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It was in Memphis, Tennessee, that Kit Parker first began to think about teaching a class on American barbecue at Harvard. The engineering professor was wandering through a barbecue competition, studying the smokers where entrants had marinated their meat in smoke for hours on end. And he noticed something distinctly odd. “They were the most godawful contraptions you've ever seen.” The junkyard of cobbled-together smoking chambers, of all shapes and sizes and materials, told Parker something important. No one really knew how to build a perfect one yet.

Barbecue, of course, is a word that has two uses in our modern vernacular: a verb meaning to slap some meat on the grill and slather it with sauce, and a noun referring to slow-smoked meat, a staple of southern US states including Tennessee and Texas, where Parker grew up. Aficionados of the latter develop a practical knowledge of the complicated series of chemical reactions that produce the melt-in-your-mouth texture, the crusty exterior, or bark, and the particular flavours of barbecue. This spring semester, Parker, a teaching assistant, and 16 engineering students learned them as well, as a part of a quest to build a scientifically optimised smoker.

(Credit: Didriks/Flickr CC-BY-2.0)

The first stage of smoking brisket, a thick cut from the chest of a cow and the Harvard team's chosen target, must proceed at a relatively low temperature. You load the smoker's bottom with charcoal and wood and lay the meat on a platform above it. Then you let the meat heat up, over the course of several hours, to above 100F (37C). It's important that it takes a while to reach that point, because just below 105F, an enzyme called calpain reaches peak productivity, as does one called cathepsin just below 123F. These enzymes' business is to cut up a fibrous protein in the meat called collagen, which is the main component of connective tissue.

Collagen is tough and chewy, and letting the enzymes attack it serves two purposes. For one, smaller pieces of collagen will coagulate into soft, tasty gelatin later on. For another, as the temperature rises, intact fibers of collagen will contract sharply and wring moisture out of the meat. Cutting up the collagen early on means less fluid will be lost later, resulting in more tender meat. (It turns out you can use this science to get more tender steak in a sous vide cooker, without the need for a smoker.)

Smoke rings

As the temperature continues to climb, the enzymes are destroyed, and the heat triggers other reactions in the meat itself, including some involving a protein called myoglobin. When there is plenty of oxygen around, myoglobin is pink. When there's not, it turns grey or tan. According to the encyclopedic and engaging AmazingRibs.com, this is why meat that's been sitting around under plastic in the store turns grey – it will turn pink again if you let it breathe.

When you're smoking meat, two gasses in the smoke, nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide, interact with myoglobin on the meat's surface. While the rest of myoglobin degrades in the heat and turns grey, this time permanently, the myoglobin around the meat's edges hangs onto its pink colour, generating a prized, thin, rosy ring, called the smoke ring, around the brisket. And all the while, as the hours pass – 10, 11, 12 hours – the action of the smoke on the meat helps create a chewy coat of flavourful compounds on the outside. 

(Credit: Getty Images)


So the Harvard team was not looking at a simple prospect. To begin their research, they purchased one of the most popular smokers on the market, called the Big Green Egg, and smoked brisket through the brutal Boston winter, gathering data that allowed them to build computer models of the movement of air and heat in the smoker and of the brisket itself as it cooked. Then they drew up plans for a device that would provide consistent heating regardless of the user's skill in loading fuel, and do it in rain, snow, or shine.

Turbulent design

It would need to have an hourglass waist, where they would mount fans to spread the heat out evenly around the meat. And it would need to be ceramic, to retain enough heat. Of course, none of them had built such a thing before. “We had 45 days left in the class,” Parker recalls, “and we had to learn how to do ceramics engineering.” The students shaped the smoker out of 300lbs (120kg) of clay, a kind of black Dalek (see below), built an app that controls the fans and temperature remotely, and began testing again.

(Credit: Veronique Greenwood)

Their device has a few interesting features, in addition to its hourglass figure. It generates turbulence around the meat, so smoke is constantly bombarding it, a process that may impart more flavour. It can be controlled at a distance with the phone app, which will also send updates throughout the smoking process to salivating friends. And it has attracted interest from companies looking to get into the smoker business. The class was sponsored by Williams Sonoma. At a recent test on the sunny quad with a media audience, representatives from the firm that sells Cuisinart grills were there.

Did they produce a smoker that's better than the Big Green Egg? That can fool-proof and standardise the smoking process? Parker says their data so far suggest that it heats more consistently than the Egg, showing about the same temperature curve each time they run it. The answer will be clearer with more trials – so far, they have run their smoker only four times. But from the point of view of someone who did none of the work and just showed up at the end to taste the brisket, black as tar on the outside and soft as butter on the inside, the result was divine. 

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