Briskets are often sold in two kinds of cuts: the lean, flat part, called the first cut, and the fatty, rounded part, called the point or deckle. Those cuts are best used for corning or braising. For barbecuing, you'll want a whole untrimmed brisket, with its layer of fat, called the fat cap, left on. During the smoking process, the fat will melt into the meat, tenderizing and flavoring it.
Whole briskets weigh between 6 and 15 pounds. In a smoker, plan on about 90 minutes per pound. In a grill, plan for 30 to 45 minutes per pound.
Smokers can be purchased at national chain hardware stores for under $200. A Weber kettle grill can be used as well, but the brisket will cook much faster and will be less tender. It's difficult to keep a covered charcoal grill going at a low temperature without the coals burning out (add 10 or so briquettes approximately every hour to keep a steady fire), so the meat must cook at a higher temperature than in a smoker and has less time to tenderize. But it is still smoky and delicious.
In central Texas, the best barbecue joints use a local hardwood called postoak. But you can use other hardwoods, such as oak, pecan or hickory, or a mix. If you don't have seasoned split logs, use hardwood chunks, available at specialty barbecue stores. Don't use chips (except in a kettle, and soak them for an hour before using); they're too flimsy for the task.
Maybe the most mysterious thing about brisket is that it tastes so good with so few seasonings. The best barbecue joints in Texas, such as Kreuz in Lockhart and Louie Mueller in Taylor, use only salt and coarsely ground pepper. The simplicity of meat, salt, pepper and smoke makes for a powerful, honest flavor that is hard to beat. Getting overly fancy with marinades or rubs only obscures the deep, true flavor of the meat. Still, an unobtrusive dry rub can give the brisket a distinctive signature.
One last thing: Always serve brisket with cheap white sandwich bread, pickles, jalapeño peppers and sliced onions. The standard sides are potato salad, pinto beans and coleslaw.
If you're using a smoker, you'll need a full bag of charcoal and at least 10 split logs of seasoned oak or other hardwood, or at least 30 hardwood chunks. For a charcoal grill, plan on using one-quarter to one-half of a 10-pound bag charcoal and 12 hardwood chunks or up to a full bag of chips.
Make Ahead: The brisket can be smoked, cooled and refrigerated 3 to 4 days before serving. Reheat in the smoker or in a 300-degree oven for an hour.
Servings: 14 - 16
- One 8- to 10-pound whole brisket (with the fat cap)
- Kosher salt
- Coarsely ground black pepper
- Jim Shahin's Dry Rub (optional; see related recipe online)
If using a smoker, start a charcoal fire in the firebox (charcoal is fine to use for this.)
If using a charcoal grill, prepare the grill for indirect grilling: Light the charcoal in a chimney starter and let the briquettes burn until the flames subside and a light layer of ash covers the briquettes (about 20 to 25 minutes). Dump the lighted coals into 2 mounds (or, preferably, into 2 half-moon-shaped briquette baskets) on opposite sides of the grill. Place a drip pan between the piles of coals and fill it halfway with water.
Season the brisket liberally with salt and pepper or the dry rub, if using.
To cook in the smoker: When the coals turn ashen, open the chimney completely and add 2 split logs or 6 hardwood chunks. Let them burn for about 10 minutes or until they start to flame for a couple of minutes; close the firebox door. When the logs or hardwood chunks start smoldering and smoking, set the brisket on the grate in the cooking chamber, as far from the fire as possible. Close the chamber door; close the chimney one-half to three-quarters of the way; adjust to maintain the temperature inside the smoker between 225 and 275 degrees. Add two logs or 6 hardwood chunks as needed after roughly 2 hours. Smoke for about 90 minutes per pound, making sure to keep the fire as steady as possible. If the fire gets too hot (350 degrees or higher), close the chimney completely until the temperature falls to about 250 degrees. If the fire falls below 225 degrees, add another log or two, and make sure it catches fire before you close the firebox.
To cook in the grill: When the grill is set up as directed above and the coals are ashen, place 2 or 3 hardwood chunks (or a handful of soaked wood chips) on the coals, place the grill rack in position and cover the grill. When the hardwood chunks start to smoke, place the brisket on the grill rack above the drip pan. Maintain the temperature inside the grill between 250 and 300 degrees. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes per pound; add charcoal and hardwood chunks/chips as needed.
The brisket is done when a meat thermometer reads 185 degrees when inserted into the thick end of the meat.
Line a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Transfer the brisket from the smoker or grill to the prepared pan and let it rest for 15 minutes. Trim and discard the fat cap. Cut across the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. The slices at the narrower end are lean but less tender, so you might want to cut those thinner. The slices at the thicker end are fattier, but they're also juicier.
From Jim Shahin.
Tested by Stephanie Witt Sedgwick.
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