So, this happened.
I was back in LA, having just returned from my book tour in the Pacific Northwest. I'd made some vague motions toward unpacking -- though hadn't actually unpacked anything -- and otherwise had a day that was mercifully unscheduled.
And we had nothing to eat in the house.
This is important. Most notably because my wife will be out of town later in the week, leaving me alone with the kids. The adorable, running, screaming, climbing, maybe-setting-things-on-fire, chaos-on-feet kids.
That's cool -- I love spending time with the munchkins. And I love cooking with them. However in the event of a lack of time or an urgent need immediate protein, I can see the utility in cooking something big. Both to eat today, while I actually do have time to cook, and then to eat throughout the week, to be reheated at a moment's notice.
What do I know that's big? Brisket. Specifically, a whole packer brisket, cooked low and slow over hickory for a very long time. As this is a 12-pound cut of meat, this translates to a full day of cooking.
A whole packer brisket is, by some estimates, the apex of the barbecuing arts. Because of its tremendous size and irregular shape, it's a testament to the skill of the pitmaster.
Still tired from my trip, but intrigued by the challenge -- I decided that this needed to happen. Immediately.
And frankly, it turned out really well. So I wanted to share what happened, how I did it, and how you could do it, too. This is a great project to tackle for a weekend with friends, a week where you'll need some future easy meals on-hand, or for a special occasion. Say, for example, Father's Day.
Brisket is made up of the pectoral muscles of the steer. There's one brisket per side, and two muscles included in the cut, commonly called the flat and the point.
The flat is a big, well, flat plane of beef, too long to actually fit in my (admittedly undersized) kettle grill. The point isn't so much a point, as it is a large lump of meat that sits on top of the flat.
To visualize: if the flat is the American Midwest, the point is the Rocky Mountains. Kinda.
To cook this, I'll need to do some not-insignificant prep. The night before I'm planning to cook, I pull the gigantic cut, and do some trimming. One side of the brisket has a layer of fat up to about three-quarters of an inch thick. I trim that down to something in the neighborhood of a quarter-inch. Enough fat to keep the meat from drying out, but not enough that anyone's going to have to cut away a finger-thick layer of fat at the table.
I also separate the flat from the point.
That done, I hit the entire surface of the meat with more-than-generous amounts of kosher salt, and stashed it in the fridge.
The next morning, I got up early. And by early, I mean What have I done? early. Like 5 a.m. early.
I lope into the kitchen and start the kettle for coffee. Then, I pull the brisket from the fridge, and liberally apply a rub made up of black pepper, a (very) little granulated sugar, garlic powder and chili powder.
I also injected it with copious amounts of beef stock. This cut is going to be on the heat for the better part of a day -- how long? who knows -- and the stock injections will keep it from drying out.
I fill a disposable roasting pan with water and place it under the grates of my gas grill so that it covers two of the three cooking zones. Over the third, uncovered, zone, I place three almost-fist-sized lumps of hickory. Ready to cook.
Finally, I fire up the burner below the wood, and prop a probe thermometer on a spare hunk of hickory (to measure the ambient air temp above the grates; lid thermometers are liars). When we're at 225, or close enough for jazz, the meat goes on. I jab another probe thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, and take a seat under a tree.
That's it. That's most of my cooking, done for the day. And it's all of 5:45 in the morning.
This is an excellent time to discuss the works of Iain M. Banks. Have you read him? He's a Scottish author who wrote literary fiction under the name Iain Banks, and then wrote science fiction material under the never-woulda-guessed-it pseudonym of Iain M. Banks. And when I say "science fiction," I mean grand, sweeping, make-Buck-Rogers-weep-in-his-Marsgarita space operas of epic depth and scale.
I'm reading my way (non-chronologically) through the works of Iain M. Banks -- the Culture novels in particular. At this particular juncture in the beef-cooking process, I crack open Consider Phlebas.
Several hours later, the meat temp is at 154. Quite a ways from my target doneness temp of 205, but we have arrived at the point in the cooking process known as The Stall.
Have you ever noticed that when you, personally, step outside on a hot day -- you sweat? This is because humans have evolved to utilize evaporative cooling. To wit: you sweat, this sweat evaporates off your skin, taking some of your body heat with it, leaving you cooler.
During The Stall, moisture has reached the surface of the brisket and is now evaporating off -- just like you on a July day in the Valley. This keeps the temperature of the brisket from rising. And since briskets are big, they have a lot of moisture. This could go on for a while.
The solution? A maneuver called the Texas Crutch. I momentarily pull the brisket, wrap it tightly in foil, and add a little beef broth to the package before placing it back on the grill.
The Texas Crutch does two things. First, the tight foil wrapping stops the evaporative cooling effect that was keeping the meat temp from rising. All that moisture is now staying right where I want it: in the meat. Second, the addition of the beef broth braises the meat slightly, helping to break down the connective tissues that can potentially make brisket tough.
Put differently, the Texas Crutch can cut your cooking time almost in half on a whole brisket.
Adequately Crutched, I close the lid and return to the exploits of Bora Horza Gobuchul and Juboal-Rabaroansa Perosteck Alseyn Balveda dam T'seif. (Yeah. It's that kind of book.)
Hey, I have a hammock I haven't used in a while. Let's see if it still works.
Finally, slowly, inevitably, the sun arcs across the sky and into the ocean. Night falls.
The meat temperature is finally up to 203. Close enough for jazz.
I pull the meat from the heat and stash it in a cooler lined with old beach towels. As per a recent NPR story (but known to pitmasters since long before that), the meat needs to rest.
Much like when a steak needs a ten minute rest after coming off the grill, smoked brisket benefits from a rest as well, and for largely the same reason: it allows the liquids in the cut, agitated from the cooking process, to redistribute themselves back into the meat as the meat cools. Unlike a steak, however, because a brisket is such a big piece of meat, it can rest for hours without any loss of quality. In fact, this rest improves the finished product rather dramatically.
Because the sun has set and people are hungry, I rest the meat for a mere hour and a half before placing it on a cutting board, unwrapping it, and examining the final result.
A black crusty bark (it could be a little firmer, had I either a) not Crutched it, or b) put it back on the grill, uncovered for a few minutes to firm it up) and a loose, downright wobbly texture.
I slice into it. Not as much of a smoke ring around the edge as I would have hoped (more wood next time), but the texture and flavor are both lovely. With some roast asparagus I made during the resting period -- dinner is served.
So this, by any measure, is an honest day's work. Or, I should say, "work," as it was really a pleasant endeavor. A day with a book and a slowly smoking hunk of beef. A meal honestly earned and carefully crafted. I dig it.
Hint: if you have a father, this would be a lovely thing to make him for Father's Day. If you are a father, this would be a lovely thing to make on Father's Day.
It isn't hard. It can be persnickety. But it's a challenge well worth taking on.
Let me know how it turns out.