Normally at 8:30am on a Sunday morning the very last thing you would find me doing is sitting by the beach in St Kilda. But one Sunday in March, there I was sipping a coffee and watching early morning fitness freaks run past. I definitely wasn’t down in St Kilda for fitness purposes, as I was about to take a BBQ masterclass and scoff meat for breakfast. Fitness be damned.
As part of the BBQ Festival, there were several master classes in barbequing. I attended a session hosted by Chris Girvin-Brown from Perth, who held a class about offset and direct heat barbequing in the super condensed time of two hours (normally they’re a full day).
The World Needs More Food Geekery
Chris started off the class with some food geekery to set the scene. I love a bit of food science, so let’s begin with my (very simplistic, paraphrased) explanation about cooking meat and temperatures.
(Also, all errors are my own.)
So imagine a piece of meat. Meat contains lots of cells that hold liquid. When the temperature of the meat rises above 66°C, the liquid inside the cells expands enough to break the cellular walls, which disperses juice through the meat. In addition to this, fibres in the meat tense up when heated. When you cut into the meat, because the fibres are all tense and the cell walls have burst, juices get squeezed out.
This is why resting meat is really important, because it gives the juices an opportunity to be redistributed back into the meat and for the fibres to have an opportunity to relax a bit.
The World Needs More Low and Slow Loving
But what happens if you don’t heat the meat above 66°C? If the cell walls haven’t been burst, the cells hang on to their juices and you only lose the liquid from the line of cells along where you’ve cut the meat.
This sounds easy then, right? Just don’t cook meat above 66°C and keep it juicy. Ahh, but in the real world, meat has connective tissue, and tougher cuts of meat have a higher percentage of connective tissue. The problem is that these tissues break down at a temperature of 70-80°C over half an hour or so. You’ll notice that this is much higher than the temperature at which meat loses its liquid.
So is it a case of juiciness over tenderness? Nope. Fortunately, there’s a solution – the connective tissue does break down at a lower temperature – it just takes much longer.
You can raise the temperature of meat to 50°C, and if held there for several hours, the collagen in the connective tissue will break down into gelatine. The gelatine helps to hold some of the juices from the cells so not only do you end up with more tender meat, it’s also juicier.
The temperature will plateau at slightly higher than 50°C while the energy is being used to convert the collagen into gelatine. After it’s all been converted, the temperature of the meat will start rising again. This is easily tested using a temperature probe if you ever want to do an experiment.
Chris demonstrated two low and slow meat cooking techniques for us. First up was a reverse sear. He simply seasoned a beef rib eye roast and popped it into the barbeque. After a couple of hours, he pulled it out of the BBQ and seared the outside over a high heat.
We tasted the beef both before and after it had been seared. Interestingly, it seemed even juicier and more tender after searing. I think (but am not 100% sure so don’t quote me) that this is because the beef straight out of the BBQ was still quite rare. After it was seared, it was cooked a touch more and perhaps the temperature had raised enough to melt the fat and gelatine to make it seem juicier?
The alternative method is to sear the meat first, and then cook it slowly. Chris did this with a lamb rack roast. It was seasoned, seared, and then popped into the barbeque with the rib eye to slowly cook.
After a couple of hours, it was beautifully cooked. Super juicy and tender.
He also slow cooked a leg of lamb overnight in a barbeque with wood smoke. The meat was fall off the bone tender and so delicious. It was one of the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in aaaaaaages. The lamb was so juicy, smokey and flavoursome.
The World Needs More Brine
According to Chris, brining is the best thing in the world. Okay, he didn’t actually say that, but that’s the message I got. 🙂
A brine is basically a salt water mixture, and the reason it’s much, much better than a marinade is because of chemistry. Marinades only flavour the exterior – if you cut into something that’s been marinaded, you’ll see that the marinade has hardly penetrated the meat. Also, marinades tend to contain lots of sugar, which just burn as you cook.
Brines on the other hand…
Before I start talking about brining, can I just say – I pretty much understand why it works, but explaining it is a totally different thing. So… any technical errors are mine and I’m sorrrrry and please don’t hurt me. I brine in peace.
Right, with that said:
Meat is made largely of water, and at the cellular level, most of it is trapped inside protein structures inside each cell. Each cell is full of small balls of protein structures all tightly packed up against each other. Inside the cell, there’s some water that exists in the spaces between the protein structures, but most of it is inside the protein balls. When meat is placed into a brine, the water between the protein structures is drawn out of the cell, which changes the ph of the cellular liquids.
The change in ph starts to unravel (denature) the protein structures, which both tenderises the meat and also releases the fluid that’s trapped inside into the cell.
So at this point, you have cells surrounded by salty liquid.
After this, the salty molecules want to move from an area of high concentration (outside the cell) to an area of low concentration (inside the cell). So the cell draws in moisture from the surrounding brine until it reaches equilibrium.
And because the cells have been denatured, they are able to draw and hold more water than before.
TL/DR: Brined meat is more tender and contains more moisture than non-brined meat.
OKAY TECHNICAL TALK OVER.
To test brining, Chris set up a comparison with chicken wings. He barbequed three versions – one batch of wings that hadn’t been brined, one that had been brined in just a salt solution, and one that had been brined in a salt and garlic solution.
Interestingly, when they came off the barbeque, the non-brined chicken wings were darker. They had cooked “harder” than the brined wings and were noticeably less juicy and not as tender. Most of us seemed to prefer the flavour of the plain brine over the garlic brine.
How to make brine? Chris suggested 1 tablespoon of salt to a litre of liquid. You can use anything for the liquid – water (obviously) but also stock, beer or juice if you want to introduce different flavours into the meat. You need enough brine to completely submerge the meat (weigh it down with something if required) and it needs to be brined for about 4 hours per kilo of meat. When removing it, lightly rinse it to remove any excess salt and you can then cook it.
Also, if you’re brining in something other than water (ie juice) rinsing the meat before cooking will remove any excess sugars that will burn the surface. You’ll see in the photo above that the pork loin is quite black. It was brined in a juice mixture, and because it wasn’t rinsed before cooking, the sugars burnt.
The World Needs More Fat Injections
Chris also demonstrated a fun technique – fat injections. He injected chicken breasts with marinade from a jar. If injecting your meat, the most important thing is to minimise the holes that you poke into it. So you want to change the angle several times without making new holes and keep on injecting.
Injecting is an easy way to introduce flavour and moisture throughout the meat as it cooks.
The World Needs More Caramelised Pineapple
Here’s a very simple and easy dessert for the barbeque. Fresh diced pineapple was tossed in a mixture of brown and raw sugar and chilli flakes and cooked on the barbeque until the sugars caramelised. Holy moly this was so delicious and so easy. Try it.
The World Needs More Coconut Bowls
Here’s another easy dish for a barbeque. Carefully (very carefully) saw a whole coconut in half, and fill it with curry sauce and meat. Chris just used a packet curry sauce from the supermarket.
Here’s the end result after its time in the barbeque. Super tasty.
So. You may be able to tell by the length of this post and how much I’ve waffled on (!) that I really enjoyed this class. Chris was fun and personable, and explained the more technical concepts well. It was a great morning and definitely worth the early morning wake up call.
Now go forth and brine and do it low and slow. Go on and throw in some fat injections if you’re feeling particularly advanced.