I've never had any complaints about my brisket. That could be because no one is especially keen to rag on the crazy-eyed lady wielding a hot pair of tongs and giving out free meat, but I'd like to think that it had at least a little bit to do with quality.
Burgers, hot dogs, steaks and chicken are cookout classics for a reason. They're crowd-pleasers and (with a little care) relatively un-screwuppable. They're a safe bet, but for maximum impact, only a giant hunk of meat will get the job done.
Consider the brisket. It's a big ol' flat, cut of beef from the chest of a cow, and it's the stuff of Texas legend. It's bone-free and takes a fairly long time to cook down under low, slow charcoal heat, but every last stomach grumble is worth it.
While many weekend grillers think this sort of project is best left to fifth-generation Texas pitmasters and smoke-soaked competition barbecue acolytes with big, schmancy smokers, a succulent brisket is achievable in your backyard grill.
Really. I promise. Here's how.
A full brisket is often on the order of 18 to 20 pounds, which is an awful lot of meat to address all at one time, and which will take more time and cash than you're likely willing to spend on your first attempt. Shoot for a trimmed brisket - around 5 to 7 pounds and back it up with a slew of sides if you're expecting a lot of company. Haul that home along with some beer, cider vinegar and wood chips and start your rub.
Ideally you'll have a few hours to let your brisket loll about in these spices, but the barbecue deities are not always smiling their brightest down upon us. You'll plan ahead next time, but for now, cobble this together:
Basic Brisket Rub
1/4 cup Sweet paprika (or hot or smoked if that's more to your liking)
Combine all ingredients in a bowl with your fingers, working out any brown sugar lumps.
From here, you can add your own personal twists – tablespoons or teaspoons of dry mustard, coffee, celery seed, dried chiles, powdered onion, garlic salt – up to you. Coriander and cumin play beautifully with heady wood smoke like hickory or apple, but really - even if you keep it super-simple, this brisket is going to be delicious.
Rub this on every surface of the meat and then wrap it and stick it in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight), or go out and start building your fire. Unlike a burger, steak or hot dog where flame proximity is paramount, large cuts like briskets and pork shoulders fare better under sustained, low, indirect heat.
Pour half a beer into a bowl and toss in a handful of wood chips. You'll develop your own wood preferences the longer you're on the smoke train, but fruit woods like apple and cherry are a solid choice, as are mesquite and hickory. Don't fret. And don't guzzle the other half of the beer; pour that into another bowl with a cup of cider vinegar, a pinch or two of red pepper flakes and another each of salt and pepper. That will be your mop sauce.
Light a charcoal chimney (here's how), and when the coals have ashed over, layer them evenly on one side on the grill and place a drip pan on the other. Replace the grates on the side over the drip pan and go fetch your meat.
Position the brisket as far from the coals as you can, grab some wet chips and a few dry ones, carefully throw them atop the coals and close the lid of the grill. Smoke will start to billow out of the vents and it will smell like heaven.
Enjoy that for a few minutes, then check the grill's temperature. You're aiming for 225°F; if it's lower, open your vents as wide as they'll go (and add more coals if need be) and if it's too hot, ease them closed. That may seem counterintuitive, but fire needs oxygen to feed it. Otherwise - stop futzing with the grill. Temperature shifts are the enemy of excellent smoked meat, and as the pitmasters are wont to say, "If you're looking, you ain't cooking."
Your only excuses for opening the lid should be either the addition of fresh coals or mopping your meat. To achieve the latter, grab that beer and vinegar mixture, stir it up and brush it all over the meat once an hour. Use that window of opportunity to throw on some more wood chips, or rotate (not flip) the brisket half a turn once you're about three hours in, but otherwise leave that meat alone.
By the way, gas grillers are not out of the brisket game. Just keep the heat to 225°F, put the meat in a foil pan to shield it from the direct flames, and place the chips in a foil pouch or metal smoker box.
After about five hours (with the trimmed brisket; on a full one you're just getting started), the game changes a little bit. Whip out your instant-read thermometer and get a reading at the thickest part of the meat. If it's 185-190°F - congratulations; you've achieved brisket. If it's not anywhere close, keep going, but if it's nearly there, check every 20 minutes or so until it's up to temperature - and keep mopping.
Once it's sufficiently heated through and through, hoist that baby onto a cutting board and smack away all greedy fingers attempting to pick at it for the next ten minutes; it's been working hard and it needs to rest. Then grab a sharp carving knife and slice in against the grain.
Ideally, in a single slice, you'll see strata of bark (the dark outer crust), deckle (a layer of fat), a pinkish smoke ring, and moist, succulent meat. Stuff a few slices into your mouth and then feed your guests.
If it doesn't look like that, it's probably still pretty good (and again, you're giving people free meat and that is not to be underestimated). But a few troubleshooting tips:
It's gone beyond bark and got burned
It's dried out
It's tough, but not burned or dry
I'm really tired of going out there and fussing with it
Got a brisket question or methodology you'd care to share? Please do so in the comments below. We'd love to hear from you and help/be yelled at as needed.
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