If you didn’t read my first post on smoking brisket, please know that I am a rank amateur. I am not so much giving advice as reporting on my learning curve. So if you think I’ve got something wrong, or you would just like to chime in on your methods, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment and join the conversation.
When I got back from Foodways Texas BBQ Summer Camp my summer got wild and I just now got back to working on my brisket trials. Oddly, on one of the hottest day of the summer I figured I might as well jump into the Texas weather head first and start again. Let me say from the beginning, that while this was my best one yet, I still don’t think I’m quite there. The crucial ingredient in brisket smoking, TIME, is not as obvious an ingredient as it seems. It is not simply TIME. It is time and the right temperature for the right amount of time. I’m working to find that balance. I finally got my brisket to the right temperature by letting it cook long enough. What I did not do, I believe, is let it get there slowly enough. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me share with you my thoughts about this go round.
I purchased Certified Angus Beef (CAB) for the first time…or so I thought. More on that in a second. Generally, I’m a shopper of opportunity and one of my first briskets was an impulse and I didn’t look at the label and it was “select” grade. Another was an “it was a great sale” decision. Another was a little more thoughtful but was not Certified Angus Beef, though it was “choice.” I haven’t been very systematic about this variable, which is silly…because the meat is kind of important. But, if you find the world of beef buying confusing, you are not alone. Here is a nice chart from Texas A&M that goes through beef grading. But, notice that on this chart there are levels of each grade. These levels are generally not reflected on packaging. For instance, a high “choice” grading is almost as good as a low “prime” whereas a low “choice” is very close to a high “select” which is not of as high a quality. The ability to determine which end of the spectrum a “choice” cut of meat falls on is left to us.
In addition, the determination of grade is done on the rib-eye and applies to the whole carcass. So when you look at your “choice” brisket, you know that the carcass from which the brisket came had a “choice” marbled rib-eye, and while that generally correlates throughout the animal, it doesn’t necessarily say anything about that particular brisket. It is a guideline, though. That being said, a “select” brisket that is smoked by John Mueller or Aaron Franklin is going to turn out better than a Wagyu premium “prime” brisket smoked by me. Because, I believe that the skill with which a brisket is smoked is just as, if not more important than, the grading of the particular brisket…unless it is utter garbage.
Let us all take a moment to feel sorry for me…as I have yet to go to Austin to eat at these temples of BBQ. But I have it on the finest word that they are both beyond wonderful. OK, carry on…
Part of the reason that this is true is that brisket is one of those tough cuts that rely very heavily on the cooking method to become tender. Good luck trying to grill a slice of brisket like a steak. It is not going to have a happy ending. Brisket needs a long, slow period of cooking for the fats to gelatinize and the meat to become tender. I knew this when I was back making “mom” briskets…time is critical.
I found what I believed to be Certified Angus Beef at the Restaurant Depot, which is a wholesale supplier to restaurants. You have to have a sales and use tax permit to shop there. This isn’t a reasonable resource for your average, stay-at-home mom trying to smoke up a brisket. I NEED to be able to get it elsewhere, but this is a start. Why am I acting confused? Because, now that I’m thinking about it, I asked for CAB, and I bought something that is labeled “Premium Choice Angus Brisket.” As of writing this I have thrown away the plastic wrap and I’m not in the mood to dig through the garbage. Certified Angus Beef is a marketing seal. If the wrapper has the CAB symbol, it means only that the beef was subject to several additional levels of grading beyond mere marbling of the rib-eye to ensure that it meets the group’s standards. This includes the weight of the animal, size of the rib-eye, the muscularity of the animal, and a maximum acceptable “neck hump” amongst other things. The idea is to weed out attributes of non-Angus animals without needing to do a DNA and paternity test on every single animal in the world. That is what I was going for.
I asked the man in the meat department for Certified Angus Beef and he pointed me to the premium brisket that they had available, marked “Premium Choice Angus” which isn’t the same as the CAB seal, which means I may in fact have gotten something as good as “choice” CAB and I might not have. I thought I had this figured out…but I was hasty and did my research about CAB before I went shopping, not after.
Before I go about this again, I’ll be calling our friend Karl Kuby at Kuby’s Sausage House, my favorite purveyor of meat, and asking him how I can order precisely the grade and cut I want. After all, Kuby’s has actual butchers. The fact is, even with my pea-sized amount of knowledge about beef, I have learned a lot, thanks to my friends at Texas A&M…enough to know how much I don’t know, anyway…which is the same as knowing that I have to ask the right questions. And, I know now that “the guy in the meat department” is not the same as a butcher. Which means that when I asked the guy for CAB and he took me to a package that said “Angus” he thought that he had given me what I had asked for. I didn’t know enough at that moment to probe further, and that is my fault. It really shouldn’t be this hard, though. Yes, time to talk to Karl or Dieter about brisket. The only reason I didn’t is that, as I said, I usually start this on an impulse and the last time I got a brisket at Kuby’s, all they had was flat cut…which is great for a lot of things, but not what I’m doing now.
Conclusion: I bought a brisket and it was delicious but I still have a boat-load to learn about the beef industry. And, there is a lot of information contained in very little labeling on meat. Look at the marks on the plastic. It tells you the processor, and often the grade, even it if is not present on the paper label. When in doubt, ask. If you don’t get an answer you like, find an honest to goodness butcher somewhere and spend your money there.
I am now more sure than ever that kosher salt and black pepper are the only seasonings I need when smoking brisket. I went to Penzey’s recently and bought a big bag of whole peppercorns. I ground them in a coffee grinder the night before I seasoned the meat. Why does this matter? Pepper, and many other spices are full of volatile oils. The minute you crack them open they start losing their punch. So, if you have a half gallon jug of ground black pepper that you bought three years ago at Costco that you are still working to use, you are missing out on some dynamite flavor. And, on that note, you need to be careful when you do grind the pepper right before cooking that you don’t totally overwhelm the meat. But, I really love the basic combination of salt and pepper. It also means that you don’t have to worry about burning any fragile spices and throwing an “off” flavor into the mix. But that is just my two cents…I know everyone has their passionately held thoughts on the matter.
The single biggest change between last time and this time is that I have finally figured out what is actually going on in my smoker. The first time I tried smoking a brisket solo, I kept wondering why in the world my brisket wasn’t getting up into the 190’s where I wanted it…it was taking FOREVER. That caused me to learn about the “stall” which is fascinating, but still didn’t account for what was going on. After gleaning a ton of advice from people who know better at BBQ Camp, I came home and armed myself with some serious digital thermometers, including my now much beloved iGrill. Then I ordered the ambient temperature probe for the iGrill. That was the clincher. You see, my smoker’s thermometer sits way up at the very top of the barrel and only goes about 2 inches into the smoker. My briskets have been sitting about 12” below that level and about 12” further away from the fire box. The one on top has also been in the outdoors, attached to the smoker for nearly 15 years. But when we took it out and tested it in the oven before the first brisket, it tested close-ish. I really didn’t think the thermometer itself was a factor. But, what my digital gear revealed was that the thermometer on the smoker reads approximately SEVENTY DEGREES higher than the digital thermometer placed in the smoker right beside the meat.
SEVENTY DEGREES! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
Truly, it is difficult to raise the internal temperature of meat to 195 degrees when the air circulating around the meat has been at around 160 to 180 degrees, give or take. In fact, when I hit the “stall” on my first two briskets, I had merely gotten them as hot as my smoker was going to get it…and not hot enough to do the magic.
Now, you may say that my smoker stinks, and you may say that I’m a doofus. Both of these things may be true. But use my ineptitude to your benefit. If your briskets are turning out strangely, despite following all of the rules, check your equipment and invest in some good thermometers. Briskets may be “cheap” by the pound but 12 hours of the day doesn’t come cheap.
So this time I was actually smoking at the right temperature, or at least an accurate temperature.
I chopped up kindling the night before…hatchets are seriously fun tools. And then I left it ready by the smoker. I got up at 5 to get my brisket out of the fridge and then went back to bed and reset my alarm for an hour later. In the meantime, my sprinklers came on and soaked my kindling. And, I set my alarm for “weekdays at 6” instead of Saturday, and I therefore woke up at 7 to a drenched pile of wood.
I only relay this so that you understand why I wasn’t a stickler for keeping my temperature on the fire super low at 225 degrees. Fearing a 9 p.m. finish time due to my late start, I let the temp wander up to 250 to 260 for the entire cooking period and my 10.5 pound brisket was at temperature and a speedy 8.5 hours. I started checking at 195 and it seemed perfect, but I was a little worried. So I gave it an extra 30 minutes and it migrated up to 200. The fat was gorgeous. The fork went through it like it was jelly. The extra 30 had been key in that regard…which was probably more about the extra time than the extra degrees. The fatty meat was divine. I made “snot” like Daniel Vaughn taught me about…which is the gelatin-like goo that gets all over your fingers and rips up the cheap napkins when you try to clean it off. The bark tasted great. The only negative…the lean meat wasn’t as tender as I wanted it to be.
Conclusion: I need to get up on time, get the smoker to closer to 225-240 and give the brisket every second of slow cooking that I can. But, God, I’m so close I can taste it.
I used mostly oak and a few pieces of pecan throughout the day. I started with a little natural charcoal to get things going. The biggest change for me is that I took my husband’s advice on fire building. To wit, just because you build a good healthy fire doesn’t mean you can’t control the temperature. The first few times I was afraid to really get the fire good and going for fear I wouldn’t be able to keep the temperature low. Instead, what I created was a very inconsistent temperature and a fire that I had to constantly tend. With a good fire that I fed periodically and well, I was able to simply control the air inflow to play with the temperature. As a result, my smoker held to a far more consistent and low temperature. This was a big fix, too. And it allowed me to check (from indoors) my iGrill and just go out to feed the fire now and then. Also, I didn’t even open my smoker other than the fire box until the brisket reached 195 degrees, which probably had a lot to do with shaving several hours off the enterprise, as well.
This is fun. The only reason that I’m even getting close is because I am paying attention to the teachings of some very knowledgeable people. The Foodways Texas BBQ camp taught me a great deal. The professors at the Texas A&M Meat Sciences Department are fantastic…and they are completely open and helpful. I also have learned a great deal from Daniel Vaughn, the BBQ Snob of Full Custom Gospel BBQ. All of these folks are on Twitter, too. So once you get to following all of the BBQ maniacs on Twitter you will learn a great deal, too. Everyone has an opinion, but everyone is nice. One of Daniel’s gifts to the world is that if you listen to him, he will tell you exactly where you need to go to taste the very best brisket in Texas. Then you will know what you are shooting for. Until you try some sensational brisket you aren’t shooting for the stars. Yours might be better than 75% of the BBQ you have tasted, which is great…but not transcendent. There is transcendent brisket to be had. And getting close doesn’t get you anywhere close, if you know what I mean.
Daniel Vaughn (Full Custom Gospel BBQ): @BBQsnob
Jeff Savell (Texas A&M): @jsavell
Robb Walsh (legends of Texas BBQ and Zen BBQ): @robbwalsh
If you follow Daniel, in particular, you will see who he is talking to out there and see about 100 more people to follow out in the smoke.
Also, join Foodways TX. The theme this year is BBQ. Don’t even think about signing up for BBQ camp without joining first. They’ll let you. But, I’m telling you to join. It is more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
Comment away, friends. I’ll stop talking. Now, talk to me about smoking brisket.