Slow cooking, fast cooking

So, what's your barbecue style, slow cooking or fast cooking?

Purists will argue that it's only a barbecue if the food is cooked slowly, from indirect heat. Fast cooking, they argue, is 'just grilling'. While the difference is partly a matter of semantics, there are two different styles and each has its purpose and strengths.

Slow cooking has distinct advantages, indeed it may be mandatory when dealing with certain cuts. A 10 lb chunk of beef brisket or a large pork shoulder simply won't cook in an hour no matter how high the flame. You'll end up with a piece of meat that's scorched on the outside and a health hazard on the inside.

Slow cooking often involves a specialized device, such as a smoker. The actual heating chamber is separated from the meat and smoke is directed through a flue for heat and flavor. Water is often used in a basin, sometimes mixed with a little wine, to cool the chamber and add additional flavor and tenderness.

The liquid helps keep the meat tender throughout the long cooking period (sometimes as long as a day). At the same time the indirect heat and lower temperature help cook the meat evenly. The proteins have time to adjust, so you end up with an internal temperature that is just right, with a delectable 'crust' on the exterior.

Fast cooking is perfectly appropriate for certain cuts or types of meat

A thin steak can be delicious, properly seasoned and cooked. They take only a few minutes over a high heat, often directly over flame. Special sauces can turn even an ordinary slice into gourmet food. The taste and consistency is top notch for a good cut well prepared.

Hamburgers, despite their 'lowly' reputation are served in the finest restaurants and make excellent candidates for fast grilling. With the right fat content, seasoned correctly and seared to perfection, no one need feel ashamed of enjoying one of America's favorite foods. That they are often prepared badly doesn't show they're inherently unworthy.

For hot dogs, another food with an undeserved poor reputation, fast cooking is the only option. Using a fine brand and the right technique can result in a sausage that is the equal of any old world recipe.

To fast cook, it's important to keep the lid open in most cases. Monitor the grill for any high flames. Scorching meat causes thick carbon to form on the outside, making the meal inedible and unhealthy. Fast grilling can lead to sticking. Starting with a super clean grill helps. A non-stick spray can eliminate the problem without imparting any unpleasant taste.

Have everything prepared and close at hand and fast cooking can result in a meal that is first rate and quick. And, these days, quick is definitely a value.

Slow down your barbecue

Whether it's because of fat dripped on charcoal briquettes or simply having the flame turned up to maximum, many backyard chefs allow the meat to cook too fast. A barbecue is supposed to be a little slower. Taking more time creates a better tasting meal and a more pleasurable experience overall.

There are several ways to achieve that...

In the case of smoking a 10 lb brisket, you really don't have much choice. You can't get one of these huge chunks of beef to cook in an hour. You'll just wind up with raw meat that's scorched on the outside. Smoking brisket is not a bad way to get in the mood for cooking slower. Try it.

Charcoal grills are among the worst offenders for cooking too fast. The coals only last a short while, so you want to get the meal done in a hurry. Or, fat drips onto a briquette and suddenly you have a flare up that scorches a steak before it's been on the grill for five minutes.

Keep a spray bottle handy for those inevitable geysers of fire. But take some steps to minimize their occurrence as well. Have a section of the grill that contains a large quantity of coals and an area that contains none, with perhaps a medium level in between if you have room. That way when the cooking becomes too accelerated you have space to move the meat over until the heat dies down a bit.

Keep the flame down on a natural gas grill to a lower temperature than you would use on an indoor oven. If you would cook chicken at 425°F (218°C) inside, try 400°F (204°C) or even 375°F (190°C) on the grill. Allow for increased cooking time in order to get the right flavor and a safe internal temperature of the meat.

Try keeping the lid open at least part of the time when you're not aiming for a wood smoke effect. Take care you don't get uneven cooking, since the area above the meat will naturally be much cooler than that below. But, carefully monitored, this can let you cook more slowly, giving a smoother transition of flavor and 'doneness' from outside to in.

As meat proteins heat up, they break down into amino acids. Those are more flavorful and produce variety. At the same time, the long-chain sugars and fats that are part of the flesh break down under heat. That produces a thin outer layer of sweet and tasty compounds that your tongue will really appreciate. Cooking too fast carbonizes those sugars, producing a harsh, bitter taste.

You don't have to be from the South to appreciate the results of a slow, easy-going barbeque. The more relaxed experience and the flavorful results will persuade anyone of the advantages.