The Ins and Outs of Injecting
Afraid of needles? Don’t let that deter you from the benefits of injecting.
As the barbecue pros know, injecting is the most efficient way to add flavor and moisture to smoked, barbecued, or grilled meats. Think of injecting as marinating from the inside out.
Let me explain. Spice pastes, glazes, and most dry rubs simply sit on the meat’s surface. While they add flavor, marinades penetrate only a few millimeters into the meat. Brining and curing solutions can reach the center, but require days or weeks to do so (a process that takes up real estate in your refrigerator.)
Injecting, however, delivers flavor to the center of the food in seconds with the push of a plunger.
What are Injectors?
Many injectors look like oversize hypodermic needles. The syringe (plastic or stainless steel) typically comes with a 2- to 4-ounce capacity—enough for most barbecue projects. Use them for injecting broth, melted butter, and/or other liquid seasonings. For thicker flavoring mixtures (like pesto or jerk seasoning), invest in a wide mouth injector—often sold with a metal spike for making deep holes in the meat into which you inject your spice paste.
There are many types of Injectors like this stainless steel one from Cave Tools. But there are many others.
One of the coolest injectors I’ve used is the SpitJack Magnum Meat Injector Gun, sold by the folks who developed the SpitJack whole hog rotisserie. The injector itself comes with a pistol-grip handle and a ratchet plunger designed to shoot even thick liquids deep into the meat. You get four different oversize needles (large, small, slanted, multi-hole), plus a handy carrying case.
If smoking 150-pound hogs is your deal, spring for a commercial injector system to save time and hand fatigue. Some look like pressure sprayers, holding 2 to 2.5 gallons. Others, like the F. Dick Marinade Brine Injector, feature several feet of tubing with a terminal valve on one end that can be submerged in a large container of injector liquid.
How to Use an Injector
To use an injector, fully depress the plunger and insert the needle in the injector sauce. (Some needles are closed at the end but have holes along the sides. Make sure the perforations are fully submerged in the sauce.) Pull the plunger back to fill the syringe with liquid. Work over a rimmed baking sheet or other container with sides. Plunge the needle deep in the meat, then depress the plunger slowly and steadily. (A quick plunge may send streams of injector sauce squirting in the opposite direction.) Withdraw the needle gradually.
To minimize the number of holes you put in the meat, angle the needle in two or three directions using the same entry hole. Continue injecting until the liquid begins leaking from the holes, indicating the meat cannot hold any more.
So what should you inject with your injector? The shortlist includes broth or stock, melted butter, cognac or whiskey, hot sauce or Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce or soy sauce, or a combination of these ingredients. For a touch of sweetness add fruit juice or molasses or honey. (Warm the latter in a saucepan of simmering water, so they flow easily.)
Injecting is a great way to accelerate the brining process with hams. (Try my recipe for Honey-Cured, Hickory-Smoked Shoulder Ham which recently appeared in the New York Times.) Inject part of the brine deep into the ham in a row of holes following the leg bone. Repeat every few days.
What Should You Inject?
As for the target, good candidates include large cuts of meat like whole hogs, hams, and pork shoulders, whole turkeys and chickens, briskets, shoulder clod, etc., plus intrinsically dry meats like pork loin, lamb leg, beef round roast, and double thick pork chops.
Here are some additional tips for injecting:
- Once you mix the ingredients for your injector sauce, place it in a deep slender vessel to facilitate drawing the liquid into syringe. A tall but narrow jar, such as the kind that holds pickled banana peppers or jalapenos, holds about two cups and works well.
- Lubricate the rubber or silicone gasket on the end of the plunger with a little vegetable oil before using. Repeat after each washing.
- Use low-sodium broth when assembling injection sauces. That way, you control the salt content.
- Unless you own a needle with wide openings, avoid coarsely ground spices or similar ingredients that would clog the system. Strain out solids through a fine mesh strainer, cheesecloth, or a coffee filter.
- For better injector sauce dispersion, let the meat rest for an hour after injecting and before grilling or barbecuing.
- When aesthetics matter, use light-colored injector sauces with lighter-colored meats and dark injection sauces—i.e., sauces that contain Worcestershire sauce, molasses, coffee, etc.—with darker meats.
- Wash your injector by hand after each use, giving the needle special attention. Clean the tip with a bent paper clip and run hot water through it. (The dishwasher may craze the syringe and dull the needle.) Some models are designed to store the needle(s) inside the syringe when not in use. Otherwise, replace the needle guard it came with or push the tip into a small piece of cork between uses.
In the meantime, here is one of my favorite injection sauces. (Try it with turkey—a whole bird, legs, or turkey breast—chicken, or pork.)