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The origins of both the activity of barbecue cooking and the word itself are somewhat obscure. Most etymologists believe that barbecue derives ultimately from the word barabicu found in the language of both the Timucua of Florida and the Taíno people of the Caribbean. The word translates as "sacred fire pit." The word describes a grill for cooking meat, consisting of a wooden platform resting on sticks.
There is ample evidence that both the word and cooking technique migrated out of the Caribbean and into other languages and cultures, with the word (barbacoa) moving from Caribbean dialects into Spanish, then French and English. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first recorded use of the word in the English language in 1697 by the British buccaneer William Dampier.
While the standard modern English spelling of the word is barbecue, local variations like barbeque and truncations such as bar-b-q or bbq may also be found. In the southeastern United States, the word barbecue is used predominantly as a noun referring to roast pork, while in the southwestern states, cuts of beef are often cooked.
In the southern United States, barbecue initially revolved around the cooking of pork. During the 19th century, pigs were a low-maintenance food source that could be released to forage for themselves in forests and woodlands. When food or meat supplies were low, these semi-wild pigs could then be caught and eaten.
The word barbecue is also used to refer to a social gathering where food is served, usually outdoors in the early afternoon. In the southern USA, outdoor gatherings are not typically called "barbecues" unless barbecue itself will actually be on the menu, instead generally favoring the word "cookouts". The device used for cooking at a barbecue is commonly referred to as a "barbecue", "barbecue grill", or "grill".
Barbecuing encompasses four distinct types of cooking techniques. The original technique is cooking by using indirect heat or low-level direct radiant heat at lower temperatures (usually around 240°F) and significantly longer cooking times (several hours), often with smoke. Another technique is baking, utilizing a masonry oven or any other type of baking oven, which uses convection to cook meats and starches with moderate temperatures for an average cooking time (about an hour plus a few extra minute
The choice and combination of woods burned result in different flavors imparted to the meat. Woods commonly selected for their flavor include mesquite, hickory, maple, guava, kiawe, cherry, pecan, apple and oak. Woods to avoid include conifers. These contain resins and tars, which impart undesirable resinous and chemical flavors. If these woods are used, they should be burned in a catalytic grill, such as a rocket stove, so that the resins and tars are completely burned before coming into contact with the food.
Cooking with charcoal, like cooking with gas, is a more manageable approximation of cooking over a wood fire. Charcoal does not impart the rich flavor of cooking over hardwoods but is cheap and easy to purchase in sizes appropriate for close proximity cooking in typical commercially available home grills and griddles.
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