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Digital Thermometers:
Stop Guessing!

thermopop bbq thermometer

Gold BBQ AwardA good digital thermometer keeps me from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. You can get a professional grade, fast and precise splashproof thermometer like the Thermopop (above) for about $24. The Thermapen (below), the Ferrari of instant reads, is about $96. It's the one you see all the TV chefs and all the top competition pitmasters using. Click here to read more about types of thermometer and our ratings and reviews.

bbq thermapen

GrillGrates Take You To
The Infrared Zone

BBQ_grill_grates

Gold BBQ AwardGrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, produce great grill marks, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, smolder wood right below the meat, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips or pellets or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke to whatever is above. Every gas grill and pellet smoker needs them.

Click here to read more about what makes these grates so special and how they compare to other cooking surfaces.

The Smokenator:
A Necessity For All Weber Kettles

smokenator bbq system

Gold BBQ Award If you have a Weber Kettle, you need the amazing Smokenator and Hovergrill. The Smokenator turns your grill into a first class smoker, and the Hovergrill can add capacity or be used to create steakhouse steaks.

Click here to read more.

The Pit Barrel Cooker

pit barrel c ooker bbqAbsolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world.

This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers in the hardware stores because temperature control is so much easier (and that's because smoke and heat go up, not sideways).

Gold BBQ AwardBest of all, it is only $299 delivered to your door!

Click here to read our detailed review and the raves from people who own them.

scissor tongs

Best. Tongs. Ever.

Gold BBQ AwardMade of rugged 1/8" thick aluminum, 20" long, with four serious rivets, mine show zero signs of weakness after years of abuse. I use them on meats, hot charcoal, burning logs, and with the mechanical advantage that the scissor design creates, I can easily pick up a whole packer brisket. Click here to read more.

Amp Up The Smoke

mo's smoking pouch

Gold BBQ AwardMo's Smoking Pouch is essential for gas grills. It is an envelope of mesh 304 stainless steel that holds wood chips or pellets. The airspaces in the mesh are small enough that they limit the amount of oxygen that gets in so the wood smokes and never bursts into flame. Put it on top of the cooking grate, on the burners, on the coals, or stand it on edge at the back of your grill. It holds enough wood for about 15 minutes for short cooks, so you need to refill it or buy a second pouch for long cooks like pork shoulder and brisket. Mine has survived more than 50 cooks. Click for more info.

steak knives for bbq

The Best Steakhouse Knives

Gold BBQ AwardThe same knives used at Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's. Machine washable, high-carbon stainless steel, hardwood handle. And now they have the AmazingRibs.com imprimatur. Click for more info.

tailgater magazine
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golden brown and delicious

Brown Is Beautiful Or Why We Love GBD, Bark, Crust, Caramelization And The Maillard Reaction

"Brown is beautiful but chu already know it que, no now check this out." Lyrics to Brown is Beautiful by Ms. Krazie, 2006

By Meathead Goldwyn

When heat is applied to food, the chemicals in the food change. A lot. Heat is powerful energy. Some changes are obvious, some subtle, some invisible. The most important of these changes are the Maillard reaction and caramelization. Together they make miracles. Together they make GBD: Golden Brown and Delicious. Here's the highly technical formula:

Heat + Sugars + Amino Acids = GBD (Many different large scrumptious brown molecules)

Maillard reaction

gus's fried chickenThe Maillard reaction is one of the great miracles of cooking, named after the French scientist Louis-Camille Maillard, who studied the browning of foods in the early 1900s. As the surface of foods warm in dry heat (and frying is considered dry heat), amino acids and sugars react together, scores of new compounds form, the surface starts to brown and get crunchy, and it develops a richness and depth of flavor and a crunchy texture that cannot be produced by wet cooking methods like steaming or braising. Yes, meat has trace amounts of different sugars because when an animal digests, it converts carbs in its feed into sugars for energy to be burned by its muscles.

Because of the Maillard reaction, steaks develop their richly flavorful mahogany surface, roasts build a bark, loaves of bread are swaddled in crusts, slices of bread turn golden in the toaster, a roux goes from pasty to golden, fried potatoes put on a golden crunchy coat, dark beer gets its darkly mysterious flavor, and boring beans are transformed into coffee and chocolate. And Gus's fried chicken in Memphis, shown here. The reaction is even part of human aging when proteins and sugars get together in our bodies. The Maillard reaction begins at low temps, but really kicks in after 300°F. Like many chemical reactions, time can be traded against temperature. Twelve hours at 225°F will brown meat nearly as deeply as 15 minutes on the grill, but the exact mixture of flavor compounds will differ. Good thing, too. Wouldn't it be boring if all food tasted the same, no matter how it was cooked?

Caramelization

mayo potatoesGo into your kitchen and pour half a cup of sugar into a sauce pan and turn the heat to medium. It will begin to liquefy. Gently move a wooden spoon through the sugar until it all melts (beware, liquid sugar is very hot and a tiny bit on your hand will make you scream aloud, so wear gloves). Stand there and stir every 20 seconds or so. Keep stirring for about five minutes and turn the heat to low as it really starts melting. The energy will take a white odorless crystal and break it into thousands, yes thousands, of new molecules, fill the house with seductive, sweet, buttery aromas, and turn the white mass into a seething golden syrup. Then it will turn amber, then copper, then brown, then mahogany, then licorice. The process creates a rich, complex, caramel or butterscotch flavor. That is caramelization and why we love it.

In technical terms, caramelization is the controlled oxidation or burning of sugar in the presence of heat. The process breaks down the large sugar molecules, boils off the water, and recombines the remaining atoms into rich new flavors. Unlike the Maillard reaction, no proteins, amono acids, enzymes, or alkaline conditions are needed.

Different sugars caramelize at different temps, and the exact temp can vary depending on how pure the sugar is. Caramelization of fructose (fruit sugar) begins at about 230°F, and most other common sugars such as sucrose, or table sugar, start to caramelize at about 320°F. Boiling sweet sauces or exposing them to flame can create a caramel undertone, and browning sweet vegetables like onion or corn, can add depth to their flavor. Think grilled onions.

Barbecue sauces usually develop interesting new flavors when caramelized which is why they are hard to judge when they are straight out of the bottle. Because honey is mostly fructose, it makes a good addition to barbecue sauces so it can caramelize at the lower temperatures we like for low and slow barbecue. But it can also burn easily, a real possibility if you to sizzle on your sauce at a high heat after a low and slow cook as I recommend in my recipe for Last Meal Ribs. That's why you need to be careful when tempted to substitute one sugar for another in tried-and-true rub and sauce recipes.

The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder did an interesting demonstration of the concepts. He placed a half a bagel, a bowl of table sugar (sucrose), and a bowl of grape juice in a 225°F oven for several hours. The bagel turned brown from the Maillard reaction because it contains sugar and protein, the fructose in the grape juice caramelized, but the table sugar remained snowy white.

So what does this mean to a barbecue cook? Says the scientist: "A glaze or sauce sweetened with table sugar won't caramelize at the recommended low and slow temp of 225°F. But it will contribute to the Maillard reaction within the meat and the bark." Bark is the dark crust prized by pitmasters.

The lesson is that you want to pick your sweeteners and when you apply them carefully. If you want a nice dark surface on grilled meats, and all the flavor that comes with it, a light sprinkling of sugar before cooking, and allowing it to dissolve in the meat juices, can do wonders. If you apply a sweet sauce too early in the cook, it can mean a black disaster. If you are at low temps and you use the right sugar, you can amp the taste up a notch.

Brown good. Black bad.

coulotte

The goal is a that range of colors from golden amber to whiskey brown as dark as possible but not black. That's the fat side of a smoked culotte cut from a beef sirloin. Brown is complex lyric poetry. Black is carbon. You like black? Go eat a briquet.

Be careful with the sugar. Some rubs have lots of sugar, like Meathead's Memphis Dust. It must be cooked low and slow or it will blacken. I see a lot of Southern style barbecue that is black and, although it may not taste carbonized, it usually doesn't have richness and depth. On the other hand, of you are cooking at 325°F, a pinch of sugar can aid with browning and start caramelizing.

Keep things dry. Pat it dry with paper towels before cooking. If the surface of your food is wet with wash water, meat juices from the package, or marinade, the surface will steam and not brown. That's a major reason I am not a fan of marinades or basting. They prevent browning and they never penetrate very deep. They are really a surface treatment, like a sauce, and sauces are best reserved until the last minute after the surface is done.

Keep things oiled. Oil conducts heat better than air, and it fills in the tiny air gaps between the bottom of a piece of meat and hot grill grates. Give the food a coat of oil and you can practically fry the surface, and the oil keeps food from sticking. Much of it will drip off, so don't be diet conscious here.

Keep things at the right temp. To get a good brown surface, you need one of two things: (1) A hot direct radiant heat source from below, or (2) long low cooking times. Master your cooker. Learn how to hit 225°F, 325°F, and Warp 10. Preheat the cooker properly. But don't go crazy, there are times when you want to work on the surface and there are times when you want to work on the interior. This concept is discussed in detail in my article on cooking temps and the reverse sear.

Turn frequently. I know you've been told to turn minimally. This is yet another husband's tale disproven by science. When you do that the heat builds up and passes into the interior of the food. By turning you are in a sense rotissering, letting the surface heat, brown, and then flip and cool. Flip, add more brown, then cool so you can flip again and add more. Click here for a detailed discussion on the of flipping.

Give 'em space. If you are using a griddle or frying in a pan, don't crowd the pan. Leave plenty of space between food chunks so steam can escape or the temp will go down and you won't get GBD.

Add a pinch of sugar. When you make your spice rubs, add a pinch of sugar for foods to be cooked low and slow. If you are cooking hot and fast, skip the sugar it will burn. And no, sugar substitutes will not work. Wrong chemistry.

This page was revised 3/4/2013


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About this website. AmazingRibs.com is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes, tips on technique, and unbiased equipment reviews. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, spareribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, barbecue sauces, spice rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best buying guide to barbecue smokers, grills, accessories, and thermometers, edited by Meathead.

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