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Digital Thermometers:
Stop Guessing!

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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.

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GrillGrates Take You To
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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

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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.

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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 $289 delivered to your door!

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

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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

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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.

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The Best Steakhouse Knives

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fat cap on lamb

About The Fat Cap, And Busting The Myth That Melting Fat Penetrates Meat

"Are you gonna eat your fat?" Spaulding in the classic 1980 movie, Caddyshack

By Meathead Goldwyn

No aspect of food is more misunderstood than fat. All mammals have it, and many vegetables do too. It is essential to human life. Cut it out of your diet and you die. Eat too much and you die.

There are many different kinds of fat: Saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, trans fat, vegetable oils, fish oils, nut oils, olive oils, omega 3, 6, 9, hike. This article will focus on solid animal fat, and what it does from a culinary standpoint, and try to settle the argument once and for all: Fat cap, on or off?

As far as the health apects, suffice it for me to say: I have digested authoritative research and learned that there is a huge amount of conflicting data, so much so that one might conclude that the only ones who really know the answers with any certainty are the food fascists who want you to eat like a horse: Only hay. The scientific community is still seeking facts. I am not qualified to form a conclusion other than to say that fat makes many foods taste better.

Fat serves many functions. Most importantly, it stores energy for the animal. It also insulates it and helps keep it warm. And because fat is a decent solvent, it dissolves and stores many of the flavor compounds in the foods the animal eats. That's why corn fed cattle taste different than grass fed. If a sheep has grazed on wild rosemary, you'll taste it, and Spanish Iberico hogs fed acorns taste very different than any others. As animals age more of these flavors build up in the fat. That's why mutton has a stronger taste than lamb.

Melting surface fat does not penetrate muscle

fat typesIt is important to differentiate between different types of fat:

1) Subcutaneous fat, the thick hard fat layer right under the skin of many animals also called the fat cap.

2) Intermuscular fat, the fat that lays in thick layers on top of muscles as well as between muscle groups,

3) Intramuscular fat, the thin whisps of fat that thread their way between fibers within the muscle. Also called marbling, it is the fat that gives meat its rich texture and much of its flavor.

4) Intercostal fat that is found between ribs.

The penetration myth

So let's say that you have a hungry crowd of rowdies to feed and this big ole honkin' pork shoulder, beef brisket, leg of lamb, or prime rib. It has a thick layer of fat on top. The question is, leave it on or trim it off? Most books, TV cooks, and websites say that you should leave it on because it will melt and percolate down into the meat making it juicier.

Nonsense.

pork fat capThe fat cap is usually white, fairly hard, and can be as much as two inches thick. Meat scientist, Dr. Tony Mata, the AmazingRibs.com beef consultant, explains "Fat will not migrate into the muscle as it is cooked. First of all, the molecules are too large to squeeze in. Second, fat is mostly oil. The red stuff in meat is muscle and it is mostly water. Oil and water don't mix. Protein in muscle is also immiscible in fat because of its chemical configuration. Third, in most cases there is an anatomical barrier between muscle and fat cap, namely, a layer of connective tissue holding muscle groups together. It too is water based."

The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder adds a fourth reason: "Raw meat is like a protein sponge. Before it is cooked it is fully saturated with water. There's no room for the fat to go in. As the meat cooks, water-based juices are being expelled from the interior. No way fat can swim upstream."

Consider this myth busted.

Fat cap on or off?

So if the fat does not penetrate the muscle, should you leave it on or off? Here are the pros and cons:

bbq checkmarkWhen you cook meat with the fat cap on it softens, some of it browns, some melts and lightly coats exposed muscle groups below, and some of it drips off into the fire where it is vaporized and can settle on the meat adding flavor. Some of the fat will drip off and can be collected for use in making gravy or stored for use in frying later.

bbq checkmarkIf you leave the fat cap on, it can slow salt penetration and salt is very effective at helping the muscle retain moisture. Salt also burrows down into the muscle and amplifies its flavor. If you leave the fat cap on a brisket, you should consider injecting brine.

bbq checkmarkSpices do not penetrate muscle more than a fraction of an inch, but they do flavor the surface and help form the crust. If you coated the meat with a wonderful spice rub, it will remain on top of the fat and not get onto the meat. Much of that flavor and expense will drip off.

bbq checkmarkIf you leave on a thick fat cap, most people are going to trim it off at the dinner table. If you have used a spice rub, all your expensive spices will be removed along with the wonderful browning flavors created by the Maillard reaction and caramelization.

bbq checkmarkMost of the flavor from smoke comes from microscopic particles and gases, and, although the gases can penetrate, they rarely penetrate more than 1/4" so if there is 1/4" of fat it will absork much of the smoke flavor and block the formation of a smoke ring. Click the link above to learn more about smoke, and click here to learn more about the smoke ring.

bbq checkmarkBut fat does help prevent water from evaporating. Evaporative cooling is what causes the stall, a consterning phenomenon where the meat, when cooked at a low temp like 225°F, stops rising in temperature for hours because moisture evaporates and cools the surface. Hypothetically, if the entire piece of meat was covered in a thick layer of fat, no water would evaporate, there would be no stall, and there would be more water in the final product. But water is just a part of the feeling of moisture in meat. Much of it comes from intramuscular fat and melting collagen from connective tissue. And the drying of the surface is part of the formation of the tasty crust called bark.

bbq checkmarkFinally, fat is full of flavor, often tastier than the meat itself, and the best tasting meats are those with small fat deposits strewn throught the muscles, marbling.

When to leave a fat cap on

There are some good arguments for leaving on a fat cap.

bbq checkmarkIf your cooker has the meat sitting directly above the heat, putting the fat cap down creates a heat shield protecting the meat surface from drying heat.

bbq checkmarkOn the other hand, if you like a crunchy crust, a thin layer of fat coated with salt, spices, and herbs, can combine to create something that barbecue lovers lust for on pork butt for pulled pork, a jerky-like dried surface packed with flavor called bark.

bbq checkmarkOn the other hand dripping fat vaporizes and transmits flavor to food above.

bbq checkmarkOn the other hand dripping fat can flare up and if too much fat hits the flame it can produce nasty black soot.

bbq checkmarkOn the other hand, the fat layer will trap evaporating moisture and produce juicier meat, but not a hard bark. Also, after a long cook, such as the 12 hours or more a whole brisket needs, the meat dries a bit from evaporation, drip loss, and breakdown of collagen holding the muscle fibers together, leaving perhaps 5 to 10% airspace within the cut. It is a good practice to rest briskets for an hour or so in an insulated box, a faux cambro, so that liquid can fill the gaps. Dr. Blonder says he likes to rest the meat in a vacuum bag to maximize this.

Steaks and chops

Most of the fat on steaks and chops are wrapped around the edge, called edge fat, and it can cause nasty flareups. It often covers silverskin, tough connective tissue that shrinks under heat and causes steaks and chops to cup.

Bottom line

brisket fatConclusion? Remove all but a thin layer, 1/8" or less, as on the top of the slice of brisket at right. Much of it will melt away, but if you leave a little people can eat mostly muscle and still get a taste of flavorful fat, as well as the spices and herbs you lovingly blended and rubbed all over.

I recommend removing all the fat except 1/4" to 1/8". Most of that will melt off and drop away leaving 1/8" to 1/16", and people will see that the spices are on that cap and most will eat it, significantly enhancing the dining experience.

And what about the fat dripping into the fire and being resurrected as flavorful droplets mixed in with smoke? I save the fat cap and put it on the grate over the fire and let it drip away.

This page was revised 3/7/2014


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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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