History: Barbecuing Beef

Reprinted from the September 1949 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

A slightly more modern photo – than described below – of cooking steaks over hot coals.

By Harry J. Hargrave, co-ordinator, Range Research, Lethbridge, Alberta

There are few menus for outdoor summer gatherings that are more appropriate or more tasty than barbecued beef. Properly barbecued beef has a distinctive flavour which apparently cannot be secured by other means of preparation and it carries a lot of appetite appeal for crowds both large and small. Barbecuing makes it possible to cook meat in quantities sufficient for a family picnic or a crowd of 2,000 people.

The two common systems employed to barbecue beef are the pit method and the open-fire method. For either system it is advisable to use mature beef rather than veal as it is difficult to carve the latter, particularly if it is a little overdone, and it does not have the full flavour of mature beef. A fat, dry cow makes a first-class beef barbecue. If the carcass can be hung for a week or 10 days at low temperature prior to barbecuing, so much the better, but this is not absolutely necessary if such facilities are not available.

The Pit Barbecue

It is possible to barbecue entire quarters of beef using the pit system. However, it is usually more convenient to cut the quarters into pieces that do not weigh more than 50 pounds. If the meat can be boned, then rolled and securely tied it will facilitate carving. Each piece should then be wrapped in cheesecloth. A liberal coating of flour and water paste is then applied over the cheesecloth. The entire piece processed in this manner is then wrapped in clean burlap and securely sewn up at the seams with a large needle and store string. It is useful to attach a length of hay wire to each piece to facilitate removal from the pit after cooking. The meat is now ready for the barbecue pit.

The size of the pit depends upon the meat to be cooked. One that is five to six feet long and four feet wide would be large enough for two carcasses. It should be dug to a depth of six feet. Right alongside of the pit a heavy metal framework is set up about 16 inches above ground. Heavy scrap iron such as old plow beams, mower wheels etc. is useful for this framework, which can be supported by large rocks along two sides.

On top of this framework several loads of good-size rocks are placed for heating. There should be sufficient rocks so that when they are dumped into the pit it will be filled to a depth of three feet. Sheet metal such as old galvanized iron sheeting is placed around the rocks on the above framework to hold the rocks in place and help hold the heat.

A fire is kindled on the ground immediately below the rocks and kept burning until the rocks are red hot. Old fence posts make good firewood for this purpose and a little coal may also be used. It usually takes six to eight hours to get the rocks red hot. When this stage is reached, the sheet metal next to the pit is removed and the red-hot rocks are dumped into the pit with the aid of forks and shovels.

A sheet of metal is placed over the rocks in the pit and the individual pieces of meat, prepared as above, are immediately placed on top of this sheet metal. It is useful at this stage to wet the burlap wrapping to prevent it bursting into flame when it contacts the hot metal. Another sheet of metal is now placed on top of the pit and this is covered with a foot of earth to help retain the heat.

The cooking process is now underway. If the individual pieces weigh 50 pounds or less, it will likely require about six hours to complete the barbecue. If entire quarters are barbecued 10 to 12 hours may be necessary. At the conclusion of the period the meat is removed from the pit and is ready to carve as soon as the wrapping is cut off each piece. This method of barbecuing retains the natural juices of the meat and results in an exceptionally tender and tasty product. The meat is usually served between two slices of buttered bread or in a large bun, flavoured with mustard if desired.

When pit barbecues are held periodically in the same location it is convenient to build a concrete barbecue pit which is always ready for use. In the bottom of the pit a grate is made with an ash pit below it. A space of 18 inches is allowed for the firebox and this is connected to a flue at one end. Immediately above the firebox is a heavy framework supporting two feet of rocks with an oven of the same depth above the rocks. A set of steps that leads down to the firebox facilitate firing at the end opposite the flue.

Timing is important when preparing a barbecue for a crowd that is scheduled to eat at a certain hour. If that hour is to be 12 o’clock, noon, everything must be ready so the fire can be lit at eight o’clock the previous night. This will allow up to eight hours for heating and the same time for cooking.

The Open-Fire Barbecue

In the southern and western parts of the United States the usual system of barbecuing is somewhat different to that described above. In these areas the meat is barbecued immediately above a bed of hot coals. For this purpose hardwood or charcoal is used for fuel. When the fire has burned down to a bed of hot coals the meat is barbecued above it. Entire quarters of beef can be barbecued on a slowly revolving spit, but it is also possible to barbecue thick steaks on a grill about the hot coals.

Outdoor barbecue ovens built on top of the ground are generally used. Built of brick, stone or concrete, they have a firebox on the ground connected to a six-foot flue at one end. A wire mesh grill two feet above the ground is used for the steak barbecue. Owing to objectionable smoke it is not customary to use coal for such open-fire barbecues.

Barbecue sauce is an integral part of such open-fire barbecues. During the cooking process this sauce is periodically swabbed over the meat and it adds much to the flavour of the finished product. The sauce used by some Texas ranchers includes the following ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. melted butter
  • 1 pint lemon juice
  • 2 bottles Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 bottle Tabasco sauce

Using this method steaks one to two inches thick can be properly barbecued in 30 minutes and the flavour of such steaks is incomparable.

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