I have been asked for step-by-step instructions for preparing a barbecued beef brisket. Here is what I have come up with.
Selecting your brisket
First of all, you need a brisket. Outside of Texas you might have a little difficulty finding one. Ask your favorite butcher to assist you. The brisket comes from the breast of bovines. It, in its natural configuration, resembles a human foot. The "heel" is thicker than the "toe" by about double. The toe is wider than the heel. Sort of wedge shaped with the small end of the wedge being the heel.
Here in Texas, brisket can be found in two varieties. The first is the "market trimmed." This is the toe of the brisket with nearly all the fat removed. The other is the "packer trimmed," which is the whole brisket packed in a plastic bag. The market trimmed brisket is not usually used for barbecuing. It is very lean and would require a lot of basting with oil to keep it tender. The packer trimmed brisket is used by the commercial barbecue establishments, and will have a lot of fat on it which makes it self-basting on the pit. Market trimmed briskets will range from two to four pounds. The packer trimmed ones will run from eight to twenty or more pounds. My favorite size is the packer trimmed at about twelve pounds. Selecting the "just right" brisket is something that you can only learn from experience. If you are a novice, ask the help of your butcher in selecting one.
Making the brisket grill-ready
When you are ready to prepare your brisket for the pit, make sure you have a large enough work area so you can flop it around as needed. Get to know your brisket. Look at it from all angles. Notice that the band of fat on the bottom of the toe extends into the heel. You will remove most of this band of fat. Take a sharp knife and pare the fat off the brisket until there is about a half inch on the toe. Remove as much of the fat as possible from the heel portion. The heel section is marbled and contains fat all the way through, which is why you trim the excess. The fat contained in the heel does the basting.
Now that you have your brisket all trimmed up and neat, it's time to start the seasoning. It takes some effort to get seasoning all the way through this thick, tough cut of meat. My method of seasoning is as follows: Put a large onion and about six or eight cloves of garlic through your blender. Blend it to a smooth paste. In the final blending, add about three or four tablespoons of fresh ground black pepper and about a half teaspoon of cayenne. Smear the seasoning paste all over the brisket. Work it in good. Then put the brisket in a large plastic bag, pour in any remaining seasoning paste and seal. You should keep the brisket in the ice box overnight minimum, and 48 hours would be even better. While the brisket is in the cooler, every four or five hours, give it a good massage through the plastic to keep the seasoning paste in full contact with the meat.
National Brisket Day is May 28.
Putting the brisket over the coals
When you are ready to start cooking the brisket, you want to have your pit up to a temperature of about 200 degrees, no hotter. You want lots of smoke. Put the brisket on with the fat side up. Close the lid and find something to do for about the next hour. At the end of the first hour, you may inspect your brisket. It should be taking on a reddish color, this is the smoke working its magic. Close the lid for another half hour.
On your second inspection, you will lift one corner of the brisket and inspect the bottom to make sure it isn't getting too hot and scorching. This will happen only if you are cooking directly over the coals. Indirect heating won't scorch your meat.
About mopping and dry rubs
Time to do the first "mopping." You learned about how to make a mop sauce. A good mop sauce should contain vinegar or lemon juice and various seasonings that you select. Give the brisket a good mopping on the top side. Don't worry about the bottom at this time.
While the brisket is cooking, let's talk a minute about other seasonings. Most of your brisket cooks swear by a dry rub. That is a combination of seasonings in dry form rubbed onto the brisket before you start to cook it. With a dry rub, you will notice that when the brisket starts to cook, it "sweats." That's the juice coming out all over the place. In my opinion, this sweating just washes the rub off the meat, and you lose it. I'll get a lot of flack on that but, as I said, it's my opinion.
If you want to use a dry rub, you can use one in place of the seasoning paste when you marinate the brisket overnight. Or, you can add the dry rub right on top of the seasoning paste. Try it both ways and see which you prefer.
Back to the pit. Time for the second mopping. This time mop the top side of the brisket, then turn it over and mop the bottom side. Let it cook bottom-side-up until next mopping when you will turn it back over. Keep mopping and turning the brisket about every 45 minutes from now until the end of the cooking period.
Testing for doneness
Now comes "When is it done?" A twelve-pound brisket cooked by the above directions will be done in about eight hours if you keep the temperature between 200 and 250 degrees. To determine when the brisket is really done, you need the service of a good meat thermometer. At the thickest part of the heel, the internal temperature should reach no less than 170 degrees. The toe of the brisket, being thinner, will be cooked to a higher temperature. This is about the minimum time for a decent brisket.
"Finishing" the brisket
Continuing to cook it for several more hours will be beneficial. That is, if you have the time. When you decide the brisket is done, it is time to put on your finishing sauce.
You might have noticed that up until now nothing has been said about salt. I prefer to cook the brisket unsalted as I think the salt draws out a lot of the juice. Before putting on your finishing sauce, give the brisket a good salting. When you think you have put on enough, put on just a little more. Now put the finishing sauce all over the brisket and let it cook another half hour or so before removing it from the pit.
The finished brisket will be a very dark brown or even black. The exposed fat will be just a little crisp. Ummmmm! Let the brisket set for twenty minutes to a half hour so that the internal cooking stops before you slice it. Otherwise you will lose a lot of the delicious juices. When you slice it, be sure and cut it across the grain. The grain runs from the heel to the toe, so start at the end of the toe and work back toward the heel. About half way up the toe you will start to find a streak of fat in the middle of the slice. You can remove that if you wish; it really doesn't look all that attractive and you don't need the extra fat anyway.
The slices from the end of the toe will be things of beauty. The dark "rind" mellows to a deep red, then pink then the gray of well done beef. The black-to-red portion is what is known as the smoke ring. Some folks put a lot of stock in making a really deep smoke ring. I don't think the thickness of the smoke ring has any effect on the flavor; it's just pretty. Some dastardly folk use chemicals to get an artificial smoke ring. You can spot these being they are about a half-inch deep and pink instead of red.
The above method is the one I use when I want a traditional Texas brisket. There are a couple of things you can do to speed up the process -- the end results won't be quite as good, but it will do in a pinch.
First of all, if you don't have eight hours to devote to cooking, you can cut the time in half by smoking the brisket as outlined for about three hours, then wrap it tightly in heavy-duty foil, put it back on the pit and raise the temperature to about 350 degrees. In an hour or less the brisket will be done. You can make a small hole in the foil to stick in the thermometer. Be warned that there will be a lot of boiling hot liquid in the foil when you remove it from the pit. After you remove the foil, put your finishing sauce on the brisket and stick it back on the pit for 20 to 30 minutes.
You can also accelerate the cooking time by raising the temperature of your pit to about 350 degrees. If you are cooking directly over the coals, be careful not to burn the brisket. This will take more frequent basting than the slow cook method.
Any way you go at it, just make sure to get the brisket well done. An undercooked brisket is one of the toughest substances known to mankind. An alligator couldn't chew it.
Good luck and experiment.