UP IN SMOKE
Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber,
The perfect brisket is the holy grail of barbecue, often pursued, but rarely attained. It is simultaneously one of the simplest and most challenging dishes a grill master can attempt.
At first glance, it seems straightforward enough, requiring only meat, wood smoke, and maybe salt and pepper. Smoke it at 225 to 275 degrees F for anywhere from 8 to 15 hours (depending on its size) until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 190 to 195 degrees F, then slice, serve, and bask in the glory. Right?
Not necessarily. Brisket is as ornery as a mechanical bull, and will, er, “throw” the barbecuer who doesn’t approach it with caution. (The etymology of the word “brisket” itself hints at its toughness: The term’s origins are in Old Norse—“brjósk”—meaning “cartilage”. Middle English interpreted it as “brusket.”)
What makes this hunk o’ meat so intimidating?
Brisket is a cut that comes from between the forelegs of a cow, similar to a pectoral muscle in humans. (There are two per animal.) It gets a lot of exercise when the animal lies down or pushes itself to a standing position, which accounts for its deep beefy flavor.
A whole brisket—sometimes called a “packer”—is actually comprised of two muscles: the “flat,” a smooth rectangular hunk of meat, thinner and pointier on one end; and the “deckle,” a thicker oval muscle separated from the flat by a fault line of fat and gristle. A whole brisket usually weighs between 8 and 12 pounds, but can be as heavy as 18 pounds. It is usually a special order at butcher shops.
Supermarket meat departments are far more likely to sell center-cut flats of varying weights with the deckle and much of the fat already trimmed off. I recommend flats for barbecuers who are inexperienced with brisket. Allow 3/4 to 1 pound of raw meat per person; it will shrink considerably after its long smoke. And of course,
plan for leftovers, which are excellent.
When selecting brisket, try to buy grass-fed beef graded Choice or better with a cap of fat at least 1/4-inch thick. This fat is essential for keeping the brisket from drying out. (Avoid Select grade beef as its lack of marbling practically guarantees a dry, chewy brisket.) Many competition barbecuers swear by Choice “Certified Angus.” Some higher-end meat retailers, such as Chicago’s Allen Brothers, can custom-order Wagyu beef brisket to your specifications. E-mail them at email@example.com, or phone 800-548-7777.
Let’s say you’ve got your brisket. Now what?
Make sure you have the proper equipment—ideally, a smoker, or a charcoal grill that is large enough to set up for indirect grilling/smoking and still accommodate the meat. Note: it is very difficult to smoke a proper brisket on a gas grill. You’ll also need wood chips or chunks for smoke, plus plenty of fuel as cooking time can be 12 hours or more. The process cannot be rushed, or your brisket will surely disappoint.
Here is a list of additional equipment you’ll want or need:
- An accurate instant-read meat thermometer;
- A large plastic cooler for keeping the meat warm while it rests (optional);
- One or two pairs of sturdy tongs, such as our Lumatongs™ with built-in lights;
- Heavy-duty aluminum foil;
- Aluminum foil drip pans;
- Suede grill gloves and insulated food gloves such as our Best of Barbecue™ line;
- A spray bottle or barbecue mop;
- A good flashlight if your grill session will go into the night.
Next, calculate how much time you’ll need, counting backwards from the hour you want to serve the brisket. Include time for setting up the grill or smoker and for resting the meat, anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour—that’s where the optional cooler above comes in handy. As the pros will tell you, every brisket is different, making cooking times challenging to estimate. In general, figure on 1.5 to 2.5 hours per pound. Always allow more time than you think you’ll need.
Ready to get started?
Remove your brisket from its packaging and rinse it with cool water. Dry thoroughly with paper towels. The brisket may require additional trimming if the fat cap is thick—again, you want a sheath 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Turn the brisket over and trim any visible silverskin from the bottom of the flat. If you are cooking a whole brisket, you can opt to separate the flat from the deckle following the line of connective tissue. You could also leave the muscles attached, or remove the deckle after cooking. (I prefer to leave the thicker, fattier deckle attached until service.)
Now you can do any of the following before cooking the brisket to boost flavor:
- Marinate the brisket for several hours or overnight;
- In lieu of marinating, apply a slather—a paste of mustard, apple juice, Worcestershire sauce, and/or even coffee—to anchor any seasonings or spices you put on the outside of the meat. Check out the Smok-la-home Brisket on p. 178 in BBQ USA.
- Apply a rub 1 to 6 hours before cooking—the longer, the richer the flavor;
- Season the brisket with salt and pepper up to an hour prior to cooking;
- Drape the top of the brisket with strips of raw bacon—something I like to do if there isn’t much of a fat cap on the brisket;
- Mix up a thin, flavorful mop sauce to be mopped or sprayed on the brisket after the first two hours of smoking (by then, the meat should have begun to form a “bark” which you don’t want to disturb with liquid), and two to three times more during the cooking time. A mop sauce could contain apple juice, bourbon, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, beef broth, beer, cola, etc. For mop sauce recipes, check out BBQ USA (p. 181) and Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs (p. 177)
- Soak your preferred wood chips or chunks in water or beer for at least an hour before smoking; hickory, pecan, oak, mesquite, and fruitwoods are options;
- Concoct a sauce to be used on the brisket near the end of the cooking time or when serving; other sides might include baked beans, bread or buns, pickles, etc.
Next, fire up your smoker according to the manufacturer’s instructions or set up your charcoal grill for indirect grilling/smoking (separate the mounds of coals with a drip pan). Aim for a temperature range of 225 to 275 degrees F. I try to keep the temperature around 250 degrees. (Note: To achieve this low temperature, use half a chimney of coals. Another way to lower the heat is by partially closing the top and bottom grill vents.) Add soaked wood chips or chunks to the coals if using a charcoal grill. You’ll have to replenish the coals and the chips or chunks every hour or so.
Brisket is nothing if not controversial, and one of the controversies is whether to start the brisket fat side up so it can baste the meat as the fat melts (the way I do it), or fat side down, the theory here being that the fat insulates the meat from heat rising through the grill or smoker grates.
When cooking a lean piece of brisket flat (the sort often sold at the supermarket), I place it in a large aluminum foil drip pan, the top draped with bacon, so that it cooks in its own juices and is less likely to dry out.
Another point of debate is how much smoke to apply. I like to smoke the meat the first half of cooking time (4 to 5 hours), then wrap the brisket tightly in heavy duty aluminum foil to seal in the juices and finish cooking. Some people prefer to smoke the meat the entire cooking time, which if you’re not careful, can result in an acrid aftertaste. Also, it’s questionable whether the meat can continue to absorb smoke after 6 hours.
After several hours, the internal temperature of the meat will rise above 150 degrees F, well on its way to the desired 190 to 195 degrees F. However, it’s likely the temperature will “plateau”, and maybe even drop slightly as the collagen breaks down. Be patient, and resist the temptation to crank up the heat and hasten the process, or your brisket will be tough and dry. And remember, frequent peeking at the meat’s progress will only slow things down: It can take from 5 to 20 minutes for a grill or smoker to recoup heat lost when the lid is opened.
How will you know when your brisket is done? The outside will be dark and crusty and the meat will feel very tender when poked. The internal temperature will be in the zone mentioned above, 190 to 195 degrees F as read on an instant-read meat thermometer. And of course, there will be that all-important smoke ring—a red-tinged layer just beneath the meat’s surface—the pit master’s badge of honor.
If you haven’t done so already, wrap the meat tightly in two layers of foil. Let the brisket rest for at least 30 minutes for a small brisket , and up to 1 hour for a full-size packer brisket (preferably, in the insulated plastic cooler) to allow the juices to redistribute themselves. Have a beer. The hard part is over!
Unwrap the brisket, saving any juices captured by the foil. Remove the fat cap, if desired, or any bacon draped over the top. With a sharp knife, slice the brisket across the grain into slices between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick. Shingle on a platter along with the saved juices. If you’re carving a whole brisket, know that the grain runs in different directions in the deckle and the flat, which is a good reason to separate them before slicing.
Warm the barbecue sauce, if desired, and serve on the side. In the unlikely event you have leftovers, they make great sandwiches, or you can finely chop them to add to burger meat or hash. (You can also freeze leftover brisket, tightly wrapped, for up to 2 months.)
Finally, before the details become hazy in your mind, write down exactly what you did at each step of the process to ensure you can replicate what I hope was a complete success.
Below is one of my favorite recipes for brisket, a synthesis of several I have made over the years. Get ready for some of the most righteous beef on Planet Barbecue!
We get a lot of email about how to nail the perfect brisket. Please forward a link to this newsletter to anyone you think will find it of interest.
Tools, Fuels, and Flavorings to Help You Take Your Brisket to the Next Level:
At Best of Barbecue, we use two simple guidelines when creating new products:
What problems do grillers face when preparing a particular dish and how can we provide a solution?
What does Steven use at home when grilling/smoking for friends and family?
Here are some Best of Barbecue products that will help you smoke a better brisket, and this month, grilling4all.com is offering a discount coupon for Up in Smoke readers.
Java Rub: What’s the best rub for brisket? A lot of Texas pit masters use nothing more than salt and pepper. In Kansas City, they go for a sweet brown sugar and paprika-based rub. After years of experimenting, I’ve concluded that the best rub for emphasizing the rich, meaty flavor of smoked beef brisket is … coffee. That’s right, coffee. (Hey, that’s what cowboys drink around campfires on the range.) Its bitter-sweet flavor makes a brisket taste, well, beefier—without overpowering it. Add cumin and pepper and you’ve got a brisket rub that will make even a cow wrangler sit up and take notice.
Beef Blend Smoking Chips: Travel the competition barbecue circuit and you’ll soon learn that the top pit masters don’t limit themselves to smoking with a single wood. They might start with oak for its rich robust flavor, switching to hickory for a blast of sweetness. Which got us thinking about the best blend of woods for brisket. Our Beef Blend smoking chips contain oak for body, mesquite for strength, and hickory for a nutty sweetness. Remember to soak the chips in water or beer before adding them to the fire so they smolder, not burn.
Stainless Steel Spray Bottle: As any pro pit master knows, making a killer brisket is all about layering flavors. The rub provides the base flavor, while the smoke gives the brisket its soul. Spraying a brisket with a flavorful liquid, like apple cider or wine, gives you an additional layer of flavor, and it also helps keep the brisket moist as it smokes. Our new stainless steel spray bottle is a lot tougher than the plastic version—meaning you will look like a serious practitioner of the barbecue arts.
Barbecue Mop and Bucket: You’ve seen it at contests and cook-offs—a floor mop (hopefully new) dipped in a bucket of sauce and swabbed over a pit full of meat. Which is fine if you’re cooking a couple dozen briskets. Here’s one designed for home use, with a removable head to make cleaning the mop a cinch and a food-safe plastic liner for the bucket. Use it to swab on your favorite mop sauce (for some great recipes, see Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades). Adds flavor, moistens the meat, and looks cool as all get out to use.
Method: Smoking/Indirect Grilling
Serves: 8 to 12
Advance Preparation: 4 hours to overnight for curing the brisket (optional), then allow 8 to 9 hours for smoking the brisket and at least 30 minutes for it to rest.
1 beef brisket flat (6 to 8 pounds) with—very important—a cap of fat at least
3 tablespoons dry mustard
3 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
3 tablespoons cracked or coarsely ground black pepper
3 Tablespoons Worcestershire powder (see Note below)
You’ll also need: 6 to 8 cups oak or hickory chips or chunks, soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained; a heavy-duty aluminum foil pan; heavy-duty aluminum foil
Trim the brisket so as to leave a 1/4-inch cap of fat. (Any less and the brisket will dry out; any more, and the fat will prevent the rub from seasoning the meat.)
Place the mustard, salt, pepper, powdered Worcestershire sauce, if using, in a bowl and mix them with your fingers. Sprinkle the rub on the brisket on all sides, rubbing onto the meat. If you have time, wrap the brisket in plastic wrap and let it cure in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or as long as overnight.
To grill: If you are using a smoker, set it up following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat it to 275 degrees F. When ready to cook, place the brisket fat side up in the smoker. Add wood chips or chunks to the smoker every hour, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you are using a charcoal grill, set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a large drip pan in the center, and preheat the grill to 275 degrees F. To maintain this low temperature, use only half as much charcoal as usual. (A half chimney-full.) When ready to cook, toss about 2 cups of wood chips or chunks on the coals. Place the brisket on the hot grate over the drip pan, fat side up, and cover the grill. You’ll need to add fresh coals an more wood chips or chunks to each side of the grill every hour for the first 4 hours.
Smoke or grill the brisket until a dark “bark” (outside crust) forms and the internal temperature of the meat is about 150 degrees F, 4 to 5 hours; use an instant-read meat thermometer to test for doneness. Then, tightly wrap the brisket in a couple of layers of aluminum foil, crimping the edges to make a tight seal. Return the brisket to the smoker or grill and continue cooking until the brisket is very tender, but not soft or “mushy,” and the internal temperature is 190 to 195 degrees F, about 4 hours longer.
Remove the wrapped brisket from the smoker or grill and place it in a warm spot. Let the brisket rest for about 30 minutes. This resting period is very important; during that time, the brisket will reabsorb its juices.
To serve, unwrap the brisket and thinly slice it. Spoon any juices over the brisket and get ready for some of the most extraordinary smoked beef on Planet Barbecue.
Note: Worcestershire powder is available by mail order through www.spicebarn.com. If unavailable, add 1 tablespoon more of dry mustard.
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