Texas Beef Brisket

I have been pretty quiet for the last 2 weeks, a combination of some business travel and being in the urban garden shoulder season. From Halloween to Thanksgiving, my chores here on the farm are mundane, cleaning up the raised beds, turning over the soil, composting, and repairing what needs repairing. I plant fava beans and potatoes around Thanksgiving, as soon as a week of 60-degree weather hits. I started indoors winter lettuce, beets, and swiss chard seeds and will move them to my temporary greenhouse outside when they get to be an inch tall. There is a lot of cooking going on in our household, the kinds of things you would expect when the season changes and the holidays are in full swing. Soups and shepherds pie, turkey and all the fixings for Thanksgiving, ham, lot’s of root vegetables.

A few nights ago my wife said to me “I need something different than chicken, turkey and pork.” I was at Costco yesterday and while making my obligatory stop at the butcher section found what she was looking for… beef brisket. There are volumes written about the intricacies of cooking beef brisket. It’s an uncomplicated cut of beef that is equally unforgiving. If cooked too quickly, it will be tough and unappetizing but when cooked low and slow it renders a succulent gelatinous slice of beef that will make your mouth water in anticipation of the next slice. There is really nothing like properly prepared beef brisket, nothing. Let’s start with the basics. Brisket comes from the lower front section of the steer, the pectoral region. It is a tough muscle that gets worked hard, so it’s not marbled and is very tough. There is no amount of marinating, tenderizing, or fancy technique that will transform this cut into something you crave; it requires a long cooking time at low temperatures for the collagen in the muscle to break down into a gelatin. Smoke adds flavor where there is little to start with.

Let’s start with the basics. Brisket comes from the lower front section of the steer, the pectoral region. It is a tough muscle that gets worked hard, so it’s not marbled and is very tough. There is no amount of marinating, tenderizing, or fancy technique that will transform this cut into something you crave; it requires a long cooking time at low temperatures for the collagen in the muscle to break down into a gelatin. Smoke adds flavor where there is little to start with.

I buy whole packer cut, which includes the flat and the point sections. It’s large, the small one I bought today was 10 lbs., but keep in mind that it will shrink a lot when cooking. If you get the smaller pieces, you may find that they lose a lot of moisture when cooking and are disappointing. Just do yourself a favor and get the entire cut, which will be between 10 and 18 lbs.

64c5b823-7712-4912-9895-e8cde51654aeRemove the brisket from the vacuum packing and lay in a large foil tray. There is a fat cap over one entire side of the cut, along with a section of thick fat that runs through one side of the meat. I try to cut off as much of that as possible while leaving the fat cap itself intact. That large hunk of fat does nothing more than melt away so if you cut it off you will do yourself a favor down the process.

Salt both sides with approximately 4 tbs. of coarse salt. Let rest for 20 minutes to as long as overnight. Prepare a dry rub and coat liberally.

1/2 cup turbinado sugar
2 tbs ground cumin
1 tbs cayenne pepper
3 tbs smoked Spanish paprika
1 tbs ground black pepper

A Texas beef brisket is uncomplicated, there are no marinades or mop sauces to deal with. A dry rub is all that is added, which is necessary to build up the prized bark when finished. If you have the equipment, injecting the brisket with a cup or more of beef broth will increase the moisture in the meat and while I think this does maker a difference I will also say that it is an extra that you will not regret if you skip. If you have an injector, by all means, take a few minutes to pump some liquid into the meat.

44e8a7d7-221b-4341-9c4f-b3d68b88749eFor a barbecue setup, you need something that you can control the heat on if you want it to be fire-and-forget easy. I use a kamado grill with a BBQguru pit and meat probe setup. 6ba8cdc9-af3d-4a6d-94ce-cdf223a54061-1If you are tending your fire manually, you will need to pay close attention to maintaining a low pit temperature and you will still need an instant read meat thermometer to gauge doneness. 
For wood, I have one preference, hickory, but I would go with maple as a substitute. Mesquite is common in Texas bbq, but I find the flavor a little harsh while hickory holds up well with the tough cut. I run my grill at 225 degrees but don’t hesitate to go up to 275 if you are tight on time. The meat will be perfect at 203 degrees… yes, 203. I’m not sure where that comes from but a lot of pitmasters swear by 203 and that is good for me.

An interesting behavior that the meat has while cooking is that it will hit a stall temperature and just stay there, you will be tempted to think your thermometer is not working properly. All large cuts of meats and I’m thinking about you pork shoulder exhibit this behavior in the smoker. What is happening is that as the meat is gaining in temperature it becomes an insulator and starts absorbing heat without getting warmer, and then it just pops and starts gaining in temperature again. At 225 degrees the cooking time for a 10 lbs brisket will run 7-8 hours. Just let it cook, resist the urge to open the grill too often to check on it.

With the grill going and smoke producing, lay the brisket on the rack with the fat cap on top. That’s all there is to it, just let the grill do its work… I took the opportunity to have a couple of beers and a cigar with my friend Eric.

At the proper temperature, remove the brisket from the grill and place in a foil pan to rest, covered in foil. After 30 minutes it will be ready to enjoy. As you can see in the image of the finished product, it has shrunk down quite a bit and has taken on a glorious mahogany and blackened exterior. 622745c6-613d-4de2-a789-d85b2af801a8