Project: Brisket!

This last weekend I decided to take the plunge and attempt that most manly of pursuits: Making a Brisket. (This for certain values of “manly”)

The results were a mixed bag and I have lots to learn and to try and do better/differently the next time I try this.

I thought it’d be fun to share some of my research, data and results – not the actual brisket, I’m eating that.

Choose Your Meat

This, like most thing surrounding making a brisket, is filled with lots of conflicting data. One thing that was clear is that this was going to be a large piece of meat.

A couple of the best pieces of advice:

  1. The quality of the meat is paramount, so buy the best cut you can afford. And, if you can, get a full brisket, not just the flat or the point. That’s the terms for the flat muscle and the point that make up an entire brisket.
  2. You can find a full brisket (around 15 pounds) vacuum sealed and if you can find a good quality cut, this is a good way to go.

We have Cash and Carry around here, so that was a good thing for this exercise. Still, a nearly 15 pound piece of meat at nearly $4 per pound meant this was going to be a spendy project.

BrisketUncooked
Brisket Before

Trim or Not to Trim?

Simply, this is the decision whether you are going to remove any of the fat that runs (probably) along one side of the brisket. I chose to not trim because there seemed to be decent evidence that the fat would help keep the brisket moist and you can always remove it when you’re done and before serving.

Rub

Most brisket experts I read said a rub of some sort was good and that many of these experts used a simple mix of salt and pepper and that doing anything else was largely a waste.

I opted for a simple rub made of some things I had around the house:

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard

The rub was added after I brushed the brisket with a light coat of vegetable oil to give it something to stick to.

I applied the rub the night before, put the brisket on a large pan, covered it in plastic wrap and let it sit over night.

Wood Chips

I wanted to smoke the meat, too, but I am using a gas grill. This fact may have led to some of the issues that occurred later. In any case, I bought a small bag of hickory chips and soaked them in water overnight by putting them in a bucket and covering them in water. I put a plate on them and a weight on the plate to keep the chips submerged.

 

Hardwood Chips
Hardwood Chips

Pump It Up!

I wasn’t sure I was going to pump, which means use some sort of injection mechanism to insert some kind of liquid in to the meat. This is all to try and make sure you end up with moist brisket.

In the end, because it was cheap to purchase, I did try this and used beef broth.

This probably led to the most embarrasing part of the experience as I clearly did not know what I was doing because when I attempted to inject an ounce of beef broth in to the brisket the night before, it either expanded like a balloon, only to seep out later or it sprayed out comically from some other place like a water balloon with a leak.

Cooking Temperature

Based on my research, I knew I could let the temperature of my grill float between 225 and 250 degrees and it would likely have very little impact on the end success of the project.

Where Does It Go?

The brisket should not be on direct heat. My grill has three burners running from end to end of the grill. So, I turned on the back burner, put the smoker box on that and planned on the brisket covering the front two burners so it would only have indirect heat.

Texas Crutch

The Stall is one of the things that many of the sources talked about. This is where the temperature of the brisket will stick at 150 degrees for a long period time. I won’t duplicate the content here, but if you’re curious about the explanation, you can read about it more here.

When Is It Done?

There is lots of information out there about the right temp or checking doneness by, literally, “sticking a fork in it”. Testing brisket, one article claimed, is where this saying comes from. The writer was from Texas, so there may have been some hyperbole, I don’t know.

I settled on 203-205 degrees as my goal.

How long will it take?

Well, based on my reading, I was prepared for 12 to 14 hours. Working backwards from a goal of actually eating my brisket for dinner on Sunday, I worked backwards and my math said I needed to get up at 4pm to pull the meat out and start the grill. Then, according to my reading, I would need to add more chips every hour or so. Suddenly my major concern was the sleep I was going to miss. Yawn!

Carving

The brisket is made up of those two parts mentioned earlier: the flat and the point. These two pieces were much more easily identified (for me) after cooking.

Some folks separate the flat and the point and cook them at the same time, but separately as the flat can finish more quickly then the point can take a bit longer. I chose not to do this because I lacked any confidence in my ability to separate them before cooking and I didn’t believe my grill had room for both chunks of meat and still allow the brisket to not be on direct heat.

The right way to carve a brisket involves separating the flat from the point and then cutting the flag perpendicular to the grain of the meat. I forgot this in the end and cut parallel to the grain. It still tasted good, but it was one of several areas where I didn’t execute correctly despite my research.

Barbecue Sauce

Some of the sources I read indicate that “real” brisket doesn’t require any sauce or will use something more akin to a gravy than a sauce, but since we’re not in Texas and it’s my damn brisket, I can do what I want and I like barbecue sauce on my brisket.

I was hoping for something with a bit of kick, but in the end I ended up with something sweet that was close to a sauce you might find in Kansas City.

Here is the (nearly) recipe I used:

Kansas City Barbecue Sauce

By Derrick Riches

This variation of the traditional Kansas City BBQ Sauce is a thick sweet sauce with a touch of heat to give it a little kick. This is a great barbecue sauce on BBQ Ribs.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

Preparation:

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir constantly for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sauce should be thick. Allow to cool. Store in an airtight container. Refrigerate.

Modifications:

  • Added a quarter cup of honey
  • Added 2 tablespoons of hot sauce

Major Steps

Here are the major events that I knew to expect:

  1. Prep for the night before. This would include:
    1. Make and apply the rub, cover and in the fridge
    2. Make the sauce (see above)
    3. Soak the wood chips
  2. Steps for 4am in the morning
    1. Pull out the brisket to let it start to warm
    2. Start the grill
    3. Put chips in the smoker box for the grill
    4. Set up the thermometer (more on this later)
    5. Brisket on the grill
    6. Put the thermometer for the meat in to the meat, in the point, in the thick of the brisket
    7. Go back to sleep for a while
  3. Next steps
    1. Check the smoker box hourly
    2. Check the temperature of the meat and the grill
    3. Wonder why the chips aren’t smoking
  4. When the meat hits 150 degrees
    1. Take it off the grill and wrap (twice) in heavy duty aluminum foil
    2. Add a bit of apple juice because apparently that can help keep the meat moist as well
    3. Re-insert the temp probe in the point, in the thick of the brisket
  5. Monitor the meat
    1. Keep an eye, at least hourly, on the internal temperature of the brisket
  6. Brisket Reaches Done Temperature
    1. Remove it and wrap it in a couple of towels and place all that in to a cooler. This is known as a “false cambrio” and it’s very effective in maintaining the temperature of the brisket for even several hours, but plan on at least an hour to “rest” the brisket before carving it. This allows the moisture to recirculate throughout the brisket.
  7. Carve and Eat!
    1. When you’ve let the brisket rest for a while (at least an hour), take it out and carve it.

End Results

BrisketDone

BrisketLeftovers

Required Gadgets

One of the key things I needed and made this whole process was a dual probe barbecue thermometer – one for the meat, one for the temperature in the barbecue. The one I chose also had a remote so I could carry it around with me. Additionally, it had alarms for low and high temperature on either probe. I didn’t use those this time.

The one I chose was this one from Amazon for $45. It was easily worth the peace of mind and the ability to know whether I needed to adjust the barbecue temperature or when the meat reached the necessary temperatures.

Barbecue Thermometers

I also purchased a cheap smoker box, which is just a metal box with holes in the top and bottom to hold the hardwood chips (choose your favorite flavor – I used hickory).

Data: Time To Cook

It’s not science if you don’t have data and one of the pieces of data I wanted was the temperature versus time. Data below for posterity and so that I can draw upon it next time.

Here is a link to the Google Table doc with my cook times.

Key Learnings

  1. The Texas Crutch did, in fact, decrease the total cook time though it might have been at the cost of the brisket’s signature “bark” or crust.
  2. My sense of taste could not tell you whether my rub made any real difference.
  3. Like many, many things, we get better at the things we practice.  I suspect my second brisket would be better than my first.  But, even with all the research and prep I did, I still made several mistakes which I hope to avoid the next time.

Things I Did Wrong

  1. I should have taken more pictures
  2. I did not really get a “bark” on the brisket. That’s the hard sort of crust which looks almost like it was burned on the outside. This even after turning it hourly for nearly five hours on indirect heat of 235 degrees. Not sure what I did wrong here.
  3. The wood chips didn’t really ever smoke. No clue what I did wrong here, either. One person I talked to said that it’s pretty impossible to get the bark or smoke in a gas grill and recommended a Traeger smoker to address both.
  4. I cut my brisket parallel to the grain and not perpendicular. So, my pieces were long slices/strands of meat. Not sure what difference this would make, but next time I’ll make sure and do this correctly.
  5. I’m not sure this was wrong, but I put the probe in the point (the thickest part of the brisket) which means that by the time it reached 205 degrees, there was a chance the flat part was overcooked. It may have been a bit drier, but was still good. Perhaps I should have pulled it when the flat was done then later removed the point and finished cooking it. I don’t know.

Things That Went Well

  1. The dual probe thermometer was fantastic. I could check temperature from wherever I was in the house with confidence.
  2. The brisket was tasty and now there’s none left – we shared it with family. So, that’s good.
  3. The barbecue sauce was pretty good but I’d like something with a bit more kick.

Conclusion

This was a fun project but also very time intensive. I don’t know of a better way to get good brisket, but it certainly would have been cheaper to just go buy it at our favorite barbecue joint and less time intensive, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.

When you look at the cost of the gadgets, supplies and brisket itself – taking aside entirely the cost of my time, it was the most expensive dinner we’ve had at home in a very long time. But, I’ll get a good return on the gadgets.

Of course, if I look in to a Traeger smoker, I could really

make an expensive brisket!

I’d recommend trying this, to anyone who is interested, at least once. Getting to eat something you spend hours working on is always rewarding.

Links

Here are a few links to sites I accessed in my research and are well worth checking out, especially the first one which is a pretty definitive course on brisket:

Fears

Before I share mine, pause for a moment and answer for yourself this question: What are you afraid of? Maybe it’s a reasoned fear, maybe it’s an irrational fear. Maybe it’s something you struggle with, maybe it’s something that just is part of who you are and your fine with that. But, what are you afraid of?

My biggest irrational fear is spiders. I can’t stand spiders. And this is at a deep, dark and subconscious level which does not respond well to any kind of rational discussion, so don’t even try.

In fact, my rational brain can discuss quite well all the reasons why spiders are great for humans, eating bad insects, cleaning up as predators of the insect kingdom. I have friends who will carefully take a spider, brush it on to a piece of paper and escort it outdoors. I have even taken, on very rare occasions, a spider at the end of a piece of silk outside rather than kill it. So, if there is sufficient warning and opportunity to think, be rational, be evolved, I may well behave in a way that seems reasonable, even caring towards our eight-legged friends.

However. Should one of those eight-legged monsters have the misfortune to surprise me, or put a web up where my tall head will catch in it while all the shorter folks walk below, well, that bug is going to die. And it’s not the rational, more recently evolved part of my brain that will be put on trial. It’s that deep, dark lizard brain that reacts quickly, from fear, without thought, that will kill that sucker dead.

I can tolerate small spiders, again, if they don’t surprise me. Or Daddy Longlegs, because I think I believe they don’t bite. But, should any of those horrible predator looking critters that appear to be designed for speed and pure killing abilities cross my path or take a run at me or simply surprise me – well, they will die. Assuming they’re not so ridiculously fast that they manage to get away, which may happen. In which case I may have to burn down the building or just move.

I recall a time back in High School biology and some kid had a pet tarantula and we had the opportunity to hold it. Or, rather, he would put it on our hand and let it climb on us a bit. I wanted to do it at least in part to try and deal with my fear. I recall when the big, hairy body was placed on my palm. It was heavy and the ends of the legs were sharp. We’d been told to not move and certainly to not move quickly so as to not risk hurting the spider.

Clearly the beast sensed in me the potential for prey because it decided to screw with me. It started on my palm and promptly decided to start walking up my forearm towards my elbow. As this started to happen I told the kid who owned this satanic beast to get it off me. Now. He just laughed and said it’d be fine. But as it approached my elbow more closely – because clearly it could smell blood close to the surface of my pale, thin skin – I told him it again “Get. It. Off. Me”. And, as soon as that thing was removed, laughing I’m sure, in it’s spidery way, I got a giant case of the heebie jeebies, whipping my arm around and wiping off all the spider cooties.

Other than that, I’m fine with most insects like bees or wasps. I have a healthy respect for them but I’m not afraid of swiping them away, knocking them off or getting stung. I’ve been stung a few times and while it’s not fun, it doesn’t seem to engender the same kind of reaction.

Ditto snakes. No real fear there, though I suspect if it was me face-to-face with something I thought was poisonous like a rattlesnake, I suspect I’d be retreating at a healthy clip. But that just strikes me as good, common sense.

When I was younger and I first got glasses, I was terrified of heights. Not for the heights, per se, but because I was worried about my glasses falling off and losing them. In fact, I did lose them once not long after getting them when I jumped off the end of a dock at a lake and forgot I still had them on. There was much snorkeling and looking for them – ultimately successful – but making me feel pretty badly about putting everyone out.

I used to be both fearful and fascinated at skydiving. The notion of the chute not opening and me plummeting to my death was pretty vivid. So, I went skydiving on my 30th birthday to deal with that fear. And promptly put that in the “don’t need to do that again” bucket, but I’m glad I did it.

Public speaking or speaking in front of strangers is a fear I struggle with, but it’s one I feel I at least have a handle on. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy it and it probably never be easy, but it definitely fits in the category of “Things that we get better at as we practice”.

For me, it was always about being embarrassed or seen doing something poorly in front of people. That fear of looking stupid kept me from asking girls out or getting up in front of groups when I was in middle and high school. Only after taking some speech classes, taking debate and getting experience under my belt did I really realize that it probably wouldn’t kill me. Probably.

That’s most of the fears that really affect me in any substantive ways.

I have all the navel-gazing fears that most people struggle with. I fear that I’m not a good parent or a good husband and partner. I fear dying horribly or dying alone. I fear being forgotten. I fear not leaving any kind of substantive mark on the world. Those are the kinds of things that will echo through my mind if I’m left listening to my own thoughts for too long. But, the good news for me, at least, is that these kinds of things come and go pretty quickly and I don’t typically get stuck on them for too long. I’m thankful for that.

Fear obviously has an important role in survival, especially to our ancestors. They had rational reasons to fear most of what was out there in the dark because most of it would as happily eat my ancestors as anything else. But most of those fears really don’t serve any kind of purpose any more. There’s no good reason for me to fear spiders, but it’s also not something that substantively affects my life in a negative way. I mean, sure, I look stupid if I stumble in to an armed web and flail about, convinced that I’m about to be taken down by a host of eight-legged assassins, but that’s the worst of it. I guess the measure of whether a fear is something that needs to be dealt with is whether it’s impacting your quality of life. I learned to become more comfortable talking to girls. I learned to be more comfortable speaking in groups. I learned to be able to walk in to a room full of strangers and at least survive the experience. The spider thing may be with me for my entire life, but I can live with that, I suppose.