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Brisket, A Journey to BBQ Perfection

“You have a grill big enough to cook this thing?”. The cashier is grunting as she turns this huge hunk of cow over and over, searching for the barcode. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do”. I say with a wink. The guy in the next lane with the bag of charcoal notices the commotion and starts asking me about my “rig” and wants to tell me about hour 8 of his last brisket (he was panicking because it was still hovering at 160 degrees). You see, this is brisket and once you have spent your first 12 hours pacing in front of the smoker and staring at the meat thermometer, you can’t wait to find the next person in this exclusive BBQ club that might have a few tips for your next cook. Truth is, brisket is not all that hard, as long as you have the right equipment and knowledge to get started, plus the passion to keep cooking and learning. We’ll help by imparting all of the know-how we have at the moment, you get the equipment and then let us know what you learn so we can educate the next person. Deal? Ok, let’s go.

Brisket Smoking Equipment
We should talk about equipment first because it is really the most important factor, in my opinion, when smoking a brisket. Temperature control is key, both fire temperature and meat temperature. I would not and do not attempt smoking a brisket until I am absolutely comfortable with a smoker. Get some whole chickens to experiment with first. They are cheap and take far less time. Don’t start contemplating your first brisket cook until you are comfortable that your smoker can hold a low temperature (225 – 250) for at least 8 hours without constant supervision. The easiest way to screw up a brisket and an ENTIRE day (remember, we are talking 1 – 1.5 hours per pound of meat in cooking time commitment) is to not be able to maintain a constant temperature. That leads us to meat temperature monitoring. I would also not recommend smoking a brisket without a good remote meat thermometer.  My favorite is the Maverick Wireless BBQ Thermometer Set. The easiest way to ensure that you will be stressing about smoker temperatures all day is to continually open the lid to check the temperature. Each time you do so, you are giving the fire a blast of fresh oxygen, causing a temperature spike. So get a remote thermometer that will allow you to see what is going on with the meat without having to open the lid. This one allows you to monitor both the smoker and meat temperatures, bonus!

Selecting a Beef Brisket
Ok, you have an awesome smoker and you aren’t afraid to use it, now what? Next, we should talk about selecting a beef brisket. Briskets are usually available from your market as either a “flat” or a “whole” (also called a “packer”) brisket. The whole brisket consists of the flat, which is the meaty side of the brisket, along with the fat cap. If you look at a whole brisket, it is pretty easy to tell where each gets it’s name. I don’t even cook a flat, I always opt for the whole brisket because I think the fat cap keeps the meat moist. Look for a whole brisket in the 12 – 15 pound range and you will get about 6 pounds of delicious BBQ out of it. You’ll notice that the fat cap has a LOT of fat in most cases. You can go ahead and trim off some of it, but don’t cut all the way down to the meat if you can help it (not a huge deal if you did).

The Rub
Smoker, check. Thermometer, check. Meat, check. How about the rub? Some people go CRAZY with their rub. I honestly find it unnecessary. I think the flavor of the beef and the smoke are amazing and don’t need a lot of help. Here’s my real simple rub:

Basic Brisket Rub Ingredients:
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
2 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon white sugar

If you think about it far enough in advance, rub the brisket down the night before and store in the refrigerator covered. If not, just rub it down right before throwing it on the smoker.

Smoking a Brisket – The Beginning
Ok, time for the meat to hit the heat. Get your smoker lit and hovering between 225 and 250. If you bounce all the way up to 275, don’t sweat it. Once you are happy that the smoker has settled in at the right temperature, place your meat thermometer into the thickest part of the flat so that you are measuring the temp at the center. Now, add your wood to generate smoke. Remember, just like BBQ ribs, the meat will only absorb the smoke flavor for the first 2 hours or so. After that, excessive smoke will just create residue on the outside of the meat, creating a bitter aftertaste (not cool).

Once the smoke is going, place the brisket on the smoker fat cap up. There is some discussion around the Internet about whether you should cook the brisket fat side up or down. I like to start mine fat side up. I don’t know why and I don’t know if it matters much. If your smoker supplies heat pretty close to the bottom of the cooking grate, you may want to cook it fat side down so that the flat doesn’t get as much direct heat (and burn). Now, place the brisket on the cooking grate and squeeze the meat together from the sides, “bunching” up the brisket. It will shrink a lot while it cooks, so just push it together to start.  Keep the smoke going at a constant rate for the first two hours and then relax (or go to sleep for the night).

What is Wrong with this Thermometer?
You have been at this for a few hours now. Your smoker is fine, but you can’t help but sit there and stare at the meat thermometer. Believe me, I have been there. There will be times when the meat thermometer doesn’t seem to want to rise. Especially around 160 degrees when the meat hits what the BBQ pros call the “stall” and stays at 160 for a long time. Don’t sweat it, just be patient and let that meat break down and turn into “butta”. Remember, we are in this for at least 1 hour to 1.5 hours per pound of meat.

When is it Done?
Once you are 1 – 1.5 hours per pound in to this thing at 225 – 250 degrees, you are looking for an internal temperature of around 175 degrees. You aren’t done at that temperature, but it is time to move on to the next step. Once your meat hits 170, wrap it tightly and completely sealed in a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil and place it back on the smoker. At this point, you can close all of the vents to extinguish the fire. The wrapped brisket’s own heat, along with the warm smoker will continue to cook the brisket until it is done (another hour or so). An alternative that some people use (including me when transporting) is to use a beer cooler.  Fill the bottom of the cooler up with hot tap water and let sit with the lid closed for about 30 minutes.  Then soak and ring out a towel, dump out the water and place the towel on the bottom of the cooler.  The aluminum foil wrapped brisket then goes on top of the towel, followed by another towel over the wrapped brisket.  Close the lid and it will stay warm for a few hours and allow the meat to reach the desired doneness.  200 – 205 degrees is the magic number for tender doneness. Once you hit that magic range, you are done!

Slicing your Brisket
Your brisket is done and is looking amazing. Now it is time to slice this baby and serve it to your admiring guests. If you probe the meat with your knife, you will notice that the fat cap is separated from the flat by a layer of its own fat. You should be able to easily slide your knife parallel with the flat, but under the fat cap, separating the fat cap from the flat. This does two things for you. You’ll notice that the fat cap’s grain runs a different way than the flat. Also, the fat cap is, well, fatty, so it isn’t ideal to serve to your guests. It kept your meat juicy, so job well done fat cap, but we are interested in the flat.

Finally, slice the flat thin and against/across the natural grain of the meat for maximum tenderness. Serve with your favorite sauce (if you think you need it).

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