The rebel barbecue: beef brisket

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 28, 2011

By Glenn Hudson
For the Salisbury Post
I come to you today to blaspheme in the name of barbecue. Pork is not the only way to take your taste buds to heaven. I’m here to tell you that there’s another way. And it doesn’t go through Lexington, or any other North Carolina town, for that matter. There is a special culinary salvation that comes from Texas.
It is smoked brisket. And after tasting it, I’ve personally heard life-long pork eaters quietly confess that brisket now has a special place in their world forever. A special place indeed. In their mouth.
The big difference between these two forms of barbecue is that one comes from a pig and the other a cow. And the debate as to which one is a sacred animal and thus truly deserving of the name barbecue is as passionate as any in politics or college sports.
Personally, I’ll argue all day long about the quality of the barbecue and the music that comes from the Lone Star State. I won’t, however, brag about most of our politicians, past or present.
There is one important distinction that must be made between what you call barbecue and what I call barbecue. The way I see it, pork barbecue is, well, the whole pig. “Dig and and take what you want,” I’ve been told.
“If you want the snout just pull right off there, buddy,” I might add in a slightly condescending tone. “Just pull it apart. It doesn’t matter if it’s all meat or not. It’s all good.”
Then you’ll quickly say. “Hey, put some sauce on it,” in this sarcastic conversation that I’ve had many times.
Well, we don’t do that to cows in Texas. We just take this one special part, located approximately where the chest would be if the noble steer was standing upright on his hind legs, and we smoke it for several hours until it looks like it’s just barely charred too much. Then we slice it very thin and serve it with a nice fat layer on top and a wonderful charred coating that we call, “burnt ends.” Oh man, it is so good.
I can barely pass by a fresh brisket sitting in the meat department without dreaming about sitting by the smoker for several hours and “tending” the meat. The whole experience really is a wonderful, blue-collar culinary exercise that, when accompanied by the right friends and the right music, and even a Cheerwine slushy or two, can bring peace to your soul and even give you time to contemplate some of the world’s great problems. You’ll have time. Trust me.
Some say it takes about 11/2 hours per pound, or so, to smoke a brisket. I personally don’t use a specific amount of time. I go by the way the brisket looks and feels. Once it gets a nice black coat going along the edges and even along the top and bottom I’m pretty happy with it. When you do it right you’re probably going to be thinking that you’ve burned it and it’s all been a waste of time. You’ll be happily surprised when you’re wrong.
And don’t ever add sauce. In fact, remove all sauce from within a 15-foot radius of the brisket out of respect for a piece of meat that doesn’t need artificial flavors added after the fact. I’m being hypocritical, though, because I marinate my brisket in Allegro’s spicy seasoning overnight before smoking. And then I add a nice layer of cajun spices rubbed right into the meat right before putting them in the smoker.
Some of my friends who are native to Salisbury tell me they feel brisket is more what they call a roast. I tell them that we are not talking about corned beef brisket. Then, after I calm down, I tell them that it all depends on how you cook your fresh brisket and your desired outcome. Brisket can be cooked in the oven (just like up north) the same as on a smoker (in Texas) and the result can be totally different in regards to flavor and moisture. In my opinion, one is way is definitely better than the other.
An oven-cooked brisket, done for the same amount of time at the same temperature, which is always 250 degrees in this discussion, will usually be more moist and tender because you can control the environment easier. For example, I’ve used a brisket-in-beer recipe that virtually submerges the meat during the entire cooking process. The whole thing is done in a turkey pot with a lid on, as well. I didn’t have much respect for myself afterwards and I’m not even comfortable admitting to such a lack of judgement. But there it is.
A properly smoked brisket will be cooked with indirect heat that is supplied by burning hardwood charcoal and mesquite for several hours. The mesquite comes in bags as chunks or chips. Either way, you will want to submerge all of it in water for at least 30 minutes before you use it or else it will just flame up and burn too fast. Adding a handful or more chips on top of burning red coals periodically throughout the process is a great method. How much and how often is really up to you. There is no need to go overboard, though.
As the smoke travels from the fire box into the main chamber of the smoker, past the meat to the chimney, it pauses just long enough to tickle and caress the brisket with a special flavor that only comes from a scrubby little bush found throughout east Texas. The mesquite tree. Well, it usually isn’t tall enough to be considered a tree by someone from the state of the longleaf pine. But it is a tree indeed. And it makes meat smell great when it burns slowly. The result is a strong, charred smoke ring on the outside with the inside a bit drier but tasty in a way that makes you fall in love.
And again, and this cannot be emphasized enough, you’ll never put any sauce on that brisket. Not unless you want to mess it up on purpose.
Still, moisture is the one of the most important points of all that you have to consider when smoking a brisket. The smoking process will continually dry out the meat. So you have to fight back with regular basting as well as keeping your temperature constant. I like to use the Allegro that I used for a marinade as a basting sauce as well. And I’ve been known to use beer. A little bit every once-in-a-while is better than a lot one or two times.
When you are buying brisket you need look for a nice thick layer of fat on top. That will help keep the meat moist during the smoking process. Keep the fat side up at all times so that it will drip down through the meat as well. Either way, you will keep a vigil over your meat while it is in the smoker. This isn’t the, “set it and forget it,” type of cooking. Anyway, hanging out with the smoker all day is really a big part of the fun. You’re looking at five hours or more.
Once you slice it super thin with a meat slicer, an electric knife or a really sharp kitchen knife, you’ll be ready to experience why you should make brisket a regular part of your meat rotation. And that will make you a better carnivore.