For barbecue cooks, brisket is the last frontier. And, what I mean by that is that long after ribs and pulled pork are perfected, many barbecuers still have trouble with brisket. My sister Mary Pat is one of those. She is a very accomplished home cook, baker and barbecuer. She has been grilling and smoking everything you can think of for almost as long as I have. She has three growing boys and uses her grills year ‘round to prepare weekday dinners as well as entertain. But, the brisket has eluded her until just recently.
She came to visit me and we made one on my Memphis Wood Fire Grill. Before she arrived, she sent me a text asking me what to order from her butcher. I told her to bring a whole untrimmed brisket, referred to in the business as a packer cut. She showed up with the brisket still in its cryovac and it went into the fridge until the next day. That morning, we seasoned the brisket all over with my simple brisket rub and placed it on the grill at 225 F.
We went about our day, lunched on lobster rolls, went to the bike store and took a long walk on the beach—all the while, smoking a melt-in-your-mouth, kiss-the-cook-worthy brisket. That is the beauty of the Memphis Wood Fire Grill. You fill the hopper with wood pellets, set the temp and “forget” it. My grill is an older model but my sister is getting the new version that has an app allowing you to change the temperature of the grill remotely—that means she can be running her boys around town and still keep an eye on her cue.
When we took the brisket out of the fridge, I explained to my sister that the brisket is made up of two parts; the top “moist” point—also referred to as deckle—and the bottom “lean” flat. To make a mouth-watering, perfect brisket, you need to cook the whole brisket (the packer’s cut). The fat in the top “moist” point will keep the “lean” flat basted and juicy during the long cooking time.
If you buy the trimmed flat or “lean” part of the brisket then the only way to cook it, melt the connective tissues, and get it tender enough (to eat) is to braise it. That is why traditional brisket recipes which call for a piece of trimmed brisket, need ingredients like onion soup mix and stewed tomatoes to make it palatable.
I don’t trim any of the fat cap off the whole brisket. I roast it or smoke it whole with a simple seasoning of salt, butcher-grind black pepper and a pinch of cayenne—just enough to turn the rub a light pink. The beef itself is so full of flavor that less is more. It is taking the time to cook it slowly that is the secret to making a great brisket.
If a whole brisket seems too large for your family, buy the whole brisket and slice it in half vertically and freeze the other half for cooking later. This way, you will still have both parts of the brisket and the fat cap on both pieces of meat. Better yet, cook the whole thing and freeze half of the cooked meat for sandwiches or an easy meal.
Some barbecuers trim the fat cap, but I don’t think it is necessary. If you cook the whole brisket at a traditional smoking/barbecue temperature of 225 F or even 300 F, the fat will slowly melt and render out during the long cooking time, leaving rich beefy flavor behind. What fat is left should be translucent, almost black and crispy on the top. That is the most coveted part of the brisket on the barbecue circuit, otherwise known as burnt ends. When made right, it is one of the best things that you have ever tasted!
The key to roasting brisket is to set it directly on the cooking grates. This elevates the brisket and allows the air to rotate around the meat. Don’t be tempted to cook it in a pan, or it will sit in its own juices and steam. Placing it directly on the cooking grates, it will cook evenly and crisp up everywhere, melting the connective tissues, and the fat and leaving flavor and tenderness in the meat.
Serves 8 to 20, depending on appetite
Basic Brisket Rub:
1⁄2 cup Morton Kosher Salt
3 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 (9-11 pound) whole beef brisket, untrimmed (sometimes referred to as a packer’s cut)
1⁄2 cup Basic Brisket Rub (see above)
1 bottle beer*
Post oak or oak wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes, optional
Combine all ingredients in a bowl; mix well. Store leftover rub in an airtight container for three months.
Sprinkle brisket liberally on both sides with the rub. Preheat your oven or grill to
225 F or set-up a charcoal grill or smoker for indirect cooking. If using wood chips, place soaked chips directly on the gray-ashed charcoal briquettes or in the smoker box in your gas grill.
Pour beer into a drip pan and place the drip pan on the charcoal grate between the two piles of briquettes. In a gas grill, pour the beer into a small drip pan and put on the far left corner of the cooking grates. In an oven, pour the beef into a loaf pan and place on the bottom rack of the oven.
*NOTE: The beer is in the pan to add moisture to the cooking environment while the meat cooks. This is a good idea anytime you smoke-cook foods for a long period of time because smoke reduces the moisture in the air and I find this it helps even if you aren’t using wood chips.
Place brisket (fat side up) in center of the cooking grate over the drip pan. If you are roasting in the oven, place brisket on the rack set into a sheet pan and place in the center of the oven. You will not turn the brisket during the cooking time at all. Grill/Roast 5-8 hours, depending on the size of the brisket, or until meat thermometer registers 185°-190°F in the thickest part. I like to wrap the brisket in two layers of heavy-duty foil when it reaches about 170°F. That way, the brisket steams and tenderizes even more as it finishes cooking.
When done, remove from grill/oven and let rest a minimum of 20 minutes. Slice thin and serve warm.
The brisket can also be made the day before and reheated on the same rack and sheet pan system, covered loosely with foil for a couple of hours at 250° F. Remember to let the meat rest again before slicing.
When slicing, be aware that the grain of the brisket changes. Look at the grain of the meat and make sure to slice against it. If the slices look like a small honeycomb pattern, you are slicing it correctly, if it looks like long strings, then it is incorrect. And, remember a sharp knife is your best friend when carving. If you can’t remember the last time you had sharp knives, consider purchasing a Chef’s Choice electric knife sharpener.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is chef and food writer specializing in grilling, barbecue and Southern foods. She is the owner of CarolinaCueTo-Go.com, an online barbecue shack selling whole hog barbecue and the author of three cookbooks, including “Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned.”
©2017 Elizabeth Karmel