3Men With Nothing Better To Do
The brisket might very well be the most difficult piece of meat there is to barbecue. It is naturally tough, contains two separate, distinct muscles separated by a layer of fat that does not render. The meat absorbs smoke like a sponge, can become bitter very easily and is so large as to require longer periods of cooking times.
Selecting the best brisket is a combination of skill and luck. The brisket comes from the front (chest) of the cow, between and in front of the animal's front legs. This cut of meat is most used for walking and is thus naturally tough. As such, it requires some careful determination in selecting the best cut. The brisket has two alternating layers of muscle and fat. These layers are separate but not equal: one is thicker and wider than the other is. Observed with the fat layer on the bottom, the upper layer of meat is interspersed with strings of fat, which do not render out during cooking. The lower layer, although less fatty, also has streaks of fat – the size and shape of which offer some indication of how it will cook. Thick, ropy strands of marbling will probably yield a tougher product. You should choose briskets with more slender, consistent streaks of marbling fat. One way of achieving this is to buy ‘packer trimmed’ choice grade briskets, which are graded partly based on this superior marbling. It is this fat that will ultimately help to tenderize the brisket.
Some things to consider when selecting the brisket:
One side of the brisket has a thick layer of fat across it, which is called the ‘fat cap’; this is the bottom side of the brisket. Place the brisket with the ‘fat cap’ side down and begin to remove the hard, tough and often slightly yellow in color fat on the topside. This fat can be safely removed without any detriment to the tenderness of the meat. There is a large strip of fat that runs slightly diagonally across the top of the brisket, and which separates the two muscles (flat and point). When you trim this fat, go right down to the muscle so that there is only a slight amount of fat remaining. It may be necessary to cut about 2 inches into the brisket to remove this fat. When you are done, the top of the brisket will look mostly red with a sprinkling of fat remaining.
The bottom of the brisket has a layer of fat that runs all the way across it. With the ‘fat cap’ facing down you will notice that there is a concentration of fat along one of the edges, which tends to be a lot thicker than the rest of the ‘fat cap’. The goal is to trim this edge to about 1/4 inch in thickness. It offers a protective layer during the long periods of cooking, and although it will not render, it will help keep the meat moist and prevent the meat from becoming overly bitter or having a too strong a smoke flavor.
At this point you should mark the ‘flat’ end of the brisket by cutting off a corner across the grain, that will allow you to see which way to cut the meat once it is cooked.
Before placing a dry rub on the brisket, take a pastry brush and paint the brisket with a light coating of ordinary yellow mustard. This will accomplish several things. First, it helps keep the meat moist. Second, it helps to seal the meat and set up a tender crust. Third, the vinegar the mustard will help to a slight degree to tenderize the meat (i.e. tender crust) and fourth, it will help keep the dry rub on the brisket.
Sprinkle a liberal amount of Montreal Steak Seasoning dry rub on the brisket. Once the mustard and juices from the brisket commingle with the dry rub, it will become a "wet rub". A somewhat gooey mess. When handling the brisket from here on, try not to rub the ingredients off, until they have had a chance to form a proper crust after a few hours cooking in the pit. You can either move the brisket directly to the pit at this stage or you can let the seasonings sit for an hour or more. When a rub with salt as a significant ingredient is put on meat, the salt begins to draw moisture from it. Moisture is very important in the cooking mechanism. Water conducts heat much more readily than dry tissue. It follows, therefore, that the longer you can retain moisture in the meat, the quicker the heat will be conducted from the exterior to the interior and the more evenly the brisket will be cooked. Getting the inside done before the outside is burnt to a brick like texture is the secret to a successful brisket.
If you are going to season your brisket just prior to putting it on the pit, try to have the meat at room temperature. This will allow the meat to more readily absorb the flavor of the rub as well as reduce the overall cooking time.
Effect of Smoke
There is a lot of discussion about the effects of too much smoke on a brisket during cooking. The theory goes that brisket, unlike pork, is like a ‘sponge’ and will absorb large amounts of smoke. As brisket is associated with long cooking times, this concentration of smoke can result in your brisket tasting bitter. People who support this theory recommend using preburned charcoal as a fuel source and small quantities of wood chunks for some smoke flavor. They avoid using whole logs, green wood or unburned charcoal, suggesting that they will cause the brisket to be too smoky.
On the other side of the fence, JR is an advocate of getting a lot of smoke over the brisket. It has also been our experience that a brisket exposed to smoke in the JR cooker for the entire cooking period does not turn out too smoky. The purpose of documenting both points of view is that the JR cooker might be unique in its ability to move smoke through the cooker in such a way that it does not penetrate the meat in heavy concentrations. Using a different cooker might yield different results.
Do not place too much emphasis on producing a brisket with a deep ‘smoke ring’. The ring of color grading from dark on the outside to a pale pink deeper into the meat is not really a smoke ring at all. It is a chemical reaction of meat's constituents. The depth of color depends more upon the moisture of the meat than upon the density of smoke. It has no bearing on flavor and is not used as a judging criterion in competition.
Always place the brisket in the cooker with the ‘fat cap’ on the top. This way the fat will render and penetrate in, over, and around the cooking meat.
Temperatures and Times
The ideal temperature to cook a brisket is approximately 210 to 225 degrees F. Cooking times may vary, but usually a 10-pound brisket cooked at the temperatures above will take 8 to 12 hours. The shape of a brisket is more an indicator of cooking time than weight. A chunky 8-pound brisket 5 inches thick will take longer to cook than a long, slender 10 pounder.
When a brisket reaches a temperature of 185 degrees F, most of the interspersed fat has melted and mellowed the surrounding tissue into a reasonable facsimile of tenderness. You can test for tenderness by inserting a thermometer probe laterally into the brisket. If it enters and exits easily, it is ready to remove. Always check the brisket for doneness in the ‘flat’ and not the ‘point’. The ‘point’ will generally become tender before the flat, and can deceive you. Continue to cook until the flat is tender.
When placing the brisket on the cooker, place it as far away from the source of the heat as possible. This provides for even cooking temperatures. If you place the brisket too close to the source of the heat, it will cook faster on one side and not have a consistent tenderness. Remember also that the top racks of the cooker will run hotter than the bottom racks (30 to 50 degrees F. hotter is not uncommon), so make sure that you know what the exact ‘rack’ temperature is. In the JR cooker place the brisket in the middle of the bottom rack.
Do not mop the brisket for the first 2 to 3 hours of cooking. This will give the wet rub a chance to form a crust on the meat. Mopping prior to this time will result in washing the rub off. After the initial 2 to 3 hours, mop the brisket every 45 minutes, using 3Men Mop and being careful not to remove the crust of rub which you have created. Note that you should be careful about using a mop that contains butter, tomato, sugar etc. which might burn over the long cooking duration.
Wrapping a brisket in foil can be done to achieve one or both of the following: firstly to create a barrier between the meat and the smoke, and secondly to steam the meat and make it tender. The risk you run when wrapping is that this steaming/braising while making the meat tender can also make it mushy.
When the internal temperature of the brisket reaches 185 degrees F. take it out of the cooker, double wrap in foil, and return to the cooker for an additional 2 hours. (We did this with a 14-pound brisket, so the 2 hours might need to be reduced if using a 10-pound brisket).
Double wrap the brisket in foil and place in an ice chest covered with blankets or towels.
To cut the brisket, place it with the fat cap down so that you can see where the two muscles are joined by the layer of fat that runs between them. Separate the two muscles into the ‘point’ (Thicker more rounded piece) and the ‘flat’ (Thinner and wider piece). Two reasons for doing this are firstly that it will enable you to remove the fat that runs between these two muscles before slicing and secondly because the grains of these two muscles run in different directions. The ‘point’ will yield tastier and tenderer meat, but is normally a lot more fatty than the ‘flat’. If you have been successful in rendering out most of the fat during cooking and are able to get some good slices out of the ‘point’, this is what you will want to present in a competition. This is not always possible and normally assumes that you are using a large brisket i.e. More than 10 pounds.
Always slice brisket diagonally across the grain, into ¼ inch thick slices. When you hold the slice up and try to pull it apart the slice should give a little before it breaks apart. If the slice is falling apart when you pick it up, it is overcooked.
Remember that brisket begins to dry very quickly after it is cut, so be sure to have everything ready prior to cutting. You should use any juices as a result of cutting the brisket to re-moisten it before presenting. Apple juice misted over the brisket from a spray bottle will also moisten the meat and give it a nice shine.