Category Archives: Beef

Stretching: Beef Cheeks Four Ways

A few months ago, at the urging of my sister, I signed up for Crowd Cow, an online delivery service that connects cattle farmers to consumers. The company’s promise to offer only beef sustainably raised, all or partially grass-fed, and humanely slaughtered appealed to me. I periodically receive an email from them to let me know that a particular cattle farm in my region has cuts of meat for sale. First come, first served. If customers pay attention to the flavor of what they eat, they can develop preferences for one farm or another. So far, I’ve developed a fondness for beef from Hutterian Farms in Reardan, Washington, but I’m very curious to try the Oregon-produced Wagyu cuts I ordered that will be delivered this week. Just recently Crowd Cow has expanded its offerings to chicken and pork. As for cost, I don’t mind that it’s more a bit more expensive than what Taylor’s Market charges, because Crowd Cow’s required minimum $75 order goes a long way with me and I’m in a position to pay more for my principles.

I’m down to the last of the beef in my freezer: 4 beef cheeks. Since I’ve never before cooked this cut, I’ve decided to prepare them as simply as possible in order to make four different meals from them. I followed the basic recipe that the northern California chef, Daniel Patterson, offers through NYT Cooking. When the cheeks were fork-tender but held their shape, I set aside one with about a quarter of the liquid and aromatics and stored the other three in freezable containers. I look forward to figuring out how to use those extras. At the moment, I’m considering adding Dijon mustard and new potatoes to one, tomato and polenta to another, and spring vegetables to the third.

But I kept the first portion much simpler. Patterson’s recipe calls for:

  • 4 beef cheeks
  •  Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced
  • 1 stalk young garlic, thinly sliced (or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced)
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • A handful of thyme sprigs
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 T butter

Patterson calls for a 180 F oven. My miserable oven doesn’t calibrate that finely, so I started off at 200 F.

The day before I braised the cheeks, I put the four of them in a rectangular pyrex dish, salted them, and placed the dish in the refrigerator. I brought them to room temperature about two hours before I seared them. I poured about 1/4 cup of olive oil in my biggest cast iron skillet and set the flame to medium-high. To brown well, the cheeks needed room. That took about 5-6 mins. Once browned, I transferred them to a plate and added the onion, the young garlic, and carrots (which I diced instead of sliced) to the pan. After about 5 mins of sautée, I returned the cheeks to the pan, adding rosemary and thyme sprigs tied up in cheesecloth and then pouring the combined stocks into the pan. I put the lid on my Le Creuset braiser. Into the cool oven it went.

Here’s where I diverged a bit from Patterson. Four hours later, I looked inside the braiser. No bubbling at all. The meat looked like it was barely cooking, but my oven is so bad that I wasn’t sure it was cooking at all. So, I took the pan out of the oven. On my stovetop, I brought the liquid in the pan to a simmer and then returned it to the now 250 oven. And then I left it for 6 hours, turning the cheeks over in the broth twice.

Ten hours later, the meat was fork-tender and the stock slightly reduced. Once the cheeks had cooled, I divided them up with the braising liquid. Three were destined for the freezer. I kept one for that evening’s dinner.




Right away, I put a pot of salted water on to boil. I crumbled the cheek meat into flakes with my fingers. There was too much meat for one dish, so I apportioned out the remainder among the three extra cheeks cooling prior to freezing. While the water was coming to a boil, I warmed the crumbled cheek meat in braising liquid. The fresh fettucine dove into the boiling water and I added a tablespoon of butter to the cheek meat. Within 3 minutes, the pasta was done, in the warmed pasta bowl, with the cheek meat and broth poured over it. The taste and texture of the cheeks reminded me of uncured brisket or even a well-cooked pot roast with better flavor. In the picture, the amount you see on the pasta (only 3.5 ounces despite appearances) was a little more than half a cheek.

The result was a very tasty, stew-like meal. Beef cheeks turn out to be a good braising cut that delivers flavor reminiscent of uncorned brisket, but without the usual fat. It’s a relatively lean cut, despite what looks like marbling in the photo at the top. Crowd Cow trimmed the cheeks of the fat that is usually found on them.

Now I have to figure out what to do with the other three. Now I’m thinking, definitely croquettes.




Texas Barbecue Civil Rights Heritage Tour Day 6: Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas

At the back of my mind, my goal to explore Texas and southern barbecue has always felt a little like a farewell tour. It’s not that I planned to gorge on meat to make myself sick of it. Instead, I wanted one last tryst before meat and I decide to end our love affair. The health reasons are obvious; the ethical ones are entering my blood stream like a slow-acting virus. I don’t think I’ll become a constant vegetarian or vegan, but I have been eating less and less of it to the point where I may naturally stop at some point. Why not end on a high note? is the way I look at my predicament.

Today, I hit a short, sweet high note at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. It began as an ordeal. I arrived there at 10:45, 15 mins before it opened, and found this.


I got in line and half an hour later it looked like this:


While I stood in line, I debated whether it was worth it. I grew more conflicted when Franklin employees came by with tubs of drinks to sell. How long a wait? I asked. Three hours, one of them said. Really?

According to my pedometer, I walked 5 miles to get there (I took a detour to visit a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan on the shore of Lady Bird Lake). Did I come so far to give up now?

103 degrees at noon.

I did not leave.  I stayed. It took exactly two and a half hours to progress to the door and step inside.


It took another half hour to move from the door to the counter where I ordered. As I stood on line, I watched people eat mounds of meat. It was a little repellent.

I waited three hours and ate my order in fifteen minutes.



A party of three were chowing down on the mound o’meat on the left. My order (below) looked positively monastic next to theirs. I could not finish the one link, the 1/4 lb pulled pork, the one turkey slice, and the 1/2 pint of slaw. Very good, but not worth the three-hour wait. However, I wolfed down the brisket. The sweet, crusty fat on the fork-tender brisket was infused with the smoke of white oak. That chunk of beef had one of the best, most memorable (I’ll never forget a roast pigeon breast in Avignon in 2008) flavors I’ve ever tasted. This, I realized, was Ur-Barbecue. Now I can hang up my samurai sword.

Actually, not yet.

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Beef-Sauced Hot Lettuce Salad

from Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China, p. 67.

My resolve to go meatless during the week crashed into this recipe like tank into a brick wall. Oh, this recipe hit the spot. The crunch of the lettuce, the sweet and sour of the black vinegar-soy sauce, and the zing of the garlic-ginger-sesame oil notes combined beautifully. It’s a great recipe to throw together at the last moment for yourself. All you have to do is figure out your preferred ratio of lettuce to meat sauce. I urge you to consider 1/4 pound of the ground meat (half the amount that Alford and Duguid call for) with a bowlful of lettuce and the full proportion of sauce ingredients. You’ll find your own balance.

This book just gets better and better.

Here is the complete unadjusted recipe with my suggested adjustments…

Serves 4

About 4 packed cups coarsely torn romaine lettuce

Shadowcook: I used a combination of lettuces. As the authors note, “If you use romaine lettuce, the salad will have good crunch as well as some wilted softer leaves when you first serve it. We love the contrast. If you prefer a softer texture, either let the salad stand for 5 minutes before serving it, to give the greens more time to soften in the warm dressing, or use leaf lettuced instead of romaine.” Or, like I said, use a combination and get it to the table while it’s still very warm.

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 pound (1 packed cup) ground beef

Shadowcook: I used 1/3 pound ground pork. Next time I’ll use a little less. And I’ll have to try it with beef, but I have a feeling I’m going to prefer the pork.

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon soy sauce, or to taste

1 tablespoon Jinjiang (black rice) vinegar, or to taste

Shadowcook: You can find this at any Asian market.

1/2 cup warm water

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon cold water

1/2 teaspoon roasted sesame oil


Place the lettuce in a wide salad bowl or serving dish and set aside.

Place a wok or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Toss in the garlic and stir-fry for 10 seconds, then add the ginger. Stir-fry over medium-high to medium heat until slightly softened and starting to turn color. Add the meat and use your spatula to break it up so there are no lumps at all, then add the salt and stir-fry until most of the meat has changed color. Add the soy sauce and vinegar and stir to blend. Add the warm water and stir.

(The dressing can be prepared ahead to this point and set aside for up to 20 minutes. When you are ready to proceed, bring to a boil.)

While the dressing mixture is coming to a boil, place the cornstarch in a small cup or bowl and stir in the cold water to make a smooth paste. Once the liquid is bubbling in the pan, give the cornstarch mixture a final stir, add to the pan, and stir for about 1 minutes: the liquid will thicken and become smoother. Taste for salt, and add a little salt or soy sauce if you wish. Add the sesame oil and stir once, then pour onto the lettuce. Immediately toss the salad to expose all the greens to the hot dressing. Serve immediately.


Michael Psilakis: Pastitsio

from How to Roast a Lamb, pp. 212-213.

Back in the old days, Greek women had arms like lumberjacks. Or so I gather. Michael Psilakis’s new book reminds me of how hard it is to make thin phyllo dough by hand, how much muscle you need to make a Greek béchamel. You needed a lot more brawn than the homemade pasta and the labor intensive polenta Italian women used to make from scratch.

I am blessed with five Greek brothers-in-law and nephews. My late sister married a Greek and I was married to a Greek. One of my Greek former brothers-in-law is in the country. We had not seen each other since my 50th birthday party in Paris five years ago. After a camping trip to Yosemite with his partner, they drove north to have dinner at my house. Call me foolish, but I decided to make a traditional Greek dish.

Pastitsio is to Greek cooking what lasagna is to Italian and steak-and-kidney pie is to British cooking. It’s in the stodgy category. When done well, it still sits like a lump in your stomach. Nevertheless, I decided to give the Psilakis version a try. I have made only one other recipe from the book. His spanakopita is a little too creative. I fed it to a crowd of people who adored the flavors, but I felt it looked like a mess.

This recipe worked very well. The béchamel custard set properly. I worried that it would make it gooey, but that was not a problem in the least. The cinnamon-nutmeg flavors in the meat sauce worked beautifully with the custard. Pastitsio could almost be a dessert — but not quite.

As for ingredients, thanks to Mediterranean Market here, I found everything I needed, from the Misko Macaroni to the Cretan graviera cheese. If you haven’t investigated the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern groceries in your area, here’s a reason to do so. Start hunting.

If you have time, make the meat sauce the day before.

First, the béchamel sauce, which has the corollary benefit of building muscle:

5 ounces unsalted butter

10 ounces all-purpose flour

1 1/2 quarts whole milk, warm

2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Large pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly ground

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

5 large eggs, lightly beaten

In a large, heavy pot, melt the butter over low heat, whisking with a large balloon whisk. Add the flour and whisk to a very crumbly roux, not a smooth paste.

Shadowcook: Think of pie dough before you add the water.

Whisk constantly and energetically for about 5 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste, but do not allow to brown (slide the pot off and on the heat every now and then if you sense it is getting too hot).

Shadowcook: By the time you incorporate all the flour, you will start thinking about switching to a wooden spoon. Hold on as long as you can with the whisk. It’s a pain, but keep clearing the middle of the whisk wires of dough that’s stuck there. I found tapping it on the bottom of the pan worked.

Still whisking constantly, drizzle in the warm milk until smooth.

Shadowcook: That is very important. Do not rush incorporating the milk into the roux. If you try to whisk in too much at once, the sauce will be lumpy. At this point, your arm is going to feel the strain, because unlike other béchamel recipes, this one starts out thick as concrete and winds up still thick but thin enough to stir without cramping your arm. Just be patient.

Continue cooking, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the mixture at a very low simmer, until very thick.

Shadowcook: Ha. Right now you’ll be thinking, is he crazy? Does he pump iron?

Whisk in the cinnamon, nutmeg, kosher salt to taste, and a generous amount of pepper.

Shadowcook: This is the moment to get the seasoning right. Taste it. And don’t undersalt it.

Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the warm sauce. In a bowl, whisk the sauce into the eggs to temper them. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk all the egg mixture back into the béchamel.

Shadowcook: Tempering the eggs is a good trick to learn. It’s a great way to incorporate egg yolk into hot liquids without the yolks forming bits. Avgolemono soup (Egg Lemon Soup), a divinely delicious soup, is made velvety through this technique. Eggs are needed here to make the custard consistency.

Ok, now back to the Pastitsio:

3 tablespoons blended oil (90% canola, 10% extra-virgin olive)

1 large Spanish or sweet onion, finely chopped

3 fresh bay leaves or 6 dried leaves

2 cinnamon sticks

2 pounds ground beef

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Pinch ground nutmeg (optional)

Pinch ground cloves (optional)

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 1/4 quarts water

1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, crushed slightly, with all the juices

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt and cracked black pepper

1 (500-gram) package Misko Macaroni Pastitsio no. 2

1 3/4 quarts Greek Béchamel Sauce [above] with eggs

1 cup coarsely grated graviera cheese

Shadowcook: If you can’t find the Misko Macaroni, try using perciatelli or bucatini, any long pasta with a hole in the middle. If you can’t find graviera, use Pecorino Romano.

Make the kima sauce: in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, add the oil and wilt the onion with the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and brown thoroughly. Add all the spices and the tomato paste and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the water, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a boil.

Shadowcook: I made the kima the day before. It saved a lot of time and distributed the work more efficiently over two days.

Reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer for 65 to 75 minutes. Skim off the fat once or twice.

Shadowcook: If you make it the day before, scraping off the fat is easy.

Reduce until the sauce is almost completely dry. Proceed with the recipe, or cool and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 350. In a large pot of generously salted boiling water, cook the macaroni until almost tender, a minute or so before the al dente stage. Drain well. Spread 1 cup of the Greek Béchamel Sauce [above] on the bottom of a deep roasting pan or lasagna pan [or 13×9 pyrex dish], and sprinkle with 1/3 cup graviera.

Lay half the noodles out on top of the bechamel. You should have 2 to 3 layers of noodles. Spread another cup of the béchamel over the noodles, without disturbing the direction of the noodles, to bind them. Scatter with 1/3 cup of the graviera. Spoon all of the kima sauce over the top and smooth flat. Spread 1 more cup of the béchamel over the kima sauce, scatter with 1/3 cup graviera.

Layer remaining pasta noodles over the béchamel. Spoon on the remaining béchamel and scatter with the remaining 1/3 cup of graviera. Bake uncovered until crusty, golden, about set, about 1 hour.

If you don’t have a convection oven, you may want to increase the heat to 400 F at the end, to brown the top.

Shadowcook: I increased the heat to 400 F and you see the result.

Cool for at least 40 minutes, to allow the custard to set so that the squares will remain intact when you cut them. Or, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

Judith Jones: A Small Meatloaf with a French Accent

From The Pleasures of Cooking for One, pp. 58-59.

Judith Jones is my kind of cookbook writer: a sensible, good writer who takes seriously those home cooks, like herself, who live alone. Her recipes do not equate cooking for one with simple preparation. That’s what I like about her, but that’s also what might put some people off. Jones assumes that cooks who live alone are as apt to plan their meals ahead as are cooks with partners or families. The recipes in this slim volume suit the kind of cook who anticipates her meals with pleasure a day or so in advance.

I try to eat meat no more than twice a week. In this case, as you may notice when you look closely at the photo, I doubled the recipe so that I could have three even four meals. I froze half of it, but will be sure to eat it within a month.

Start the meatloaf a day before you plan to eat it:

1/3 pound ground beef

1/3 pound ground pork

1/3 pound ground veal

Shadowcook: I can no longer bring myself to buy veal. Instead, I divide the meat evenly between beef and pork.

2 plump garlic cloves

1 teaspoon salt, or more as needed

2 shallots, or 1 small onion

4 or 5 sprigs fresh parsley, preferably flat-leaved

1 teaspoon dried porcini (no soaking needed)

Shadowcook: No soaking needed more or less true, but I would increase the dried porcini not quite by half and shred or crumble into small pieces.

1/4 teaspoon herbes de Provence

Shadowcook: I used fresh herbs. Herbes de Provence strikes me as very old-fashioned, because I rarely use dried herbs. But maybe there’s reason.

1/4 cup red or white wine

Shadowcook: Try the white wine.

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 bay leaf

1 strip bacon

Vegetable accompaniments

Olive oil


2 new potatoes, cut in eighths lengthwise

2 young carrots, peeled

1 young parsnip, peeled and cut in half lengthwise, or another root vegetable similarly prepared

The night before you’re planning to have a meatloaf dinner, put the meats in a bowl. Smash the garlic cloves, peel and chop them fine, then, with the flat of your chef’s knife, mash them into a paste with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Chop the shallots and parsley, and crumble the porcini. Add all these seasonings to the meats, along with the herbes de Provance, the wine, several grindings of your pepper mill, and the remaining salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands, squishing the meat with your fingers. When thoroughly mixed, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let macerate for 24 hours in the refrigerator.

Shadowcook: Just do as she says. However, the smell of meat and wine clung to my hands for hours no matter how hard I scrubbed them. Rubber gloves?

The next day, remove the meat from the fridge and pull off a tiny piece. Cook it quickly in a small skillet, then taste it to see if it needs more seasoning. If so, add whatever is needed.

Shadowcook: Great idea. I didn’t do it, but it’s a great idea. This is the sort of direction that shows how Jones assumes the person cooking for herself takes food preparation seriously.

Form the meat into a small loaf. Break the bay leaf into three pieces, and arrange them on top of the loaf; then lay the bacon strip, also cut in thirds, on top. Transfer the loaf to a medium baking pan. Rub a little olive oil and salt over the vegetables you want as an accompaniment, and distribute them around the meatloaf. Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 45-50 minutes, turning the vegetables once.

Everything is done when the meat looks lightly browned, the bacon a bit crisp, and the veggies tender (the internal temperature of the loaf should be about 150 degrees). Let rest for at least 5 minutes, then cut three or more slices, and arrange on a warm plate, with the vegetable surrounding the meat and the juice poured over.

Shadowcook: Another example of how essential a meat thermometer is to successful cooking.

Second round: Leftover meatloaf is good cold — but not overly chilled. Eaten with a dab of Dijon mustard, little cornichons, and a glass of red wine, it will taste almost like a French country paté.

Mary Karlin’s Grilled Flank Steak with Red Peppers and Fontine Cheese



from Wood-Fired Cooking, pp. 54-55.

My new SoJoe fire pit arrived last week and I was dying to take it out for a spin. Although it came with a rotisserie set that I’m dying to use, I decided instead to grill a stuffed flank steak in the new cookbook I bought to inaugurate the fire pit. I’ve spotted close to ten recipes in it that I want to try. The one I present here struck me as the easiest and most spectacular one in the book. It certainly was good.

I have by no means given up on my Weber kettle grill. A project in the near future will involve using the 6 fire bricks I recently acquired to insulate the kettle so that I can do a slow wood-grill in it.

For the moment, I’m focusing on building a fire and roasting a flank steak:

Serves 6 as a main course

1 (1 1/2 – 2 lb) flank steak

Shadowcook: Make that definitely a two-pounder.

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

Gremolata stuffing:

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup julienned fresh basil

6 cloves garlic, blanched and minced

Shadowcook: I take her point that blanching garlic removes the bitterness, but I’m not sure I want to. Anyway, I didn’t.

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1/3 cup bread crumbs or panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons olive oil, for moistening

For the remainder of the recipe:

2 red bell peppers, roasted and peeled

Shadowcook: Two would not have been enough to adequately cover the surface of my butterflied flank steak. I chargrilled four peppers on my gas grill, slipped off the burnt skins, and opened them flat.

2 cups packed spinach leaves

8 ounces Italian fontina or Monterey Jack cheese, thinly sliced

Olive oil, for brushing

Wood-Roasted Red Pepper Wine Sauce (page 191, for which you’ll have to buy the book)

Prepare a hot fire (475 degrees to 500 F) in a wood-fired oven or grill

Shadowcook: I started a fire by filling a charcoal chimney with hardwood brickettes. When the coals were blazing hot and red, I dumped them in the fire pit on one side. Then I laid four medium oak logs over the coals and let them catch fire. It didn’t take as long as I thought: 15-20 mins for the chimney coals, another 10-15 mins for the logs to catch fire from the coals.

Now, I don’t know why she begins with the making of the fire and then proceeds to stuffing the flank steak. I stuffed the flank steak and then made the fire. Prepare the meat ahead of time.

Butterfly the steak by slicing through it horizontally (with the grain), cutting almost through, leaving halves attached by 1/2 inch. Open and flatten the cut meat and lightly season with salt and pepper. Pound the steak to create a fairly even thickness. Set aside.

Shadowcook: Unless you’re skilled with a very sharp carving knife, ask a butcher to butterfly the flank steak for you. My butchers are really good and even they couldn’t prevent a thin section from becoming a seam that tore open in the meat. I watched the butcher butterflied it: long slices, one at a time, running the length of the steak until he had nearly reached the other side. And have him pound it. Why not?

To make the gremolata stuffing, combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside, reserving 3 tablespoons for garnish.

Cut the roasted peppers into 4 large slabs. Lay the spinach leaves over the opened steak. Line with cheese slices, then the red pepper slabs. Sprinkle with the gremolata stuffing. Roll up the steak tightly lengthwise. Tied the rolled steak with kitchen string about every 3 inches. Brush with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Shadowcook: It should be obvious, but make sure to roll up the steak against the grain. In other words, the grain should run horizontally, not vertically, laying on the counter in front of you. Because of the tears in the steak, I tied the roll six or seven times. Less than 3 inches separated the strings, which made for easy carving into servings. Season LIBERALLY. Remember, if you’re using Diamond Crystal kosher salt, it has less than the salinity of regular salt.

Place the meat on a grate in the oven or on the grill and turn to brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Move off direct heat and continue cooking for 20 to 25 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 120 to 130 degrees F. Transfer to a carving board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 130 to 135 degrees F. Cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds, sprinkle with the reserved gremolata, and serve with the wine sauce.

Shadowcook: Since it’s an open grill, I didn’t move it far from the direct heat. As the meat contracted and shrank, the cheese and peppers oozed out of both ends and through the small holes in the meat. It looked a delicious mess. For most of the grill, the temperature remained low enough to worry me that I would dry the meat out before it reached the recommended degree. But then, something happened about 20 minutes into the longer grilling and it shot up to 130. I took it right off and let it sit under foil.

To tell you the truth, I was forced to let it rest for longer than was good for it. I tasted it about ten minutes after. Succulent. But I had no choice except to wait to servie it. When it arrived at table room temperature, it was good but not as good as it would have been twenty minutes earlier. Be sure your guests are lined up and ready to eat after it’s rested. The cheese needs to be hot and a bit runny and the peppers warm. The beef at the center will still be pink.

At any rate, it made a hell of a visual impression on everyone at the table. And tasted pretty good.

Saveur’s Texas Slow-Smoked Brisket


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.