Dream of serving your guests an amazing hunk of meat that falls apart and oozes delicious juices? Getting meat to reach the fork-tender, falling off the bone consistency is the holy grail. Stateside, some people have taken this to extreme scientific levels and have purchased restaurant quality smokers, pits and rotisserie barbecues at home to fuel their obsession. Even more frustrating for the average home cook, the advice you can find on the internet reads like a manual for putting together an Ikea kitchen.
I’ve done a lot of research into the science of slow cooking, mainly fuelled by my frustrations of getting it wrong for so long! Over the years, I had tried many times to slow roast a joint of meat in the oven and then usually panicked and taken it out when I saw that it had become tough. Then I started researching and found out that meat will actually stall and remain tough before it reaches the breaking down stage. So while I thought I had over cooked it, I actually hadn’t cooked long enough. (see this article about the dreaded ‘stall’).
I’ve poured through all the complicated advice on the internet and would like to bring you some easy to follow, fail-proof tips, developed out of my own attempts.
4 Quick Rules of Making Great BBQ Style Meats at Home
- Create a ‘bark’. A bark is a dry rub mixture that will marinate and slightly cure the meat. Usually part sugar, part salt with herbs and spices like paprika and chili powder. (See my recipe for Easy Oven Ribs.) As it cooks it will partly absorb into the meat, darken in color and create a crust, hence the name ‘bark’. Ever heard of BBQ burnt ends? They are blackened morsels of meat coated in a lot of dry rub that have become caramelised and though the cooking process and are packed full of concentrated flavor.
- Wrap the meat to seal in natural moisture. Do not add extra liquid, or you will end up with boiled meat that can get tough. As it cooks down slowly, the collagen that is released will provide more than enough moisture. You’ll want to unwrap it at the end and finish it off under high heat to get a good color and crust.
- Buy a meat thermometer. This was the single thing that turned around my cooking. The simple science is that meat slowly brought up to and held at an internal temperature of around 190F/100C will make the collagen in the meat dissolve and the fibres will fall apart.
- Cooking time. To predict slow cooking time, generally go by thickness of the meat. Pork baby back ribs take 3 hours at 230F/110C, whereas a pork shoulder could take 10 hours at that temp. Keep checking and aim for the desired outcome and the feel of the meat rather than getting hung up on a time. A bone should be able to wobble out, or a fork should be able to twist around 180 degrees with not much resistance. Note: At the very end of cooking time, unwrap the meat, turn up the heat to high to colour the bark and to get a crust for about 15 minutes. You could also do this step on the BBQ, if the meat is able to stand without falling apart.
Another Tip for meaty success:
Know how the recipe you are following has intended to cook the meat. I almost never read a recipe that states this information. Does it cook fast or slow? The end result will be very different. Cooking fast will not get your meat to fall apart, but it is still possible to have juicy, tender meat (think of the way we cook a steak on the BBQ grill). Cooking slow will make the meat fibres relax and the meat will be able to shred. *Oven Temperatures: Cooking fast = 160c/325f and above. Cooking slow = 135c/275f and below.