from Issue 121, July, 2009.

The season of long slow-smoked grills is halfway over and I have only now attempted one. Saveur’s recent issue devoted to Texas food inspired me to try the instructions for smoked brisket. Actually, I would call them minimalist instructions, since the recipe consists of nine small photos each with a caption containing impressionistic instructions. They leave a few questions unanswered, making these pictures worth at least 500 words if not a thousand.

Biggest recommendation: START THE FIRE EARLY. Nearly every grilling-over-coals recipe I’ve tried underplays the importance of letting the temperature of the coals die down to the recommended temperature. In hindsight, I’ve got to start the fire early in the morning and wait. I shifted the weight of hours from the phase when the brisket was directly on the grill to the phase when I grilled it wrapped in foil. Because my fire only diminished 2 and a half hours after I lit it, the brisket’s internal temperature reached 160 degrees after only 2 hours, instead of the 4 to 5 called for in the instructions. For this reason, once I had drenched it in lager, I cooked the foil-wrapped brisket for over 3 hours over the slowly-dying coals. Basically, I left it alone, as my comments below will make plain.

I’ve tried to provide answers to those open questions:

The rub:

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons mustard powder

1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

To make the rub: Mix all the ingredients in a jar; store up to 6 months.

The brisket:

1 5-lb beef brisket (ask butcher for the flat cut, with a half-inch layer of fat left on)

Massage the brisket with the barbecue rub. Refrigerate overnight.

The fuel:

Stuff crumpled newspaper under a charcoal chimney filled with lump hardwood charcoal, preferably oak or hickory. Light paper and let charcoal burn down to white and ashy coals.

Shadowcook: Letting the coals burn down to white and ashy coals takes a lot longer than I thought it would. Allow for an hour at the least. This is an all-day project. You better like brisket a lot.

The smoke:

Dumb hot coals over half of the bottom grate of a kettle grill and nestle in 3 wood chunks, preferably mesquite. The wood should smolder and smoke. Place lid over grill.

Shadowcook: The smoldering mesquite wood burns faster than the charcoal coal. Do I add more? Will I overwhelm the meat with mesquite flavor? The minimalist instructions don’t say. So, I did. Every once in a while, when I noticed that smoke ceased to emerge from the vents, I threw another chunk on the coals.

The grill: Open top grill vents and position lid so they’re away from the fire. Open bottom vents. Let fire burn down until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the top vents reads 225-250 degrees.

Shadowcook: First of all, I’d really like to know just where Saveur found an instant-read thermometer that registers degrees over 220, because I could not find one. The one shown in the photo — the kind with the large round whtie face and long thin metal skewer for inserting into meat — is a cheat. Peering very closely, I can tell it doesn’t go up to 225. Just one of the annoying details about this recipe. Instead, I am using a grill-surface thermometer, which allows me to rationalize succombing to my lack of patience.  Reckoning that the air under the lid is not as hot as the surface of the metal grill, whose surface the thermometer is gauging, I put the meat on the grill before the temperature reached 250. Like last year, I’m having trouble getting the fire’s temperature lower than 350. So, I’m hoping that in fact the air under the lid is about 10 degree cooler than the surface of the grill. (Only a true grill-geek would appreciate my obsession with finding the correct thermometer!)

Secondly, those air vents are a griller’s friend. To help the temperature reduction along, I partially closed the vents on the lid.

The heat: Arrange a foil pan half full of water on the bottom grate, opposite the coals. Put the top grill into place and lay the brisket directly over the water bath.

Shadowcook: I’m not 100% convinced the water bath contributes to tenderizing the meat. From what I’ve gathered from others, the low temperature and hours of grilling are sufficient. I remember reading somewhere that it takes at least 180 degrees for the membranes in meat to dissolve, which is really what makes meat spoon-tender. I added the water bath, I have to admit. If I were really fanatical, I would have boiled the water first and then poured it into the foil pan. But I’m not quite that fanatical…

The slow-cook: Replenish fire with coals every hour or so to maintain a temperature of 225-250 degrees. Insert a thermometer into meat after 4-5 hours. When it reaches 160 degrees, pull it off the grill.

Shadowcook: If you start with a hot fire and track how slowly the temperature drops, you’ll easily figure out how often you’ll need to replenish the coals. I only started another chimney of coals after the brisket had been on the grill for an hour and still didn’t need them.

The wrap: Transfer brisket to a sheet of heavy-duty foil and pour 3/4 warm lager beer over the meat. Wrap brisket in the foil to seal in the juices and beer.

Shadowcook: Why only 3/4s cup? What’s the difference between that and a full cup? Strange. I warmed up some lager, placed the prepared aluminum foil directly on the grill, put the brisket on the foil and only then poured the lager over it. At that moment, I took the photo at top. Then, with my glove on, I carefully sealed the foil around the brisket and replaced the lid. Then I left it alone.

The last leg: Return foil-wrapped brisket to grill and cook, replenishing with coals, until meat is 190 degrees, about 2 more hours. Let brisket rest on the cooled, uncovered grill for 1 more hour.

Shadowcook: The meat reached 190 degrees far faster than I expected. As a consequence, I left it on the grill for a few hours.

The finale: Arrange brisket fat side up on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, slice brisket across grain into 1/8″ slices. Collect any juices and pour it over the sliced meat.

Shadowcook: My fear was that I had cooked the meat so long that it would be difficult to slice. The meat held together better than I expected. In spite of all the variations in temperature, length of grilling, and time the meat rested on the grill, the brisket turned out pretty spectacular. Moist and flavorful. The mesquite did not dominate; the spice rub was delicious. The group of friends who shared it with me all appreciated it very much. I serve it with the pinto beans and the collard greens both of which are also to be found in the same issue of Saveur.

I see a trip to Texas in my future.

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