Brisket FAQ

So a few people had a few questions about the whole brisket thing. And I thought I would be a helluva guy and take the time to impart some wisdom on the whole subject. You’re welcome.

What is up with cooking to 195 degrees? I thought beef was well done at 160 and after that was a burnt mess?

Yes, those would be accurate statements – for regular old beef for the masses. We are talking about something special here – a cut of meat that has huge ropes of connective tissue running all through it. That connective tissue makes the meat tough – really tough. But, at about 175 degrees fahrenheit, something interesting happens: The collagen in that connective tissue turns into gylcerine, and the fat that surrounds it starts to render into tallow. The combination of glycerine and tallow running through the meat is the magic combination that turns an otherwise leathery chunk of cow into a butter-tender hunk of meat that has more beef flavour than anything you will have in any other way. Getting the meat to this temperature for as long as possible is what lets you violate the universal rule of beef – the tougher the meat, the tastier. In this case the toughest cut of meat on the whole animal retains every bit of its flavour but becomes as tender as the best prime rib.

What is really interesting is that the process of collagen-to-glycerine uses up literally all of the heat energy that you are pumping into the beef mass – at that point in time, there is no energy going into the cooking process at all, and the internal temperature of the meat will “stall” here, sitting at 175-180 degrees for a startlingly long time and sometimes even dropping down despite the heat input remaining constant. This is good, the longer you keep it here the better. Once it crosses this plateau the temperature will run up to 195 pretty quickly, so using a remote thermometer probe is a must.

The only reason we take it to 195, if you were wondering, is to make sure that all of the places where there are little fat pockets inside – which can be somewhat insulated – have a chance to get the full benefit of the process.

So why isn’t all dried out like my mom’s pot roast?

It’s because we protected the meat. First we put a sear on the outside to seal in the moisture, and then we took it through the rest of the roasting process at a temperature that was low enough that we didn’t drive the moisture past this barrier. Low and slow, kids, low and slow. Note that if you are doing the brisket in a real barbeque pit and cooking it with smoke, you dont need the searing step. The natural smoke ring protects the moisture in the same way.

So why do I need the “whole” brisket? What is wrong with the piece that they sell at the supermarket?

The fact that they sell it at the supermarket is the first thing that is wrong with it. Besides giving you the wrong cut, there is a very good chance that they are injecting it full of salt water before they sell it to you. Look for the key word “seasoned” on the sticker. This is not meat you want to cook, and not and industry that you want to support.

However, and to be less preachy about it, you need the full brisket cut (both the point and the flat) because the interface between them is where the biggest share of the above-mentioned collagen is hiding. You need that layer, and you need it to be attached to the two other pieces of meat. This is key.

So quit arguing and get yourself a proper butcher already!

Where the hell am I going to find a butcher?

Oh, I don’t know, maybe you could search the freaking internet? Sheesh.

What am I going to do with all this meat?

Make friends with your neighbours – you never know when you are going to need a favour, and buying some goodwill with free brisket on a bun never hurt in that regard. After that, slice up some for your own sandwiches and freeze it into individual servings. And take at least a kilo and a half (three pounds for you colonial types) and make it into chili. And yes, I will give you a recipe.

Do you cook it fat up or fat down? Does it matter?

Wow! A good question! Actually, in the long run it doesn’t matter all that much for the overall taste. If you can, cook it fat up so that the fat renders off more evenly and you get a better crust on top without washing all of your rub away. Do that if you are oven roasting or cooking in a smoker where the fire is off to the side in a seperate chamber. BUT – if you are cooking it in a veritcal smoker (where the heat comes from below, like a Weber Smokey Mountain) or in a ceramic cooker like a Big Green Egg or on a grill with the burners on the side turned on, then you should put it fat side down. The fat cap will protect the meat from some of the inevitable hot spots that develop on the bottom side of the meat. Mail me if you aren’t sure which way to go.

Do I have to do that part with it sitting in the foil and wait for it? I’m hungry!

Then eat a carrot or something. You can’t rush this. If you’re in a rush, you are in the wrong place. Close the door on the way out, you heathen.

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