J. Kenji Lopez-Alt fired a shot across the barrel smoker of barbecue traditionalists on Monday with his latest recipe for Serious Eats: The Food Lab’s Complete Guide to Sous Vide Smoked Brisket, a title that seemed to provoke the low-and-slow contingent to take up tongs in their defense.
Via his much-admired Food Lab at Serious Eats, managing culinary director Lopez-Alt has a rich history of slaughtering sacred cows. One day, he might disabuse you of the notion that a backyard cook should flip a steak only once; the next, he’ll prove that food fried at lower temperatures is not greasier than food fried at higher ones. With his latest recipe, Lopez-Alt takes aim at barbecue brisket, particularly the Central Texas version rubbed with salt and coarse pepper, then smoked for hours over hardwood coals until tender.
The author sets up his sous-vide recipe with a broadside against the briskets he has sampled:
I’ve tasted barbecued brisket all over the country, and, while you can certainly find some truly transcendent barbecued brisket, the vast majority of the time, it’s a dry, bland disappointment.
Lopez-Alt argues his sous-vide approach can eliminate the problems that can plague traditionally smoking: the fluctuations of firebox temperature; the lack of intramuscular fat in lean-side brisket; the lack of space for a barrel smoker; a pitmaster too sleepy (or drunk) to monitor his pit. Lopez-Alt acknowledges that his finished product isn’t technically barbecue, but he suggests his brisket is better than most prepared that traditional way, even though he uses liquid smoke for that taste of smoldering wood.
Sous vide barbecue is not “true” barbecue, in the sense that we aren’t using hot, smoky air to slowly break down connective tissue and imbue flavor. But, with a bit of good technique, we can certainly come up with a dish that looks, smells, and tastes like barbecue. Not just any barbecue — really, really good barbecue. Barbecue that has a thick, crisp, near-black bark that gives way to meat that melts in your mouth, with a deep smoke flavor. And let’s be honest here: That’s better than what can be said for at least 98.3% of the “true” barbecue brisket out there (I did a count to verify that number). How many times have you had brisket that’s rubbery and tough? How many times have you had brisket that falls apart in your mouth like it’s made from sawdust? Yup, I thought so. Sous vide makes those scenarios a thing of the past.
As you might have guessed, Lopez-Alt’s story lit a fire under old school pitmasters who, like all indignant parties, have taken to Twitter to air their grievances. A sampling:
Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, engaged Lopez-Alt directly on Twitter, in a toe-to-toe exchange between two respected food writers. Punches were landed on both sides. The merits of liquid smoke were argued. But then, at one point in the back-and-forth, Lopez-Alt basically accused Vaughn of snobbery for not being more open to his water-bath version of barbecue:
Let me stop and say this: I’m a serious fan of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s work at Serious Eats. I think he’s producing high-quality food writing on a regular basis. He has helped me work through ideas and recipes on several occasions. The guy is a class act.
But I still don’t like that way he frames his brisket recipe, nor the way he appears to dismiss the majority of hard-working pitmasters and the recipes they’ve developed over the decades. (By the way, Lopez-Alt emailed me to say his words weren’t meant as a smear on most pitmasters; he points out that in at least two regions where he has lived, New England and the Bay Area, good barbecue brisket is difficult, if not impossible, to find.) Still, his approach has an elitist air, with its recommendation that you need a vacuum-sealer and an immersion circulator to create great smoked brisket on a regular basis. Then he suggests that Vaughn and, by extension, all of us low-and-slow knuckle-draggers who insist on wood-smoked meats, are snobs for not seeing that barbecue can take a new and different form — one without a single flame involved.
What Lopez-Alt doesn’t seem to see is that he has aligned himself with a tiny subset of home cooks who own sous-vide equipment. He wants people to be open to his approach even though sous-vide tools can be both costly and intimidating to the uninitiated. He seems to imply that everyone who’s not on board is a rube stuck in the Pleistocene era, relying on an unruly fire that most have no idea how to master. I mean, who’s being the snob?
When I pointed this out to Lopez-Alt in an email exchange, he balks at my characterization.
“It could be [snobby], but the point is that the traditional approach is actually the exclusive one,” Lopez-Alt emails. “I’m offering an alternative for people who cannot use the traditional approach for whatever reason, whether space, equipment, time constraints, or skill. I don’t see what’s snobby about saying ‘traditional BBQ is great but here are some alternatives for folks who can’t do it.'”
We both disagree as well on why so many traditionally smoked briskets stink. He chalks it up to poor cooking. I believe it’s often because smokehouses have to hold cooked meats for hours, which is difficult at best and nearly impossible for operations without Alto-Shaams or some other device necessary for the job. It’s the nature of the barbecue business that restaurants will have to hold meats or refrigerate them. It naturally affects the quality of the product.
But that doesn’t mean brisket, fresh from the smoker, still can’t rock your world on a regular basis. If anything, I’d say pitmasters are moving in the right direction with brisket, developing new methods to hold cooked meats longer and with better results. In other words, pitmasters won’t be trading in their off-set smoker for sous-vide equipment any time soon.