Mops, sometimes referred to as sops or bastes, are liquids that are applied to meats during the slow cooking process of traditional barbecue, to keep the meats moist and add additional flavor. Many traditionalists and competitive barbecue teams swear by their mops almost as much as they do their dry rubs. They get their unusual name from the tool that resembles a small kitchen mop used to apply the flavor baste.
Ingredients used to create mops will vary widely from region to region, meat to meat, and individual to individual, but a few ingredients remain common between them. In order to protect the moisture level of your meat, mops will usually contain some sort of oil to replace some of the fat that is lost during the cooking process. This normally comes in the form of oil or melted butter, both of which are perfect for maintaining moisture as well as adding great flavor. Further adding to the flavor, most cooks will add some of the complementary ingredients, such as the dry rub used to coat the meat, to their mop along with other flavors such as Worcestershire, citrus juices, bacon or brisket drippings, stock, and beer or liquor.
Often cooks will use the marinade they used with the meat as a mop, which is a perfectly good idea, as most marinades contain the basic ingredients required in a mop such as citrus juice, oil, spices, etc. However, it is extremely important to remember that you had raw meat soaking in there, which could translate into contamination of your cooked foods with harmful bacteria. Never use a marinade as a mop without thoroughly boiling the liquid prior to it ever coming into contact with your meat or food.
Speaking of bacteria, it is also really important to keep your mop at a temperature above 140F by leaving it simmering on your grill, smoker, or stovetop. This prevents any continuous transfer of bacteria back and forth from the mop to the meat as it cooks. Plus, keeping the mop warm helps to keep your meat warm rather than quick cool it, and prevents any coagulation of the oils or fats used in the liquid.
The tools used to apply mops will vary as well. Purists will tend to stick with the traditional miniature mop, whereas others will use brushes or spray bottles. The effectiveness of the spray bottle will vary depending upon the size of ingredients in your wet mop. If the pieces are too large, they may get stuck in your spray nozzle. When using a traditional mop or brush, dab the meat, don't wipe it or paint it like a wall. Wiping or painting the meat will only serve to remove your rub and the flavorful bark that forms during cooking.
When to mop is a question you will hear regularly, and the answer varies as much as the mops themselves. The key to remember is that you shouldn't lift the lid or open the door to your smoker or grill any more than is absolutely necessary. Every time the pit lid or door is opened precious heat and moisture is lost, which increases the cooking time and the odds for a less-moist end product. To avoid this, it is recommended that you don't mop more frequently than about once per half hour, preferably once each hour. This will of course depend upon the meat you are preparing, but this is a good, average time to start with as a guide. Foods that are lean, such as chicken or fish, will require more frequent mopping than those meats with more fat, such as a brisket. Also, some smokers don't require mopping as they create and maintain a consistently moist environment, so read your owner's manual for recommendations from the manufacturer regarding the use of mops.
Joe Johnson is a proud Texan and founding partner and chief pit-master with Caroline's Rub , where he is in charge of product promotion and development for their line of gourmet dry rubs, smoked salt, and Texas chili seasoning.