Blue-ribbon brisket hints
* Barbecued (or smoked) brisket just may be the tastiest version, and the most satisfying to create. It requires that the meat be cooked over indirect heat – smoke, in other words – for a long period of time at low temperatures. Slow smoking is what aficionados mean when they use the term "barbecue." Throwing a slab of beef on the propane grill is grilling, not barbecuing. It may work just fine for a nice tender steak, but grilling brisket would create an inedible lump of animal tissue.
The long and low period of cooking – an hour and a half to two hours per pound is typically required – slowly breaks down tissues, melts the fat, and turns a "gnarly" piece of beef into a melt-in-your-mouth delicacy. Barbecued just right, brisket becomes "unbelievably tasty and velvety," said Rob Gregory, who owns Redbones, a barbecue institution in Somerville's Davis Square. His brisket fits that description quite nicely.
* The first thing you need is, of course, a smoker, preferably one with an offset firebox and a thermometer to measure the temperature inside the cooking area. Home Depot sells good highly serviceable smokers for as little as $150. (Thermometers are often a separate accessory.) Brinkmann and Char-Broil are two of the more popular manufacturers of backyard smokers.
* Pick a good cut of meat, one with a "fat cap" on it. "Try to get a brisket from the prime cut of the animal," said Gregory. "It has more marbling in the muscle." Brisket is not very expensive – $3.99 per pound is common. There are two pieces to the brisket, the plate and the deckle. The deckle is thicker and fatter, and typically easier for barbecue newcomers to work with.
* You'll have a long day of smoking ahead of you, so stock up on a good beer. If your smoking in the summer, Sierra Nevada Summerfest is an ideal all-American, warm-weather selection. In the cool weather of autumn, we like smoking with Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a Bavarian smoked lager.
* Don't feel the need to be too picky about the type of wood you use, at least not at first. "Any fruit, nut or hard wood is fine," says Schlesinger. Use what ever is common in your part of the world: hickory, mesquite, oak and apple wood are the usual choices.
* Build the fire in the box as you normally would with paper and kindling, but make sure you soak your smoking wood. Dry wood will burn too fast and hot, with not enough smoke. If the wood is freshly cut, it does not have to be soaked.
* Cook the meat with the fat cap up, "so it's basting the whole time as the fat renders out," said Gregory.
* Place a bowl of water on the side of the cooking surface closest to the firebox. This will help keep the meat moist.
* Rubs are a personal choice and many experts consider the meat flavorful enough on its own. You can use a simple "Texas" dry rub of fresh ground pepper, kosher salt, and sweet paprika. It should be added before the meat is put in the smoker. Sauces (or wet rubs) seem to be more common. They're added during the last hour of cooking, or used as a side. You may be able to find suitable rubs and sauces here in our Tailgate Treats section.
* A rule of thumb is to cook one and a half to two hours for every pound of meat. Experts disagree on the ideal cooking temperature, with suggestions ranging from 190 to 250 degrees. Schlesinger says the temperature should be kept below boiling (212 degrees). Whatever you choose, everyone seems to agree that "the key is to maintain a steady temperature," said Husbands.
* The door on the firebox and the damper on the smoker's chimney help control temperature. Open them up to boost temperature. Close them to decrease temperature. Add a small amount of wood as needed. With a little practice you'll become adept at maintaining a steady temperature.
* Experts also disagree on when the meat's done. Husbands looks for an internal temperature of 195 degrees. Schlesinger says "you're not cooking until you reach a certain temperature. You're cooking until it's tender." How do you know if it's tender enough? Stick a fork in the meat. If the meat comes up when you try to pull out the fork, it's not tender enough and not done. Don't worry about overcooking the meat. It's extremely difficult to do so when cooking with indirect heat.
* When the meat's done, let it cool for about a half hour before cutting. The meat should be cut across the grain "about a half inch to an inch thick," said Gregory. "Thinner if it's a lean cut of brisket." Serve with the fixin's and sauces of your choice.
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