As luck would have it, I recently found myself in the lobby of a hotel in College Station, TX, having secured a coveted seat for Camp Brisket. A few years ago, I went on for several linear feet about the joys of the BBQ Summer Camp put on by Foodways Texas and the Texas A&M Meat Sciences Center. Now I will wax sentimental about this sister-camp dedicated to that quintessential Texas smoked meat, brisket. Buckle up, friends, this is a long one.
Not just a few jokes have been made during the Foodways Texas BBQ events about how lovely it is that a group based out of the University of Texas should come together in such an ecumenical fashion with a bunch of Aggies to throw a meat party. But that is precisely what it is. And, Brisket Camp is an offshoot of BBQ Summer Camp devoted entirely to the art and science of, and devotion to, this one cut of meat. Apparently the greatest of rivalries can take a few days off when BBQ is concerned.
I bumped into Robb Walsh, a founder of Foodways Texas, in the lobby and we decided that the best way to begin two days of eating little other than brisket was to hustle out to a seafood spot and eat something aquatic. Over oysters and other things, we caught up on life and his upcoming book on one of my other favorite food groups, chili. And a whole group it is, as you will learn…but that is a talk for another day.
Thursday morning, people began showing up at the Meat Science Building well before sunrise. As usual, the students in the Meat Science program had been working far earlier than we ever considered awakening, and pits were already fired up. I showed up a few minutes early and got a tour of the mobile smoker of Russell Roegels, who most recently served a ton of brisket to the secret service who were guarding Texas parachutist George Bush, Sr. during a recent hospital visit. Yes, that one. I was fortunate enough to get a peek at the pepper crusted briskets slowly cooking inside the mobile smoker, and started the day smelling like a proper Texan.
I said my hellos to our truly lovely hosts and educators, Dr. Jeff Savell, Dr. Davey Griffin, and Ray Riley and found a seat handy enough for taking photos. And then the interesting folks started pouring in, as happens at all of these Foodways Texas events. First was notable Houston chef and all around nice guy, Randy Evans. We met at last year’s symposium and I was happy to catch up on his latest culinary work, as well as stories about his kiddos. He is doing some very interesting consulting work and you should check out Recipe for Success, a cooking and nutrition program he works with, teaching cooking skills to local elementary school kids. That is a pretty karmically sound way to give back with your talents, I’d say.
Know this: to the extent I write here with an air of confidence about my subject matter, I am merely repeating the copious amounts of information I gleaned from others. And I’ve likely screwed some of that up.
Dr. Savell started us off with a big “Howdy,” as is his habit. I like it. None of my professors ever led off with a “Howdy” and I’m glad I get a chance to come back to school, albeit BBQ school with no midterms or grades, to get that kind of a welcome. Note to all academic sorts, try a “Howdy” next time instead of that whole icy intimidating stare thing of which you are all so fond. Maybe then you also can have a chair and a state of adoring graduates, as do these gentlemen.
Dr. Savell went on to tell us how the BBQ classes developed at A&M, that the separation anxiety of college freshman could be as profound as the loss of a parent, and that having a few small, not so serious classes, where students could bond over things like BBQ and baseball actually made a difference in retention at the university. When a 4:00p.m. Friday class is packed with students, you know you have hit a chord, he shared. From that grew this BBQ curriculum, if you will, and now we elder statesmen are the beneficiaries of a great idea.
“Most of you have mastered pulled pork, correct?
Most of you haven’t mastered brisket, correct? And that is why you are here.”
“Yes, sir.” we responded. And so it began.
Dr. Savell took the time to let us all introduce ourselves, and it was not a small group. He said it is important for people to know who you are. He stated, “We are bonded.” And we are, in a sense, by this common love of an iconic Texas cut, oft misunderstood, and chronically poorly prepared. But more than that, hearing how each of us ended up here, what we do, who brought us here…increases our respect for each other and the process. Of this group which included doctors, lawyers, oil and gas professionals, authors, restaurateurs, competition cooks, chefs…so many noted that they were here to learn, to do better, to improve…to celebrate BBQ.
Said Daniel Vaughn, the BBQ Editor at Texas Monthly, “Every time I’m in this room, I end up learning something,” to which Ray Riley responded with pitch perfect timing, “It’s a classroom.” It was hilarious. But all joking aside, Daniel and Ray are right. I don’t care who you are or how good you think you are, if the likes of Daniel Vaughn, Aaron Franklin, Randy Evans, Robb Walsh, Bryan Bracewell, Wayne Mueller, a whole handful of Goode Company managers and chefs, plus surgeons, chemists, etc. are here in this particular classroom to not only share knowledge, but to LEARN, you know there is some good stuff in the air. I’ll happily ask a million questions. I’ll happily sop it all up with a slice of white bread, and take home what I can…and share a little of the collective knowledge with you.
Robb Walsh on Brisket History
“When the anglos got here, the Mexicans were already cooking BBQ in a hole in the ground,” he began. And while cooking meat over fire goes back slightly further than that in the world, Texas still boasts several longstanding community barbecues where meat is cooked directly over slow coals in enormous long pits in the ground. Traditionally, animals were brought to the BBQ. A smaller animal, a calf, would be quartered and the quarters speared with two long rods that would extend over the edge of the pit, and could be turned when needed. These skewered meats would line the trench and cook for hours on end. There are 8 or 10 of these events still held in Texas, a tradition worth a look, I think.
But this notion of taking the animal to the fire was necessary, he explained, as early on you couldn’t just order up particular cuts of meat. Thus the calf, too. A huge steer was a lot to deal with. Not until the emergence of “boxed beef” did it become possible to specialize with cuts. Basically, with the emergence of the railroad, beef started being shipped far and wide. But, sides of beef didn’t fit in boxcars very well. If beef was cut up and shipped it in boxes, it fit better. Thus, “boxed beef.” You still got a whole cow worth of meat, it was just in boxes. It was called a “cattle pack” and seven boxes held a whole cow.
Now, regional demands dictate in which directions which cuts will go. And also, cuts are changing based on the value of the meat involved. This is quite evident in the brisket which a keen observer or pitmaster will tell you has changed shapes as of late.
Robb is quite an historian, as any of his books on Texas BBQ, Tex-Mex, oysters or other Texas foods amply prove.
We transitioned from history to anatomy. Dr. Davey Griffin started with the basics but the basics quickly revealed that you cannot really separate the cut of meat from the market forces surrounding it. Here is some Latin for you. A brisket is not one muscle, it is two overlapping muscles which are actually oriented in two directions, the pectoralis profundi (the flat) and the pectoralis superficialis is (the point).
The brisket (each animal has two) is located at the front, basically under the front legs. If a cow stood up on its hind legs like a human it would go from halfway up the ribcage up to the shoulder area, but inside the arm. If you look at a live animal, it is in between the front legs and you can see a “pendulous” and fatty mass of skin if it is well finished. Dr. Griffin rubbed his belly when he said well finished. That made me laugh.
Off the animal, a brisket is known in the meat circles as a 120, which is the number assigned to it in “the book.” That designation stands for “deckle off boneless brisket.” Of course, for the regular folks this clears nothing up because all of a sudden we are thinking “well, Lord, there is such thing as a bone-in brisket?” and “what the heck is a deckle?” In short, the deckle is the fat between the brisket and the bone. The bone(s) in question are the sternum bones, the adjoining ribs, and the cartilage between the two. Now, the fat in question is not the fat that is layered on the brisket, about which you would cry if someone were to take it all off. The deckle is on the other side of the brisket and is not missed. And while I’ve never ever seen a bone in brisket, now its limited existence has much to do with a big change in the way the brisket is harvested, too. In place, the profundi (flat) is a very long muscle. But traditionally, it was cut between the 5th and 6th rib, so that squares off that end a bit. And then it goes on up toward the head. At some point somebody figured out they could make a little more by selling the side edge of the brisket as a cut called “pectoral meat” so now the brisket is as a narrower cut, but longer to compensate for that loss of mass, up past the 6th rib where it gets very thin. So if you are confused that briskets look very long and have a skinny bit at the end, whereas they used to look more rectangular, you are not alone. It is just beef economics.
Regarding the latin business above, if I typed that correctly, wonderful. That would be a miracle. One of my final moments at Camp Brisket entailed Ray Riley and Davey Griffin, separately, drawing pictures for me on napkins trying to orient my brain to which way the brisket went, and which bones went where. And that was after a fairly comprehensive class by each of them on the matter. They do put up with a lot.
If you look in the meat case at the grocery store, what does this all mean? These are some of the nuggets from Dr. Griffin’s talk on anatomy:
1) If a cut is marked “flat” it means it is lacking the point…a deal killer for smoking, because the point is where the succulent and fatty meat is. It is fine for “mom brisket” by the way. Which I like…crock pot and all. I’m an omnivore in that way.
2) Don’t fall for the “we sell only USDA inspected meat” line on the package. All beef in US commerce is inspected by the USDA and if not the purveyor would be in jail.
3) Look closely at the plastic bag your brisket is wrapped in. It has the grade on it, typically in a little stamped circle or box. Grading is a separate issue from inspection, which is about food safety. The PLANT can’t grade. The USDA does. Though grading, unlike inspection, is optional. Often the paper label doesn’t tell you all you need to know. The stamps have grade, and a few other nuggets of information like where the beef was processed. Learn about labels and read the information stamped on the plastic. If the meat isn’t graded, you probably aren’t interested.
4) Point and flat muscles don’t all run in the same direction. Cutting across grain always helps in tenderness. Which is fine on the flat, but on the point they are oriented differently.
5) If it says “packer trimmed” it means it isn’t trimmed at all, or minimally, according to Dr. Griffin. Get out your sharp knife, you are going to need to trim that guy off.
That is where Aaron Franklin took the stage.
Knife Selection, Slicing and Carving
Aaron Franklin is funny. There is is just no way around that. You wouldn’t think that a lecture on trimming beef would be quite so engaging. But the guy was born to talk to people. Running Franklin Barbecue, an enterprise that he and his wife essentially birthed in their backyard and then a trailer prior to running 100 briskets a day through their Austin joint, means that the man has trimmed a few briskets in his time, along with each and every other task required to run the place.
“I want a nice aerodynamic brisket.” he said, as he started moving a brisket around in front of the class to get a feel for its shape, where the good fat was, where the meat was under the fat. “The end game is what it is going to look like when it cooks.”
So, I feel stupid already because I’m one of those who essentially takes it out of the package and throws it in the smoker as is, albeit with seasoning. Aaron, with a pretty Shun knife, proceeded to quickly but gingerly peel off strips and chunks of fat, here and there, sculpting the brisket into something that would not only look beautiful cooked, but was also strategically shaped to not have little bits that were destined to cook unevenly or look ugly. He made the brisket pretty before it got anywhere near seasoning or heat.
Franklin Barbecue devotes 5 hours per day to trimming 100 briskets. He said, “If you want them to look the same, they’ve got to be trimmed the same.”
He made it attractive before ever putting it near heat. He trimmed a whopping 4.9 pounds of fat and some meat off of the packer’s trim brisket. This includes parts that were unattractive, frayed, ugly fat knobs, useless fat that just pulls off the meat once cooked, and even a bit of what looked like well-marbled meat that he said is tough and just not very good. Off it goes. Some of the fat is good for sausage. Some isn’t. But know that all that fat was paid for at the same rate as the meat. So factor the price per pound of brisket and multiply that by 4.9 and understand that the price you pay at a BBQ joint has to reflect that loss.
He taught us that fat that lives between the flat and the point is not the “best” fat and doesn’t give much flavor. But according to Aaron it is a great test for your cooking. If it isn’t well rendered and nice, you probably didn’t cook it long enough or hot enough.
When Aaron finished, Dr. Griffin returned and proceeded to unceremoniously cut apart Aaron’s sculpted brisket. This was an anatomy segment after all and we needed to look at the point and the flat separately. But I know I’m not the only one in the room who winced when he did it.
You have to talk about knives to talk about BBQ, really. Unless you just stand in line at a BBQ joint, that is. But if you are smoking meats, you are prepping meat and you are carving meat, in which case you need good knives. Dr. Savell’s main point was, “Spend some money on knives. Don’t do this cheaply.” And then there is this line which is not applicable to your home cook necessarily, but bears quoting, “We like big knives, because we’ve got big meat.” Then he and Aaron proceeded to cut a pair of briskets for our lunch. Aaron’s rule of thumb when slicing a brisket is more a rule of pencil. He slices the width of a #2 pencil for lean, and the width of a fat pencil for fatty.
And, herein lies the difference between the sort of folks I like and the sort I can take or leave. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there are people who show knowledge and there are those who share knowledge. That is a Lefty Kreh line. Aaron and Dr. Savell and Dr. Griffin and Ray Riley and the pit masters and everyone associate with this camp shared everything they knew. They weren’t showboating. They were sharing. They laid out little tips and nuggets of knowledge constantly over the course of these two days. A guy like Aaron doesn’t need to do that, and you’d think would gain a distinct competitive advantage from NOT sharing this stuff…but share he did…about trimming and slicing and everything else. And so did all of the other panelists, speakers and educators. And the neat thing is that each and every one of these folks at one point or another expressed that they felt strongly that this kind of sharing, this ecumenical dialogue to borrow a Savell-ism, floated all boats, that they also were learning from one another right along with us.
Our first tasting was all about meat grades and it was interesting. Briskets were smoked in Southern Pride cookers to remove all variables other than grade. They were also seasoned the same. We blind tasted select, choice, prime, a Wagyu, and a Certified Angus Beef Product, I believe. Then we each chose our favorites based on flavor, juiciness, texture, and the like. For me there was a pronounced winner and it turned out to be the prime. This cut also scored best generally, with the Wagyu close in the running. I’m glad. I didn’t want the Wagyu to win on principal. I’m not going to buy a Wagyu brisket at a cost of $200 and subject it to the whims of my incompetency at home. I needed to feel like I had a shot with something more accessible and while prime is still plenty expensive and difficult to come by, at least I have a chance.
[Center: Will Burdette]
This is the part where we get really intimate with the giant carcass hanging in the front of the classroom. This was shortly followed by all of us having our pictures taken with the side of beef. This is not something most people get to see every day.
Ray Riley and Dr. Griffin walked us through the grading procedure. The carcasses chill for 36 to 48 hours before grading. They are graded at 32 degrees, approximately. The carcass is graded using a combination of factors. But individual cuts are not graded. The carcass is cut between the 12th and 13th rib and as the side of the carcass opens it reveals the ribeye. I can’t express how cool it is, when you live in grocery store world, to see this process. Riley takes this giant knife and slices open the carcass and there, gleaming like a ruby, appears this totally obvious ribeye. Perhaps I’m the only one, but I’m always so excited to figure out where the thing in the meat case belongs on the carcass. “Look, look, I see it, It’s the ribeye!” And this is not the first time I’ve witnessed a version of this talk, and I was still excited to see the ribeye just sitting there.
I digress. Why grade meat?
“Why do we grade? Drive around. All the cows are different. Most of the time, the people feeding the cattle in the feedlots are not the people who raised the cattle. The average herd size in Texas is less than 50. There are far more people that have 12 head of cattle than have 5000. All these little guys bring them to the sale barn. Then the buyer is putting them in a field to put some gain on them quick. Then they’ll go to the feed yard. They may change hands three or four times before going to the packer. The packer has to make them all work. We try with grades to take the heterogeneous populations and predict that they’ll “eat” more alike.“
So, predictability is the key. It is a way for the packer to communicate the quality of the beef to buyers and to consumers without each and every one of us needing to look at each and every carcass. As noted earlier, the grading is handled by the USDA and the industry pays for that service. Remember that this is a whole different thing than USDA inspection, and while inspection is mandatory, grading is not.
What drives the grade? Marbling and maturity. Most beef does not come with a birth certificate. The ages have to be determined by other factors. As cartilage turns to bone, it does so in a predictable way. Folks who understand the pattern can look at the ossification in a particular bone and combine that with an assessment of the “lean maturity” or the degree to which lean meat is changing color and texture and make a very educated guess at the age. Then the ribeye is assessed for marbling with ranges that go from “practically devoid of marbling” to “abundant marbling.” These factors are then combined and a grade is assessed for the carcass. What does this have to do with brisket? Well, this grade is extrapolated as a predictor for the quality of all other cuts. This is not a perfect predictor, but one can reasonably expect that a brisket is of the same grade as the ribeye. In other words, a brisket marked choice came from an animal which was graded as choice at the ribeye.
So, if I were a cow…and after all the brisket I’ve had this weekend, I feel more cow than human…but as darling as I am, if I were a cow, I would not get a very good grade. I’m sort of past my, ahem, physical prime and judging from the creaking and popping in my various joints, I’m getting a bit ossified. Young and well-marbled win the day, so to speak. But, in this scenario, I’ll stay in the field munching on winter wheat and hopefully having beautiful calves on a very scheduled basis to ensure my continued existence. Are you young and well-marbled? Well, that means you are in Aaron Franklin’s smoker right now. Warm and cozy? I’ll stick with mature and ossified under this plan.
The most important bit of this talk was that while these grades exist, they are by no means equally distributed. In 2011, only 2.9% of carcasses were graded as prime. Now you start to understand why it brings a premium price. And while there are far more graded as choice, the range of quality that comes under choice is huge, so some choice is practically prime and some choice is barely over select, and the difference is notable. This is important to know when you are standing in the grocery store. Not all choice is created equal, and select…well, it is not as nice as choice…but not bad either. I would put it this way…if you are going to spend 12 to 18 hours babysitting a brisket in the smoker, with a lot of hungry people thinking you are going to give them something very special, you should perhaps consider hedging your bets by at least buying choice and by choosing that carefully…or even jumping up to prime if you can find it or afford it. At least for our tasting, I found the prime to be significantly better than the choice. But you really cannot even out all of the variables of a smoke and make a definitive statement like that. This was one smoke, from many different animals. But the next time I smoke a brisket, I’m going to try to track down a prime.
We also covered yield, but it is more of a market force than a “weekend warrior” issue…except as it bears on price…but I’m going to move on to FIRE.
Wood and Smoke
Aaron Franklin, Dr. Nick Nickelson, Kevin Kolman of Weber Grills, and Daniel Vaughn did a panel on wood choice and smoke. This is one of the lectures that really helps the regular people, because this is where you really can mess up an otherwise lovely piece of meat. The big message of this talk could be condensed into this: 1) use seasoned hardwoods and 2) make a clean fire. The clean fire bit really stuck in my head because I think when we imagine our smokers we imagine them bellowing smoke as an important sign that everything is working. As Aaron stated, “it is not the wood, it is how you use it.” What is a “clean fire” as opposed to a “dirty fire?” A clean fire has good coals with good clean heat coming off. There are not a lot of off-gases. Aaron continued that if you are belching up smoke for days after eating, that is a “bad fire.” If you see a lot of smoke, that indicates impurities and a fire that hasn’t burned off the impurities yet. Green wood means it is unseasoned. Unseasoned means that it hasn’t dried enough after being harvested. Unseasoned wood has a great deal more moisture and so the beginning of the fire is devoted to, in essence, moisture evaporation and a lot of nasty byproducts result. The consensus of the panel was that it tastes really bad. Six months of seasoning helps. But wood can be over seasoned. And wet is not the same as green. Well seasoned wood can get damp and grow fungus and whatnot, and that’s not good either.
Clean fires. Work on it. I’m going to.
Aaron uses post oak, by the way. Kolman is fond of a Hawaiin cousin of the Texas mesquite tree, the name of which escaped me. But, again, the consensus was that burning a clean fire is much more important that wood choice generally (assuming you are working with a good hardwood, and one of the usual suspects). There is no right answer and it is mostly a personal taste and regional issue. Almost all of the wood choice and smoke issues boiled down to a clean fire.
As for starting the fire, the conversation ranged from pear burners (hot stick, weed burning torch), to meat grease soaked peach paper rolled into logs, to plain old bags of charcoal (no shame…but not the chemically impregnated quick-light kind).
Our dinner of, you might have guessed it, brisket, was prepared by Russell Roegels who up until recently was smoking under the banner of Baker’s Ribs and who has now gone off under his own name in Houston. Daniel Vaughn has rated Roegels’ brisket as some of the best in Houston so it is great that he now has his own name attached to it after making BBQ for other people for so many years. He’s a nice man, to boot. Ask him about his side passions of skydiving and scuba sometime. The man is an accomplished flying photographer as well as a pitmaster. Anyway, great meal. Thanks Russell. It is a heck of a thing to cook for a bunch of folks who hold themselves out as BBQ fanatics and one’s notable peers in the industry. And it was a great plate of BBQ. I was thankful for the sausage and ribs for a moment of protein diversity.
[Bottom left: Anthony Compofelice and one of my favorite photographers, Robert Jacob Lerma]
On day two we talked about smoker design. We milled about out in the damp morning and looked at a number of very impressive rigs, some very simple smokers, and many things in between. Weber and Pitts and Spitts had models on display and all fired up. Then we retired to the relative warmth of the indoors and ate kolaches and listened to our experts talk about their pits. This is interesting stuff, but much like the talk on fire and wood, the bottom line was…whatever you have, KNOW it, LEARN it. The message was that all of these designs can work for you, but you have to take the time to learn your smoker. Kevin Kolman of Weber had come with a number of Weber Bullet Smokers, and as the most economical smokers in the field, they produced some very good brisket. You need not have the most expensive smoker or a smoker of any particular shape as much as you need to know and understand the smoker you have.
Aaron likes “a nice aerodynamic design” in his trimmed briskets and his smokers and uses the tubular old propane tank style cookers. Wayne Mueller of the legendary Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, Texas uses a rectangular, horizontal, masonry pit. So does Bryan Bracewell of Southside Market in Elgin. These men boast some of the best brisket in the state…no, let’s go with on the planet. The message…have your preference, but whatever you choose…know it. Know its strengths, weaknesses, hot spots, cool spots, and know enough about building fires and making the smoker work to assess your smoke and adjust your fires or smokestacks or whatever, accordingly.
As Kevin Kolman put it, “Zone in. Get to know it. The more you love it the more you are going to get out of it.” Practically the first words out of Mueller’s mouth for this segment were that your pit is “the heart and soul of what you’re doing…learn it and know it.”
I enjoyed hearing Kolman talk about how as a big commercial fabricator, his concerns on design really had to be sensitive to what his less experienced customers were apt to do. There are liabilities to consider, certainly. And with beer and fire involved, almost by definition, safety becomes paramount for Weber.
Also, here’s a tip. Weber uses new rolls of toilet paper to test their units. They can assess how the smoke is behaving, how hot things are getting, etc. If you have airflow or temperature concerns with your smoker, I think this is a pretty brilliant idea.
There was also a really interesting conversation about cleaning BBQ pits. I don’t think most of us know the difference between the magic in the smoker and bona fide gunk. Wayne Mueller…and I’m paraphrasing…said the following, more or less:
“Think about a river, inverted. If there are rocks, all these eddies occur. Airflow is just like that, cavitates and rolls around. We have to know how that occurs. Then you put meat in and it changes. The gunk on the bottom changes your airflow. The grease deposited in the stack changes the airflow. Cleaning is important from an airflow and from a disaster perspective.”
Cleaning a pit of that size is no small matter, by the way. Mueller now hires a chimneysweep to do it. “Our guys work hard enough as it is.”
The consensus was that you needed to treat a pit like your grandma treated her cast iron skillet. Having seasoning is important. Gunk, not so much. Don’t leave ashes in the firebox indefinitely and for God’s sake don’t let wet ashes sit in your firebox. Don’t clean out your firebox with a hose. Don’t use soap. Aaron goes after his gunk with a putty knife occasionally, but doesn’t seem to be too worked up about gunk unless it is falling over the meat, though they clean the pit weekly. He cautions opening and closing the lids softly.
Dr. Savell gave us a rundown of all of the seasoning options with BBQ. Since our main concern was brisket, it was a fairly short segment with regards to that: salt and pepper. But it is not as simple as it seems on the surface. Salt comes in many shapes and sizes and if you aren’t aware of that, you can end up doubling the amount of sodium you are using if a recipe calls for one type of kosher salt and you, for instance, use table salt. Kosher salts should be interchangeable, right? Not necessarily. Two leading brands have very different flake sizes. One contains much more sodium than the other. Black pepper is a similar issue. Cracked black pepper or ground? How fresh is your pepper? Fresh cracked pepper is very pungent. Five-year-old ground pepper from your pantry…maybe not. Very different outcome. We talked brines and herbs and all manner of other seasonings, but the salt and pepper were really the most important regarding brisket cooking.
We learned about “the stall.” For the uninitiated, that is when you are about 6 hours into the smoke and at about 160 degrees your brisket just STOPS cooking and stays there FOREVER and makes you want to cry because the food won’t be ready til 11 p.m.. Not really forever. But I assure you it feels like it. So we discussed the stall (plan it in, be patient…learn how to hold after the cook instead of freaking out about your brisket being done on your schedule). We discussed wrapping during the smoke with foil to jump the stall, basically, but with a trade-off in flavor and texture.
Wrapping AFTER smoking is a whole different matter. That, was adjudged to be a really great idea. “Peach paper” which is essentially uncoated butcher paper can be used after the smoke to hold briskets in a cooler or a catering box, or even in the smoker. All hail “peach paper.” Note to restaurant suppliers. Carry this. As for Aaron Franklin…he thinks that his choice to use peach paper was “serendipity,” as it made his brisket even better.
By the way, as soon as I say “no foil,” a person who knows better will say, ah, but so and so wraps with foil. Yes, you are right. If you use foil, the message was wrap it tightly so that you are not creating a steam chamber and consider draining out the liquid that builds up inside.
But whatever method you choose, wrap, no wrap or wrap with foil, as Daniel Vaughn said, “Brisket has this great ability to stay in prime form for hours and hours after it comes off the smoker…so let that work to your advantage.” This however does not mean you can slice it ahead of time. Once you slice it, the clock is ticking. Quality of the best smoked brisket starts to decrease rapidly once sliced.
Time for another taste test. All else being equal this year, oak dethroned hickory as the favorite wood (see above about how a good clean fire is really the critical factor…because they were all good).
The Final Panel
So here we are at the end. One more panel. Sometimes you are ready for even the best classes to end because, well, life is waiting. But, had one left early, one would have missed the very best lessons of all. The final panel was a pitmaster panel and yes, they talked about the “how to’s” a bit…these things come up. But the talk was really about the families, the histories, the “how did I get here.” Not so much the “how do I do it.”
Aaron Franklin, Russell Roegels, Wayne Mueller, and Bryan Bracewell sat up front with Dr. Savell and told their stories. Both Bracewell’s Southside Market and Louie Mueller are historical, true legacy establishments. Southside dates back to 1882. Sit with that for a moment. 1882. Think about taking over an establishment like that and what that means within a family and within a community. Roegels, as I stated earlier, has been working BBQ since he was a child. And Franklin, while described often as a wunderkind and surely he is a truly unique soul, worked in a BBQ joint owned by his parents as a youth. They all have BBQ and smoke in their very blood. They all grew up seeing the back breaking labor and hours that go into it and still chose to take up the mantle.
Each told us their backgrounds and their stories. Bracewell told us how Southside Market was a German Butchershop that sold smoked meat on the side, and now “we are the BBQ joint that sells fresh meat on the side.”
He spoke of being in a multi-generational business of this nature, “BBQ is science; it’s art, as well.” But he noted that with a history like that of his family, “You do what you do because that’s what you do.” Then, “I came to A&M to learn the science of it.” He noted how the consumer today is also very much more educated. The expectations are higher. He is training his employees to understand this new environment.
Mueller described himself as a, “3rd generation reluctant pitmaster.” He noted that he started there when he was 8 years old. “When my father took over in 1974 I was part of the deal and didn’t know it. I swore when I left that I’d never do it.” But life, and time, and family, and legacy being what they are, he was drawn back in and returned to Taylor to fulfill a promise to his father.
Roegels grew up in BBQ, but at the service of others. He served tea, washed dishes, and eventually became a pitmaster, but again, for others, under someone else’s banner. He has a world of experience, but is just now getting the opportunity to create his own legacy.
Aaron, well, it all started in his backyard. There was beer involved. And music.
I’m not going to lay down these stories in their entirety, though I typed almost every word. As fast as I could, I typed about the inspirations. Aaron’s big inspiration, his angels singing meat moment…a hunk of brisket placed in front of him by Wayne’s father. I typed about the hours…the time not spent with wives and children. I typed about how they ALL felt that sharing and collaborating in forums like this really made them all better. They push each other and gain inspiration from each other. Aaron’s work in Austin, instead of being a thorn in the side of traditional establishments, has really had a rejuvenating effect for all of them. The way it has been done for years and years merits honor, but all of them spoke of learning and improving and advancing. It was fascinating and quite lovely really. I found myself wishing that someone had thought to record the conversation because these people, so often referred to as competitors, were light-hearted with each other, with ample inside jokes and ribbing. It was charming and sad and funny. And it brought to the fore of my mind that whatever they charge you for a pound of brisket…whatever that number is…it doesn’t start to cover the real cost of making it for you.
Which leads me to this. At the opening of this panel, Dr. Jeff Savell said something that I will not soon forget. He said getting to know these men, these families and these stories has caused him to think of a blessing every time he goes into one of their establishments. In this sometimes ugly, Yelp-intensive, review-obsessed environment, it is easy to forget that these are humans who are giving their all, and more than you ever imagined, to cook for you. Sadly, I’m paraphrasing…I missed a few words in my feverish attempt to catch them all:
“Father please forgive me for being critical of people who do this for a living. Please help me not go in and nitpick it to death. When we go into these places and something isn’t perfect, help me acknowledge that they had a bad day and I had a bad day too, and I’m going to keep going back and supporting them.”
Camp Brisket was two days packed with science, culinary sense, agricultural insights, economics, history, laughter, and a little bit of bullshitting. I’m stopping with that. Know that this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. Foodways Texas was formed to document food culture and history in Texas and the last panel was a perfect example of the types of stories they strive to collect, while they can. It is an endeavor worthy of our support. Texas A&M hosts these events with caring and competence and charm. If…if you can score a ticket next year…it is not to be missed.
Thank you to the students of the Texas A&M Meat Science Department, who went out of their way…in fact, staying up for hours on end tending fires and getting prepared, and serving. They are so generous with their time. And they are overqualified for so many of the tasks they tackled with smiles. Our tea was poured, out brisket sliced, by men and women only hours short of PhDs. Thank you.
Grillers’ Dreams Steeped in Smoke -Reuters
Recap: Camp Brisket 2015 -Zen BBQ, Robb Walsh