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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Water-Smoker Brisket

Anyone who knows me even tolerably well knows that I share the common male passion for grilled and smoked foods. I love barbecue and would happily eat one variety or another of it seven days a week if I could get away with it. However, when it comes to home cookin', for the most part, I am limited to what I can accomplish with a thirty-year-old (or more!) Weber kettle grill (with a rickety leg) and an old Brinkman water smoker.

That still covers an awfully wide range of foods, so I am not in absolutely awful shape. The water smoker is excellent for chicken, especially things like what most people call "beer-can chicken," and it does a good job on country-style ribs and bratwurst and the like. The grill--well, the grill works just fine, in spite of the rickety leg. If you really want to know about grilling, I think one of the best books going is Chris Schlesinger's License to Grill, and he uses a Weber. But I digress.

Neither of those two pieces of equipment is really suited to brisket. It has been years since I attempted brisket at home. I tried it three or four times when I first bought the water-smoker, but it was never quite right. Usually, the problem was that it would be of acceptable tenderness, but not tender to the degree I am accustomed to encountering at, say, Massey's Bar-B-Que in Okmulgee (on the rare occasions when I happen to pass it and have money to spend). It was only a few years ago that I read that the secret to perfect brisket is to cook it "low and slow" as they say--and when they say, "slow," they mean really slow, say about ten hours or so, somewhere between 200 and 250 degrees fahrenheit.

It's darn hard to do that with a water smoker, especially if the weather outside is less than, like, 85 or 90. You don't have any vents that you can adjust, and the temperature varies a little bit with how much water is in the water pan. And you need water in the water pan, or at least you need the water pan: you need it to keep fat from dripping on the coals, where it might catch fire and cause the temperature to soar to, say, 700 degrees. Not that I'd know from experience or anything.

At any rate, what you really need to produce first-class brisket--or pork shoulder, for that matter--is a pit. Not necessarily a literal pit dug in the ground, but one of those barrel-lookin' things with the firebox hangin' off the side. Those things, if they're of reasonably good quality, have all the vents and so forth needed to properly control temperatures for hours and hours. And since the meat isn't directly over the coals, you don't have to worry about setting your fat on fire. Problem is, I can't afford one. Oh, I could probably afford one of the lowest-end models, some time when I had an extra-good paycheck, but it would only make me mad every time I used it, 'cause what I really want is one of the nice ones made of heavy-gauge steel, one of the ones where the firebox is so heavy-duty that it will hold up to years and years of burning logs--'cause you do want to burn logs eventually, and not just chunks, y'know?

Maybe someday.

In the meantime, I'd read a couple of times that you can get decent brisket by water-smoking your brisket for four or five hours and then finishing it off in the oven. I most recently read a variation of this method in The El Paso Chile Company's Burning Desires, and I finally thought I'd give it a try.

First--actually, I did this part back in the early Spring--I knew I needed a better thermometer. The Brinkman water smoker thermometers ain't worth diddly even when new, and mine was years old. You can get a very decent thermometer down at Lowe's for less than ten bucks. All I needed to do was drill about a 3/8-inch hole near the top of the smoker's dome and use the nut to affix the thermometer. Voila, I had a much better temperature gauge. Still no reliable way of controlling temperature other than adding fuel, but at least I'd know if the fire was too cold, right?

Then, I got my coals going--I use hardwood lump charcoal, of course, being a total and complete traditionalist-- which was no easy trick, 'cause it was raining. I had my brisket ready to go--and the size of the brisket is important, I could only fit about an eight or nine pound brisket on one of the smoker's racks--and I dropped the coals in the firepan, plopped the water pan in place, put the grill on the top set of grill holders, poured a pitcher of water into the water pan, plopped the brisket onto the grill (Fat side up! Don't trim the fat, it carries flavor, and it ain't near as bad for you as you've been led to believe.), popped on the lid, and then opened the side door and added yet more charcoal and some well-soaked hickory chunks.

The first couple of hours, it was still raining and it was difficult to get the temperature above 150-160. I'm sure the temperature would have climbed right up there on a sunny day. But after a while, it stopped raining, the temperature came up to about 200-225, and I determined that I would leave the meat in the smoker as long as I could keep it fairly close to that range. That turned out to be about four hours. After that, some of the hickory actually caught fire (this would likely not have happened had I had vents to fuss with), the water evaporated, and the rain resumed, which I took to be a sign from the Almighty that it was time to move my meat indoors. I had already preheated my oven to 230 degrees--chosen somewhat arbitrarily--and I put the now very-handsomely-browned brisket onto a large sheet of aluminum foil, threw a cup of water in there with it, and sealed the brisket up in foil. I then threw the brisket in the oven--in a roasting pan--for another five hours.

It came out...well, it came out...
Okay, it wasn't that good, but it did come out tender--surprisingly tender--juicy, with very good smoke flavor. Well worth the time spent tending the fire.

So, to recap: if all you've got is a water smoker, and you want to try this, it's:

1) Use whatever sort of marinade or rub on the brisket you want ahead of time.

2) Smoke your brisket for as long as you can keep the temperature somewhere between 200 and 250 degrees.

3) When you can no longer do that, wrap the brisket in foil with a cup of some kind of liquid--Burning Desires suggested beer--and throw it in a roasting pan, and then in an oven preheated to about 230 degrees, so that the total cooking time is about 9-10 hours, depending on the size of the brisket (I had about an 8 1/2-pound brisket, about four hours in the smoker and about five hours in the oven.)

4) Pull the brisket and let it rest ten or fifteen minutes before slicing or chopping. You did know to slice brisket perpendicular to the grain, didn't you? Thought so.

5) Serve with whatever sort of sauce and other spicy perversions and side dishes you're partial to.

6) Don't throw anything away. The smallest scraps can be saved and frozen and used to flavor a pot of beans or somethin'.

No, it ain't as good as Massey's. But it ain't half-bad, not at all. If'n I weren't a model o' self-discipline, I'm sure I woulda hurt m'self on it (For non-Oklahomans: that means I would've eaten too much at one sitting.)

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