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Texas Style BBQ Brisket

11 Mar

Lucas needs a new camera. He does not need a new smoker.

One of the first comments on this blog was about smoking meats or barbecue. Living in greater NYC, Nathan doesn’t have the space or opportunity to operate a side box smoker, or I assume any other form of open flame cooking.

Due to this restriction, he requested that I do a guest post on smoking meats. As a born and bred Texan, I like to cook brisket. It’s cheap and, if cooked correctly, really outstanding.

Anyone who has known me for more than 25 minutes knows that I am a barbecue snob of the highest order. Therefore I will inject reasons my brisket is better than others and why. Some folks hold their brisket techniques close to their chest but I’m happy to share what I do.

Stuff

1. Brisket

2. Yellow Mustard

3. Every spice in your spice cabinet

Steps

Here's how to pre-trim your brisket. Notice that some fat is left on.

The preparation steps are simple, although you’ll hear different techniques from everyone who cooks bbq. Here’s how I do it.

Selecting a brisket: First off, never buy one of the pre-trimmed briskets at the grocery store. You’ll see they have no fat on them and cost about 2x the price. Find the whole, untrimmed briskets to select from. I always pick up every brisket is available and see how much they’ll bend or flex; the more the better. My granddad told me this is how to select a good brisket so I do it. I think more than anything it shows you how much fat there might be in that cut. The fat is congealed at cold temperatures and less flexible than the muscle so the more flexible the cut is, the more meat you have compared to fat.

Sizing: The rule of thumb is about 2 persons per raw pound. That accounts for trimming loss and water weight lost during cooking. I rarely worry about sizes, but try to err on the higher size. I also like leftovers.

Now that you’ve selected your brisket, it’s time to get it trimmed up and ready for the smoker. Some folks trim a lot of fat off their briskets, I do not. I’ll try to trim down some really thick spots on the fat side, but generally leave most of the fat everywhere on the fat side. One the lean side there is a kidney shaped piece of hard fat that I try to remove more of than the main layer of fat on the other side.

How you can avoid messing up slicing against the grain before you cook. Also, if you do slice against the grain ONE TIME, your friend will hold it over the head for the rest of your life. So don't do this wrong.

Slicing a brisket correctly can make or break your product and your pride, just ask Nathan. You’ve probably heard it before to ‘slice across the grain’ to produce tender slices. What does that mean? If you look at the lean side of the brisket you’ll actually see lines going across the meat. That is the grain. You want to cut perpendicular to this grain to produce quality slices. A trick I use is find the grain when the brisket is raw, go to the corner they point to, and cut a small chunk off the brisket as a guide. If you forget to do this you can still find the grain after cooking, but having a nice squared off spot to start your slicing at is nice.

Rub:

Here’s another part of cooking briskets that you’ll have 100 different answers from 100 different people: Rubs or other methods of spicing. Some use strictly salt and pepper, some buy elaborate rubs, some brine, some marinate; I use a dry rub.

My rub, as stated in the “Stuff” listing is quite literally everything in my spice cabinet.

My ratio is 5 parts salt, 1 part everything else. For one brisket, I used about 1 table spoon as my part.

  • 5 parts salt
  • 1 part black pepper
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 oregano
  • 1 basil
  • 1 cinnamon (yes, cinnamon)
  • 1 cumin
  • 1 chili powder
  • 1 did I miss something?

I just mix these things up in a small Tupperware so I can put the lid on and shake to mix it up.

The next step is I coat the entire brisket with yellow mustard. “Yellow mustard?! I hate mustard!” you might be saying. However, the mustard is only used to hold spice on the brisket during the cooking process. I was suspect at first when I first learned about the technique (I thought “Mustard?! This isn’t Carolina!”) but the mustard flavor is not imparted on the meat, on the flavors from the spices. It does make a big difference.

Rub a dub dub, one brisket...on a board...

I like to coat the brisket with a film of mustard then mix in the dry rub to make a thick paste.

Finally you have a brisket ready to go on the smoker. Time to prep the smoker. I am lucky enough to have space in my backyard to have a big sidebox smoker to use. I will write up the technique using a sidebox. Your fearless leader, Nathan, will have to add to the write up to try to make it apply to someone without the ability to cook with open flames.

Sadly, my advice is to not make brisket if you don’t have a smoker. I have tried oh so hard to come up with a way I could do this in an oven and feel okay about it. I can’t. There are people who make “BBQ Brisket” in ovens. It’s not good. 

I use a mix of charcoal and hardwoods during cooking. Charcoal is easy to get started and re-lit. Another battle that barbecue folks like to have is about what type of wood you use. I don’t get caught up in that particular argument, but as long as it is a hardwood you should be fine. I like mesquite but have no problems using oak cut from my back yard. This smoke I used oak.

Woo hoo! Sparklers!!

I use a charcoal chimney to get the coals started. If you use charcoal with any frequency, get one of these. They’re cheap and you’ll never need starter fluid again. I got to use leftover sparkers from New Year’s to light the newspaper.

Once your coals are nice and hot (you can tell they’ll be white and burny) dump them in your pit. I look to smoke somewhere between 225 F and 275F. It’s not an exact science but low and slow is the name of the game. The difficult part of cooking any barbecue is about to begin. You want to maintain this temperature for a long time. The brisket will take 1 to 1.5 hours per pound. So a 14 lb brisket will be 14 to 21 hours to finish. You want to maintain a steady temperature. To help steady the peaks and valleys of the heat, I put a big pan of water in the smoker to help hold heat.

Now that your pit is steady around 250, it is time to put the brisket on the smoker. I put the brisket on fat side up, with the thicker part towards the fire. Among the endless debates you’ll hear about barbecue, this is another one. Some people put fat side down, some flip halfway through the cook, some do other crazy things. I put the brisket on the smoker, close the lid, and look at it 16 hours later.

If you don’t have a wire thermometer for cooking yet, buy one. You’ll never overcook a chicken again. Brisket is a funny cut in that you want to cook long beyond it’s safe to eat. The internal temperature I look for is about 180 degrees.

Now that your brisket is on the smoker, feel free to do whatever you want as long as you can come check on the cooker every couple hours to add more wood/charcoal. We went to the horse track and won 3 dollars and had 10 beers. Then we came back and stoked the fire. Went to the bar and played darts for a while. Came back and stoked the fire. Went to bed, got up couple times during the night to stoke the fire. Then finally about 18 hours later, our brisket was ready.

We were having people over later in the day so I just wrapped the brisket in foil, then wrapped in a towel and put into an ice chest. The longer you can wait to slice it, the better it will be. Storing it in such a manner will keep it plenty hot for a long time. I think I let this one rest in the cooler for 4-5 hours until I pulled it out to slice. When I pulled it out, it was still too hot to handle.

Foil. Towel. Cooler.

Now your brisket is cooked and smelling amazing. A quick way to ruin it is slicing it incorrectly. Luckily we have used the pre-cook trick to slice a guide. Use a sharp carving knife and make thin cuts along the guide you’ve already cut. Now you notice that one side of the brisket is much thicker than the other. The thick side actually consists of 2 muscles held together by a layer of fat between them. The grain of each muscle runs perpendicular to each other. So applying what we learned earlier, if you slice with the grain you have shoe leather not delicious bbq. Most restaurant just ignore this and continue to slice the whole piece and you’ll see the 2 pieces of meat held together with a layer of fat. This is my pet peeve about brisket (well one of them). The pieces are not hard to separate with a sharp knife. Once you do you’ll need to identify the grain and slice against it.

Finally you’ll have a big platter of brisket to enjoy and share. Brisket freezes well so feel free to not slice the whole thing if you don’t plan to eat it all in short term. It makes for excellent everything. Eggs, tacos, sandwiches etc.

Here it is done. Also, you can see how the one section runs on a different grain angle than the other.

Lets eat!

Wait, wait, wait, where’s the bbq sauce? I thought barbecue = barbecue sauce?! Please get out of my guest post on this blog. No, in all seriousness, sauce does have a place in barbecue, but I’ll never say it has a place in Texas style. If you’re ever invited to eat a Texan’s barbecue, please don’t embarrass yourself by asking for sauce if it is not provided.

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