Pomp, Circumstance, and Brisket

In a little over two weeks my daughter will graduate from high school, and I couldn’t be more proud. For her graduation party, we agreed that I would, of course, provide barbecue. We also agreed that smoked brisket should be a part of the menu. There was only one problem: I’d never smoked a brisket before. I had yet to graduate to that level of barbecue proficiency.

I’ve got many years of experience with a variety of fast and slow cooked proteins: chicken, fish, beef, and, of course, pork – ribs, shoulders, and loins. I’m an experienced journeyman of the barbecue pit, but I had yet to conquer the beef brisket. I realized I needed to do a trial run before I attempted to feed a group of ravenous graduation partygoers.

I decided to smoke the test brisket on the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend. Knowing that the cooking process would take ten hours or more, I planned to eat it on Sunday rather than force the family to stay awake until the wee hours waiting for their dinner. I have had “next day brisket” before, and it is quite wonderful.

In a moment of poor planning, I told a friend that I would happily help her move from her apartment to her brand new house on Saturday morning. I was hoping the move would happen quickly so that I could get started on the brisket before midday. Fortunately, Jennifer had expertly packed all of her belongings in boxes. There were no stray tea sets or collections of spice jars to pack into grocery bags; she was ready. The loading, transporting, and unloading were complete by 11 a.m., and while I was free to head home to start the cooking process, I was briefly delayed by the opportunity to consume a refreshing beverage (or two) as compensation for my efforts. Much appreciated, Jen.

By noon, I was home, lighting the coals, and soaking the apple wood chips. I retrieved the mighty twelve-pound slab of beef from the refrigerator where it had been sitting dressed in nothing but the basic BBQ rub I massaged into the flesh the night before. I inserted a meat thermometer and waited for the coals to turn gray. As I have mentioned, I’m a strictly charcoal guy, and for the brisket I used my large rectangular grill that’s big enough to create a decent simulation of an offset smoker. I placed the ashen coals on the left hand side of the coal basket with a handful of apple wood chips for smoke, set the brisket on the grate to the right, and closed the lid.

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While smoking a brisket does require a lot of attention, I was able to be productive nonetheless. Between the times I needed to get a fresh batch of charcoal ready or add additional wood chips to the fire, I mowed the lawn, cleaned up the house, washed dishes, went shopping for garden decorations, and grilled chicken and asparagus for dinner on the other grill. I’ve got mad multi-tasking skills. 

Seven hours later, when the internal temperature of the brisket had reached 180°, I had a decision to make: should I fire up another batch of coals and continue the grilling process, or should I cheat? Cheating, in this context, means wrapping the brisket in foil and placing it in a 250° oven to finish cooking. The brisket needed to reach an internal temperature of 200° before it would be tender, and that meant another hour or two (or more). I didn’t need any more smoke on the meat. In fact, the apple wood smoke was done after the first three hours. All I was truly doing was applying heat to cook it slowly. After almost eight hours on the grill, moving the meat into the oven would simply ensure an even cooking temperature. I had already put in a full day’s work tending the live fire, and I didn’t want to experience any pilot error as a result of fatigue. If I put in too much hot charcoal and pushed the temperature up to 350° or more, all my efforts could be ruined. I decided to cheat, and I don’t feel bad about it.

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When the mach meter indicated 203°, I took the brisket out of the oven and let it rest. An hour later, I unwrapped the foil, moved the slab to a cutting board, and sliced thin strips of deliciousness. My family was drawn to the kitchen by the smoky aroma wafting through the house, and they each took a sample. The meat was everything I hoped for: a deep ebony bark with a slow-burn spiciness, unctuous and tender flesh, and subtle smokiness that is part flavor, part aroma. Spectacular. Since it was 10 p.m., we packed up the meat in foil pans and called it a night. On Sunday, I slowly re-heated the meat in the oven, and we enjoyed a great day-after meal of brisket and biscuits. 

Cooking the brisket was the final exam in my pit master education, and it required all of my grilling skills, not the least of which was patience. I would not recommend a brisket as your first smoking adventure. You might get lucky, but I found it deeply satisfying to attempt it only after spending many years grilling steaks, tenderloins, beef roasts, pork ribs, veggies, and more. I worked my way up to the brisket. Not only did I have to have an understanding of what I was cooking – the brisket is a particularly challenging piece of meat, structurally speaking – I also had to know a lot about how my grill would behave on that day, given the air temperature, wind speed, and humidity. It was a true test of my grilling education and experience. It was a culminating project. According to my family, I got an A on the test.

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The graduation party is in three weeks. Friends and family will gather to celebrate my daughter’s achievement, and I will smoke another brisket, along with pork shoulder and marinated chicken breasts, to feed them. My daughter will get a diploma to recognize her accomplishment. I will get to see the smile on her face when she tastes the food. That’s all the recognition I need. 

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