The Science Behind Good BBQ: Know Your Compounds

This is the second in a five-part series of dispatches from GE’s Science of Barbecue Experience at South by Southwest. Our state-of-the-art Brilliant Super-Smoker is outfitted with sensors to collect data as our barbecue cooks and two GE Global Research scientists are on hand to serve as pitmasters and interpret the data. Click here to read the first installment, the third installment, the fourth installment, and the fifth installment.


Good morning!  It is 6 a.m. in Austin and I am at the BBQ Smoker.  Evan LeRoy, pit master from Freedman’s Restaurant here in Austin, beat me in.  He was here at 5 a.m. to stoke the fire and remove the briskets.  I missed him by 23 minutes!! Only one was done so I will still get to do the unveiling when the rest are ready.  But I am getting ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.

Yesterday after landing and making my way to the hotel in downtown Austin I made my way over to GE’s BBQ Research Center. The space GE is renting used to be the home for the horses and carriages that gave rides around downtown Austin. The place was hopping.  The entire GE team was getting our BBQ center set up – tables, walls painting and all. And just wait until you see the dashboard with all the sensor-enabled data we’re tracking on our smoker.

GE's BBQ Research Center at SXSW
GE’s BBQ Research Center at SXSW

Downtown Austin is consumed by SXSW!!! Google Fiber, Samsung VR experience, Bausch and Lomb weary eye station, A&E’s Bates Motel, packs of young adults on remote control skateboards, dancers on the corners, pedicabs everywhere.  And then when you take a second look, you realize everything is just temporary — there’s fresh paint everywhere!  LOL!  I walked around taking in the experience and then around 3 p.m., made my way back to GE’s BBQ Research Center to meet Evan and his assistant Josh.

These guys are terrific!  Evan had the meat prepped at the restaurant for what we were cooking that day.  We sat down and laid out some plans for the experiments we want to do the rest of the weekend too.  Evan had 65 pounds of brisket prepped and ready to go –  five thirteen-pounders, that is a big cut of meat!!!!  Three were rubbed with salt and pepper and two were rubbed with salt, pepper and garlic.  The experiment for today would be to try different wrapping techniques and see how that affects the bark, ring, moistness of the meat and taste.

The bark is the finish on the outside of the brisket.  The ring is a pit master’s signature.  When meat is heated it produces myoglobin that turns the meat pink and breaks the myoglobin apart.  At 145-175F, meat turns permanently gray.  If the meat is exposed to carbon monoxide (CO) or nitric oxide (NO) before the meat reaches this temperature, the molecules attach and stabilize the pink color. Only wood or charcoal fires produce both high enough CO and small but significant levels of NO, to produce the smoke ring.

Lynn DeRose and pitmaster Evan LeRoy in front of GE's Brilliant Super-Smoker at SXSW.Lynn DeRose and pitmaster Evan LeRoy in front of GE's Brilliant Super-Smoker at SXSW.
Lynn DeRose and pitmaster Evan LeRoy in front of GE’s Brilliant Super-Smoker at SXSW.

So back to the wraps, Evan has a wrapping technique where he only wraps the bottom of the brisket with foil, forming a bowl to capture the juices while the brisket continues to cook.  The other technique we are trying is to wrap the entire brisket, top and bottom with butcher’s paper. Wrapping is done after the bark has reached a stage that makes it look as if the meat is done but it is not.  Only the outside is done.  The meat is wrapped to allow the inside of the brisket to continue cooking without overcooking the outside.  Today, we will collect the data!

Todd Alhart and Jim Vartuli arrived and we were able to connect at dinner with the whole GE team involved in the BBQ Science experience.  Then, at 11 p.m., it was back to the BBQ Research Center to check on the briskets.  All are looking good and they smell amazing!  Nothing to do for another hour, we have to wrap the briskets at midnight.  So, we checked out the local nightlife and had a beer around the corner at a little place similar to the Bier Abbey in Schenectady.

At midnight we took out four of the briskets, 2 wrapped with foil and 2 wrapped with the butcher’s paper.  Evan taught us his technique for making the bowl and how to roll the butchers paper so the openings are at the bottom. The briskets went back in the smoker, rearranged on the racks based on their level of “doneness” and we were all out of there for a very short night’s sleep – we were back to check on the briskets at 5 a.m.

And this brings me back to where I started my story.  Happy Eating!!

The first rack of ribs out of GE's Brilliant Super-Smoker.
The first rack of ribs out of GE’s Brilliant Super-Smoker.


  1. Kolombo

    Have to laugh, having no prioencecved notions of your style of barbecue, but expecting authenticity based on knowing your attention to detail, was surprised by how wet and moist your ribs were. This is not authentic pit smoked barbecue , I thought. Why did he steam them? Although they weren’t mushy like some I’ve had, they weren’t the dry smoked chewy ribs I’d expected, the ones that you have to tear away from the rib with your teeth, but then melt in your mouth after a few chews.I was certainly expecting a drier product Having done a few racks in my backyard every year in my Home Depot smoker, had quite a few chain servings of boiled/steamed/baked ribs in my life, as well as a weeks vacation in Memphis, I’m an armchair pit boss, dammit. I was pretty sure I knew the difference. Not sure if you changed your technique of your own opinion, or if you dumbed them down for the local market, but you’re right, at the end of the day, you need to put out a product that sells. I’m sure I’d have been satisfied with your original recipe. Oh well, they were *very* good nonetheless, and the leftovers dried out a tad and developed a nice al dente bite the next day. Personally I prefer a little more brown sugar in my rub and somewhat less black pepper, but they were very well executed, the sauce was great, and the pork belly lettuce wraps were awesome, as well as the smoked onion rock and rye. I’ll be back.

  2. Bob Shore

    You’re making me hungry!
    Great sciencs – thanks