Conspiracy Theory Brisket

There are moments in life that defy description. Brief instances when the fabric of reality has surely been folded in some abstract, chaos-arithmetic implosion of quantum contemplation. Like dreading the drive to LAX from the San Fernando Valley and encountering light traffic.  Or settling into a dentist’s chair for an hour of tooth-scraping and are told, “Nope, we’re all good!”. This past weekend’s overnight smoked beef brisket falls into the same chronologically-warped bucket of spacetime. The results were decent, people liked the end product, but 48+ hours later and I’m still scratching my head a little.

This has been a summer of smoker discovery, each weekend spent learning more and more about the effects of time, low heat, and smoke on good meats. Around mid-July, I started thinking about the logistics of a beef brisket, the granddaddy of all things BBQ in Texas. I still had weekends of pork shoulders and tri-tips to smoke and learn through, but hanging out there on the mental horizon was the knowledge that I’d – soon – challenge myself with the heralded and cantankerous brisket.

I did a ton of reading about brisket.  Joined a few message boards to read through ‘user experiences’.  Digested an overwhelming number of noob “OMGWHATDOIDO” posts. Became intimately familiar with things like the Texas Crutch, stall, to flip or not flip, fat side up or down, trim, don’t trim, trim a little, sauce or no sauce.  For as many backyard smoker enthusiasts as there are out there, there were different opinions for each one. Finding a clear path to a simple recipe process felt overwhelming at times, and after all this reading and a couple Advil, I decided to go as authentic and simple as possible: smoke the best meat I could find over low and consistent heat and good wood.

The meat:

I started the quest for meat at Costco after reading that they sometimes carry Cryovac-sealed briskets.  Tried two different Costcos here in the SF Bay area, no dice.  Livermore no longer has a butcher shop, so after a little Yelp-checking, I found Main Street Meat & Fish in lovely downtown Pleasanton, CA. Swung by last Thursday afternoon, met the owner (Tony, nice fella, cool to talk meat and smoking with), and ultimately purchased a 10.7 lb. USDA Prime Beef Brisket packer cut. Wasn’t cheap, but hey, I’m all about supporting local businesses, and I really wanted this first shot at a brisket to be a ‘live-fire’ exercise.

The wood:

When I smoked the Santa Maria tri-tip earlier this summer, I did so over red oak chunks purchased online from Fruita Wood and BBQ Supply in Grand Junction, CO. I love these guys.  They have an astonishing array of different wood types and cuts, good prices, free shipping on relatively significant orders, and overall just do a great job. I ordered three 10 lb packs of wood – apple, hickory, and Texas post oak, and it arrived packed in one box, nicely separated and labeled. I like to keep my wood chunks in labeled gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bags, and both times I’ve ordered from them, I’ve really appreciated how little chips or debris was in the shipment; the wood was all good-sized chunks.

For the brisket, I used four fist-sized chunks of Texas post oak, and one large chunk of apple, and I’ll definitely repeat this for the next time around.

The heat:

I was tempted to use lump charcoal vs briquets for this one given the significant amount of time the meat needed on the smoker, but stuck with my trusty brand – Stubb’s All-Natural B-B-Q Briquets, and they didn’t let me down.  One full chimney of unlit briquets and a half-chimney of lit was all I needed for 12 straight hours on the smoker.

The rub:

My friend and co-worker Jim recently flew through Dallas airport and brought me back a jar of Salt Lick Original Dry Rub. I decided early on I was going to use this on a brisket, and I’m really glad I did.  Excellent spice-salt ratio, and had the perfect aroma. I also injected the brisket with 10 oz. of beef stock to keep things moist.

The plan:

I knew the brisket was going to take a while.  Most of what I’d read insisted that a packer cut brisket needed 1 – 1.5 hours per pound, so I was looking at probably 11-12 hours on the low side, and decided to go with the overnight smoke. I started the fire at 9:30PM, filled the water pan with 1 1/2 quarts of hot water, got the WSM to 225 steady degrees by 9:50PM, and meat went on at 10PM sharp.  I monitored temps for the first couple hours on my trusty new Maverick ET-733 Thermometer, and went to bed around 11:30PM with smoker temp pegged at 227, internal meat temp climbing to upper 90s, low 100s, right on track.  Top vent 100% open.  Lower three vents at 30% open for all.

I woke up at 5AM to check temps and water, and was met with the Conspiracy Theory Brisket.  The water pan had a little water left.  Smoker temp was at 245 degrees – a little high, but easy to correct. The brisket, to my amazement, was pegged at 185 degrees.  The goal temp for a brisket is 195-200F, so to see that I was 10-15 degrees shy of goal, after only 7 hours in the smoker… I was at a loss. I started some coffee, turned on the outside deck light, broke out the trusty Maglite to peek into the firebox to see what was happening, and I still had a decent amount of black charcoal, and the wood chunks were still producing smoke. I re-seated the Maverick remote thermometer probes, and got 185 degrees from the thickest non-fatty  part of the brisket. Apparently, this was one brisket that wasn’t going to stall out for hours at 155 degrees, as I’d anticipated.

After I’d woken up a little and reality had set in, I fiddled with the airflow to cool things down to 225 degrees, added a little more hot water to the water pan, and resolved to just watch things. I didn’t know if I’d hit 195-200 in an hour, or in 5 hours.

At 7AM, temps had climbed to 192F.  8AM, we were at 195F.  I decided to push on to 200F, as the plan was to remove the brisket at that temp, wrap it in foil, and let it rest in a newspaper-padded cooler for 3-4 hours (letting the moisture in the meat redistribute).  Hit the 200F degree mark at 8:30AM, and into the cooler went the foil-wrapped brisket to rest for the next several hours.

brisket

Why had it cooked so quickly?  Why hadn’t it stalled?  Why had an 11 lb. piece of meat defied much of what I’d read in books and message boards?

Was it the water pan?  When I woke up at 5AM, there were still at least 2 cups of water in there. It was in a rolling simmer, not outright boiling. Had it been bone-dry, I could understand how temps might have spiked, but this wasn’t the case.

Was it the charcoal?  Had the temps spiked dramatically while I was sleeping?  I don’t see how.  I still had 30% black, unburned charcoal in the firebox.  The wood chunks were black and still smoldering.

Was it the 10 oz of beef stock?  Had that somehow accelerated the internal meat temperature gain?  Given that the meat was at 185 (well below boiling or even steaming), I don’t think it was a factor, beyond preserving moisture in the meat.

Was it the fat cap?  Packer briskets have a large amount of fat on each side.  I’d trimmed the fat on the underside down to approx. 1/4 – 1/2″.  On the top, I’d trimmed off one large segment of fat, but knew there was plenty left up there to melt down over the meat as it cooked.  In most of what I’d read, some folks subscribe to the notion that the fat insulates things from out-of-whack temperatures, but that didn’t line up with what I was seeing.

Beyond the empirical facts, I still don’t have a clear idea of why things happened the way they did. there just wasn’t a smoking gun, so to speak.  Maybe I just got lucky and smoked a brisket that had zero (or very, very brief stall). And all things considered, the accelerated cook time didn’t have an adverse effect on the brisket – it turned out just like I’d hoped it would.

The end product:

After I took it out of the foil after resting for four hours in the cooler, I sliced the “flat” perpendicular to the grain, resulting nice 1/4″-1/2″ thick slices. The meat had a nice red smoke ring, as visible in the picture below. It was exactly as I remembered from Austin, TX BBQ.  The bark was redolent with spice and smoke from the Salt Lick rub, the meat was tender and rich, and the small amount of fat I didn’t trim away lended further to the meat’s rich flavor. I chopped a bit of the “point” as well (a separate section of the brisket whose grain runs a different direction than the flat; this makes for a great chopped-beef sandwich, but I felt the fat content was way too high to really enjoy it.

brisket2

I know this has been a long-winded one, so I’ll wrap things up.  I really, really enjoyed all that went into preparing and smoking the brisket. I see why it’s the pinnacle of Texas BBQ.  The flavors you can achieve with smoke, moisture, spice, and heat are truly a transcendent thing. I sat at the table that afternoon eating the first of several brisket sandwiches with a Lone Star Beer, and I felt like I’d earned a little credit in the ‘Honorary Texan” department. I learned a lot from the experience, despite the surprises, and definitely look forward to smoking another one next year.

Thanks for reading!

Colin

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