Tips from the Pros: Foiling
August 1, 2011
To foil or not to foil? It’s a debate that rages in backyards across the country, on various BBQ radio shows, on Internet forums and beyond. Some call it cheating, others call it a tool for creating the best barbecue possible. Me? I’m of the foil hat wearing crowd but would love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments below! In the meantime, we’ve got our acclaimed VIP blogger Meathead from AmazingRibs.com providing the 411 on foiling.
Called the “Texas Crutch” because some folks think it was developed in Texas, practically all the top competitive barbecue teams use this technique. First they smoke the meat unwrapped in a smokey atmosphere for a few hours, and then they wrap it in foil for a while. Sometimes they unwrap it again, sometimes they don’t.
The concept is a descendant of the tropical technique of wrapping meat in banana leaves. It helps make meat more tender and juicy. It also has the added benefit of speeding the cooking process. I always use the crutch on brisket, but I must confess, I rarely use it for ribs or pork shoulder. It is just too much bother for a small (but noticeable) return. But if you are competing for that big prize money, you almost have to go for it. Here’s the theory: We will seal the meat in a vessel with liquid at a temp just above boiling. The liquid in the crutch can be water, juice, wine, or beer. I like apple juice. The liquid will bathe the meat in a bit of steam. Steam penetrates so it will moisten and tenderize the meat, and some may soak in a fraction of an inch and add flavor. In addition, the crutch reduces surface evaporation from the meat. When unwrapped, evaporation cools the meat, and that is what is responsible for the infamous “stall,” a period of several hours where the meat’s internal temp plateaus and cooks start to panic. With the crutch, the meat finishes cooking faster. Crutch for too long, and you will extract flavor from the meat, remove all the rub, and cause the proteins to get their undies in a bunch, forming tight knots that will make the meat tough and wring out moisture, and then eventually make the meat too soft and mushy.
There are two ways to crutch, wrap in foil, or put it in a pan. First you cook for a few hours so the meat will absorb smoke. When it hits about 150°F, crutch.
The Texas Crutch with foil. Pull off a strip of wide heavy-duty aluminum foil about six feet long. Fold it in half until it is three feet long and make a canoe out of it big enough to hold the meat and so it will hold liquid without leaking. Pour 1/2 cup apple juice into the foil but not over the meat so you don’t wash off too much rub. Crimp it tightly over the top. It is important that the packet not leak liquid from the bottom, and that steam not be able to escape from the top. For ribs, place the slab on the foil meat side up being very careful that the bones don’t poke holes in the foil. You can put the meat side down, but if you do, you may want to shorten the time in foil because the meat will be in the liquid.
The Texas Crutch with a pan. Called “boating,” instead of using foil, you can use a pan. Place on the bottom of a sheet pan, baking pan, or disposable aluminum pan. Pour in enough apple juice to cover the bottom about 1/8″ deep. Tightly crimp the foil to the pan so it does not leak steam. I prefer this method because you can’t puncture the bottom with the bones. Put the sealed meat back on the cooker at 225°F. I crutch ribs for only 30 minutes, pork shoulder and beef brisket for 2 or more hours. Push ribs much beyond 30 minutes and you risk overcooking the meat and turning it mushy.
Now open the package, being extremely careful to avoid the hot steam that will escape. Remove the meat, place it back on the grill, and cook at 225°F to dry off the surface and firm up the crust until the surface has dried and they are ready. Click here to learn how to tell when ribs are ready. Read my articles on pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt) for pulled pork, and brisket to learn when they are ready.
Some cooks just leave their shoulder or brisket in the foil until it hits a desired temperature and then they remove it, still in foil, and put it in a faux cambro.
You can put more than one piece of meat in a package, but the effect will not be the same. Where the meat touches, air cannot circulate, and you are essentially making a single thicker piece of meat. I don’t recommend stacking.