Back to Basics: A Crash Course on How to Barbecue Brisket
Brisket. Few words have the power to make you palpitate, salivate, and levitate. Yes, brisket ranks among the world’s most revered cuts of meat. (Corned beef, pastrami, and Montreal smoked meat all start as brisket.) Here is how to barbecue brisket.
How to Barbecue Brisket
Though it seems easy—season, smoke, and slice—there’s a reason brisket intimidates so many pit masters. It’s one ornery cut of meat, a rectangular chest muscle that enables the animal to raise or lower itself to the ground. (In humans, a similar muscle is called the pectoral.) Actually, a whole brisket—called a packer brisket—is comprised of two parts: a lean flat, which is nestled against the breastbone; and a fattier point that’s also known as the deckle. The two collagen-rich muscles are separated by a thick, very visible vein of fat. A whole packer brisket typically weighs 12 to 18 pounds. At even $3.99 a pound, a brisket is an investment. Especially if you opt to buy a special Wagyu or a brisket graded prime.
So what is it about brisket that inspires such reverence and mystique, that makes it such a culinary icon?
Well, it possesses an exteaordinarily rich, soulful, beefy flavor. When properly prepared, if becomes meltingly tender while retaining a satisfying chew. There’s no discounting its good looks when it emerges from the smoker, glistening with juice and black as coal. Finally, there’ the challenge of barbecuing a brisket and the sense of triumph you feel when you get it right. There are no shortcuts.
If you’re good friends with your butcher, ask him or her to trim the brisket leaving at least 1/4 inch of fat on the meat to keep it from drying out. Otherwise, using a sharp knife, trim the brisket yourself. Start by removing the slender edges off the flat section of the brisket as they will overcook. (Save the trimmings for beans or another use.) Trim excess fat off the top of the brisket and remove some of the seam fat between the point and the flat. Don’t over-trim.
Our favorite rub is made up of equal parts coarse salt and freshly but coarsely ground black pepper with red pepper flakes added for a bit of heat. (Place the meat in a large disposable aluminum foil pan, if desired, to contain the mess when seasoning.) Some pit masters slather the meat with mustard, molasses, or mayonnaise before seasoning; we don’t bother. Though we don’t usually inject the brisket—a popular technique on the competition circuit—we do like to mop or spray the brisket as it cooks with a thin mixture of beef broth, coffee, beer, and a bit of Worcestershire sauce. (Brisket “moisturizer.”) You don’t want to overpower the flavor of the meat with excess seasonings.
Set up your cooker for smoking or indirect grilling; add wood chunks, soaked and drained wood chips, wood pellets, or wood as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Hickory, oak, or apple are all popular. (Mesquite can be very strong-tasting.) Heat to 225 to 250 degrees.
Place the brisket on the grill grate, fat side up. Let it cook, undisturbed, for 8 to 10 hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 160 to 170 degrees, replenishing the fuel as needed and mopping or spraying with mop sauce, if desired. (If just cooking the flat, this temperature range might be reached in 6 to 8 hours.) At this point—known in barbecue circles as “the stall”—you’ll want to wrap the meat tightly in unlined butcher paper or foil. Wrapping seals in moisture during the final stage of the cook. Return the meat to the cooker and continue to cook until the internal temperature of the brisket reaches 203 to 205 degrees (use an instant-read meat thermometer for this; insert the probe right through the butcher paper.) Total cooking time for a whole packer brisket can be 14 to 18 hours. Do not try to rush the process by increasing the heat.
There’s one more step that will take your barbecued brisket from excellent to sublime: the rest. Transfer the wrapped brisket to an insulated cooler lined with thick towels for 1 to 2 hours. Don’t worry—the meat will stay hot.
Using a sharp knife, slice the meat across the grain into pencil-thick slices. (We like to first separate the point from the flat as the grain runs in different directions.) Serve with or without sauce on the side. Accompaniments, should you desire them, might include factory-style white bread, coleslaw, baked beans, potato salad, pickles, or mac ‘n’ cheese.
For more information, pick up a copy of Steven Raichlen’s comprehensive book, The Brisket Chronicles.
Also check out Episode 113 of Planet Barbecue – Obsessed with Brisket
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