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BBQ 101 with The Professor of Meat Science

Brisket Slicing - Cambro Blog - BBQ 101Summer is upon us and BBQ season is here. However, in Texas, BBQ’ing is a year-round activity because the weather is always ‘hot or damned hot,’ as Jeff Savell explains. Despite his title (University Distinguished Professor, Meat Science and EM “Manny” Rosenthal Chair in Animal Science, Texas A&M) and the impressive 2 page-long list of accolades and awards in his field, Dr. Savell (yes, he has a PhD in Animal Science!) humbly insisted he be simply addressed, as Jeff.

So what, you might be wondering as you read this blog, is Meat Science all about? It is the study of all things meat—the quality, safety, color, shelf life, eating quality and nutritional value of meat. Jeff has been on Texas A&M’s faculty teaching about meat for the past 37 years. The university started its first meat class in 1926, called Farm Meats, to teach young students how to go back to the farm to butcher their own cattle and hogs. In fact the university has about 8 undergraduate courses, each 15 weeks long that students can take. Jeff SavellJeff teaches Marketing and Grading of Livestock and Meat. But there’s also Meat Merchandising–learning how to cut meat and understanding the value proposition, Advanced Meat Science, Meat Food Safety and Meats Evaluation—where students can become a part of the Meat judging team (similar to livestock judging), among others. They also hold BBQ Camps during the year as well. It should be clear by now that meat is a matter not to be taken lightly at Texas A&M.

For the Love of BBQ

When asked why he thought BBQ seemed to be a growing trend, Jeff replied, “In Texas there are 3 major foods—BBQ, Chicken Fried Steak and Tex Mex. Nobody is standing in line for Chicken Fried Steak and TexMex. They’re standing in line for BBQ. The other thing about BBQ is you just don’t want to eat great BBQ, you want to figure out how to prepare great BBQ. So when we have our workshops all of these people are backyard enthusiasts, if they’re not in the commercial business. They’re surgeons and lawyers and petro chemical people, all walks of life– but they love having a grill or a smoker, some love the competition, but all of them just want to learn how to do it better. So you don’t see someone going to a 3 day Chicken Fried Steak workshop. (Very true!) But BBQ is something different. It’s very social. You cook so much product–not just a single serving. You’re cooking for the masses—for friends and family— so part of that is the enjoyment of preparing food for others.”

BBQ pigBBQ 101

Q: What is the difference between BBQ’ing and Grilling?

When we think about grilling we think of direct heat, building a fire usually using charcoal briquettes, and then you’d let those burn down to where they’re glowing then you’d put meat for 15,20,30 minutes – hamburgers, steak, hotdogs over direct fire.
BBQ’ing is done with more indirect heat. That means that the heat source will be further away from the meat because usually w/BBQ’ing you’re cooking bigger cuts so you have to use lower temperature to keep from cooking the outside too fast compared with the inside—that’s where we get the term “Low and Slow” — 200°/225°/250°F for many hours.

Q: Can you explain the basic procedure of BBQ’ing to us?

For beginners the best thing to do is to learn how to do pulled pork. It’s universal and very important to the South—the Carolinas, Georgia. Pulled pork is also one of the easiest ones to master.

Seasoning - Cambro Blog - BBQ 101BBQ’ing is like a 3 Act Play

ACT I: Purchasing and Preparing the Product

  1. Purchase a Pork Shoulder/Boston Butt 4-5 lbs. bone-in or boneless.
  2. Season with salt and pepper, some paprika, brown sugar. There are different seasonings and rubs but the bigger the cut, the more seasoning you apply.

ACT II: Cooking and Smoking

  • Put it in some kind of smoker in indirect heat. Sometimes you can use charcoal to be the source of the fuel but there are also a lot of commercially available smoking chunks of wood—oak, hickory, pecan, mesquite, peach, apple. Put them onto the coals, let them generate the smoke. Texas Oak is the most commonly used. You want to make sure you don’t overcook. Low and Slow—internal temp of 190° to 200°F. Give it a good smoke.

TIP: Make sure the fire is burning clean. You want good seasoned wood—don’t cut up a tree limb and put it in the smoker. It’s going to be the worst fire you could have! You want it to be good and dry. The smoke you see is not the good smoke. You want it to have a nice, clear blue smoke coming out of the smoker—it’s burning efficiently and that’s where you get the good smoke particles to give it flavor.

  • You can tell it’s done when the bone starts getting loose and pulls out clean, roughly 6 to 8 hours.

RULE OF THUMB: 1 hr per lb of meat but round up. So 1 to 1.5 hrs/lb. 190°/200°F internal (225°/250°F cooking temp).

Pork Butts in Trays - Cambro Blog - BBQ 101ACT III  Resting and Holding

  • Resting time is very important! Resting lets juices get re-absorbed, keeping the meat moist. Proper holding ensures the meat stays safely above 140°F. Wrap the meat in butcher paper to seal it and protect it and let it rest for a few hours in an insulated container, like a Cambro.
  • Shred the pork with forks or claws and enjoy in a sandwich with some sauce.
    (Jeff’s Note: Sauces should complement, not cover up the flavor of the meat!)

Q: Since resting and holding are crucial steps to ensure moist BBQ, is it better to use a passive insulated carrier or an electric one (that keeps temps between 150-165°F)?

Personally, I have a small passive Cambro that I bought for tailgating—I cook hot vegetable dishes at home, put it in there and hours later when we are ready to eat, it’s still piping hot. For backyard enthusiasts, I would recommend the passive version because you’re putting in products that are very hot to begin with. If you’re doing commercial, it’s going to be very important for you to document that the temp is held correctly because without any evidence that it’s held correctly, it’s kind of like you’re guilty until proven innocent. So I think having the electric version can help you document everything. If you’re doing catering commercially you should use something having an active heat source. For the backyard person you’re not cooking enough to have to go through the extra expenses of an electric unit.

Teaching about meats and BBQ has not just become a life-long career for Jeff but has also given him a more-balanced view of life. As he explains, “In Texas there is the Texas Trinity: Brisket, Spareribs and Sausage. #1 is Brisket. You can’t get credit for great ribs and sausage if you can’t do brisket right. Jeff Savell2So brisket is held to a higher standard and when you think of the top BBQ places in TX, they all can do brisket really well. Where brisket is a challenge is that it’s an inherently tough piece of meat. It has a lot of connective tissue and connective tissue is principally collagen. Collagen becomes gelatin upon heating and holding. You want to convert the collagen into gelatin so that’s where the low and slow comes into play. But brisket is a difficult thing to master because of the inherent differences between animals and all kinds of factors. I’ll have one brisket turn out really well and think ‘I’ve got this now!’ and the next one doesn’t turn out so well so ‘No, I don’t have it!’ I fail just as much as anyone else. At Camp Brisket, I say a little prayer sometimes, but I need to be a little less critical when I go to somebody’s BBQ place because of the time and effort that they put into it. It’s a hard job and I need to celebrate when it’s good and be more forgiving when it’s not so good. So it does humble you when you try to mimic what these top places are doing.   Of course they’re doing volume and been doing it for years but even they’ll have days it doesn’t turn out quite as well. It’s not their fault that’s how it turned out. Don’t go on Yelp and blast them on Twitter. Just go back and try it again.”

To learn about the variety of insulated carriers and carts for holding your BBQ, visit

And use this Brisket Rub Recipe from Dr Jeff Savell to make some great brisket worthy of long travels in hot holding cabinets.

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