The Elements of Barbecue: On Matters of Meat

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To those of us raised in the Carolinas, the concept of choosing a type of meat for barbecue seems odd. It was instilled into us since birth that "barbecue" means one and only kind of meat: pork. Sure, you might be able to eat "barbecued chicken," meaning chicken prepared in the style of barbecue, but the term "chicken barbecue" sounds absurd and "pork barbecue" redundant. As for "barbecued beef," well, that's sounds about as exotic as tzatziki sauce.

But, it wasn't always this way. Back in the 19th century, barbecue cooks from Virginia to California weren't especially picky about the animals they put on their pits. Barbecues were large-scale, free public affairs, and the men working the pits cooked whatever livestock and game the local residents were willing to donate to the cause.

As barbecue evolved into a commercial enterprise in the first half of the 20th century, the demands of running a regular restaurant forced barbecue cooks to standardize their offerings, and the availability and cost of meat in a particular region helped determine what they chose to serve. These days, the best barbecuers can be downright picky when it comes to the meat they use, and it goes far beyond deciding whether it will be beef, pork, or chicken. The cut of meat, the size of the portion, and the fat-to-meat ratio are all key factors, and pit masters select the right combination for the operations they are running.

At Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro—as at most barbecue joints in the Piedmont of North Carolina, the cut of choice is pork shoulder. "Most [cooks] want a 15-pound shoulder," owner Chip Stamey says. "But usually they're more like 18 or 19 pounds." For Stamey, that's the upper limit. "When they get too heavy, they hurt the pit master."

Josh Bousel

Down at Fiery Ron's Home Team Bar-B-Q in Charleston, South Carolina, Aaron Siegel is very specific in his size requirements, too, and uniformity is key. "We use 8- to 10-pound [Boston] butts," Siegel says, referring to the upper part of a pork shoulder. "For briskets, we want them 11 to 13 pounds...we're not flexible in those areas."

Cost has always been an important factor, too. "Five percent in our business will take away all the profits," Siegel says. When the cost of their main ingredient goes up, restaurateurs are faced with a dilemma: raise the price of their menu items to keep pace with meat costs or find a lower cost substitute? Oftentimes they'll do both. In just the past year, the prices of both pork and beef have gone through the roof (more on that in a later post). One barbecue restaurant in Idaho that I visited not too long ago had just raised the price of their brisket by two dollars and introduced a new, less-expensive item called "West Texas smoked beef."

"The most critical factor of all is fat content."

But let's get to the meat of the matter—or, perhaps we should say, to the fat of the matter. For the most uncompromising pit masters, when it comes to choosing the meat they're going to put on their pits, perhaps the most critical factor of all is fat content.

For the acclaimed brisket he serves at La Barbecue in Austin, Texas, John Lewis insists on cooking only prime-grade Certified Angus Beef. "There's more internal marbling," he says, "So you can cook it even lower and slower without it drying out so you can get a more tender and even juicier result, too."

Max Falkowitz

"It has a lot more fat cap on it, too," he adds. "It's sometimes two inches thick. We put it in our sausage grind so we're not losing much."

When it comes to beef ribs, though, Lewis thinks using prime would be overkill. "We use choice on those because they are so heavily marbled already," he says. "You wouldn't be able to render all the fat out of there."

The proper balance of fat matters for cooks in the Carolinas, too. At Stamey's in Greensboro, North Carolina, they use only pork shoulder, never fresh hams. "It's not that you can't do it," says owner Chip Stamey, "But our people get used to the fat to meat ratio. When you go and try to do hams, your customers notice."

Stamey's mostly cooks whole pork shoulders, but they always have some Boston butts on hand, too. "The only reason we do that," Stamey says, "is that we're always trying to be fresh." Many restaurants chop their barbecue ahead of time, but at Stamey's they keep the shoulders whole and chop them just minutes before serving. That makes timing essential, for they need to ensure there's always enough meat coming fresh off the pits. "You cook [shoulders] for ten hours, so you're always trying to guess. The butts allow us to cook faster—six and a half hours versus 10 hours. That lets us cut it closer and not run out."

Pit masters like Chip Stamey are continuing techniques and preferences that date back generations (three generations, in Stamey's case) to a time when the meatpacking and distribution industry was very different than it is today.

Robyn Lee

Brisket may be the premier barbecue cut in Texas and Kansas City today, but that hasn't always been the case. Up until the 1950s, Texas meat markets slaughtered cattle raised by local ranchers or bought entire sides of beef and cut them into steaks and roasts. They took the less-salable leftover forequarter cuts, like chuck and shoulder, and used them for barbecue. But feedlots and refrigerated trucks transformed beef packing into a national industry, and by the 1960s markets and restaurants could order any cut they wanted to cook for barbecue. The one they settled on was brisket, which was relatively cheap and uniform in size.

The pork industry has changed dramatically, too. Giant vertically-integrated processors such as Smithfield, Hormel, and Tyson instituted contract systems under which farmers raise commodity-breed pigs to rigid specifications, including using temperature-controlled barns and specially formulated feed to ensure lean hogs. Today's pigs have around 50% less fat than pigs of the 1950s.

Those hogs cook quite differently than the ones used by Pete Jones when he founded the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, and by Chip Stamey's grandfather, Warner Stamey, when he trained an entire generation of Piedmont North Carolina pit masters. Experienced cooks know there's a difference, too.

Max Falkowitz

"We buy from the same family that my grandfather bought from," says Samuel Jones, Pete Jones's grandson. "They own a stockyard just outside of Ayden." Most of what they get are commodity hogs raised to the big packers' specifications, but not all are. "We'll get some dirt-raised pigs from time to time, mixed in with the others," Jones says. "There is a difference. I know that the fat content is greater on farm-raised hogs, which is I think the way God intended."

But that doesn't mean that all heritage breeds are well suited for barbecue, especially those that were specifically bred to have a lot of fat. Thanks to his involvement with the Fatback Collective, a group of chefs, barbecue cooks, and food writers with an interest in traditional foodways, Jones has had multiple opportunities to apply his whole hog cooking methods to heritage breed pigs.

"It's a different product," he says. "Your whole mindset has to be a little different because of the fat that has to be rendered. Some of those pigs were not intended to cook barbecue with. The Mangalitsa pigs that the Fatback Collective used didn't work. The first one I ever saw, you could not see any ham meat on the pig because it was encapsulated in fat."

A few dedicated individuals in the barbecue community are trying to turn back the clock and make the old-fashioned style of barbecue meat available again. Perhaps no one is more passionate about the cause than Nick Pihakis of Birmingham-based Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q. Since he and his father opened their first restaurant 29 years ago, Pihakis has bought commodity pork from a local supplier. In recent years, though, he's became passionate about local and sustainable agriculture, and when he started looking around Alabama for farmers to supply him with pastured pork, he couldn't find any.

James Boo

Local farmers had either moved to the commodity-breed, factory-farm contract system or had gotten out of the pork business altogether. Even if he could convince a few farmers to raise hogs for him, Pihakis realized, there were no longer any local processing plants where the pigs could be sent for slaughter.

So Nick Pihakis decided to do something about it. In 2012 he purchased a processing plant in Eva, Alabama, that had been built in a quixotic attempt to market emu. Pihakis converted it into a hog processing facility, and it went online in the autumn of last year.

"We're still ramping up," Pihakis says. "We're focused more on our value-added cuts out of the plant right now. We use four million pounds of pork a year [in the Jim 'N Nick's restaurants], and it's real hard to start from scratch and get that level of volume.

"They're now making all of our bacon, all of our sausage, and our ribs. We're starting the processing with value added and will move into shoulders and hams."

Pihakis is also working with area farmers to raise a special crossbreed of Duroc, Berkshire, and Yorkshire pigs that are raised humanely will be well-suited for barbecue—the old fashioned kind.

It's a movement looking back to the first years of barbecue, one that favored whole animals of varying breeds before the trend to specialized cuts paved the way for standardized commodity meat. But regardless of which way the barbecue business goes, this much is clear: when it comes to the barbecue that ends up on the plate, there's far more that goes into the equation than just Carolinas = Pork and Texas = Beef. The characteristics of the meat—and, particularly, the fat that's tucked away inside—matter a great deal.