There is no cut of meat more difficult to smoke than a whole beef brisket. The large cut, typically weighing between eight and 16 pounds, comprises two different muscles, with distinct levels of fat content. It poses similar challenges to roasting a whole chicken or grilling a porterhouse steak — cooking the fat through will often render the leaner meat dry and overcooked. Unlike chicken and steak though, brisket needs a long, low, and slow cooking method to fully break down the tough connective tissue.
Brisket is fabricated from the chest muscles of beef cattle. It is composed of the pectoralis profundus — also called the "flat" because of its shape — and the pectoralis superficialis, which is referred to as the "point," and is thinner, fatter, shorter, and rounder than the other muscle. The flat is often called the "first cut" by butchers and the "lean" by pitmasters, because it does not have a lot of fat. The point is called the "second cut," "moist brisket," or "the deckle," denoting the increased fat content of the muscle. The pectoral muscles support much of the animal's weight and are in constant use, making them tough and unyielding if not cooked correctly — braising and smoking are the best ways to tenderize a brisket.
Smoking brisket finds its highest expression in the barbecue pits of Central Texas and Kansas City, MO. Whereas pork is the main staple for most of the nation's barbecue regions, beef is king in Texas and many places in the Lone Star State cook little else. Brisket does not hold quite the esteemed position in Kansas City that it does in Central Texas — almost every conceivable meat makes its way into the smokers there — but that doesn't mean that KC brisket is any less inspired. In fact, the burnt end — cubed and extremely caramelized portions of the point — originated in Kansas City.
Barbecued brisket is first covered in a dense layer of spices before smoking, known as the "rub." In Texas, it's usually just salt and black pepper, although various other spices can be applied. The meat is then smoked over wood for between 10 to 18 hours at low temperatures — typically between 225 degrees to 275 degrees. Post oak is the most common wood in Texas, and hickory is popular in Kansas City. As the meat smokes, the collagen within the muscle begins to melt and the fat renders, making a once tough cut tender and toothsome. After being smoked, the brisket must rest to allow the meat to relax and the fluids to redistribute themselves within the muscles, in much the same way as a steak. Once rested, it's important that brisket is sliced against the grain of the muscle fibers or it will become chewy.
The Hallmarks of Great Brisket
Whether you are in Texas, Kansas City, or Brooklyn, the hallmarks of a properly smoked brisket are the same. Here is what you should look for:
As water evaporates from the exterior of the brisket during smoking, the rub begins to form into a dense crust that is called the "bark." The smoke particles darken the bark significantly, rendering it colors ranging from dark mahogany to almost pitch black. At its best, the crust is crisp and crunchy, although it can be flaccid, especially if the brisket has been wrapped for long periods of time.
The Smoke Ring
The pink band that lies between the bark and the interior meat is called the smoke ring. It is the result of gases from the cooking process interacting with liquids on the meat's surface. The smoke ring is not unique to barbecuing — the effect can be replicated without smoke — but all great barbecue has it.
"The Accordion Effect"
The best brisket will be tender, but not too soft. There should be some tension within the muscle — you want it to pull back just a little like an accordion.
Fat is flavor and the juices in meat are principally fat. If you want juicy brisket, you should always go for the moist end, but even the flat should be tender in a properly cooked brisket; the juices from a wrapped brisket from a Texas pit will soak through several layers of butcher paper. Most barbecue aficionados opt for the brisket point, though lean meat will often be a little cheaper per pound than moist.
You will sometimes see "rainbows," or an iridescent green or yellow sheen, on the surface of freshly sliced brisket (and other smoked and cured meats). This is not an indication of anything other than the refraction that occurs when light hits the meat at a specific angle. It is perfectly safe to eat and does not indicate spoilage.
Brisket is generally sold by weight with prices vary wildly between regions. Good brisket can cost anywhere from $8 to $28 a pound.
"Brisket Is Tough to Cook"
You might hear this as a carver saws on a desiccated brisket, sending splinters of dried bark in every direction. Yes, brisket is tough to cook. But there is no excuse for selling dry brisket — it should be repurposed for sandwiches or baked beans.
If there is one principle difference between Texas and Kansas City barbecue styles, it is the use of sauce. In Texas, it is largely eschewed, but in Kansas City it is implicit to the style of barbecue. Freed from the parochial fetters of tradition, New Yorkers should feel free to eat their brisket any damn way they want.
Brisket in New York City
We have come a long way in NYC when it comes to barbecue in general and brisket in particular. While most brisket outside of a select group of restaurants — even as recently as five years ago — tended to be hit or miss, these days you can find quality brisket all over the city. Going one step further, there are a handful of places that are doing it on a world-class level. Here are our picks for the best of the best in NYC:
Hometown pitmaster Billy Durney turns out a brisket whose flavor matches his outsized personality — it's bold and brash. With its textbook architecture, the smoked meat owes something to the barbecue of Wayne Mueller at Louie Mueller barbecue in Taylor, TX, but this brisket has a fiery kick that makes it unique.
Proprietor Daniel Delaney's almost singular focus on brisket results in a world-class product. Thematically, it is as pure a version of the Central Texas style of brisket as you can get in NYC with its dense, dark crust yielding to a supremely succulent interior.
Mighty Quinn's Barbecue
Mighty Quinn's serves up what pitmaster Hugh Mangum describes as "Texalina style," a fusion of the barbecue traditions of Texas and the Carolinas. But the brisket, a cut rarely seen in the Carolinas, is straight out of Austin, with pitch black bark, deep smoke penetration, and impressive marbling.
Hill Country turns out the most doctrinaire Central Texas barbecue experience in NYC, and possibly anywhere outside of the Lone Star State. It is largely inspired by Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX and the brisket is smoked over post oak, sold by the pound, and accordingly served upon butcher paper. Hill Country totally nails the flavor and texture of traditional Texas barbecue.
Nick Solares is the restaurant editor of Eater New York.