Up here in the hills in late March / early April it’s park-like, green and beautiful everywhere one looks. The wild turkeys are clumped into flocks here and there with the toms a gobblin’ and a struttin’ and the hens paying no mind, the deer and cattle are surrounded by abundant food and the occasional bald eagle and a variety of hawk species seem to be everywhere. I treasure my drive past these beautiful sights while travelling to and fro the Miners Mix World Domination Warehouse / Headquarters to the ranch. One can almost feel the life force of all the grasses, red bud, buckeye, poison oak and the trees (at least those not named Ponderosa that survived the onslaught of drought and bark beetles) sporting new vibrant foliage. We are all greatly anticipating a truly epic wildflower season, thanks to late rains, and indeed a few purple Brodiea, lupine, and Chinese Lanterns, orange fiddleneck, poppies and many others have begun to poke their colorful heads through the grass here and there. Because of the late rains, it will remain verdant, likely through mid-June and begin to turn brown later that month. California will morph into the “Golden State” covered with still pretty, golden and very dead grass. Come August and September, when the trees are all wearing dry summertime dust, and the green grass above has long since turned golden, all the seasonal creeks have long since dried to rocks and dirt, and the temperature hovers in the mid 90s+ (yeah, but it’s a “dry” heat), photos like these will be the only thing we have to remind us of just how spectacularly beautiful is springtime here.
On the western edge of the Sierra Nevada it’s all about being natural. Considering this is population-dense California and that we’re not very far from the smoggy central valley, we still have clean air and clean water. We at Miners Mix pride ourselves on the fact that everything we make is 100% natural. The slogan “If it Didn’t Exist in 1850, it Ain’t in Here” is taken very seriously and for us it is a matter of great satisfaction that our products are so good, yet devoid of artificial stuff. Nothing on the warehouse shelves contain flavor enhancers, artificial flavors or colors. The philosophy works well for what we are about, which is great backyard BBQ that will knock the socks off all who taste grilled or smoked meats and veggies seasoned with our stuff.
That being said, we don’t do so well in the KCBS type of rigid competition BBQ events because what wins at hardcore competition BBQ is not what you’d cook in your backyard and serve to friends and family over a beer or three. That’s why I prefer the Big Green Egg EggFest events because it’s far more laid back and you can literally cook anything you want to slap on the grill (heck, I’ve seen Twinkies grilled at these events!). EggFest events are more about creativity and sharing with folks who may be new to BBQ, or are in search of ideas to enhance their grilling knowledge and experience. One can talk with attendees and pick up tips and pointers and savor the foods coming off 20 Eggs or more. In KCBS competition BBQ, all efforts are directed towards only what happens in that judging tent and there’s an unwritten “one bite” mentality that creeps into everything competition BBQ. Pretty much everything and anything is fair game as far as salt, artificial flavorings, flavor enhancers, or other substances that modify the meat in some way and that might give competitors even a slight edge in that judge’s tent.
In most of the competition BBQs, the serious, hard-core competitors inject their meats with MSG, and all manner of flavorings and packaged enhancers that may contain some or all of the following: Hydrolyzed soy protein, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, sodium phosphates, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium inosinate and guanylate, and xanthan gum. FYI: Disodium inosinate causes the meat fibers to swell up so the meat is more juicy and tender; the inosinate, being an amino acid just like glutamate (along with the guanylate, just above), also act as flavor enhancers, though they are not as potent. The competition folks search for the seasoning blend that, in one bite will wow the judges and garner that all important 9 on the scorecard. That’s not what Miners Mix is about.
I’m not one of those “organic” folks who buy “organic” meats and veggies at 2-3 times the regular priced stuff, but I really don’t need, nor want to inject stuff that comes out of a chemistry laboratory into my brisket, tri tip, chickens, turkeys, or anything else I choose to cook. Cooking over fire is, or at least should be, a pure, primal activity. I see no need to bastardize the whole process by injecting the meat with unpronounceable chemicals. I also pride myself on being pretty dang good at the caveman craft of cooking over fire and don’t think I need chemical help to turn out pretty good eats. What I produce might not have that one bite WOW factor that some of the real pros dish up, but I can live with that.
We’ve all been taught that we taste only four flavors, those being salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. However, in actuality there is a fifth flavor known as umami, which is a savory flavor slightly reminiscent of soy sauce or beef bouillon. The flavor is also found in hydrolyzed or autolyzed yeast or hydrolyzed proteins extracts that you see in the ingredient lists of many products. Umami acts as an intensifier for most flavors but it does have a very subtle flavor of its own. It’s so subtle that most people don’t easily recognize it until they realize that the flavor that they are tasting is not sweet, salty, bitter, or sour and is called umami. The flavor is produced by the same amino acid found in Mono Sodium Glutamate, namely glutamate. I began to do online research to find a flavor enhancer that was all-natural, yet had a low level of salt. There are not many that fit both bills! All the hydrolyzed proteins or the yeast extracts I’ve tried are unbelievably salty. Kikkoman makes a soy-based enhancer that is also all-natural, but again the stuff is saltier than the ocean. Eventually, I stumbled on an enhancer called Takii that’s made from mushrooms and is not nearly as salty as the soy or protein-based enhancers.
Although competition BBQ is not our focus, I thought it might be cool to develop a “competition” line of seasonings that would suffice for the KCBS crowd, yet still maintain the “If it Didn’t Exist in 1850, it Ain’t in Here” philosophy. The ultimate plan is to tinker with a couple of the rubs and incorporate natural glutamate-boosting substances into the recipes in place of the salt.
Being an injection neophyte with zero flavor enhancer or Takii experience, I decided to try my hand at injecting meats as a first step toward incorporation of enhancers into our rub recipes. Injecting stuff into meat is something I had never done in all my years of smoking and grilling. One of the cool things about this business is the chance to mess around with grillin’ stuff that you might not be inclined to buy on your own. One of these items is a meat injector. My wife bought me an injector many years ago, but it sat in the drawer for a decade or so until it was finally broken by something or other being tossed on top of it. So I’ve never really played around with injecting roasts, chickens or pork butts and began to look around at various reviews, I settled on an injector called a SpitJack.
This thing is really heavy-duty and well made, right here in the USA! It actually looks like something that belongs next to the wrenches in my roll-away tool box, or with the garden tools, it’s that solid and well made. It comes with a couple of needles, one that is only open at the tip and one with a closed tip but with holes along the sides to inject along the entire length of the needle. The SpitJack is adjustable to inject anywhere from 1-5 mL quantities per squeeze of the handle.
I’m still in the early learning stages of injecting, and don’t have much in the way of results on which to report. However, what I have learned are a couple of things never covered in meat injecting 101. It’s important to not insert the open ended needle so far into the meat so the tip is close to the far surface of the meat. Injecting with the tip close to the surface results in the solution getting shot with considerable force out of the meat and onto whatever is behind the meat, in my case usually the coffee or sugar urn! Also, if you try a checkerboard pattern and get the needle too close to a prior injection site, the solution will shoot right back at you, again with considerable force, out of that previous hole. I learned that multiple injections with small amounts of solution seemed to work better than a few sites injected with a lot of solution. Using the open-ended needle and injecting small amounts at various depths was the best injection strategy, I found. Finally, if there are ANY solids at all in your solution, you cannot use the closed-end needle with holes along the flank. I tried injecting a horribly bland ham with a solution of Better than Bouillon Ham Base thinking I could give the meat some flavor. The holes become plugged and are very difficult to clean. It did not help the ham either, FYI.
I started my mad scientist injection experiments with an amount of Takii that I thought would be appropriate, but after experimenting on poor defenseless hams, turkeys or chickens, I began to think that my injection solution was way too dilute. Takii is a tan, granulated substance that dissolves pretty easily into water.
Initially, I used about two tablespoons of Takii to 1/2 cup of water. All meats were injected at about 2” intervals with somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3 mL solution. Although the Takii seemed to increase the intensity of flavors, especially in the turkey, actual Takii flavor could not be detected in the meats after cooking.
The most recent injection trial was a tri tip, rubbed up with Miners Mix Steak and Veggie Rub in which I significantly increased the strength of the injection solution to ¼ cup Takii to 1/3 cup water. After grilling, the beef definitely had an umami flavor. I’m not real keen on actually changing the flavor and this tri tip, while definitely good, tasted very different. In retrospect, I think the solution was a little on the concentrated side; it seems to me that the beef flavor should stay the same, but intensify. I do know we need to try again with a more dilute solution of Takii and that will be detailed in upcoming parts of this meat enhancement topic and ending with incorporation of enhancers into Miners Mix Seasonings.