At BrisketU, it’s all about the process.
There might be no smell quite as heady as that of true Texas barbecue. And if you’re going to do it, you’d better learn to do it right.
Your olfactory senses start to perk up when those first wisps of post oak smoke hit your nostrils. Something in your brain is triggered, and before you know it, there’s a low rumble in your belly, and your tongue begins to work its way around the inside of your mouth. That’s when you’re in full-on craving mode. It’s brisket you’re after, and you want it now. Of course, there is almost no other cut of meat (this one being from the chest of a hearty steer) that requires such patience and such a low-and-slow cooking technique. To rush the process would be sacrilege and cause almost certain frustration. Maybe even a little sadness at the resulting tough, flavorless meat. Make no mistake about it: cooking brisket properly is indeed a process. And for those in the Lone Star State (and within driving distance), there is no better way to learn how to do it right than attending BrisketU.
What began as a sort of lark by friends, Mike Albrecht and Jon Kane, has evolved into nothing less than a model of how to create the perfect brisket every time. In late 2015, Mike and Jon, were looking to smoke their first brisket. They conducted a thorough online search and were met only with dogmatic strategies for this or that manner being the ‘only’ one that could ever possibly be right. Most of these instructions were crafted by and aimed at the barbecue championship crowd—those weekend pitmaster warriors looking to claim titles and glory for their prized results. Mike and Jon just wanted to learn the brisket basics and develop their own backyard styles. So BrisketU was born.
BrisketU’s pitmaster, Scott Valdiviez was raised in Austin, Texas, and grew up watching his grandparents’ barbecue catering operation literally rise up out of the ashes in their backyard. He says, “In the middle of the night, they would get up and start cooking for the next day’s events. They cooked on an open-style barbecue pit, basically bricks that were stacked up with expanded metal, and they would put tin on top to keep in the smoke and the heat. They always had a mop sauce to mop the meat on the pit. And they always had a fire built off to the side where they were burning wood to add to the pit. I was always either playing in the sauce or the fire.”
For each BrisketU class, guests arrive and receive a token for a free beer—a fine start if there ever was one. By the time the students settle into their seats, Valdiviez has his classroom set up and is ready to walk through the basics. He first discusses how to choose the best cut of meat, although he is quick to add, “I’ve hardly ever found the perfect brisket—you just have to compromise. You have two ends to a brisket—the flat-end or dry-end—which runs pretty thin. I like to find one with a 1”- or 1¼”-inch-thick flat-end. But when you find one of those, the other end–the point end–might be thicker than you want or have too much fat on it. But all that can be trimmed down.”
He also demonstrates the proper way to trim the brisket, by keeping the fat-cap down to about ¼-inch thick. As for seasoning, Scott prefers a custom blend called The Graduate Rub that has garnered him many a prize in the cook-off circuit. Proportions are a closely guarded secret, but the ingredients are right on the label of jars he’s happy to sell you. He adds that most folks are still just as happy using ‘Dalmation Rub,’ which is nothing more than coarsely ground black pepper and coarse sea salt.
Next, he walks through selecting the ideal wood for your pit. Scott says, “I use primarily red oak, which is plentiful in this area. I also use hickory. It basically comes down to region and what type of wood you have available where you live. Central Texas is predominantly post oak. Down south is more mesquite.” This is knowledge best learned hands-on. In fact, one might argue that the true meat of this class—where it really pays for itself—is in learning the Texas Crutch technique (see sidebar), which is instrumental in developing your pit prowess.
By this point in the class, everyone’s bellies are really starting to make noise, and that’s when Pitmaster Scott pulls out the brisket he’s had going since the night before—remember the necessity of going low-and-slow. Here he can demonstrate the proper way to slice brisket—always against the grain—and show off that beautiful crust that can only be obtained through smoke. Students gather around for hearty-sized samples, peppering Valdiviez with questions and sharing experiences of their own. This just might be the part of class that he likes most—meeting new people. He says, “I have had people from all over the world take my class. But we also have a lot of locals. We’ve had three chefs fly in from Singapore who were doing the Texas Barbecue Trail, and they took our class. When they went back home, they opened a Texas-style restaurant poolside at the American Club there.”
The Texas Crutch Technique—Tips from Pitmaster Scott Valdiviez
Q: Tell us about The Texas Crutch. It sounds complicated.
A: There is a point in the brisket cook that’s called ‘The Stall’ when the brisket is not going to get any hotter without using the Crutch. Once that brisket hits the stall, evaporative cooling is going on within the brisket itself, which means it is sweating from the inside out keeping the temperature where it looks like it’s dormant. This normally happens about three to four hours in, when you start to hit the stall.
Q: How does a backyard barbecue enthusiast know their brisket has hit the dreaded stall?
A: Use a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat. My grandparents didn’t have a digital thermometer, but they’d cooked thousands so that they could just tell by seeing the brisket start to sweat and glisten, and tell by feel, that it was getting into the stall. I’ve seen briskets hit a stall at the 140°F mark, and I’ve seen it hit at the 165°F mark. If your brisket hits the stall at the lower temperature, the longer it’ll be in stall. If the stall hits at a higher temp, it’ll be shorter.
Q: So, what do you do then?
A: That’s when you want to use the Texas Crutch—either wrapping your meat in heavy-duty foil or pink butcher paper to push it through the stall. When you wrap it in aluminum foil, you are basically killing the chance of smoke getting into the meat. By contrast, the pink butcher paper is more porous and still lets the smoke penetrate. Personally, I prefer heavy-duty foil when I cook. I produce a real consistent product that way.
Q: How long does the brisket need to be wrapped up?
A: That all depends on the internal temperature of the brisket, but it could be anywhere between two to four hours. I cook brisket low and slow, with a pit temperature of between 225° and 250°F. I like to stay at the low end of that range, but there is always variance on your pit, and when you add more wood. Once you see the internal temperature on the brisket start to rise, you’ve pushed through the stall. That’s when I’ll take that brisket out of the foil, and it starts adhering smoke and getting that nice bark. The smoke adheres to the rendered fat coming off the meat and that’s what makes that bark.
Q: How do you know when your brisket is ready to eat?
A: You want the meat to reach an internal temperature of about 198°-203° F, when measured at the thickest part. At that point, remove the meat from the smoker and place in a large aluminum pan and then tent loosely with a piece of aluminum foil. It is important to let the meat rest for at least 30-45 minutes before slicing so that all those juices settle into the meat.
The Myths of Brisket or Brisket Myths
Myth 1: The smoke ring adds flavor.
The smoke ring results from reactions between a protein molecule in red meat called myoglobin and the gases nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide in smoke. The product of those reactions can be seen but not tasted.
Myth 2: Soaking wood in liquids contributes to the taste of the food.
By dunking your wood in water, all you’re really doing is lowering the smoldering temperature of the wood—and likely damaging the quality of the smoke.
Myth 3: The more smoke, the better.
You only need “good” smoke, and it needs to be steady and controlled throughout the cook.
Myth 4: Always cook fat-side up.
You can, but it doesn’t really matter. Melted butter slides off of a steak, it doesn’t truly soak in. A fat layer can protect the bottom of the brisket from drying out as it sits closer to the heat. Fat-side up will melt and drain off much of the rub. As in most brisket-smoking tradition, the choice is ultimately yours, but just keep the fat between the meat and the fire as much as possible.
Myth 5: Weather has no real effect on smoking.
Not true. In humid coastal regions, brisket cooks faster. The retention of moisture in the meat prevents evaporative cooling, raising the temperature and cooking faster. Higher elevations make brisket cook slower, and cold weather has the same slowing effect, driving pit exterior temps down. Wind increases temperatures driving oxygen through the pit at a higher rate for a faster cook. Plan accordingly.