My First Brisket
Memorial Day weekend I earned a long overdue notch in my barbeque belt. I smoked my first real brisket. I say first “real” brisket because awhile back I smoked a little hunk of brisket I picked up at the Marin Sun Farms butcher. This time, though, I went all out. I followed my rule of working with the whole cut of meat so I can learn what I’m doing. I invited some folks over. I even read up on authentic Texas sides and added those to the party.
All food arises from culture and tradition, but barbeque is almost culture first and food second. People across the south are exceedingly territorial about their barbeque. But that is not to say that barbeque must be divisive. Even a good Memphian would eat some vinegar-sauced pork when invited to a Carolinian’s backyard. At its core, barbeque is about slowing down, taking your time, and spending time with others. That’s true no matter what kind of sauce you use.
I wanted to capture both of these cultural features of barbeque – the socialization and the regional preferences – in my first brisket cook. I accomplished the first by invited a few guys over to hang in the backyard. Friend attendance was also necessary because of my first rule of learning barbeque (cook the entire cut). I tried to respect regional preferences by building my whole menu from a great texas barbeque website: http://amazingribs.com/. I prepared beans and potato salad from the recipes on that website.
I won’t get too much into my brisket process / recipes here, because I’m just a rookie finding my way. I did have some interesting challenges to overcome, though. First, a full packer brisket (in other words, the whole cut) is a pretty big hunk of meat. It was too big for my Big Green Egg.
I overcame this obstacle by attempting to separate the flat from the point prior to cooking. (I’m not going to define all these terms here. You can read the technical stuff on www.amazingribs.com). I know I ended up with at least some flat in my point, but I had a really hard time making this cut. My piece of meat looked different than the pictures online!
With these two more manageable chunks ready to go, I gave the brisket a little trim and was ready to start with the rub. I rubbed down the meat late Saturday night.
After rubbing I wrapped the meat back up and put it in the refrigerator. I pulled it out again Sunday night to give it a simple injection of beef broth and a little more rub.
At last, the long-awaited hour arrived. It was time to start smoking! Here we are, all ready to go, with my temperature probes placed, my drip pans of beef broth and apple cider vinegar, and my hickory chips.
A note about the wood chips: I’m changing my strategy here. I used to soak them and put them on top of the coals right before placing the meat. I think both are bad ideas. I confirmed through a little reading on the BGE forum that there’s no real reason to soak the chips for use in the BGE. They won’t flame in the low-oxygen environment of the BGE. I think placing the soaked chips on top of a fragile, low temperature fire has been giving me problems in the beginning of the cook. For this cook, I ended up babying my fire long into the night. (Speaking of “baby,” having an infant is great training for tending a finicky fire all night long.)
Here we are, meat on at 10:30 p.m., ready to go to bed for the night. To be clear – as noted above, the meat went to bed, but I stayed up for hours.
I should have let myself relax. As it was, I built in plenty of time and my meat ended up finishing way early. I allowed for a 17 hour cook. The point reached 200 degrees in about 10 hours. Woah! The flat finished in 13. Luckily I was well equipped with heavy-duty aluminum foil, blankets, and a cooler, to keep those guys warm.
I was petrified of ending up with beef jerky. Everything I read about brisket talked about how difficult it is and how it can easily dry out. I feel I overcompensated with the drip pan, the thick fat layer, and the natural humidity of San Francisco. Look at that pool of juice!
Before the guests arrived I pulled the point out to make burnt ends. I sliced the meat into chunks and put the chunks in an aluminum foil pan with some fat (which I had reserved in the refrigerator) and some extra rub. I lost track of how long I cooked them. I’ll pull them a little sooner next time, though, as I they were a little heavy on the “burnt!”
After I pulled the burnt ends I threw the flat back on the grill for about five minutes a side, at 400. I wanted to firm up the crust a bit and give it a nice shot of heat before I served it. After I pulled the meat, it was finally time to slice!
My beef jerky worries were quite misplaced. Between the moist San Francisco night air, the thick fat cap, the injection, and the drip pans, I probably overcompensated on the moisture. I might try it without the drip pans next time. But when you have people coming over and it’s your first time, the last thing you want is dried out meat! I really enjoyed the final product, and I think others did too. We had a great evening hanging out in the backyard.
I’ll end this post where I stared: waxing philosophical on the culture of barbeque. I enjoy watching the show BBQ Pitmasters, which runs during the summers on some random cable channel. I’ve learned a ton from the show. However, I’ve begun to notice a difference between the “competition barbeque” techniques used on the show and the “backyard barbeque” techniques I read about online. For one, the cook times are much shorter on the professional circuit. That probably has something to do with practicalities of running a restaurant (where these Pitmasters hone their trade) and the time constraints of barbeque competition. As a result of the shorter cook time, and the need to differentiate your product, competition barbeque is much more complicated. These cooks are constantly mopping, saucing, wrapping in aluminum foil, and glazing. It’s not easy!
I decided tonight that’s not my endgame. I’m never going to be a competition cook. I’m never going to open a barbeque restaurant. I enjoy learning new skills, practicing a craft, relaxing in the backyard, and enjoying good food with friends. If I can keep from taking myself too seriously, I will have a lifelong hobby I can enjoy with friends and family. So I’ll keep watching my barbeque shows with an evening beer, but I’m not going to take notes. And I’ll keep working on my techniques, but I’ll always make sure I enjoy what I’m doing. Most of all, I’ll keep cooking because I enjoy it and because I enjoy sharing it with friends. Here’s to barbeque!