How Barbecue Works

Barbecue Technology and Techniques
A family prepares barbecued chicken and sausages at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Over the centuries, ingenious folks improved on barbecue technology. The Native Americans laid their meat on wooden frames over an open-pit fire. Later settlers replaced the wood frames with metal gridirons, and the pits themselves with masonry structures. In 1897, an inventor named Ellsworth Zwoyer patented the charcoal briquette, which was first mass-produced in the 1920s [source: Goldwyn].

In the early 1950s, a metalworker named George Stephen got the idea of attaching legs to half of a spherical nautical buoy, and using the other half as a lid over a grill. The Weber Kettle Grill, as his invention was called, made it possible for Americans to set up moveable barbecues in their backyards [source: Raichen].

Though the tools have improved, barbecuing remains more of an art than a science, one in which master cooks can use an array of techniques and ingredients to create a distinctive eating experience. Since the smoke imparts flavor to the meat, for example, one important choice is which type of wood briquette to use in the fire.

The choice of briquette was traditionally based on the wood found in a particular area. For classic Southern barbecue, the wood of choice is hickory, which adds a rich, slightly sweet taste that works particularly well with pork ribs, shoulder, ham and chops. Mesquite, a prolific but scraggly tree that Texas ranchers saw as a nuisance, adds a stronger flavor to beef [source: Vaughn]. Fruitwood such as apple, cherry and peach adds a lighter, fruitier taste that enhances the taste of poultry and seafood [source: Kingsford].

Preparing the meat for cooking is even more nuanced. Barbecue cooks typically start with a dry rub — a mix of spices, sugar, herbs and other ingredients rubbed into the meat to add a range of flavors. As Goldwyn explains, a rub "is like a good orchestra," with precise combinations of the four S's: sweetness (sugar or honey), savory (like garlic), spices and herbs, and spicy sensations, like hot pepper or ginger.

A wet rub will have these ingredients, plus vinegar or oil. Cooks often swear by one or the other type of rub. Rubs — wet or dry — shouldn't be confused with barbecue sauce, which should always be applied at the very end of cooking.