The humbling beef brisket: getting it right
It seems that everyone who enjoys cooking finds their nemesis. That entrée or recipe that taunts us because we just can’t get it right, no matter how many times we try. For some, it’s been the thanksgiving turkey, for others, it’s ribs or the apple pie for dessert.
For most of my life, the protein battle that humbled me most was the pesky beef brisket (#120 in the NAMP Meat Buyers Guide). No matter what I tried, I just couldn’t replicate the experience of a good Texas BBQ joint. What secrets made theirs so much better than mine?
My first failed attempt at BBQ brisket was way back when I was a farm-kid. My dad made a smoker out of an old refrigerator. It worked for chicken, fish and turkey, but we couldn’t get it dialed-in for beef brisket. I’m ashamed to admit that over the years I ruined a good many briskets. Not that we threw the meat away, but it turned out just terrible; as tough as squid. I pretty much threw up my hands in defeat, thinking the skill of smoking brisket was beyond me. But before I gave up completely, I decided to get some help.
I attended a BBQ class in the fall of 2016, focused solely on the beloved brisket. This was the answer! My days of burnt, dry, and chewy brisket would soon be over. I was so stoked. But the unthinkable happened that day. The instructor’s brisket didn’t turn out right, either! It was tough as nails. He’d failed to get the smoker hot enough to allow the brisket to plateau, and it turned out no better than the refrigerator brisket from my childhood (to be fair, it wasn’t his smoker).
I resigned myself that day to just give it up. Sometimes in life we have to recognize our limitations and move on, right? So what, I was never going to be able to cook a decent brisket for my family. There’s no shame in it, we had burgers and prime rib and plenty of other cuts to enjoy instead.
But my resignation proved to be short-term. My defeatist attitude was decidedly dislodged by a healthy dose of sibling competition. Shortly after my disappointing class, my younger brother David bought a pellet smoker and boasted unrelentingly about how good his briskets were turning out. Our Mom taught us never to talk with our mouth full, but he sadistically enjoyed calling me on the phone, taunting me with his mouth full of delicious brisket. He wasn’t even in the meat business. How could I let him show me up?
Surprise, surprise, I got a pellet smoker last year for Father’s Day. I was so excited I even read the instructions! At first I tried the easier cuts, to break-in the smoker. I progressed to watching a few YouTube videos and then, eureka! The day had finally come that my brisket curse had ended. The brisket turned out perfect, and I can replicate it every time now. What a relief!
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I realize what I’d been doing wrong. Using charcoal in uninsulated homemade smokers, I couldn’t keep the temperature of the smoker constant enough to allow the brisket to slowly get to 190 degrees internal temperature. This gradual slow climb to 190 degrees is known as a plateau. I knew ‘low and slow’ was the way to go, but I hadn’t been able to control the cooking with adequate precision. Precision smoking is now possible for back yard BBQ enthusiasts with pellets and insulated smokers.
Now my briskets turn out like my younger brother’s, and even like my BBQ meat-specialist friends in Texas. After I take them off the smoker, I tightly wrap them in foil and an insulating towel to allow them to rest for 30 minutes before carving them up.
I’m hoping you’ll have some smoking tips you’re willing to share. What do you use to rub or mop your briskets? Do you wrap them in peach paper or foil after removing them? Do you find using USDA Prime over Choice makes a difference?
How have you overcome your ‘food nemesis?’