THE UNDISPUTED KING OF TEXAS BEEF
I learned to cook brisket from a man with one thumb.
Actually it was half a thumb. Three quarters if you count the bony protuberance at the end of it. The other one was intact, but his brisket thumb had been pulled off by a mule. Or bitten off in a bar fight . Or sacrificed in disgrace after a brief but disappointing run-in with the Yakuza of the central Texas Hill Country. The facts behind the missing digit depended on who you asked and how many coldbeers they’d had that morning.
His name was (and is) Wild Bill and he taught Skinny. Skinny taught me, and then sometime after that I spent a few somewhat bleary mornings learning directly at the side of the master. Let me say at the outset that, like good barbecue, Wild Bill’s history is equal parts lore and fact. And I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins.
At one point several years back before I or most of the other outsiders moved to Austin, Wild Bill was the pit master of what I’ve heard was one of the better barbeque joints in town. And he was shipping his best ‘cue to places as far away as New York, in the days well before the internet made the practice common. Also from what I’ve heard, he was a bit of a hellion, dutifully earning his nickname and reputation as a true wild man. At some point, for some reason, the barbecue joint ceased to exist. And lost to time, Wild Bill drifted back into the Hill Country ether, appearing occasionally at backcountry cookouts or tailgates and talking to a few select people over by the pits and keeping mostly to himself. No longer all that wild, but still incredibly opinionated about all things meat, he is the Caine of central Texas ‘cue. Dispensing beefly wisdom like an old episode of Kung Fu and then moving on to continue walking the earth.
My brisket technique is an amalgam of a few people’s, but Skinny and Wild Bill are the goodoldboy pitmasters who taught me to really feel, know and innately understand the alchemy of smoked beef.
The one true, undisputable piece of barbeque wisdom is this: You’ll hear a lot of bullshit when it comes to cooking most anything, but barbeque seems to be especially susceptible to it. Strip away the gloppy sauce. Get rid of the overpriced, but still gas-fired ranges. Take the patented infrared searing coil and patented hexi-shaped charcoal, stick them in the same place where the beercan enters the chicken, and you’ll realize that the things that make good barbecue are smoke, salt, time and how well the guy managing the pit can manipulate those things to his favor. That’s it… Although I do concede saying that is a bit like saying Satchel Paige was a great baseball player because he pitched so the other guy couldn’t hit. It’s a bit of an oversimplification.
But in honesty, the only magic to really, really good barbecue is controlling the alchemy that happens when a tough piece of meat is held at certain temperature for a certain number of hours. Love your fire, give it space and time and allow it to be what it is. And what you’ll be left with is a thing of beauty: A range of colors from sooty black to bright red to pale pink and beefy beige. A textural dalliance between crusty, crispy bark-like exteriors and tender, melting meaty fatty bits inside that might only be described as the ice cream of a hot beef sundae. A palette of flavors from salty to smoky to meaty and then all the other beautiful subtleties lurking in between.
A giant hunk of inexpensive beef cooked over fire—a brisket, can be that good. And since it can be, it should always be.
There’s a few things that go into a proper brisket, basically it’s your meat, your rig, your timing and your rub. These are not things that I invented, but rather things that I’ve observed over time from watching guys who know more than I do.
Always start with a packer trim brisket. That means it has the fat cap intact and the butt still on. That fat cap will keep your beef moist and delicious during the long hours of cooking and you can trim it off later if you like. If you can find a nice, local grassfed brisket, all the better. But that will be expensive. And when you’re dealing with a piece of meat that’s anywhere from 12 to 20 pounds, expensive gets expensive in a hurry.
As for the rig, it’s pretty hard to beat a regular offset smoker that is burning hardwood logs. I know some guys who have turned out really nice pieces of meat using wood chips, pellets or even a gas range. But for me it’s never quite the same as the flavor of a post oak fire that’s been quietly burning at about 200 degrees for 15 hours or so. Not only that, staying up all night tending a fire lets you add some sex and mystery to your beef. And in the case of barbeque, sex and mystery are two of the more important flavors.
You’re gonna rub your meat a full day before smoking it. It creates a nice cure and helps keep your brisket from drying out. What you rub it with is a matter of debate. I know several accomplished ‘cue men who hoard their recipes obsessively. I know just as many who swear by salt and pepper and nothing else. And the salt and pepper guys tend to be the ones who really know their shit. Myself I have a recipe that involves salt, pepper, brown sugar and a few other things that will remain secret (see the earlier note about sex and mystery). I like the way the sugar caramelizes, mixes with smoke and, to my mind, provides a crispier exterior to the final product. But so long as your have something that’s mostly salt and pepper, the rest is open for improvisation. And it should be.
I cook my brisket for anywhere from 14-17 hours. Basically, I cook it till it’s done. Wild Bill taught me to read the beef—specifically the fat cap. When the fat cap has turned into a jiggly, soft substance that you can easily drag a finger, or partial thumb with a bony exposure, through, it is done. This is what Wild Bill did to illustrate the point. Picture a nice April morning, koozied Lone Star in hand, looking at a pit and hearing this infinite wisdom. “See here, this one isn’t done yet.” [Boney half thumb jabbed into the meat we will be eating] “This one’s closer.” [One more boney, half thumb jab.] “But this one here… niiicce.” [Repeated bony half thumb jabs to really illustrate the point]. Wild Bill then lifted the 200 degree sizzling, fat dripping, 18 pound piece of beef with his bare hands and carried it a good 20 feet to the cutting table without wincing, hurrying or acting in the least bit burned. Then we ate. Wild Bill’s brisket thumb didn’t lie, the brisket was damn fine.
The final point of debate involves wrapping the briskets at the end of cooking or not. I wrap. I know guys who don’t. But I find that it helps the beef break down, sort of braising and steaming in it’s own smokey fat for a few hours. I always cook the last hour unfoiled though, just to recrisp the bark.
Of all the things I cook for people and friends, I’m known more for my brisket than anything else. More than the Italian food I grew up with, more than the restaurant style stuff I picked up over the years. I guess that’s partially a function of the nature of eating it, you need a lot of people to finish a brisket and so it always seems to be on the menu at get-togethers. Maybe it’s also a function of the fact that really good brisket is something that elevates, becomes ethereal and gets cemented into even the most inebriated mind.
I guess the only way I could describe the difference of a great brisket versus an OK brisket is to picture eating a perfect farmstand peach at the height of it’s season and juicy sweet ripeness, now picture eating a store bought peach that has been refrigerated for who knows how long, now apply that difference to beef. You can taste the soul of a great brisket. Weather that’s the soul of the cow that parted with it or the soul of the trees that burned for it or the living soul of Wild Bill floating around out there among the live oaks, I don’t know. But its there, and once you’ve tasted it soulless brisket just tastes, well, soulless.
This is my brisket, I like to eat it with sharp cheddar, avocado and white bread and wash it down with an icy coldbeer. Hopefully it makes the men who taught me how to make it proud.
*I’d also like to thank my friend Jay for doing some photographs, and in the process showing me what a photo of food should actually look like.