Today's column is based on a reader's question. He is new to BBQ and wanted to know some of my favorite "mopping recipes." I thought we should start with what mopping actually is, when to do it and how it influences the final product.
A quick review of general definitions. "Barbecuing" is the process of cooking meat low and slow, typically over wood charcoal. The ideal temperature is 225 to 245 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cooking time is usually measured in hours.
"Grilling" is cooking meat over high heat. This is what most people do in their backyards when they think they are barbecuing, when in fact they are grilling burgers, hot dogs, steaks, chops or chicken — not that there is anything wrong with that.
Applying a barbecue sauce on your grilled chicken (as an example) at the end of the grilling process is not mopping. That is called... well... putting barbecue sauce on your chicken when it is almost done.
A true "mop" will have the consistency of water, and can actually be as basic as water, although that would be pretty darn boring. The theory of mopping is that it should moisten, add flavor and possibly tenderize the meat.
The utensil you use will also look like a miniature mop, with long cotton strands that soak up the maximum amount of liquid to spread on the meat. Some people use spray bottles instead.
Mopping can be done whether you are grilling or barbecuing. Plan on applying the mop four to five times during the cooking process. So, if you are grilling over high heat, you might be mopping practically all the time. If barbecuing over low heat for 10 hours as an example, you might mop every hour or two.
One word of caution. If you are cooking at a temperature of over 260 degrees Fahrenheit, DO NOT use a mop recipe that has sugar. It will burn. That's why you don't apply barbecue sauce to the meat you are grilling till near the end of the cooking time. There is a fine line between caramelizing of the sugars, which is good, and the burning of the sugars, which will cause your meat to end up in the trash can.
When I barbecue pork, I typically use a rub, which is a combination of spices rubbed liberally on the meat. This is what creates the "bark" that barbecue aficionados are so proud of. A simple mop recipe in this situation would be 2 cups of apple cider vinegar, 2 cups of water and 1/4 cup of the rub you are using on the pork. But feel free to be creative.
You can use wine, apple juice, beer, and flavor the mop with Worcestershire sauce, citrus flavorings, hot sauce, red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper, etc.
However, it is my opinion that you don't need to get fancy on the mop. The real flavor comes from the meat, the smokiness imparted by the wood charcoal, and the rub. You want a mop to compliment those flavors, not fight them.
Some people believe that mopping is critical to the quality of the end product. Others hardly use mops at all. I'm in the middle. In my experience, mopping can add some flavor, but I'm not totally sold on mops tenderizing and moistening the meat in a substantial way. But that doesn't mean that I won't occasionally mop!
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Dave Lobeck is a barbecue chef from Sellersburg, Ind., who writes a weekly column for CNHI News Service, the parent company of The Eagle-Tribune. Contact him at BBQMyWay.com.