Physicists Probe Science Behind Barbecue

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Participants in the American Physical Society annual meeting at the Dallas Convention Center this morning had their pick among sessions devoted to magnetization dynamics in metals, piezoelectric oxides, heavy fermions and Texas barbecue.

Hundreds of physicists chose the latter, crowding a ballroom to learn from Texas A&M meat scientist Davey Griffin why smoked brisket's so tender.

"When [session chair] Brian (Schwartz) called me, I wasn't sure if it was a joke," Griffin warned his carnivorous listeners. "This isn't going to be as technical as 99 percent of what you've done here."

Still, Griffin found ways to sneak impressive scientific terms such as "actomyosin" and "nitric oxide myoglobin" into his half-hour presentation.

Griffin's talk was one of four included in a session on "Science, Art and Culture," an annual event in which Schwartz tries to tease out the science behind iconic activities in the region where the conference is held. Other talks today addressed robotic cowboys and an Austin band that performs with a spark-generating machine.

Schwartz conceded a pit master doesn't need a doctoral degree but said the principles of smoking are scientific.

"There are laws of how heat penetrates, how you break down things mechanically," said Schwartz, a co-director of the New Media Lab at the City University of New York.

Griffin focused primarily on time and temperature, two variables familiar to high school physics students.

"You're turning collagen into gelatin," Griffin explained. "And really the main way to do that is to cook something slow in a moist environment."

Griffin also touched on chemical and mechanical solutions to tough meat, outlining the components of various powdered tenderizers and screening a short video of sirloin steaks being assaulted by electronic mallets.

"If you look at what we're looking for, it's tender, juicy and flavorful most of all," Griffin said.

Attendees nodded along with Griffin's discourse on connective tissue destruction, but their post-session questions centered on less scientific matters. A home cook asked whether he should wrap his briskets in foil.

"We call one of our classes 'To wrap or not to wrap'," Griffin said of the freshman seminar he leads at A&M. "I'll come in there, start with some pretty heavy smoke, and then wrap. The other thing wrapping does for you is it keeps the steam going in that package and it cooks a little quicker."

But speed isn't always the goal. There are two reasons pit masters favor cooking low and slow, Griffin said.

"One is to knock down those proteins," he said. "And the other -- I'm just guessing -- is it gives them a lot of free time to drink a little beer."

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