In Search of the Perfect Brisket – An Interview with a True Meat Scientist

In Search of the Perfect Brisket - DeMetriusAs someone who has spent that past few years trying to perfect the art of grilling, I’ve experienced the many highs and lows that come with the territory. The highs of cutting into that perfect steak or a juicy chicken breast, and the lows of completely charring that bratwurst or having your propane run out in the middle of grilling for your friends. So when I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with a grilling aficionado like DeMetris Reed, I was excited to listen and learn.

I first met DeMetris in the Spring of 2018 at a friend’s BBQ. He had shown up with a ton of amazing ribs, some of the best that I’ve had in my life. We ended up chatting for just a little bit and I found out that he was a Ph. D student with an emphasis in Meat Science. Fast forward to the present (Spring 2019) and DeMetris is about to graduate and move back to West Texas. Before he leaves, he was gracious enough to meet with me and chat a little more about his background, some tips about meat, the pursuit of the perfect brisket, and the art of grilling.

When did you first come to North Dakota?

Fall of 2015.

Was that for school?

All for school.

What brought you here?

I had a choice between 2 previous friends of my other advisor at West Texas A&M. One was in Mississippi St. (Ole Miss) and the other was here at North Dakota (State University), and the one in Mississippi was a grad student of Eric (Dr. Eric Berg), so I figured I might as well go to the water source rather than the spigot so that’s what I did. And, I really didn’t want to go live in Mississippi.

Oh yeah? I’ve never been there before

Haha, its humid, hot, and not a pretty place.

So, between there and North Dakota you chose North Dakota?

Yes sir.

Had that been your first time that far north or experiencing snow?

Not really, I’ve been all the way up to Canada before. And we get snow in the panhandle. So, I was baptized in snow but not into the longevity of snow, I’ll say that. So, for 3-4 years I feel like I’ve been exiled to the tundra.

Besides your advisor being here, did you find a program that fit your needs? What ended up being your program of choice?

Animal Science with an emphasis in Meat Science. I guess I really didn’t think about the program. I was thinking more about having a great advisor for a Ph.D, so that I have that support. And the support for after I finish. I think the program is more or less; you can make it work. But the advisor is the key thing. Especially when you’re defending and doing your projects. He had a reputation for getting his students to finish, which is great.

So, what gave you that interest in animal and meat science?

I showed animals for FFA and I went on a college tour trip to a school close to home. I was really interested in architecture. I had told a friend of my grandfathers that I wanted to do architecture. I just loved aspects of buildings and woodwork and I really wanted to work in architecture with an emphasis in agricultural buildings, so looking at building barns, facilities for research and animal science. And when I got to the tour, they didn’t make it interesting. They didn’t pull you in or sell me on it.

But I met a guy named Adam Anthony at PV (Prairie View A&M) and he and his members from MANRRS, which is a minorities organization that emphasizes on agricultural and natural resources, they sold it! So, I put in my application that day and turned in my financial aid and I started in the fall of 2007 in Agriculture at Prairie View A&M University.

My program touched on Agronomy, Ag Engineering, and Animal Science. My emphasis was Animal Science but you got a mix of everything to get a feel of what you want to do. They pushed us to do our Master’s so that’s why I don’t think they made it a focus of Animal Science or Agronomy only.

What is the BBQ Boot Camp?

It’s an 11-year-old program started by Dr. Berg, Dr. Robert Maddock, Dr. Paul Berg, and Dr. David Newman. It was something to get community participation into understanding where animal meat protein came from. It’s hard to sell the community on coming to learn about science, but everyone has a hunger, and everyone loves BBQ. So let’s sell them on coming to learn about BBQ and we’ll put the science into it. And so, I came on in the later years of it, but the past 4 years I’ve been the grad student (along with Spencer Wirt) running the boot camp.

And it’s still pretty popular?

It’s still pretty popular, we just did a small boot camp called Brisket 101. We invited people out for Ag Week to learn how to prep a brisket and had 50 people show up. And we still have people interested in us doing the Bison game tailgate. We’re trying to get back this fall with a little bit of help with the Beef Commission. Hopefully they’ll work with us on that too. It’s just more or less paying for the spot.

None of the product we give out is charged to any of the attendees of the tailgate. It’s more or less a way to get them to come out and talk to us. And to let them know that we aren’t these big bad scientists that sit in the lab with these goggles in the dark. We make it interactive and show our human side.

Do you just focus on one type of meat/protein?

In Search of the Perfect Brisket - GrillMost of the time at an actual boot camp event we focus on all red meat. So beef, pork, and lamb. At the tailgating events we do sponsorships so a red meat producer or a co-op may sponsor. We may have Minnesota or North Dakota lamb and wool producers; they’ll donate money to purchase the lamb and the seasonings that go with it. We all do it on a volunteer basis, cooking, preparing, all of that stuff. Most of the funds at times goes to paying for the meat entirely.

It seems like a good thing to grab community attention and awareness of how to handle, cook, and prepare meats.

Yeah, and we’re really focusing on the university’s new program with the culinary school that they are trying to build. And so, we’re trying to incorporate the meats aspect of it. Because a restaurant serves meat, they need to learn how to cut it, where to cut it from, why we have these certain cuts, which cuts are more marbled, which ones are leaner, etc. It just makes for a great interactive way, as well as promoting our meat science program. So hopefully with the culinary school and hopefully building a new meats lab we can use the Boot Camp as a stepping stone.

On the topic of cuts of meat, what are some things to look for when purchasing certain cuts of meat? You had mentioned marbling, what is that? I’m sure each type of meat is different (steak vs. pork, etc.), what do you look for?

More in the area of steaks and pork chops, you want to look for those flakes of fat, which we call marbling, within the muscle. For one, it’s a flavoring. Two, it’s an insurance. Most consumers really don’t know that you can cook pork chops and beef steaks to the same degree of doneness. We’ve always overcooked pork chops but they can be cooked medium rare just like beef. So, we want to get that marbling.

When you get into roast and large cuts of meats coming off the shoulder or the round you want fat covering, so you might not see so much of the marbling, but a little bit of fat covering is also a protection against the cooking. And it adds flavor and moisture because they bound to water too. For color, with beef or lamb you want that black cherry red, pork you want that pinkish hue that’s not too red. If you get into those other exotic animals like goat, that is a very dark muscle color as well so you want it to have a cherry red.

I would’ve never thought to eat goat, is it any good?

Oh yeah, Cabrito is good.

Do you have that at the meat lab?

No, not yet. Hopefully we will soon enough. It’s an acquired taste. The fatty acid content of lamb kind of drives people away from it, with that woolly taste. Goat has a different, unique flavor in itself.

While we’re on that topic, what is the meat lab?

So, we’re not crazy, mad scientists in the lab all the time! Lab is just what we use on a university/campus. You have classrooms and you have labs. So, it’s called a meat lab, but essentially, it’s a slaughter facility with a retail shop as well as a fabrication floor. We do slaughter our own animals from NDSU farms. We have a swine farm, lamb, and beef. We also started to do chickens. Then we process them on the fabrication floor, breaking them down into retail cuts for our retail shop and we sell them.

And then we also do processed meats. So, we have processed sausage, cured meats, summer sausage, mixed flavored sausages, and breakfast sausages. Our most popular is our maple blueberry sausage. We sell those even to restaurants in Fargo. If you ever go into the Wurst (Bier Hall) and look at the menu, our Hawaiian Brat is there, as well as our Jalapeño Cheese Brat.

On the retail side, is that open to anybody to purchase?

Anybody can come in to purchase.

Are there any common misconceptions about grilling?

In Search of the Perfect Brisket - MeatsI think the biggest misconception is that you have to start and buy expensive equipment. I think if you take your time, and research…I’ve seen people use clay pots to grill and even slow cook meat. It’s nothing that you have to break your bank for. Even on the meat side, you don’t have to break your bank on the meat. Grilling in association with BBQing, it’s about taking those cheap cuts of meat, putting in a well mixture of seasoning, you can go basic like we do with just salt, pepper, and garlic. Putting it on there and letting the fire and the wood smoke do its job, which just enhances its flavor. I think that’s the biggest misconception, that I have to buy this two-thousand dollar grill to cook well.

The second thing is you don’t have to be a professional. I think most people that are at home that watch the Food Network and say, “I want to do that, but he’s a professional chef”. Anyone can do it. I started off BBQing with my mom and grandfather when I was about 7 years old. Anyone can do it no matter the age, gender, or anything. It’s the most inclusive industry I think you can have, is to grill.

Do you have any advice or tips on basic things to keep in the back of your mind for when you’re grilling?

Always have a thermometer, to temp what you’re cooking on. If it doesn’t already come with one, get a thermometer.

On the subject of thermometers, do you like to use the one that’s usually on the lid or do you buy a different one to judge the temperature of the grill?

I do both. I have one that’s on the grill, and I also put a thermometer inside the grill. That’s just my insurance. There are even ones that tell you the humidity levels. They are little more expensive, but if you are in a place where you are lacking humidity in the air already, they can help. But most of all, always temp your meat. You can overcook something and you can undercook something. So, whenever you are doing certain meats, you can look on our BBQ Boot Camp website (https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/ansc/extension-1/bbq-boot-camp). We give temperatures that you can reach for a meat product.

Are you able to tell the doneness of a steak by touching it?

Never! Always use a thermometer. It’s always more protection for you so you don’t get food borne illness and especially when you have people who you’re entertaining, you don’t want to give them food borne illness.

So thermometers are a good tip, the other is time. It’s something that should not be rushed. You got to take your time with it. If you can temp it and time it then you’re good. There are so many arrays of seasoning at stores that you don’t have to worry about seasonings, you just find what you like. Even with the idea of moisture, adding apple juice or water to your grill, I think that’s more of a preference. Again, that meat already has a water content, so it does make its own humidity. Especially when you wrap it, it just moisturizes itself and becomes really juicy. So yeah, I think the most important things are timing, how long are you going to have time to do this and temping it so it doesn’t get undercooked or overdone.

I’m always trying to rush things, like opening the lid and checking the temperature.

You don’t have to keep opening the lid. If you let the grill do what it’s supposed to do with the meat, there’s a science behind it. The more you open the lid, the more heat you let out so it’s got to get back up to the right temp.

What type of grill to you prefer to have, or do you have at home?

I have a homemade old propane tank smoker. Her name is Adell, it’s named after a lady who was a good friend of the family. She had passed away and I asked her daughter if I could have her smoker. She had a little smoker that was just the right size to do a few racks and I had it remodeled and put a new firebox on it. I use her at tailgates, I brought it up from Houston to West Texas but I haven’t brought it from West Texas to here. It’s about 5 feet long, 3 feet deep, and it’s all charcoal and wood fuel. I do have a gas grill if I want to do some steaks really quick. But if I can, I will let those steaks simmer just nice and slow on the charcoal. Other than my charcoal grill I really have grown to like and use the Big Green Egg.

So charcoal is more of your preference?

I started with charcoal and I have hickory wood. Hickory is probably my favorite; I like the kind of bitter taste that it gives meat. It doesn’t take away from the red meat flavor so if I want a beefy flavor or pork flavor I’ll give it just a little hint of that hickory and it gives it a little bite, little spice to it.

What is your favorite meat to grill?

I’m a Texan, its brisket. I’m always perfecting my brisket.

Have you ever thought you perfected it? Or is it always good but could still use a little tweaking?

It’s always needing a little tweaking. When everyone says “oh, that was awesome!”, I think “yeah, its missing something”. I don’t think any true Texan, I don’t care if it’s a 3-time national champion BBQ’er or just a regular guy like I am at home, we’re always going to criticize ourselves more. And then there’s some days where its spot on, and it’s great, and you’re just like “but…” there’s always a but! I love brisket though.

And lastly, what would you say are must-haves for grilling in a tailgating setting?

In Search of the Perfect Brisket - HamburgersI think more or less, experiencing NDSU and other tailgates throughout the south when it comes to time, burgers are the way to go. And not just your regular burgers, I’m talking about your gourmet burgers. Taking blue cheese and dill and mixing it. Or jalapeño and sharp cheddar. Even a mushroom and swiss. You can do those, and they’ll be something quick, but also adds good flavor.

And you can’t go wrong with a nice beef sausage. It’s something anyone, from a kid to an adult, can enjoy. And even those kinds of mixed brats that you can find at the store, like beer cheese. They are really simple and easy to work with. For your grill, I would say, direct heat. It can be any kind of grill, but as long as you have direct heat for the meat to get hot and being able to watch it and flip it, most people look for those grill marks and that’s what you’ll get with that high, direct heat. When the meat connects between the grate and the fire, you’ll get those nice grill marks. Everyone loves to see a grill mark, its shows that you really did work on this grill!

I think that and having your place well situated. We do a lot of prepping before, setting up tables, gloves, hand sanitizer and water. Those things at a tailgate, again, are just for the food safety aspect. Because you’re having people come over and alcohol is involved, so you need to be able to mitigate that risk of them getting on your grill and taking a link (or any food) off that’s not finished, so you just got to watch and maintain your area. I think finding those meat products that are quick and easy to grill, getting those grill marks with the high temperature, and keeping your area safe and secure for everyone to have fun!

Well D I think that’s all I got for you, thank you so much for your time!

You’re welcome!

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