dining on Saturday evening.
Was it the best ‘cue I’d ever had? No. But there was a sentiment beneath the smoke-laden ceiling tiles and within the greasy wood-paneled walls dappled with old framed photographs that brought our class of strangers together on one common ground.
For dinner, we gnawed our way through a smoked feast of pork and beef ribs rounded out with an appropriate few spoonfuls of fresh banana pudding. (By this time, the “meat sweats” were visibly taking effect on many of my fellow barbecue campers.)
On Day 2 we were up and at ‘em at 7 a.m. to place our prepped hog on a hand-built cinder-block grill in the backyard of one of our hosts, Dr. Jeff Savell. After that, we went went straight into classes on beef and pork anatomy and butchering using actual specimens for review. (Think 7th grade science class when you dissected a frog, only much bigger.)
Lunch was brisket and pork, the ones we had rubbed with spices the day before. They had been smoking all day and though they were a rather late lunch — they weren’t finished until almost 3 p.m. — we all seemed to muster enough strength to scarf our way through. (Oh yeah, that night we ate that whole hog we'd been smoking all day long.)
Day 3 was only a half day and focused solely on poultry, which we then dined on for lunch before saying our fond goodbyes and waddling into our individual cars to drive home in a meat-induced daze.
As much of a “meat and smoke-filled weekend” as this was turning out to be, I have to say, my body was having serious veggie withdrawals. Aside from the mayonnaise laden cole slaw served up at Martin’s on Friday, the meals were void of any fresh vegetables. While killing time waiting for our much-delayed Saturday brisket and pork butt lunch, I snuck away to a nearby Subway sandwich shop for a fully loaded veggie sandwich on wheat bread. For breakfast, I ate apples.
Aside from that little drawback, there are a number of tidbits of information that I took away from my Barbecue Summer Camp experience.
- Instead of letting meat, such as chicken, marinade in a brine for a day or two, inject it with brine using large syringe. It not only flavors the meat better, but keeps it moist.
- For brisket, the “smoke ring” is a chemical reaction that infuses smoke into the meat in the form of a red ring. This reaction stops after the meat temperature has raised above 140°F, which emphasizes the need to cook “low and slow.”
- Wood selection is key. Oak, hickory, pecan and mesquite all impart very different flavors into meat. Oak is most commonly used in Central Texas, as well as pecan. If you choose to use mesquite, DO NOT use green mesquite — despite the name of the Barton Springs barbecue restaurant — it creates bitter and acrid flavors. Make sure it has been aged for more than 18 months before using.
- Practice good meat safety. Keep your raw items in a separate cooler from your cooked items when tailgating or cooking out. (Red and blue coolers help designate the difference.)
- Meat isn’t done until it’s cooked to these temperatures: ground meat: 160 °F; steaks/chops/roasts: 145°F; chicken: 165°F.
- ALWAYS use a meat thermometer, if nothing else it makes you LOOK like you know what you’re doing.
- The entire grade (prime, choice or select) of a beef steer is based on the center ribeye. Based on marbling, size and amount of fat around the outer edge. NOTE: Only 10 percent of the “choice” meat you see in the average super market is on the middle-to-high range of that grade. Most of it is closer to the less expensive “select” grade.
- For fajitas, the best cut of meat is the “outside skirt,” rather than the “inside skirt,” for its tenderness and flavor. However, most “outside skirt” is exported to Asia for a higher price. For better fajitas, ask your local butcher if he can get you the better cut.
- According to Dr. Christine Alavarado of the A&M Poultry Science Department, the ONLY difference between the commercial grade chicken breasts that are so much larger than the smaller, “natural” chicken breasts is the age of the chicken and the nutrition it receives. (The older the chicken, the bigger the breast.) All chickens in the U.S. are “all natural,” the higher priced, smaller chickens are a marketing gimmick. (This may need a little more research for all the Food, Inc fanatics out there.)
- And finally, if you’re lookin’, it ain’t cookin’. In other words, when it comes to smoking, let the meat cook. Don’t check it every five minutes. Every time you open that smoker lid, you mess up what many understand as a very spiritual marriage; the one between smoke and meat.
I wish there had been a little more instruction on smokers and equipment needed to get up and running as a home barbecue cook. I also think it would have been great to have a few Texas pit masters on deck for a panel discussion on tips and secrets. Did everyone at camp come away with everything they had expected? Probably not, but I do know that we all came away with some, if not a lot more knowledge on meat and barbecuing than we had before.
In between classes and throughout meals we all told stories of our home cooking successes and failures. And we all talked about our favorite spots for Texas barbecue. But but what became very clear to me about barbecue for every Texan — and every wannabe Texan — is that barbecue is a very personal taste.
"In Texas, where this way of eating has long been part of everyday life, as soon as you forget about scorekeeping, you become open to barbecue as culture, art form, and spiritual pursuit.”
No one can lay claim to the best one in the state, that’s because good barbecue is a state of mind. Everyone remembers that one barbecue joint they visited as child. The go-to joint their parents stopped in for their local fix. (For me that was Nonmacher's Bar-B-Que on South Mason in Katy.) That place, where ever it is, is where everyone sets the standard for their best barbecue. From there, it’s all a matter of personal taste on a lifelong quest for the barbecue that equals it.
Perhaps it was notable Texas food writer and cookbook author Robb Walsh who said it best as read an excerpt from an article he wrote as we settled in to our first day of lunch at Martin’s Barbecue: “Top 10 lists, ratings, and the rest are, as the Buddhists might say, illusion. There is no best barbecue, any more than there is a best symphony or a best painting. And in Texas, where this way of eating has long been part of everyday life, as soon as you forget about scorekeeping, you become open to barbecue as culture, art form, and spiritual pursuit.”
I’m thrilled I can check a Texas barbecue camp off my culinary bucket list. Here’s to the Foodways Texas Barbecue Summer Camp of 2012, and here’s to the hope that they have an “advanced class” later down the line. May your smoke rings be thick and red and may you always have friends to enjoy your backyard barbecues.