Brisket is known to be a tough piece of meat. What makes Caldwell County BBQ Texas-style beef brisket and other meat products we offer so tender? Whether a particular cut of meat is tender and juicy or dry and tough depends on how it’s cooked. Among other factors that determine the cooking method for a given cut of meat, the amount of collagen the meat contains has the most influence.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a major protein of the striated muscle that functions as connective tissue made of many individual units called tropocollagen—called tropocollagen because it is a triple helix made of three protein chains. All mammals have collagen; in humans, collagen is in our bones, muscles, blood, three-quarters of our skin, and a third of our bodies’ protein.
Striated or skeletal muscle is a tissue made of long, narrow fibers enclosed by a thin elastic membrane called the sarcolemma. The fibers lie in the same direction and are bound together into fibers held together in bundles by a loose connective tissue framework called the endomysium and surrounded by a sheath of connective tissue called the perimysium.
The bundles are enclosed in a thicker layer of connective tissue called the epimysium and, as such, make up the entire muscle. Inside the sarcomeres is where all the contraction activity takes place in muscles; this is the general muscle structure found in beef, pork, lamb, and poultry.
The role of collagen in striated muscle is to support the muscle cells, transmit their contractile force to the skeleton, and produce movement. You can see these fiber strands and the direction of their formation called the “grain of the meat,” similar to the grain in wood.
Brisket has a lot of connective fiber
Collagen accounts for 1% to 15% of the dry weight in beef muscle, depending on the muscle. The brisket is a cut from the cow’s breastbone area, the pectoral muscles that help move the cow’s legs. Since cattle don’t have collar bones, 60% of a cow’s body weight, an average of 1,200 pounds, is supported by these muscles.
Moving the legs and supporting all this weight takes a substantial amount of collagen; this makes a brisket tougher than some other cuts of meat, such as the ribs and tenderloin. Other tough cuts are the chuck, rump, and shank.
How collagen responds to heat
Meat goes through substantial structural changes when heated, and therefore the meat’s quality, which is mainly governed by the meat structure. Different chemical reactions occur in meat at certain temperatures no matter what cooking method is used—knowing those certain temperatures to determine when a brisket is done is the key to becoming an award-winning Texas-style BBQ pitmaster.
Collagen, like most proteins, starts to lose its structure when heated. The longer it’s heated, the more the triple helix of tropocollagen unwinds. As the denatured mass of tangled chains begins to cool down, it soaks up the surrounding water.
When the collagen hydrolyzes, it’s broken down into smaller fragments, the smaller of which dissolve into the surrounding water, forming gelatin. Collagen begins to break down at 160 degrees and is denatured at 180 degrees. Everyone knows how soft and easy to chew gelatin is; this is why you get fall-off-the-bone tenderness when collagen becomes gelatin.
Why CCBBQ brisket is cooked low and slow
To get a brisket that melts in your mouth, tenderness doesn’t just happen right away. If it is cooked too fast, it will still be tough. It has to spend a long time slowly working its way to tender and juicy.
Why can’t we just bring the temperature up to 180 degrees in an hour or so to achieve the desired tenderness? The reason is brisket is a part of a cow that gets a lot of exercise moving the legs and supporting its weight. As a cow matures, the continual exercise creates cross-links in collagen and transforms it from a soluble form to a stronger and more insoluble form.
Soluble collagen has few cross-links, and insoluble collagen has many cross-links. The insoluble form won’t break down into gelatin; it only gets weak and softens when it’s exposed to heat for a long time. At our Gilbert, Texas BBQ joint, we slow cook our meat for 20 hours until we achieve juicy tenderness.
When smoke gets in your eyes
Brisket is an ideal cut because it is a less tender cut that requires an extended amount of cooking to break down the collagen. Smoking is a low-temperature cooking method where you can get that wonderful aroma of the smoke and the delicious flavor that Texas-style BBQ lovers love.
Low and slow is about controlling the fire over a long time. We keep our meat cooking at an even and low temperature throughout the entire smoke, imparting the smoke flavor into the meat, getting a tender and juicy meal full of flavor.
Whether it is smoked brisket, pork, beef ribs, or turkey, a lot of work goes into cooking the perfect Caldwell County BBQ product. We can call it “science,” but you don’t need to know all the science behind it. Cooking tender and juicy meat is more of an art, and what happens inside a smoker is magic.
You don’t need to know that collagen is a molecule that is composed of three polypeptide chains, each of which contains one or more regions characterized by the repeating amino acid motif (Gly-X-Y), where X and Y can be any amino acid. Or that there are currently 28 different proteins known as collagens.
All you need to know is Caldwell County BBQ in Gilbert, Arizona, is the place to go for the ultimate Texas-style barbeque and leave the science to us. Why not visit us soon and discover the tender juiciness that happens when that triple helix of tropocollagen unwinds!
To learn more about the forces of nature that make Caldwell’s Central Texas Style BBQ so delicious, also read the Science Behind Texas BBQ.