Tastes of Texas: How To Cook Brisket

Forget about the Longhorn woes for a while and channel your inner pit master.

BONizens, allow me to welcome y'all to "Tastes of Texas," a new weekly series dedicated to giving Burnt Orange Nation a delicious new flavor.

After yet another comment thread wound up becoming an extended discussion of tailgating, BBQ, whisk(e)y, beer, and food in general, PB proposed we create a dedicated forum for the topic. I accepted this opportunity without hesitation because, well, food and drink has always been a passion of mine, and if you'll allow me to toot my own horn a little here, I am a hell of a cook, an even better pit master, and I pride myself on my whisk(e)y and beer knowledge (toot). More importantly, I can think of no better community with which to converse on the subject. Food and drink have always been a central part of my Texas sports experiences, and judging from the conversations I've already had with many of you over the last few years, it seems to be a recurring theme across the board.

As for the scope of this series, my goal is controlled chaos. The post will run on Thursdays (most of the time) and I'll aim to keep things fresh by exploring a wide variety of the great tastes this magnificent state has to offer. Sometimes I'll share my tips for making stellar BBQ, while other weeks I'll give you away game restaurant guides, and other times, still, I may delve into reviews of the amazing microbrews available throughout Texas. I certainly hope y'all enjoy the series as much as I know I'm going to enjoy writing it.

And, most importantly, I hope that it won't be a monologue, but a conversation. I expect the comments to be as essential as anything I write in the post itself, so don't be shy.

Against that backdrop, let's get to the meat of our introductory topic: Brisket: The Texas Classic.

Longhorn Nation, I don't need to tell you that things look bad right now. Really bad. The problems with our dear football team have been discussed ad nauseum after last Saturday's calamity, so I'll say no more on the issue. Instead, let's talk about an arena where we Texans always flaunt our superiority. Something that no visor wearing poindexter from trailerpark land can ever take away from us. Texans BBQ, and dammit do we do it well. And when Texans BBQ, we BBQ beef; pork has its place in the BBQ hierarchy, but to my friends in the deep south: sorry, pork's a sideshow, not the main event. So grab your favorite drink and come with me to the back yard because I'm about to teach y'all how to make a brisket so good it'd make Barry Switzer do a jig and sing "The Eyes of Texas" for a second helping

A couple of points before we begin: First, to keep this from running too long, I'm writing this as if y'all are somewhat familiar with BBQing and grilling. If y'all have questions on absolutely anything, please feel free to ask it in the comments, and I'll happily expand. Second, I'll assume your BBQ pit has an offset smoke box, or at the bare minimum, a drum pit. There are other ways you can do it, but this has been my standard set up for as long as I can remember, so I would be doing y'all an injustice if I wrote from any other perspective. Now, let's get to it.

The first thing you'll need to do, obviously, is get a good brisket. There are generally two types available at the store: packer trimmed and market trimmed. The former is the massive hunk of meaty goodness people imagine when they think of Texas BBQ, while the latter is a much smaller, inferior cut. If I catch you with a market trimmed brisket I'm coming to your house, ridiculing you in front of your kids, calling you a Yankee, and making you sing the Aggie War Hymn. Packers take longer to cook, but are a much superior piece of meat. You've already made the commitment to BBQ, be sure you take the time do it right. You want to find a brisket that is somewhere in the range of 12 to 15 pounds. Many internet resources will tell you that you must buy at prime or choice meat, but this simply isn't true. While prime and choice are certainly better cuts and will leave you with a better final product, keep in mind that this is a 15 pound piece of beef; cost is going to get extraordinarily high in a hurry with those cuts. With my method, you should have no issues with lower grades of meat. When selecting your brisket, try to fold it in half. One that gives more than the others is generally a tenderer cut of meat; this is the one you want. If you live in Texas, most grocery stores should have what you're looking for. If you're elsewhere, you might have to make arrangements for a local butcher to special order your meat.

Now, that you have your brisket, you're going to need to do a little bit of prep work. There are two parts to the brisket, the flat and the point. The flat is the leaner, flatter end, and the point is the fattier, thicker end. You will be able to tell where the flat ends and where the point begins because the direction of the grain of the meat changes where the two meet. One side of the brisket has a fat cap that covers the entire area that we'll call the "fat side" while the other side should have very little fat that we'll call the "lean side." I personally do not trim very much fat off my briskets because that fat translates to flavor and helps keep the meat moist. If you insist on removing any fat from the meat, the general rule is that the fat cap should be around a quarter of an inch thick, and the lean side should be free of most large fat chunks. There is one glaring exception to my "no trim" approach, though. There is a very large piece of fat on the lean side of the brisket where the flat meets the point that needs to be removed. It goes deep into the brisket and contains excess fat and connective tissue that you don't want. Cut out as much of this area as you can.

Once your brisket is properly trimmed, you want to rub the entire piece of meat with either mustard or vegetable oil. Neither have a noticeable effect on the taste of the final product, but whichever you choose will act as a glue for the spices, or rub, that you put on next. Once your meat is covered with your glue of choice, it's time to rub the brisket. The rub can be any combination of spices you so choose, but it should at minimum contain the following: kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and paprika. After that it is entirely up to you. Some people prefer a lot of brown sugar to sweeten the meat, while others like to add cayenne for a heavy kick. I'm of the opinion that the rub isn't as important as a lot of BBQ aficionados make it out to be. Ultimately, this BBQ is your creation, and should contain the flavors you like, and as long as the meat is cooked properly, it will be delicious. Once you've covered the brisket in rub, let it sit for a couple of hours before you begin cooking.

The next step in the process is to build your fire. One of the biggest differences with my BBQ than most others is that I cook with wood rather than charcoal. In fact, I hate charcoal. I don't think it imparts a good flavor into the meat, and I don't think it generates enough smoke. My favorite wood to use for brisket is pecan, but mesquite, oak, live oak, and hickory are all viable options. Just ensure that whatever wood you choose is a hard wood; using a soft wood for BBQ will end in disaster. Build a fairly large fire with your wood of choice in the smoke box of your BBQ pit, and let the wood completely burn down into coals. This bed of coals will act as the base for the remainder of your BBQ endeavor.

Once your fire is built, place the meat on the cooking rack with the fat side down and the point of the brisket facing the smoke box. I leave the fat side down during the entire cooking process because it acts as a heat shield for the meat if the fire gets too hot. When I first learned to BBQ the old notion was that you want to cook with the fat side up because the fat will melt and seep into the meat. However, this idea has been disproven by multiple authorities because the temperature doesn't get high enough in the pit to render the fat. Once the brisket is on the pit we're finally ready to begin the cooking process.

What I'm about to say is going to absolutely infuriate you BBQ purists. It goes against everything that has ever been drilled in your head since the day you first learned the concept of "low and slow." Pit temperature is not the Holy Grail of BBQ. Every BBQ guide out there says that the pit has to be kept at a perfect temperature of 225 degrees at all times, but in my experience this simply isn't true for several practical realities. First, unless you have a very expensive stand up smoker, you will drive yourself crazy trying to maintain your temperature. At 225 every time you open the pit to sop your meat with mop sauce or open the fire box to stoke your coals you will drop below cooking temperature. Second, if you maintain 225 degrees, the cooking process takes way longer than it actually should. At 225 degrees the cooking process will take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half per pound. I'll let you run that math with a fifteen pound piece of meat. Don't get me wrong, temperature is very important, and anything over 300 degrees will leave you with a BBQ disaster. My point is you don't have to kill yourself trying to keep the temperature perfectly consistent. Shoot for anything between 225 and just below 300, and you should be able to finish the brisket in around nine hours.

Once you put the meat on the pit you'll want to place one or two fresh logs of wood on your coals at a time. This will generate the beautiful smoke that bellows through the pit. Again with the temperature theme, my main concern when I BBQ is having tons of smoke coming out of my smoke stack rather than micro managing the temperature. This gives the meat that beautiful smoke flavor, and it will give you a fantastic smoke ring on the brisket. Check your fire every fifteen minutes or so, stirring the coals and at times adding more wood as the logs break down.

After about two hours of smoke, the rub should be starting to form what is called a "bark" on the meat as it slowly blackens and adheres to the brisket. This is the time to start mopping your brisket with a mop sauce about every thirty minutes. Mop sauce will infuse even more flavor to the meat and will help that bark form on the outside. The best mop sauces are homemade, but a store bought version is an adequate substitute. (There are many great recipes online, and I'll be happy to share mine in the comments, if anyone wants it).

After about 4 to 5 hours of smoking and mopping, your brisket should have a fairly solid bark. At this time the internal temperature has reached a point where the meat won't take any more smoke. It's time to wrap it. Place the brisket in a large disposable aluminum pan and pour a beer or a can of beef broth in the bottom. Then, tightly seal the top with heavy aluminum foil, and place it back on the pit. The liquid in the pan will evaporate and condense on the foil which will help tenderize the brisket while keeping it moist. Because of this, you can feel free to increase the temperature of the pit if you've been smoking at the lower end of the temperature range. Let the meat cook in the foil for about another 4 hours. This is a crucial step and is the reason I maintain temperature is not that important. If you don't wrap, temperature does become crucial because high temperatures will dry out the meat before it gets tender. Most BBQ competition cooks wrap. Follow their lead, and make life easier on yourself: Wrap the thing.

You'll then want to pull the meat out of the foil to finish. While the brisket was in the foil that amazing bark you created during your first 5 hours has turned to mush, and we need to firm it back up to get the proper texture. Place the unwrapped meat back on the pit and smoke it for about another hour, then remove the meat from the pit. You then want to let the brisket rest for at least thirty minutes to let all of the internal juices redistribute throughout the meat. If you attempt to immediately slice it, your product will look incredibly moist, but it will taste dry because all of the juices will have run out onto the cutting board. You've already put in nine hours; be patient.

After the meat has rested for the proper amount of time, separate the point from the flat, and slice each part of the brisket across the grain. Slicing across the grain helps immensely with tenderness, and should be done with all meat, but especially so with brisket. Serve immediately.

By following this method your final product will be moist, flavorful, and tender. Furthermore, you should have an amazing smoke ring around the outer edges of the brisket along with a fantastic bark on the outside. Sit back and bask in the glory while your dinner guests marvel in awe at your incredible pit master skills.

Be sure to let Mr. Switzer know he's singing out of key.

Edit: I was asked by people in Saturday's open thread to post pictures here for those who have bookmarked this as a resource.

Prepping, Rubbing, and Second Mop

Just Before Wrapping

Final Product, Slice of the Point


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