The biggest purchase was a big piece of beef brisket, just under eight pounds. I chose my brisket by looking at color (nice and red, indicating fresh and not previously frozen), fat (>1/4″ thick, pale and not yellowed, good texture), and size (small enough to fit on a single rack in my smoker).
Brisket, like most cuts suitable for smoking, is very cheap compared to steak cuts. It’s not quite as foolproof as pork ribs, but the worst thing that can really happen to it is that it will get dried out. If you cook up a brisket and it’s dry, just put some really good barbecue sauce on it and I think you’ll find it’s really not so bad. Ideally, though, the brisket should come out moist and tender. Once you slice it thin (across the grain, please!) the pieces should want to fall apart on you.
Last night I opened up the vacuum-pack to do pre-prep for today’s barbecue.
First I trimmed off some excess on the fat pad – you want it to be just about 1/4″ thick, not too much more or too much less.
Then I rubbed the brisket all over with plain yellow mustard. This is a nice little trick for getting dry rubs to stick to the meat. The point is not to slather the meat in mustard, but rather to massage just enough mustard into the surface to make the rub cling to it.
For the rub, I used:
- Onion powder
- Garlic powder
- Sea salt
- Instant espresso
I don’t generally measure when I’m making rubs. If you’re worried about ratios, there are lots of good recipes out there you can consult – I eyeball mine, and when it looks and smells right, I stop adding. I would say that in the list above, the cayenne was the least ingredient and the coffee was the most, and the rest were all about the same amount (roughly).
Coffee is an interesting ingredient in barbecue recipes, and one that gets both applause and criticism. I personally find it pretty tasty, and it helps give whatever you’re smoking a nice dark color and a really good bark without needing to add a lot of sugar.
Here’s what it looked like with the rub applied:
For my smoke, I used all mesquite wood, soaked overnight in water with a splash of scotch.
I applied the rub in an even layer all over the brisket and covered it tightly with plastic wrap. Often when I’m cooking smaller items in the smoker, I use a large plastic kitchen tub with a tight lid, which helps keep my fridge from smelling like the rub for days, but this thing was just too big. The brisket cured in the rub overnight.
About an hour before I planned to load the smoker, I filled the water tray and turned the temperature up to its maximum (275° in the case of my smoker). I hauled out the brisket to allow its temperature to come up – you don’t want to leave raw meat lying around at room temperature too long for obvious safety reasons, but you don’t want to sling a slab of meat into the smoker straight from the fridge either.
Once the smoker had come up to temperature, I unwrapped the brisket and inserted a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. It read 51° at the time. I wiped away some excess rub – you don’t want a heavy layer. I put the brisket on a rack from the smoker and slid it into place in a middle slot (easier than trying to get it onto a hot rack that had already been in place), then loaded the hopper with about 1/2 cup of wood chips. The smoker had gotten down to about 245° in the time I had the door open, and I further reduced the cooking temperature by changing the setting down to 215°. I’ve seen recommended temps for brisket as low as 185° and as high as 350°, and I’ve had both hot-and-fast and low-and-slow brisket; both methods are entirely workable. I chose the temperature because it will finish the brisket within a time frame that works for me. Some day I’d love to do a super-low preparation, but I don’t want to have to monitor it overnight right now.
The brisket went in at about 11 a.m. and we got in the car and left. For the first two hours, you don’t need to do diddly. We went and had brunch at our local billiards place (I did a very elaborate end-zone dance after winning a round of nine ball with a highly improbable shot), and when we got back 2 hours later it was time to apply the mop for the first time.
I made my mop with 1/4 cup of canola oil and 3/4 cup of Founders Breakfast Stout. I chose this ingredient because its coffee and chocolate nose would complement the espresso in the rub and its dark color would give me even more of the rich hue I want in the final product.
If you’re going to use beer or hard cider or anything of that ilk in your mop, I advise opening it 24 hours in advance in order to let it go completely flat, and making sure it’s around room temperature before you try to use it. Cold beer will lower the temperature of the oil and make it hard to spray. Of course, if you’re using an actual mop to apply your mop sauce, or a silicone pastry brush, or whatever, this doesn’t matter. I like to use a spray bottle because I can just shake it up if the ingredients start to separate.
After the first application, I usually try to mop my brisket about every hour. You don’t want to allow a lot of liquid to pool on any low-lying parts of the meat, nor do you want any “high and dry” spots, so manipulate your meat with tongs if you need to. Try to avoid leaving your smoker door open for very long, you’ll lose heat. I usually replenish my wood every couple of hours as well by adding 1/8 cup or so of chips.
The goal temperature for brisket is 180° and you want it to maintain that temperature for as much as an hour (if you can resist it that long). Beef is “done” at 160°, and you can certainly eat your brisket before the hour of 180° takes place, but you really want to wait for the fat to start melting. That happens at 180°. Don’t worry about getting too far past that – the melting fat will stabilize the temperature of the meat for quite a while. When it does start increasing again, you can pull it out.
My brisket was ready to come out at about 7:30, after eight and a half hours of cooking.
The trick with cutting smoked brisket is to carve away the remaining fat pad and then start slicing across the grain, making thin strips.
I served this with salad and slices of rosemary olive oil bread.