Quarantine Cuisine: Brisket
Yesterday might be the day I fell in love with my pit barrel cooker.
It also might be the day I decided it's the most infuriating thing in the culinary universe.
I wrote about this before, but barbecue is hard. It's one of the most difficult things imaginable to master as an amateur or professional cook. There are so many variables that one needs to control to produce a good product, and so many variables that the everyday chef just simply can't control that might ruin it.
Brisket is infamous for being the most difficult of BBQ proteins to master. It can very easily result in dry, nearly inedible beef, yet many BBQ joints produce merely passable brisket and still churn profits like crazy. I lived in Texas for three years and came to understand the magic of a truly mastered brisket––Aaron Franklin at Franklin Barbecue in Austin is the most famous guru of brisket, and deserves all the accolades he receives for it. I've stood in line three times for Franklin BBQ, each time exceeding two hours, and each time entirely worth it. Snow's BBQ just outside of Austin wrested the top spot from Franklin in Texas Monthly's best BBQ rankings (and hence the world's best BBQ rankings) while I lived in Austin, and I made a pilgrimage out there twice with absolutely no disappointment, minus the fact that the pitmaster is a rabid Aggies fan. Louie Mueller's spot outside Austin also can't be ignored, with succulent brisket and even better jalapeño sausage. But every other brisket I've had at a BBQ place has been anywhere from just alright to woefully disappointing, despite hoping for the best.
My mom randomly won her Pit Barrel Cooker (or "PBC") from a raffle at our local butcher when she lived in Salt Lake City, and people were very jealous and told her she was incredibly lucky. Given the simplicity of the look of the device, she was a bit confused by their reverence, and never had occasion to use it. Still, she schlepped it to Iowa, and a couple of summers back while visiting mom here, I took the PBC's cherry by making my first brisket, having little idea what I was doing; I mean, I'd never interacted with charcoal outside of activated charcoal toothpaste. Still, it turned out pretty well overall, though nothing close to Franklin or Snow, and my dinner guests were happy with the result. My second brisket in the PBC was a dry, barely edible catastrophe, and we wound up feeding the bulk of it to Maks.
This time around, I decided to do much more research and preparation, and the pit barrel ribs a few weeks earlier provided me a dry run, so to speak, for the main event. We popped down to our local meat market and got their smallest whole-packer brisket, weighing in at a bracing 13 pounds. We also picked up a bag of hickory wood chips to complement our half-bag of mesquite chips left over from our ribs.
The night before, I trimmed the brisket of excess fat and did a dry brine with nothing but salt and pepper, in true Texas BBQ style, and let it rest in the fridge. At 6AM, fourteen hours (one per pound, plus one to rest) before dinner, my alarm went off and I sleepily lit the PBC with a full basket of charcoal and 30 brickettes in the chimney starter, as well as water-soaked mesquite chips (water-soaked wood produces more smoke!). I stuck my Bluetooth-enabled meat thermometer in the thickest park of the brisket and placed the brisket, fat-side-up so the fat renders and melts down into the beef, in the cooker, once the smoke had become thick and white.
The ultimate goal with brisket is to reach 203 degrees, and to cook it "low and slow" at between 220 and 280 degrees, giving the tough brisket muscle plenty of time to denature and become melty-tender. How you get there is an open and rather controversial question. Generally, this means about an hour per pound of brisket. I take periodic readings of the ambient temp inside the barrel with a probe thermometer; one day, I'll install a Bluetooth-enabled probe within the barrel to keep a constant reading. But the goal is to keep things as close to 250 as possible, and with a rudimentary device like the PBC, it's difficult to nail the temperature.
There's another snag, however––when the brisket reaches around 150 degrees, regardless of how well you've controlled the temperature in whatever cooking device you're using, you'll hit what's called the "stall." This is where evaporation begins to cool the surface of the meat faster than it cooks the interior. You can just ride out the stall, but it can last up to or even over four hours without a temp increase. If you don't have that kind of time, the solution is what's called the "Texas crutch," where you wrap the brisket in foil or butcher paper to preserve temperature and moisture in a sort of "miniature oven" around the meat.
When it hit 150, the dreaded stall occurred, and I wrapped the brisket in foil and sprayed lightly with a mix of Worcestershire sauce and water to preserve moisture within the foil. The temperature started going up again shortly thereafter. The saga wasn't over, however. Around 170 degrees, the charcoal had all but burned out, and I had to re-light the PBC. Seemed I had a second stall! It took a long time for 170 to move any higher, but finally got it moving again after leaving the PBC unattended for a beer run, until I hit yet another stall, with hungry guests waiting, at 190, also likely due to the fading fuel in the PBC (hence why I say it is also the most infuriating device).
At the stalled temp of 190, I had guests socially distanced and hungry in the backyard, so I decided the brisket had enough smoke and needed a boost, and I stuck it in the oven at a probably-too-hot 300 degrees. By the time it hit 199, my cousin told me he'd need to leave within the hour with his kids, so I pulled it and let it rest for a probably-too-short 30 minutes, thinking I'd achieved sub-optimal results because of the oven, the extra stalls, the slighty-too-low temp, and shortchanged rest.
I was not correct.
The brisket was about as close to perfect as I can imagine. The exterior had a fantastic black bark from the smoke, perfectly laden with salt and pepper crust, and bordered by a bright red smoke ring.
But the interior, y'all.
I have had brisket at the best brisket places in the world. These people are experts in their craft, and what they produce literally every day is certainly no accident. I do not claim to be these people or even near to their caliber, and I know this was, despite following all the rules, mostly an accident, so I cannot rightfully boast, but...
This was the best brisket I have ever had.
It was insanely tender, gloriously fatty and flavorful, and the entirety of the squad of guests was very happy with the dinner. I paired the brisket with a peach and Bourbon BBQ sauce, as well as a side of simple coleslaw and Butterkäse mac and cheese. The star, however, was the absolutely melty and succulent brisket. All of our arteries are hardening.
Do I think I could do this again? I honestly don't know, but I sure do learn a great deal each time; perhaps I will master this one day!
I suppose my point with this post is to encourage everyone to try something outside of your comfort zone. BBQ is hard, and the choices very controversial. People are passionate about their methods, especially online, and invest hours typing responses to heated arguments about BBQ technique on Reddit. I am no pro, and this is just my third brisket, but as my dear friend Justin said, "you did it right." If you do your research and follow the advice of the pros, you too can produce an incredible brisket, or whatever you put your mind to, even if it takes a few rounds of practice!
People were very happy, and after everyone left for the night, mom and I enjoyed a pint of Cherry Garcia while watching a few episodes of Veep, reminiscing about the amazing brisket. The scent of smoky barbecue in the upstairs of the house will likely endure for several days.
This week, you'll also get a look at my first attempt at paella! The warmer weather brings many opportunities for outdoor cooking. We are also the proud new owners of a Weber gas grill, opening up a sea of opportunities for grilling season. Can't wait for more Quarantine Cuisine!