I awoke at five in the morning on Friday to take a slab of meat the size of a newborn out of the refrigerator. I went back to bed for one hour. There was a time when an hour like that would be lost to the stresses of the upcoming day. This time I fell back asleep and had frantic dreams about some of my favorite men who have been known to smoke a brisket or two. In my dream I was having a family BBQ and alongside our smoker, my uncle Harry had parked his big smoker. And, then my dad pulled up looking five minutes fresh from deer camp, ready to start cooking. In the dream, Pitts had already built the fire for me. I awoke again at six to find Pitts snoozing happily right beside me, and the fire was mine to start. I far prefer having dreams about getting started on a brisket to that dream where I forgot to answer discovery in a timely fashion, or the one where I show up to court and can’t speak.
For me, six is a strange time to be starting a fire. I am not on a cattle drive. I am not camping. And, I don’t own a BBQ joint. Those seem like reasonable excuses to start a fire at the crack of dawn. No, I’m nobody, and I’m in the middle of Dallas, and I’ve simply found myself temporarily obsessed by the art of smoke.
And, I’m not great at it. I’m not awful at it. But, who are we kidding here? This morning I started Smoked Brisket II. Last week, I stunned myself with a perfectly edible, if not award winning, Smoked Brisket I. Like any pursuit that one tries to learn by repetition I am already learning a lot…I’m already forming a lot of questions and thoughts on the program.
[Is this much smoke escaping from my cooker a problem with the cooker, a problem with a novice adjusting temperatures to quickly, neither, or both? This is on my list of things to figure out. But it makes for a pretty picture, regardless.]
1. Do BBQ experts obsess about species of beef cattle the way dairy farmers do? They must. Jersey’s produce higher butterfat. Huge Holsteins produce more milk overall. Am I supposed to be able to go up to a butcher and say, “I want Angus, and I want it trimmed just so, and it should have been from a happy, grass fed cow named something like Sam.”? This is not a conversation I’m hearing at the butcher counter and both of the two briskets I have procured so far have come out of plastic vacuum-sealed bags, pretty much lowering the “stump the butcher” questions. It leaves me wondering where the really great pit masters get their meat. Or, in the process of smoking meat for 12 hours and up, do you cook your way past the nuances of the starting product? I have no bloody idea. But, I think not. I think it matters. I think I need to learn the differences between prime, choice and select. I think I need to really understand what those words mean even thought they all sound quite positive. I do not think it is a matter of good, better, and best. I think it is a matter of no, maybe, and definitely. And I think 12 hours of my time is worth a few extra dollars. Back in the days when I had the privilege to watch cattle moseying about on grass outside of Wichita Falls, I recall my dad using the names Charolais, Angus, Brangus, and Hereford. Now I’m wishing I had paid just a bit more attention.
2. If I’m not careful I could lose a limb, or at least a digit or two. I really need to learn how to work an axe. My husband has these wonderful axes. And he looks like he was born whacking off little chips of wood for kindling or taking a swing and splitting a log. I pick the thing up and glance it off the side of the log instead of getting any purchase on the little bit I want to shave off and it suddenly occurs to me that this is not Looney Tunes and a moron with an axe is a moron with a major injury. I will need to ask for a lesson on proper use of the Gränsfors Bruks axes.
3. As is the case with “mom brisket” made in the oven, smoking meats is all about time, and it isn’t done until it is done. When cooking these big hunks of meat in the oven I’ve become ever aware of the concept of “geletanization” or that magical time when the meat has cooked long enough (and to such a temperature) that the collagen in the meat begins to turn into gelatin. This is where brisket goes from shoe leather to tender. I suppose that this is where I need to end up on the smoker too, but on Brisket I, impatience at 10-1/2 hours caused me to take the beef out just a spot prematurely. I bet I was a mere 30 minute to an hour away from a markedly better result. Though, I must say…it was pretty darned good for a rookie. So, with so much advice swirling around about temperatures and times and methods, what is a person to do? I aim to find out. So far, my rule is that there are no rules and I get to do this however I damn well please. What do you think about them apples? There are a lot of folks who think there is only one way to do this, and the funny part is that it is always THEIR way.
4. After consuming a lot of information I am taking a reductionist approach. Simple. Simple. Simple. I started off with grand notions about rubs and mops and spray bottles and what have you. I reduced it to the following until I get my sea legs: 1) take the meat out of the fridge an hour early to start coming to room temperature; 2) Rub: 3 tablespoons kosher salt, 2 tablespoons black pepper and 1 tablespoon chili powder; 3) try to hold the heat at around 250 degrees; 4) don’t open the lid until 12 hours have passed; and 5) cook until fork tender.
5. I am increasingly open to the idea of wrapping the brisket in foil or butcher paper after a certain amount of time in the smoker. What I love about cooking is that if you read the right things or hang around the right people, someone will eventually get into the nerdy science bit of the enterprise. Last night, post brisket removal, I read an article about the “stall” when smoking. It goes like this…after 6 hours or so of cooking and temperatures steadily increasing the temperature just stalls. Horror. Truly. Time does not stand still but the brisket just sits there not seeming to cook. This, the author attributed to evaporative cooling, or the fact that at such low temperatures and with the intentional draft to pull smoke, the smoke actually starts to cause the air to cool by interacting with the moisture coming off the meat…or something to that effect. Makes my head hurt just thinking about it. But, one of the thoughts on dealing with it was the foil route. Since I’m no BBQ judge and don’t really get bent out of shape about the texture of the “bark” on the finished meat, I’m thinking that I need to continue to play with the idea. That is on tap for Brisket III.
6. Whatever I do, I need to find a cut of brisket, a grade of brisket, and a method of smoking it that can reliably be completed in 12 hours. Getting up any earlier than six in the summer is for the birds. And sailing past dinner time because a brisket needs more time is likewise, for the birds. Brisket II needed 14 to 15 hours to smoke, so we ate leftovers for dinner and I kept smoking the brisket into the night, then rested it, wrapped it, cooled it, and warmed it up for lunch the next day. But I know I’m missing out not trying this meat, after a proper rest, on the day of smoking. Too many variables intervene that could affect the quality of the meat, namely the re-warming. By the way, that whole “for the birds” bit doesn’t apply if people are lining up hours early to give you money for your brisket. This is not a problem I am dealing with at the moment.
7. I need to keep trying it and I need to keep reading about it and I need to keep learning.
- This isn’t difficult so much as it is interesting.
- Smoking meats does not take nearly as much wood as you think it will.
- You will not want to get up this early…but you will be happy you did.
- Wood is expensive (though not so much considering it used to be a tree).
- Men like doing this because it is fun.
- When you start the day at six, smelling like well, the inside of a cooker, you will not even consider touching the laundry or anything else that needs cleaning. And, you might actually sit outside and read a bit. I mean, you’ve got 12 hours of fire tending to enjoy here…don’t spend it all making potato salad.
I am going to the Foodways Texas Barbecue Camp next week in College Station. I’ve probably already mentioned this. But, I’m excited about it. This won out…just barely…over Beef 101, an honest to goodness three day immersion course on the beef industry put on by Texas A&M. I will do Beef 101 soon. It is going to happen. But I suppose that at the end of next weekend I will have a much better handle on ALL of these issues and hopefully a lot of good b.s. to share with you, as I am confident that in a large group of BBQ aficionados there must, there just must, be good b.s. being thrown around. If not, I’ll be sorely disappointed. I’m anxious to learn, and I’m anxious to bring it all home and keep playing with my old smoker.
[The books suggested below will tell you that you can learn a lot about a person by what is on their plate of BBQ. No sauce. Red sauce. Hot sauce. White potato salad. Yella' potato salad. No sides. Bread. Pork. Beef. Sweet Tea. Big Red. Sun tea. Corn? Is that my Papaw's Iowa roots showing through? BBQ is highly regional, traditional, and family based. How does your family do BBQ?]
Ideas for Father’s Day:
Legends of Texas Barbecue: (by Robb Walsh) I’ve mentioned these books before, but now that I have read Robb’s book and and almost finished Republic of Barbecue I unequivocally recommend them for anyone who likes barbecue, Texas barbecue, or Texas. LoTB is full of recipes and methods and thoughts from luminaries in the field.
Republic of Barbecue: (by Elizabeth Engelhardt and other great people) Similarly, this book is full of voices. It is about food, yes, but more than that it is about people and places, history, culture and society. It is not academic, per se, but it is more interesting than most books about food. It is full of great photos and essays and conversations. Get it for yourself, but definitely get one for dad at the same time.
Gränsfors Bruks Axes: These are real, high quality, somewhat pricey, but utterly worth it for the quality, axes. They come in many sizes and for different purposes. But here is a link to the hatchet that I made friends with this weekend. You can get them from Amazon or a number of other, more interesting, retailers like A.G. Russell Knives. Russell is a great place to shop for dads anyway.
My smoker is a gift I gave to my husband a long time ago. Obviously, a good smoker would be a nice gift too. If you get Robb’s book it talks all about the types of smokers and gives a lot of food for thought, so to speak.