A man and his brisket; a nod to pit masters

Before Dawn

The alarm woke me rudely at 5am. I lay in bed for a few minutes contemplating the enjoyment of sleep versus the commitment I’ve made. 12 hours ago I had applied rub to a brisket and it was time to get the fire going. Indeed, properly smoking a brisket is a commitment. On the shorter end a full brisket can take 10 hours, but easily go 12-15. In addition there is a 1-2 hour finishing ritual that includes letting the smoked brisket “rest” while off the smoke.

It seems that some of the things I enjoy most require waking up at some ungodly hour; fishing, bicycling, long road trips, and now my latest passion; slow smoked meat. I’ve eaten plenty of BBQ in my life but in the last year I jumped headfirst onto the “barbeque trail”, driving thousands upon thousands of miles tasting the absolute best BBQ in Texas and therefore the world. It was a wonderful year as I had purchased a new-to-me touring motorcycle and Leslye accompanied me on great journeys throughout the spring, summer, and into the fall.

Then in late October I was hit by a truck while riding my motorcycle.  For three months I was confined to a wheelchair and I will forever have metal plates and screws inside my body. The path back to recovery was relatively quick and five months later I was back, albeit via four wheeled transportation. While there are lasting effects that will remain with me for life, I consider myself on the “good side” of the accident.

A week prior my brother gifted me a smoker. I had used an electric upright smoking device before but it uses only a handful of woodchips soaked in water to provide flavor. My new pit was a 100% wood smoker. It was also just big enough for a single brisket, with maybe a small amount of room for a few sausage links. It was precisely what I had envisioned building myself. It would use a small amount of wood and cook just enough meat for our family of four with leftovers to last through the week.

The smoker wasn’t finished but the hardest work had been done. A firebox, smoker section, and smokestack were welded together on a stand. Cuts had been made for lids, rudimentary handles attached, and hinges fashioned which had rusted shut since the original build.

When we got it to my backyard Shawn and I ground, sanded, painted, cut, and welded to get it far enough along to at least try and smoke a brisket. The day after we got it, Easter Sunday, I had attempted my first 100% wood brisket. We hadn’t completed the trim around the lids which led to a lot of smoke leakage and I had to pull the brisket off two or more hours before completion due to a preplanned trip to Vegas. It was good and had nice flavor but was undercooked leaving it more chewy than desired.

Shawn working on the rust

Shawn working on the rust

I finished off trimming and sealing the smoker lid before attempt number two which was underway on the morning of April 27. The firebox still needed to be trimmed, handles fashioned, and I felt like the air box vent needed to be enlarged. I didn’t wait for that to occur though, I just had to slap another brisket in there and try again.

My commitment now would be to babysit the firebox through the break of dawn, past lunch, and into the late afternoon. I groggily pulled the brisket from the fridge and allowed it to begin to warm. I had already ripped down the fireplace size logs into about 1/3 of original size to fit into the firebox so I started with the ritual of igniting slivers of wood I had cut from larger logs. Slowly the fire grew until I could place a “full size” stick onto the coals and then I carefully laid the brisket into the smoker – fat side up as most often recommended. I didn’t allow enough time for the brisket to come to room temperature. I didn’t let the base of hot coals grow to where it really needed to be. I was already making some rookie mistakes but they weren’t egregious.

Smoker adjustments

A smoker has two primary tuning tools. To increase the heat and flame, there are usually vents in the firebox. Some large pits have been designed with enough planning that there is very little adjustable venting needed and simply opening a firebox door is enough to fine tune the temperature. On the extreme end such as Kreuz with their open fire pits, the adjustment can be the size of the fire itself. Skilled pit masters with years of experience can control this without even the aid of thermometers. My skill lies mostly with eating brisket, not smoking it, so I would employ the use of both a smoker box thermometer and a meat thermometer.

The smoke room at Smitty's

The smoke room at Smitty’s

One of the smokers at Opie's

One of the smokers at Opie’s

 

The firebox vent in my smoker was a hand-sized hole. When I first got it I had made an adjustable vent but had to keep opening it to maximum as well as cracking open the lid to the firebox to allow the fire to breath. The vent hole seemed too small and I had plans to enlarge it with a more adjustable sliding door but didn’t have enough time to cut and weld the new vent before I needed to get the brisket on the smoke. I was going to spend the day playing with the height of the firebox lid.

For the first hour I tended the pit every 10-15 minutes. One time the heat flashed to 400 degrees but I quickly dropped it back down by adjusting the smokestack vent. This is the other tool on a smoker. It serves two functions; first it keeps the smoke in the smoker section and second it can cut the oxygen to the fire even more efficiently that the firebox vent. By capping, restricting, or opening this vent you can increase the smokiness of the meat and further control the fire.

As a novice and as a general tinkerer these two adjusters had me opening the firebox lid with one hand and capping and tweaking the smokestack flow with my other in efforts to get the temperature right in the sweet spot around 250 degrees. Once I work with this smoker more and begin to learn it’s way I should be able to leave the regulators in place for the most part and let it do its job, but on this morning I continued to fiddle with the two adjustments as dawn broke.

What?!

The sky turned slate gray and I no longer needed a flashlight to guide my way. I decided at this point it would be best to put on some pants. In my bleary and quick work to get the fire going I was wearing only underwear and shoes. The weather had been comfortable enough and I wanted to let Leslye sleep so I simply hadn’t bothered with getting fully dressed. I don’t think this is how the great pit masters work.

An hour and a half after the first flames I began to try and get the smoker under my control without needing to continually adjust but I found myself only able to do that for less than 20 minutes at a time. I would put on a new stick and the flame would come up. I would back down the fire to compensate, but then a few minutes later I would need to kick it back up again to prevent the temperature from dropping too far.

Early in the smoking process

Early in the smoking process

With the daylight now bright enough at 6:30 to warrant a citation for my semi nudity if my neighbors caught me I threw on some shorts. I was blessed with good weather on this day. While a bit windy and humid, it was warm enough to be comfortable, the humidity aside. Unlike a professional who works six days a week I can pick and choose my days to cook. I truly respect those who have to work in freezing cold, heavy downpours, and the incessant heat of the Texas summers.

The Wood predicament and other costs

By 7am it felt like I had worked into a rhythm. I hadn’t had enough time to get a nice bed of coals going before I put the brisket on but now with a solid bed the heat seemed a little more consistent. The temperature was right at 250 and things were humming along. I looked at my wood pile and did a little math in my head. I had a small pile of Oak firewood and I had bought a bag of Pecan wood chunks. I refuse to cook with Mesquite; I just don’t like the taste, and I do believe I can tell the taste. While the flavor impacts are generally subtle with most woods it isn’t so with Mesquite. To me it has a slightly spicy bite. If it’s fresher then it is even a bit of an acrid taste. Oak is my preferred wood flavor. It leaves a heavy smoke impact when done right. Some prefer a little lighter flavor but the best brisket I have ever tasted has been smoked with Oak so I favor that. Pecan is a milder aroma and I thought the mix of the two would work well.

It looked like I would go through all of the Oak wood and maybe much of the bag of Pecan.  I did have a backup plan. I had a bag of 100% natural charcoal. This bag proclaimed to be made of only wood with vegetable binders to hold it into shape. I thought to myself that maybe that would count for a side of veggies.

The amount of wood I would be using made me wonder about the costs associated with smoking professionally. The significant shrinkage of the brisket itself combined with the supplies of wood, electricity, and whatever salaries were involved must weigh heavily in any barbecue enterprise.

Opie's Mesquite

Opie’s BBQ, Stack of Mesquite

Stacks of wood waiting to be employed

Stacks of wood waiting to be employed at Kreuz

 

The huge rise in beef and pork costs in 2014 also would be a major impact to BBQ entrepreneurs. While real smoked barbecue is likely at an all-time high of popularity as evidenced not just by the proliferation and expansion in Texas but also in far reaching locations such as Brooklyn, the rising costs of doing business make it more difficult to be successful. I won’t even go into the three primary grades of beef brisket, but be aware that some joints have to make difficult decisions about the quality of beef versus the price they must charge to make a living. I’ve seen smoked brisket priced over $17 a pound already this year and expect it to exceed $18 at the joints using the better grades. It’s not greed, its economics. Daniel Vaughn wrote a good article about the rising costs here.

I had let 30 minutes pass and checked on the smoker. At 7:30 am the air temperature was at 275, still within the preferred temperature range. I tossed another stick on and choked the smokestack vent to drop the temperature just a little and keep the smoke in the chamber longer.

Self-Reflection and loneliness

There is a lot of time to self-reflect while smoking like this. Listening to the birds chirping I trimmed our peach and pear trees and did some light backyard cleanup. Being a pit master can be a very lonely profession. With multiple pits and meats that require different cooking times I would believe one could be occupied with the task at hand, but even then I think there would be times to sit and think. I have sat and talked with pit masters at a number of joints. Some of my favorite recollections of these chats have been out in the hill country west of Austin. However, scenic views and sunrises can only go so far. The desolation and quiet is at first enjoyable but then a little disconcerting. I eschewed using my phone or watching TV early on; it takes away from the purity of the relationship with flame and smoke. However, even with the company of another and my love of fire I think this is a lonesome job that drags on.

Peeking in the firebox

Peeking in the firebox

A too-early check of the smoker showed the temperature nearing 300 so I dampened the firebox a bit. It was less than three hours into the cooking and this was getting repetitive. While my little smoker and small wood size were not physically taxing, the whole process was. I thought back to those professionals who toss dozens of 10-15 pound briskets on the grill and feed much larger chunks of wood throughout the day as they maintain multiple pits. It’s not uncommon for a busy establishment to go through over 1,000 pounds of meat a day. The work required isn’t just the tending of meat at a BBQ establishment. There is also the preparation of everything from sauce to sides. Many of the best start from scratch; whole potatoes have to be cut and boiled in order to form the nucleus of potato salad, gallons of vinegar for sauce, and big bags of beans in pots to be turned into finished product. Here again if I was doing more than a single brisket without sides some of my boredom would have been replaced with busy work to prepare and make the sides.

The solitude of the morning began to break as the sounds of vehicular traffic rose from the street behind our house. The sounds were especially aggravating whenever a redneck in a large diesel truck, old muscle car, or ratted out late model car blipped the throttle coming in or out of the turn a quarter block away. We’re not located in the hill country; the quiet morning burned away into the sounds of urban life.

By 9am the sun began to beat down and I continued to work to a rhythm. I found a good setting on the firebox with the lid slightly propped open and fed the wood slowly and consistently. It still wasn’t automatic, I needed to watch for the dropping of the temperature and then bring the fire back up.

The easier methods

I began to think about the more automated options in smoking; gas assisted and wood pellet. Of the gas assisted manufacturers, Southern Pride gets the most knocks followed by Ole Hickory. I have had great BBQ served up from a Southern Pride, as evidenced here. But in general use in the BBQ industry the wood is kept to a minimum and the final product is a near tasteless piece of meat. Wood pellet machines, such as models from Cookshack or Traeger offer up what seems to be a good comprise; the ease of use and automated temperature control of a gas burner while using real wood pellets.

Southern Pride_compressed

The gas cookers control the temperature automatically, and wood is optional. This allows a business to hire inexperienced employees and let the brisket cook overnight basically unwatched. Sometimes the briskets cooked using this process will have little to no rub applied, and are often served with sauce ladled on top in an attempt to enhance the flavor. A trick I also see often at chain BBQ establishments using these cookers is that they will vent the fumes from these automated cookers directly over the entrance. This gives the visitor a heavy waft of smoke upon entry in an attempt to mimic the environment of a real smoke house. It’s nothing more than an aromatic hoax. My article on use of gas cookers is here.

Wood pellet smokers do offer a good compromise in my opinion. By using real wood they provide a more authentic flavor but by using an automated hopper system with a rotating auger to feed the pellets, the temperature is maintained with ease. I’ve only had brisket once from one of these machines, and it was quite good. I am not sure why they aren’t more popular compared to the gas cookers since the automation is similar and the wood pellets can be made from 100% wood. The owner can even choose which types of wood are used. My guess is that if a proprietor is going the “easy” way, that the added logistics of ordering the wood supply and the supplementary efforts of loading the hopper as needed outweigh the overall ease of use of a gas fired cooker. They must simply want to set it and forget it.

The Stall

After 10 hours in the fire the brisket stalled. Stalling is a common phenomenon with large meats. This article has some good information explaining why it happens. I was aware of the possibility of a stall but never even considered it when I used my electric smoker. I simply plugged it in and waited for the internal temperature to reach the desired mark. The stall is a more interesting experience when feeding wood into a smoker. After 10 hours of smoke at 250 degrees the brisket was holding at an internal temperature of 150. The first, and worst, reaction by a novice is to increase the heat thinking that it is needed, but this will dry out the brisket quickly and possibly burn the ends beyond reasonable taste. Patience is the game here, so I maintained the heat, increasing it to about 275 because I was worried I would overshoot dinner time again.

I had run through the entire bag of Pecan chunks and most of my Oak. I began to get concerned that I wouldn’t have enough wood to last through the entire cook. It’s actually not a terrible thing to finish a brisket for the last hour or two in an oven. After a number of hours smoke doesn’t permeate any deeper, and the plain heat doesn’t affect the taste as much as one might think. We have an electric oven, and I would have probably been a little more concerned if we had gas as I would be a bit afraid of gassing my brisket at the end of a long day of the efforts of smoking.

At the 12 hour mark I thought I would have been done but the temperature was just approaching 185-187. I let it continue sitting in the smoke, my goal was not to yank the brisket off too early. I eyed what was left of my wood stack. I was down to only a couple of large fireplace sized logs so I ran one across my table saw in order to rip it down to strips sized for the little smoker.

Pulling the brisket early, again

Finally, at 8 pm and thirteen and a half hours in the smoker, the brisket had reached a respectable 190 degrees internally. I had originally planned to let it reach 195 but it was getting far too late. In my first attempt I had started at 8am and pulled the brisket off very early due to planned travel. This time I started the fire at 5am and still overshot dinner. Another lesson learned; start very early. It’s easier to let a brisket rest a bit longer than to try and finish exactly on time.

I wrapped the brisket and brought it inside. There wasn’t going to be enough time to let it rest a full 1-2 hours but I impatiently waited 30 minutes before unwrapping.

While resting I compared my efforts to the alternative. I got the 10 pound brisket on sale for $17.70 but it would run $25 normally. I went through about $10 worth of wood, and a little more for the kosher salt and cracked black pepper used in the rub, the foil, and the gas used to go get the supplies. With a 50% shrinkage of the brisket during cooking this equates to about $37 for 5 pounds of finished brisket; $7.40 a pound. To get this price I had to watch over the brisket from 5am until 8pm, and didn’t get to even taste it until almost 9pm.

My eyes were smoky, my hair was smoky, even my fingers were smoky. I had taken several large breaths of smoke deep into my lungs. It had gotten hot enough outside for me to sweat throughout the day so I was also hot and tired. My clothes were dirty with a combination of sweat and smoke.  I was tired, and I was hungry. I again internally thanked all the pit masters that do this on a daily basis.

 

How was the brisket?

I sliced the brisket in half and could tell right away by the resistance it gave that it needed more time in the heat. I did take a bite but it was still too chewy for my tastes so I re-wrapped it and stuck it in the oven to finish it off. Once the internal temperature hit 200 I pulled it, and let it rest for an hour and a half. At midnight I placed it in the fridge. I had overshot dinner so far that we wouldn’t get to enjoy it at all that night.

The next evening I put the wrapped brisket in the oven and slowly warmed it up. We were rewarded with tasty and tender brisket. It was not quite as moist as I like, and could have been just a bit tenderer. It wouldn’t have done well compared to the BBQ greats, but was good and I would go so far as to say it was better than what I’ve had at a number of joints. We didn’t sauce it.

Smoking brisket to perfection is an art, and it is not without reward, but it is a daylong (and more) commitment. It is hard work and my appreciation of the work of the great pit masters continues to grow.

-BBQ Bryan