I live not far from the land of Santa Maria BBQ so not only do I have access to some of the best available, but I also have ready access to the red oak that's the main essential ingredient. When I go to the restaurants I like (e.g. Jocko's in Nipomo or Hitching Post II in Buellton) every one out of two or three visits my meat is brimming with red oak flavor (which is my objective) where other times it's there but not an over abundance of it. When doing SM BBQ at home my hit ratio is also random but less than the restaurants.
I've tried about everything I can think of to isolate where the magic comes from and it continues to elude me. The BBQrs that do this day in and day out have told me is: time on grill; freshness of the oak; and lots of wood and heat. Experimenting with this advice has done little in finding that magic component. Time on grill certainly has an impact and thicker cuts definitely have more flavor than thinner cuts. But even with large tri-tips that spend a lot of time on the grill it's still somewhat hit and miss.
Lately I've been looking to science for a possible answer and I think I might be on to something with what I've read about how smoke flavor is infused into meat. In particular a) the fact that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is attracted to moisture; and b) that NO2 is a result of incomplete combustion yet needs "high temperatures" to form.
With regards to the attraction to moisture, that could speak to support the basting (garlic infused oil & vinegar) that some people do after each turn of the meat. As for what the "high" temperature is that NO2 begins to form continues to elude me because most of the data I find is far beyond my technical ability to interpret. Clearly the fire needs to be "hot enough", but in a practical sense can it be so hot that the combustion process becomes so efficient that the amount of NO2 begins to fall?
Here's a little laundry list of things that I've tried but haven't found what I'm trying to achieve. Some of these seem to make a small difference but something tells me there's a necessary condition that needs to exist along with some of these other elements. IOW it's more than one thing.
- Time on grill
- Length of seasoning of wood
- Adding bark to the fire when the meat is on the grill
- Basting the meat when it's turned
- Hot fire with lots of wood vs. cooler fire with lots of smoke
- Seasoning the meat at various times before and/or while it's on the grill (garlic salt/black pepper and sometimes a dash of cayenne).
For the record, all of the BBQ I discuss here is done open pit with no covers or lids whatsoever.
I'd sure appreciate some thoughts from the more technically minded or other experienced BBQrs. Something I want to try in Santa Maria BBQ style is bone-in prime rib (two or three ribs thick) but I'm hoping to solve this red oak flavor dilemma first.