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Sunday, July 06, 2003

Perfection

I finally have enough experience with brisket to offer some thoughts on the proper way to prepare it.

1. Start with the cryo-vac package of brisket straight from the meatpackers. Don't pay the exorbitant price for trimmed brisket; you actually want the additional fat for the smoking process. 1/8 inch of fat is the minimum; 1/4 inch or more is ideal. And if you want a more lean brisket later, you can trim off that top layer of fat.

2. Rub the meat with a spice mixture at least eight hours before cooking. A good mixture is 3 T kosher salt, 3 T chili powder, 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp fresh ground black pepper, and 1 tsp ground cumin. (You may need to double or triple these amounts depending on the amount of brisket you're preparing.)

3. The minimum amount of cooking time is one hour per pound of meat. (If cooking more than one brisket, measure from the weight of the largest brisket.) That will result in the ideal Texas meat-market style brisket: the collagen will have given up the fight, leaving only a firm meat that keeps its shape when sliced. But I have decided that I personally prefer to double that amount of time, cooking until the brisket will barely hold together when you try to lift it off the grill. This is the sort of brisket praised in a recent Houston Press article about the racism of Texas barbecue: black Texans prefer soft, falling-apart brisket and think that white people eat their barbecue too damn raw, while white Texans are obstinate in their insistence on firm, sliceable brisket in their barbecue contests. If soft brisket is the mark of black America, then I'm black and I'm proud.

4. There is one way to achieve good brisket: low temperature. The only way to get the tough collagens in brisket to give up the fight is to subject it to temperatures at or below 200 degrees for the above amount of time. Even fifty degrees above that can be completely counterproductive. Given this limitation, there are two ways to cook a brisket for that long at that low of a temperature. Each has its benefits.

a. You can make a "tray" of heavy-duty foil, put in the brisket, add about half a beer, cover the "tray" with more foil, and seal the edges tightly. Then put it in the oven at 190 degrees for eight hours or so. This has the advantage of convenience, because you don't ever have to attend it. It just steams itself in the package. (Braising a brisket is similar to this process.) The other advantage of this system is that it retains the juices from the meat, which are a real treasure. You can save them for a soup, or (my preference) add them to the barbecue sauce to give it a fuller flavor. But the downside of this system is obvious: there is no smoke to flavor the meat.

b. You can make a charcoal fire, piling the coals to the sides of the grill, and let the coals burn until they are at about 250 degrees. Put the brisket on a foil "tray" in the middle of the grill. Add a handful of soaked woodchips to each pile of coals, close the lid of the grill with the vents on medium, and let it alone. When the coals cool to about 200 degrees, add another ten coals to each side. (By the time they catch fire, the grill temperature will have dropped even farther, making the average temperature about 200 degrees.) The more chips you add, the more smoky the meat will be -- I have actually "oversmoked" a brisket before by being too enthusiastic with the chips. One handful per side per hour should be plenty. The advantage of this method is undoubtedly the flavor of the meat. But you have to attend the fire while it's going, which means that you can't do it overnight.

5. This past Fourth of July, I found that a combination of these systems worked well for me. I used the foil method overnight, then smoked the brisket for an additional five hours. The result was a convenient cooking method and a flavorful slab of meat. It was, all modesty aside, the best brisket I've ever eaten.

I don't know everything there is to know about brisket; but I know enough now that I feel like I understand the process. So it's time to share the love.

 8:18 PM

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