Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Smoking a Beef Brisket

Smoking a beef brisket can be a wonderful way to show off your BBQ skill. The above picture is the brisket flat, which is usually about 5-7 pounds. A full packer brisket will range from 12-15 pounds.

Keys to success:
  1. Ability to maintain a low, steady temperature on your smoker. Unless you want to be constantly babysitting your fire, investing in a good quality smoker can save you a lot of aggravation.
  2. Time. This is a big piece of meat. To cook it slowly will take a significant amount of time. A good rule of thumb is about an hour and a half per pound.
  3. Patience. After the low and slow cooking process is finished, you'll want to give the meat time to rest, reabsorbing all the juices. 
  4. A remote thermometer. The kind that has a probe you can set in the center of the brisket, and connects to a remote unit to display the internal temperature of the meat. Some of the fancier ones also have an alarm that will sound when the meat reaches your target temperature.
  5. If you're just smoking the brisket flat, look for one with a uniform thickness, and get the thickest one you can find. (the picture above is an excellent example)
The night before you plan on smoking your brisket:
  1. Prepare a spice rub. These are available commercially, but if you have a decent spice collection it is easy to make your own. Typical spices on a beef brisket include: garlic powder, onion powder, paprika (lots), cayenne, and cumin. Always add plenty of salt & black pepper as well. If you want to add a bit of sweetness, add some dark brown sugar. (I like to keep my brisket all savory)
  2. Trim the brisket. If you're just smoking the brisket flat, then it will probably not need much trimming. A packer brisket, however, will have a significant fat cap. If you want your spice rub and the smoke to have a chance of flavoring the meat, this will be need to be trimmed down to about a 1/4 inch. 
  3. To help your spice rub stick to the meat, apply a layer of yellow mustard. Then liberally sprinkle your spice rub on all surfaces of the meat. Be generous, this is a large piece of meat so it can stand up to a hefty amount of spice. 
  4. Wrap tightly in plastic and allow to marinate overnight
The next morning:
  1. Remove the brisket from the refrigerator about an hour before you plan on smoking it. This allows the meat to come to room temperature and get started cooking faster.
  2. Start your fire. I usually do this right after I get the meat out of the fridge. You want the fire to have time to burn into some nice coals, and for the heat to even out at about 225 degrees. I use lump hardwood charcoal as it burns hotter than briquettes (1200 degrees vs. 600 degrees), and has fewer additives. 
  3. For additional smoky flavoring, hickory and apple chunks or chips can be used. Chips will need to be soaked in water before using (for about a 1/2 hour), or they will burn off too quickly. Do not constantly add the wood chunks or chips to the fire or you will run the risk of the meat being too smoky. If you're using chunks, adding 2-3 pieces to the fire every hour or two should be plenty.
  4. Fat side up or down? There is a lot of debate about this! Proponents of fat side up say that the fat will slowly melt as the brisket cooks, basting the meat and keeping it moist. Fans of fat side down say the layer of fat facing down will help protect the meat from becoming too smoky. Me? I've tried it both ways, and have had the best success with fat side up. It does seem to keep the meat moister.
  5. To wrap or not to wrap? Many BBQ purists claim that if you maintain a proper low and slow heat, that the brisket can stay moist without wrapping. This also aids with the production of a "bark" on the brisket, a flavorful outer crust. My experience is that wrapping the brisket will not only insure that it stays moist, but also, particularly if you're only smoking the smaller brisket flat, will keep it from getting overly smoky. Because the meat will be steaming inside the foil, you will be sacrificing the bark. (wrapping can also speed up the cooking time, if you're running behind schedule)
  6. To aid in keeping the meat moist, you can also spritz the brisket periodically with apple juice. This can be done every thirty minutes or so, but be quick about it. Remember..."when you're looking, you're not cooking!"
  7. Before putting the brisket on the smoker, insert the probe thermometer. The easiest place to do this is from the top, into the thickest part of the meat. Avoid inserting the probe into a vein of fat, as this can cause the temperature to display too high.
  8. If you're going to wrap the brisket, pull it at about 160-170 degrees. Wrap in a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil, spritz it with apple juice, and return to the smoker. At this point, you could also finish it in a 225 degree oven, since the wrapped brisket will not be absorbing any more smoke.
  9. The brisket will be done at about 190 degrees. This is the point where all the fat and collagen in the meat will be fully broken down. 
  10. Allow the brisket to rest at least 20 minutes before slicing. Many go longer than this, but I don't have the patience. Also, do not remove the probe thermometer until the meat is fully rested, or you will have a mini geyser of juice. (and you want all the juice to remain inside)
  11. If you smoked just the flat, you're ready to go. To serve the flat, cut across the grain into thin slices. Serve with your favorite BBQ sauce on the side. If you have a full packer you'll want to separate the brisket point from the flat and cook up some burnt ends! (below)

The string in the picture above shows the separation between the point and the flat. (point is on the right) When the brisket is cooked, the fat line between the two will become even more pronounced as the fat will tend to shrink inward.

Burnt Ends:

The brisket point is pretty fatty and has a lot more collagen than the flat. This makes it less than ideal for just simple slicing and eating.

To separate the point from the fat, insert a large carving or chef knife from the side and cut along the fat vein. Wrap the flat tightly in foil to keep it warm while you make the burnt ends.
  1. Trim away the largest chunks of fat, and slice the point into cubes, about 1-2 inches.
  2. Add the chunks of meat to a disposable foil baking pan. 
  3. Add your favorite BBQ sauce. (I love Sweet Baby Ray's Hickory and Brown Sugar) Stir to coat the pieces in the sauce.
  4. Put the pan on the smoker. It usually takes about 30 minutes for the sauce to caramelize on the meat, and render down the remaining fat and collagen. Longer is fine, too, just be sure to stir them periodically so they don't stick to the pan.

You're done! Serve the burnt ends along with the slices of the flat meat for a delicious, Texas-sized feast!!

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