What is Low and Slow?
Low and slow is a term used when discussing food cooked over a fairly long period of time at a low temperature, often used in grilling or barbecuing that involves smoking meat. This is usually achieved by cooking over indirect heat, such as inside a smoker or on a grill. The purpose of low and slow cooking is to allow meat to cook fully, but to avoid burning or drying out the meat in the process, and in smoking to add flavor and depth to the meat itself during the cooking process.
When grilling or barbecuing, low and slow cooking is usually achieved through indirect cooking. This is the process of cooking food, often meat on a grill, in a way that does not expose the meat directly to the heat of the fire or charcoal within the grill. With charcoal grills, this is usually achieved by moving the briquettes to one side and setting the food on the other side of the grill. For gas barbecues with multiple ranges, this is often done by only using the range on one side but placing the food on the other side.
Meat smokers allow low and slow cooking while smoking the meat at the same time. The meat is placed in an enclosed smoker with wood chips made from hard woods such as hickory, oak, or apple wood, which are burned and produce smoke. Smoking the meat exposes it to fairly low temperatures, which cooks the meat slowly and allows the smoke to penetrate into the meat, usually adding otherwise unobtainable depths of flavor.
The process of smoking the meat also typically adds a “smoke ring” to the meat, which many barbecue and smoked meat enthusiasts look for as a sign of the highest quality. This smoke ring is a layer of slightly pink meat just below the surface of the skin that runs around the circumference of the smoked meat. The smoke ring can typically only be achieved through low and slow cooking in a smoker and can often be the result of hours or even days of slowly smoking the meat.
While the term low and slow is often used for barbecuing, the process of slowly cooking food over low temperatures can be applied to other forms of cooking as well. While deep frying at low temperatures may produce unwanted results, roasting in an oven and pan frying can both include low and slow cooking for varying results. For foods such as peppers and onions, low and slow cooking is often preferable, as it allows the food to soften without burning. Similarly, garlic is often cooked in such a way, as burnt garlic takes on a bitter taste that is far less pleasant than the sweet, earthy flavor of lightly sautéed garlic.
We have an award-winning barbecue restaurant here, and the owner puts on cooking demonstrations from time to time. He's a big believe in low and slow cooking, especially low and slow chicken and brisket. When he talks about low cooking temperatures, he means 200 degrees F. or so. He will spend hours watching the thermometer on his smoker, and make instant adjustments if the heat gets any higher than 230 degrees F. He says the difference between first place and tenth place in a competition can be the consistency of the temperature from start to finish.
Around this part of the country, low and slow bbq is the only way to go. A slab of beef brisket might take 12-14 hours to get done, if not longer. Pork shoulder or Boston butt used for pulled pork sandwiches often takes 8-10 hours, which means the pit masters start at midnight to get the next day's supply of barbecued meats ready.
I didn't understand the importance of "low and slow" until I tried roasting a rack of ribs at 400 degrees F. They were technically done in about a half-hour or forty five minutes, but they were really tough and dry. I had to throw them away. I found out that there's a science behind low and slow cooking. Some meats, like ribs and beef brisket, do a lot better when the fat is allowed to melt off slowly over time. If you try to cook them the same way you'd cook a hamburger, then the fat will simply evaporate and the meat will tighten up.
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