Never in the annals of American barbecue has brisket — great brisket — been so widely available.
Once the province of Texas and Kansas City, Mo., world-class brisket now turns up at Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn, New York; at Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, S.C.; and at Smoque BBQ and Green Street Smoked Meats in Chicago. Once deemed a low-value cut (Tootsie Tomanetz, the 84-year-old pitmaster at Snow's BBQ in Lexington, Texas, remembers grinding it to make hamburgers), brisket now commands top dollar at meat markets and barbecue restaurants.
And, once sold only as USDA Choice or Select, it now comes in premium categories like Prime and Wagyu. Its status was affirmed in 2015, when Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, won a James Beard award for best chef in the Southwest.
Yet brisket remains oddly off-limits for one large segment of the population: home cooks.
The cut intimidates the uninitiated for many reasons. First, its sheer size: A whole packer brisket (so called because that's how it's shipped from the packing house) weighs 12-18 pounds, making it the largest cut of meat most people will ever attempt to cook at home.
Then there is brisket's singular anatomy: two different muscles, one stacked atop the other, slightly askew and connected by a seam of fat. One muscle is fatty (the pectoralis superficialis, better known as the point), the other lean (the pectoralis profundus, aka the flat). Both are loaded with tough, collagen-rich connective tissue that gives the meat its structure, but requires low-temperature cooking for most of a day to achieve the proper tenderness.
There's also the matter of gear. Brisket pros like Franklin and John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue cook in enormous pits fashioned from 1,000-gallon propane tanks that they designed and welded themselves. The cooking times are equally imposing, requiring a commitment of 8-12 hours or even longer.
It's enough to make you simply order your brisket through Uber Eats.
Well, take comfort, because barbecuing a brisket in your backyard is less daunting than you think. It requires only four ingredients: beef, salt, pepper and wood smoke. There's no need for a competition-grade smoker; you can make excellent brisket in a common kettle grill or Weber Smokey Mountain, or a ceramic cooker like a Big Green Egg.
True, it takes time and practice, and you may find yourself tending the fire when you'd rather be sleeping. But the results — crisp, salty, peppery bark (the crust) encasing moist, smoky, luscious, tender meat — make the effort worthwhile.
I've been researching brisket and cooking a lot of it at home for my new book, The Brisket Chronicles (Workman Publishing). With input from some of the nation's top brisket masters, I've distilled the process to nine simple steps.
Choose a full packer brisket if you're feeling ambitious. Special-order it from your butcher, and plan to spend a full day preparing it. For a more manageable cut, buy a 4- to 5-pound brisket flat, available at most supermarkets; you can smoke it in six to eight hours. (Sometimes you'll find portions of packer briskets containing point and flat; they cook in eight to 10 hours.)
Most brisket pros use a simple seasoning of salt and pepper (often referred to as a Dalmatian rub, due to its speckled appearance). Billy Durney of Brooklyn's Hometown Bar-B-Que favors a 4-to-1 mixture of 16-mesh (coarsely ground) black pepper and kosher salt, which he applies a few hours ahead to give them time to penetrate the meat. Lewis slathers his meat with a mixture of mustard and pickle juice before applying the seasonings, to help them adhere to the meat and add an extra layer of flavor. My preference is equal parts coarse salt and cracked black peppercorns, with a spoonful of red-pepper flakes to increase the heat.
Durney cooked his first brisket on a Weber Smokey Mountain. Burt Bakman of Slab in Los Angeles started on a Big Green Egg. Franklin cooked his first brisket in an inexpensive New Braunfels, while Lewis began his career with a smoker he rigged from a trash can. This is to say that you can make great brisket in a common backyard charcoal burner.
Other popular options these days are a pellet grill or an electric smoker, both of which do a fine job of maintaining a steady stream of smoke and consistent temperature, but sometimes deliver a tad less flavor than a charcoal burner. I've never had much luck barbecuing a brisket on a gas grill. (It's hard to run one at 250 degrees, and it's even harder to generate enough wood smoke.)
Cooking a brisket is a two-phase process. In the first, you set the bark and flavor the meat with wood smoke. This produces the smoke ring, a much-admired reddish band just below the surface — the result of a chemical reaction between the nitrogen dioxide in the smoke and the myoglobin in the meat. The second phase of cooking finishes rendering the fat and converting the tough collagen into tender gelatin.
Wood smoke is the soul of barbecued brisket. Pitmasters speak reverentially of "blue smoke," a thin, wispy smoke filled with flavor-rich phenols. When using a kettle grill, water smoker or kamado-style cooker, fuel it with natural lump charcoal, adding hardwood chunks or chips to generate wood smoke. Texans favor oak (and sometimes mesquite), while Kansas Citians like to burn apple or hickory. Any seasoned hardwood will do. Buy it in chunks or chips; if using chips, soak them in water for 30 minutes, then drain, to slow combustion. Add the wood gradually, a couple of chunks or handfuls of chips every hour: You want to kiss the meat with smoke, not smother it.
The pros use complicated formulas for heat management. Lewis starts cooking his brisket at 125 degrees, gradually increasing the heat to finish at 325; Franklin runs his pits at temperatures ranging from 255 degrees to more than 300. For home cooking, I recommend staying around 250 degrees. Maintain this temperature by adjusting the vents on your smoker (start with the bottom or intake vent). More airflow gives you a hotter fire; less air reduces the heat.
The second phase of cooking begins when the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 165-170 degrees. This is the point at which most brisket masters wrap the meat in butcher paper or aluminum foil. Franklin and Lewis wrap in "pink" or "peach" paper, unlined butcher paper that seals in the meat juices while allowing the excess steam to escape. Other pitmasters, like Tomanetz, wrap in aluminum foil, a process known as the Texas Crutch. This guarantees a tender brisket, but sometimes results in a steamed texture reminiscent of pot roast.
Home cooks can order unlined butcher paper online, or use parchment paper; just don't use plastic-lined butcher paper.
When it comes to determining whether a brisket is done, the pros wax rhapsodic, even mystical. Durney uses the jiggle test: Grab the meat by one end and shake it. A properly cooked brisket will quiver like bovine Jell-O. Or use the bend test: Wearing insulated food gloves, grab the brisket at both ends and lift. It should bend or sag easily in the middle.
Bakman monitors the internal temperature with a thermometer, but also uses an old-fashioned test: "When you can push your finger into the side of the flat, the brisket is ready." Franklin judges chiefly by feeling "the floppiness and softness."
I use an instant-read meat thermometer, with a target temperature of 200-205 degrees.
After an hour spent trimming and seasoning the brisket and building the fire, and the better part of a day spent cooking, you'll probably want to eat your brisket right away. But resting it in an insulated cooler for an hour or two improves its texture and tenderness immeasurably. Franklin keeps it wrapped in the butcher paper. Durney recommends swaddling the whole shebang, meat and paper, in a beach towel before resting it in the cooler until the internal temperature falls to about 142 degrees.
Resting relaxes the meat, allowing the juices to redistribute. Practically speaking, it also allows you to control when you serve the brisket, which is useful given the broad range of cooking times.
Carving a brisket flat is easy: Simply slice it across the grain to the thickness of a No. 2 pencil. Carving a packer brisket is more challenging because the meat fibers of the point run almost perpendicular to those of the flat. Franklin takes a divide-and-conquer approach: He cuts the packer brisket roughly in half across its width, slicing the flat across the grain on the diagonal from one corner to the other, and slicing the point section from the front edge to the back. Before you start, trim off and discard any large visible pockets of fat.
Texas Hill Country-Style Smoked Brisket
1 full packer brisket (12 to 14 pounds)
Coarse sea salt
Cracked or freshly ground pepper
Red-pepper flakes (optional)
Sliced factory-style white bread and barbecue sauce, for serving (optional)
Using a sharp knife, trim the brisket: Set the brisket flat side down, so the leaner side is underneath and the rounded, fatty point side is on top. Wherever you find a thick sheath of fat on the top surface, trim it to within ¼ inch of the meat. Now look at the side of the brisket: There's a large pocket of fat between the point and the flat. Using the point of the knife, cut some of it out, but avoid cutting directly into the meat. Turn the brisket so the flat faces up. There's a lump of fat on one side: Again, trim it to within ¼ inch of the meat. Be careful not to overtrim. It's better to err on the side of too much fat than too little. While you're at it, trim off any thin, sharp corners of the flat part of the meat, so the brisket is slightly rounded.
Place the trimmed brisket on a rimmed sheet pan and generously season the top, bottom and sides with salt, pepper and, if you like your brisket spicy, red-pepper flakes.
Create a platform for cooking the brisket by cutting a flat piece of cardboard the size and shape of the brisket. (There's no need to make it any larger; the brisket will shrink considerably during cooking.) Wrap the cardboard template in 2 layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Using an ice pick or a metal skewer, poke holes in the foil-covered cardboard at 1-inch intervals. The idea is to create a perforated platform for the brisket. Set the brisket flat on the foil-covered cardboard, lean side down.
Light your grill, smoker or cooker and heat it to 250 degrees. If using a kettle grill, start with less charcoal than you would for grilling a steak: A third to a half chimney starter will do it. If using a smoker, place a large heatproof bowl of water in the smoke chamber. (This is optional, but it creates a humid environment that will keep your brisket moist and help the smoke adhere to the meat.) Add wood as specified by the manufacturer to generate smoke. If using a kamado-style cooker, set up a top-down burn: Load the fire box with lump charcoal, interspersing it with wood chunks or chips. Light 3 or 4 coals on top in the center; gradually, they'll burn down, igniting the coals and wood beneath them.)
Transfer the brisket on the foil-lined cardboard to the smoker. If using an offset smoker, position the thicker end toward the firebox. Cook the brisket until the outside is dark and the internal temperature registers about 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. This normally takes 6 to 8 hours. Refuel your cooker as needed, adding wood to obtain a steady stream of smoke. If the outside of the brisket darkens too much, loosely lay a sheet of foil on top. (Don't bunch it, or the meat will steam rather than smoke, resulting in a pot roast-like consistency.)
Wrap the brisket: Lay 2 overlapping sheets of pink (unlined) butcher paper or parchment paper on your work surface. Each piece should be about 3 feet long. You want to create a square about 3 feet on each side. Wearing heatproof rubber or silicone gloves (or carefully using tongs), transfer the brisket to the center of this paper square. Fold the bottom section over the brisket. Fold in the sides and roll the brisket over so it's completely swaddled in paper. (It's a little like making a burrito.) Note the orientation: You want the fatty point of the brisket to remain on top. Carefully set the wrapped brisket back on the foil-lined cardboard and return it to the cooker.
Continue cooking the brisket to an internal temperature of 200-205 degrees (it will be deeply browned and very tender), another 2 to 4 hours, bringing your total cooking time to 8 to 12 hours, depending on your cooker and the size of your brisket. (Start monitoring the internal temperature at the 8-hour mark.)
You can eat the brisket now. But there's one more optional step that will take your brisket from excellent to sublime: Let it rest. Place the wrapped brisket in an insulated cooler to rest for 1 to 2 hours, allowing the meat to relax and the juices to redistribute.
To serve the brisket, unwrap it over a sheet pan to catch any juices trapped in the paper. Transfer the brisket to a cutting board (ideally, one with a well), lean flat section down. Cut the brisket in half crosswise, separating the flat section from the point section. The corner of the flat farthest from the sliced side can be tough and dry. Make a diagonal cut to remove it. Dice it and serve as burnt ends to thank onlookers for their patience. Look for the grain of the meat. Using a serrated knife or sharp carving knife, slice this section as thickly or as thinly as desired. (Texas tradition calls for slices that are the thickness of a pencil.) If your brisket has somehow come out tough, slice it paper-thin, which will make it seem more tender.
Now slice the point section: Again, trim off and discard any obvious large lumps of fat. Slice the meat across the grain into ¼-inch-thick slices (or as desired). Arrange the slices on a platter or plates and spoon the reserved meat drippings over them. It's nice to serve the meat by itself so you can appreciate the complex interplay of salt, spice, smoke, meat and fat. Texas tradition calls for sliced factory-style white bread. If you opt for barbecue sauce, serve it on the side.
Makes 12 to 14 servings.
Food on 06/26/2019