I've been doing it all wrong. That became painfully apparent sometime around the sixth hour as I added another chunk of oak and fiddled, for the 432nd time, with the damper on my smoker. I had considered myself a fairly dab hand at barbecue: One of my first purchases after moving to Dallas was an offset smoker (the kind with a firebox on one end and a smoking chamber on the other). But I always struggled with it. My briskets came out simultaneously dry and underdone, even after 18 hours, and had to be finished in the oven -- which is not only sacrilegious but ruinous to the moisture and texture of the meat. So I settled for barbecuing ribs and pork shoulders, which at least were more forgiving of a turn in the oven.
But this is Texas, and if it ain't brisket, it ain't really barbecue.
But now I am smoking under the tutelage of Todd David, pitmaster of the kick-butt Cattleack Barbeque in Farmers Branch. Our goal: to see if a backyard barbecuer of middling competency -- a schmo like me, in other words -- can approximate the luscious, tender, smoky beef David turns out on his 24-foot custom-built Austin Smoke Works behemoth.
The first thing David wants you to know is that this will indeed be an approximation.
"Don't try to be like your favorite pit boss," says pitmaster Todd David. "You don't have the tools and the experience they have."
The difference starts with trimming the meat. We're working with a 14-pound whole brisket, and I've already made matters more difficult by leaving it out of the refrigerator for an hour so it can lose some chill. (It's easier to cut cold, hard fat.) We amateurs should trim off less of the fat, which helps protect the meat from drying out in the more aggressive heat of a smaller smoker. Aim to leave between a quarter-inch and a half-inch, especially on the thick end of the brisket, which will be closer to the fire. You also want to trim off corners and raggedy bits; that prevents burning, and smoke will flow more smoothly around what David calls an aerodynamic brisket.
Our rub is simple: a thin coating of yellow mustard, which acts as a glue, and a heavy sprinkling of coarse kosher salt and coarse-ground black pepper, plus a little granulated garlic. You can get all fancy-like with your rub, but the point is to taste the meat, no? And do not rub your rub. You may pat it gently to help everything adhere, treating it "like you would a little baby," David says.
Then it's on to the smoker, which I had lit at 4:30 this morning. (Oak and hickory are great, and pecan's OK -- but avoid mesquite, which is harsh and hot.) The meat should be centered in the smoker front-to-back to keep it away from the hot metal walls. Lengthwise, place it away from the firebox with the fat end toward the flames. Put a shallow metal pan of water between meat and firebox to keep things moist.
Go back to bed, and 13 hours later, voilà, perfect barbecued brisket. Yeah ... no. You'll spend the rest of the day in a lawn chair obsessing over the temperature gauge. It should read between 225 degrees and 250 degrees. Cooler, and the meat won't cook; hotter, and it will roast. Pitmasters use big logs, and so had I -- another big mistake. They're hard to control in a small smoker. You'll either incinerate your meat or damp things down, producing a smoldering, dense, dirty smoke. Instead, build yourself a nice bed of coals (hardwood lump charcoal is fine for this) and then add small chunks of wood as necessary. You're aiming for a light, steady smoke.
At about 8 a.m., David leaves me to fly solo for five or six hours while he goes off to, I don't know, have a life or something. This is also the point at which, for some reason, the temperature becomes much harder to control than when he was doing it. Must be a change in the weather.
To help keep that temperature steady, it's best to open the smoker as little as possible. But you should check the water pan every few hours, and spray the meat lightly with apple cider if you like.
At eight hours, use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature at the thickest part of the brisket. It should be around 160 degrees. Check again at nine hours, when it should be 180 degrees.
David, who returns around 2 to guide this project to its conclusion, carefully wraps the meat in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil and places it back in the smoker. This "Texas crutch" lets the meat finish cooking without drying out.
Two hours or so later, you'll want to check again. If you've done everything right, the thermometer should read between 190 and 200 degrees -- more on the thin end of the brisket and less on the thick. But time and temperature don't tell you everything: You should feel almost no resistance when you insert the thermometer. Remember that cooking times can be affected -- a lot -- by things like air temperature and wind.
With gloves, gently remove your baby and place it in an insulated cooler for about an hour. It's not absolutely essential, but it does help the meat start to cool down gently. And sorry, it's still not time to eat. Remove the brisket and let it sit on the counter for 30 minutes, with the foil open slightly, so the juices are reabsorbed into the meat.
Now it's time to slice, and how you do this is critical, too. A brisket has two muscles -- the flat (the thin part) and the point (the marbled end) -- and their grains run in different directions. You want to slice across the grain, so start by cutting crosswise at the flat. When you reach the point, turn the meat 90 degrees and continue slicing. And like a good pitmaster, you should serve the meat as it's sliced so it doesn't have a chance to dry out. As David says, "Once you start cutting brisket, the timer's running."
What you should have is buttery, luscious, smoky-salty barbecued brisket, proof that you can, indeed, try this at home.
Mark Vamos definitely plans to get up at 4 a.m. sometime soon to try this again. Reach him at email@example.com.
For bark worth biting: keys to good backyard brisket
EMBRACE THE FAT. Don't overtrim the brisket. A quarter-inch to half-inch layer of fat will help protect the meat and keep it moist.
BE A CENTRIST. Keep the meat away from the walls of the smoker and far from the firebox, with the thick end toward the flames.
PULL UP A CHAIR. You're aiming for a consistent temperature of 225 to 250 degrees and a steady, light smoke; be prepared to watch and tinker.
COOK WITH YOUR HANDS. An instant-read thermometer is important, but so is feel. Is the brisket soft when you poke it, and does the probe slide in without resistance?
USE THE DEBRIS. After you've carved, you'll probably have some meat shreds, burnt-end dregs and bits of crusty bark left over. Chop it all up and put it in your baked beans.
Todd David's Slow-Smoked Beef Brisket
- 1 12-14 pound whole beef brisket
- 1 cup coarse kosher salt
- 1 cup coarse-ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup granulated garlic (optional)
- 1/2 cup yellow mustard
- 2 cups apple cider
1. Preheat the smoker. Working while the meat is cold, trim the fat to a 1/4- to 1/2-inch layer, removing any large, hard lumps. Cut off any ragged parts and sharp corners.
2. Mix the salt, pepper and garlic in a jar with a shaker top until well combined.
3. Place the brisket on a rimmed baking sheet and coat the meat all over with a thin layer of mustard. Starting on the lean side, sprinkle with the rub, holding the jar a foot or so above the meat for even distribution. Gently pat the rub into the mustard. Flip the brisket fatty side up and repeat. Gently raise the edges and apply more rub. The meat should be generously coated, but you may have rub left over.
4. Place the brisket in the heated smoker, fatty side up and thick end toward the fire. The meat should be centered front-to-back, and away from the firebox lengthwise. Place a shallow pan of water on the grill between the firebox and the meat. Using a food-safe spray bottle, spray the meat lightly with apple cider. Maintain a consistent temperature of 225 degrees to 250 degrees, adding water to the pan and spraying with cider every few hours.
5. At eight hours, check the temperature of the meat using an instant-read thermometer; it should be around 160 degrees at the thickest part. Check the temperature again after another hour to an hour and a half. Once the meat has reached 180 degrees, carefully wrap it tightly in a double layer of aluminum foil and return it to the smoker.
6. After two more hours, check the temperature again. It should be 190 to 200 degrees, and you should feel little or no resistance when you insert the thermometer. Remove the brisket; if you do not plan to serve it in a half-hour, place it in an insulated cooler just large enough to contain it without bending or squeezing; an hour will help it start to cool down gently. It can also hold this way for a few hours.
7. Before serving, place the brisket on a cutting board, open the foil slightly and leave it at room temperature for a half-hour.
8. To serve, use the sharpest long knife you have to slice the brisket across the grain. Begin by cutting it crosswise at the thin end; when you reach the point, or thick end, turn the meat 90 degrees and continue slicing.
Serves 12 to 14.