Science! A Short Primer on The Science of Low and Slow
The Whys and Wherefores
The discussion of what makes barbecue barbecue isn’t a mere quibble. It’s a matter of science. Collagen in meat doesn’t break down until it reaches a temperature of about 160 degrees. At that point, it slowly begins its alchemical transformation into gelatin. The gelatin makes the meat more palatable and absorbs more water than collagen, making it juicier. Low and slow cooking methods take advantage of this transformation through a precarious balancing act: letting the collagen transform at a rate that doesn’t dehydrate the muscle fibers.
There is another chemical process involved — the Maillard reaction. We see this in the browning of baked bread and roasted coffee beans. While the Maillard reaction seems to be most active at 325 to 350 degrees — experts disagree on the specifics — it occurs at lower temperatures at a much slower rate. This is why the bark (the crunchy crust on ribs, brisket and other barbecued meat) tastes better the longer it’s cooked. You are taking what would happen in minutes, such as searing a steak on high heat, and extending that process over hours. Water inhibits the reaction, which is why you see less browning if you boil or steam your food.
Then there’s the prized smoke ring — the pink layer of meat under the bark. Once considered the hallmark of authentic barbecue, crafty cooks can cheat this process. While the days when a smoke ring was a mark of authenticity are over, it is important. The ring is formed when nitrogen dioxide from combustion forms nitric acid. Along with the breakdown of collagen and the browning of the Maillard reaction, it is a key chemical component to real barbecue.
All this chemistry works to transform cheaper and tougher cuts of meat into food that is crowd-pleasing and feast-worthy.
Check back tomorrow for the final part of our Barbecue series.