When a Texan says barbecue, they aren’t talking pork. They may be referring to cabrito, but more than likely you’re going to be eating beef. Barbecue to a Texan really means brisket. This is one of the toughest, leatheriest, most difficult to cook cuts on a cow because the brisket is a muscle used for walking, which is pretty much all a cow does other than eat and burp. But, when combined with the magic of a long and low cooking, this piece of leather can be transformed into a piece of meat that creates a lifelong addiction for more and better.
Selecting a brisket is about more than just skill. It is about 80% luck since most briskets arrive at the butcher vacuum-sealed, which sometimes makes it difficult to determine what you are getting. Since brisket isn’t well known here in Eastern Canada, it took quite a bit of time, along with some begging and bribery, to find a butcher who could provide me with briskets that weren’t packed.
A brisket is essentially divided into two cuts otherwise known as the point and the flat, with one side having almost no fat on it. With this side facing down, the flat is on the bottom and the point is facing up, towards the high end of the brisket. The flat cut is the most versatile piece of the brisket as it is used readily in both chopped and sliced applications, whereas the point tends to be used more often as a chopped brisket because it contains more connective tissue than the flat, which breaks down during the cooking process making the point more prone to fall apart rather than slice.
The difficulty with the two cuts is that when in a full piece the grains run perpendicular to one another making them difficult to slice. You can sometimes purchase the two cuts separately, but for barbecue you want to obtain the whole brisket, in one full piece, with a nice one-quarter to one-third of an inch fat cap. Briskets like this are is sometimes referred to as a “Packers Cut” or “deckle-off boneless”. Your butcher is far more likely to know the term “Packers Cut”, simply because most of them looked at me like I had lost my mind when I said “deckle”. Once the brisket is cooked, you will then separate the two cuts to eliminate the perpendicular grain.
While the fat cap does serve an important role in keeping the meat moist, the marbling of the meat is by and far the most important component in producing a tender and moist brisket. Choose a brisket that has slender and consistent streaks of marbling throughout the meat. You don’t want it all clumped in one area, or the marbling so thick that it goes over the line into just plain fatty. Too much fat, and you end up with a greasy mess – not enough, and it is dry as a bone. It’s all about balance when it comes to brisket.
Once you’ve found a piece with great marbling, the next thing you should look at is the size. A bigger brisket requires far more effort to become tender than a smaller brisket - if it ever does. Reason being, the bigger brisket comes from an older cow, which translates into a tougher product. My preferred choice for weight is somewhere in the 7 – 10 pound range. Also worth considering with regards to size, is the thickness of the cut. Most briskets will tend to taper off into a thin end piece, but if at all possible try to get a brisket with an even thickness. This helps to ensure that your brisket will cook evenly.
Something else to consider when picking a brisket is its flexibility. If you center it in your hand, it should drape over your hand and not remain stiff. If it remains stiff that is probably an indication it is going to be a bit tough. There are no guarantees when it comes to brisket, but a softer piece of meat tends to produce a tenderer product - just think tenderloin.
Finally, as with any food, make sure the meat is attractive and safe. It should be firm, with a fresh beefy smell, a nice deep red color, and it should have been stored at proper temperatures at all times. Brisket can be purchased and frozen for later use, just make sure to take it out a day or so ahead and keep it in the refrigerator to defrost. An eight pound brisket will take somewhere between 24 and 36 hours to defrost in your refrigerator. Remember, failing to keep the brisket at proper temperatures (between 34F and 39F) during the defrosting process can result in spoilage and illness.
A day ahead of cooking, remove the brisket from its packaging and place the brisket with the fat cap facing down on your cutting board. Using a sharp filet or meat knife, begin to remove the thick, yellowish fat from the flat. Next begin working the thick strip of fat that separates the point and the flat, removing the excess leaving only a thin layer of fat between the two cuts. This layer keeps your brisket moist as well, but not trimming only serves to leave it greasy and fatty. Finally, take a look at the fat cap and make sure it is evenly thick across the brisket, trimming any thicker parts to match.
One thing I have learned is that it can be next to impossible to tell which way the grain runs once the meat has cooked, so it is a pretty good idea to cut a piece against the grain just to identify how to cut it once cooked.
Here comes my favorite part – seasoning the brisket. Once the meat has been trimmed, rinse it with running water, thoroughly dry it with paper towels, and place on enough plastic wrap to cover (but don’t cover it yet!). Next, take a cup of mustard, 1/4 cup of your favorite dry rub (I’m partial to Caroline’s Rub), 1/8 cup ground horseradish, and combine to form a paste. Using a brush, paint the brisket with the paste to thoroughly coat the meat. This paste will add a bit of a zing to your bark, help to protect from additional moisture loss, and hold the dry rub to the meat. Some may argue that the vinegar in the mustard also helps to tenderize, but I agree only to a very limited degree. While it does help to tenderize the very exterior, it does not have much affect on the tenderness below the surface of the meat. Again, another reason why marbling is so important.
Once nicely coated, wrap the meat tightly in the plastic wrap, making sure there are no air leaks or holes. Put in the refrigerator and let sit overnight. When ready to cook it, remove the brisket from the refrigerator, unwrap, and allow to return to room temperature prior to putting it on your grill or smoker.
Something worth mentioning here is if the rub you choose is high in salt, you increase the loss of moisture. As a natural part of the osmotic process and as a result of the extremely long slow cooking, the salt will leech moisture from the meat. The problem this creates is that the moisture content within the meat is the best conductor of heat. When the heat is conducted evenly throughout the meat, you obviously achieve a more evenly cooked meat – the key here being the outside isn’t charcoal by the time the inside is cooked. It is best if your rub is not primarily salt based, or if it is, at the expense of a bit of flavor you can place the brisket on the grill or smoker immediately after seasoning with the rub and mustard paste.
Now that you are ready to cook your brisket, it is time to fire up the smoker. What wood you choose will have a direct impact on the flavor of your brisket. I have to admit that I am partial to a mix of pecan and cherry. The pecan doesn’t make its presence as readily known as hickory, and the cherry serves to offer a sweetness that adds a depth to the overall taste, that while familiar to tasters, leaves them wondering just what that little something extra was. Do not place too much emphasis on producing a brisket with a deep ‘smoke ring’. The ring of color grading from dark on the outside to a pale pink deeper into the meat is not really a smoke ring at all. It is a chemical reaction of meat's constituents. The depth of color depends more upon the moisture of the meat than upon the density of smoke. It has no bearing on flavor and is not used as a judging criterion in competition.
I have used a variety of smokers to barbecue, including offsets, electric and propane fuelled, water smokers, and even the crock-pot, and of there isn’t any single one that I prefer. It totally depends upon my purpose. If I just want to enjoy a lazy day and relax, I will fire up the offset. If I am in a situation where I can’t tend to it all day, I will fire up the Cookshack SM050, which is virtually effortless. Both turn out equally delicious products with only subtle differences between them. The key to cooking the brisket is to maintain an even and consistently low temperature throughout the cooking process.
Optimally you would want to see a temperature of no more than 225F for the entire cooking time, which translates to about an hour and a half per pound. I tend to cook my briskets at 215F, which adds a little time to the cooking, but gives a little room for error if the heat gets away from me for a second or two. Once I have gotten the smoker stabilized at my desired temperature, I don’t want to lose all of my heat when I open the doors, so an important thing to remember is to have everything ready to go so the doors are only open as long as they have to be. When placing the brisket on the cooker, place it as far away from the source of the heat as possible to allow the meat to cook evenly and slowly. When inserting your thermometer probe, always check the brisket for doneness in the ‘flat’ and not the ‘point’. The ‘point’ will generally become tender before the flat, which will lead you to believe the brisket is ready, so make sure to continue to cook until the flat is tender.
Mopping a brisket is controversial with many saying never do it, and others at the complete opposite end saying it is not brisket without a mop. I believe it depends on the smoker. While it does add a bit of flavor, a mop more accurately provides a way to maintain moisture so your meat doesn’t dry out. If you are using a smoker that has a water bowl or if your smoker tends to have naturally high moisture levels while in use, you may not want to use any kind of mop. Normally with an offset and its much drier heat, you will find improved protection of the moisture levels by using a mop. However, remember, every time you open the smoker you cause the temperature to drop, and in some smokers plummet, which increases your cooking time. Set yourself a strict schedule for mopping and stick to it. I tend to mop no more than once every 2 – 3 hours depending on the brisket.
Internal temperature is key to determining when your brisket is done, so a must-have piece of equipment is a remote thermometer, or at the very least a thermometer with a probe that attaches to a thermometer mounted to the exterior of your smoker (I recommend Polder and Maverick Thermometers). I actually use two – one to monitor the internal temperature of the meat, and one to monitor the internal temp of the smoker simply because most smokers come with highly inaccurate gauges. Insert your meat probe into the thickest part of the flat cut, and place your room temperature, unwrapped brisket on the rack with the fat cap facing up. This will allow the juices to penetrate and surround the meat to help baste it as the fat renders. Close the doors, if necessary plug in your thermometer, and don’t disturb the meat for at least 3 hours. I say three hours, because that is sufficient time to allow the crust to develop, which prevents your rub from falling off or washing away should you choose to mop. Nice thing about low and slow barbecue is that sugar burns at 265F, and since you will rarely if ever exceed 240F, you don’t have to worry about burning the sugar, butter, or tomato based rubs and mops. When a brisket reaches a temperature of 185 degrees F, most of the fat has melted which begins to really allow you to achieve a tender product, perfect for slicing. If you are trying to achieve the chopped meat consistency, some pit-masters advise taking the brisket and wrapping it in foil at the 185F mark, and returning it to the smoker until the brisket reaches 195F. This is because at about 192F, the collagens that really bind the meat and make it tough, melt and leave you with a brisket that falls apart and becomes more appropriate for chopped brisket sandwiches than slicing. Wrapping the meat in foil will shelter the brisket from taking on any further smoke, keep it moist, and prevent it from completely falling apart when it hits the 192F mark, making it easier to remove from the smoker.
If you have chosen to slice the brisket, remove it at 185F and place it with the fat cap down on your cutting board. This will allow you to find the layer of fat that connects the point and the flat and point. Separate the two muscles to remove the excess fat that runs between them, and to prevent running into the muscles as their grains cross in different directions. The point is going to be a tastier and far more tender piece of meat, but a trade off is it tends to be more fatty than the flat. If your slow and low cooking has been successful in rendering the fat and you started with a larger cut of meat, you should be able to get a few good slices out of the point, which would be the preferred choice for presentation at competition.
Always slice brisket diagonally across the grain, into ¼ inch thick slices. When you hold the slice up and try to pull it apart the slice should have a little resistance before it pulls apart. If it just completely falls apart, you have gone beyond slicing and should reserve the brisket for chopped meat applications, such as sandwiches and baked potato toppings. Remember that brisket begins to dry very quickly after it is cut, so be sure to have everything ready prior to cutting. To aid in protecting the moisture, use any juices that you have left from the slicing to top the brisket prior to sending it off for judging.
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.