[All photos by Nick Solares]
There is no cut of barbecue more challenging to smoke than a whole beef brisket. The large piece of meat, typically weighing between eight and 16 pounds, is comprised of two distinctly different muscles, with very different levels of fat content. It poses similar challenges to roasting a whole chicken or grilling a porterhouse steak — cooking the fat part through will often render the leaner meat dry and overcooked. Unlike chicken and steaks, 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 comprised 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 flat. 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 thus 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.
[Franklin Barbecue, Austin, TX]
Barbecued brisket is first covered in a dense layer of spices before smoking. This is called the rub. In Texas, this is 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 225-275°. 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 needs to rest in much the same way that a steak does, in order to let the meat relax and the fluids redistribute within the muscles. Once rested, it is important to slice brisket 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 best, this crust is crisp and crunchy, although most often, and especially if the brisket has been wrapped for significant periods, it can be flaccid.
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 causing the bright pink color. It is not unique to barbecuing — the effect can be replicated without smoke entirely — but all great barbecue has it.
"The Accordion Effect"
The best brisket will be lithe and supple, but not entirely flaccid. There should be some tension within the muscle — you want it to pull back just a little when you tug on both ends of a slice of brisket.
Fat is flavor and the juices in meat are principally fat. You want your brisket juicy, which is why you should always go for the moist end, but even the flat should be moist and tender in a properly cooked brisket. The juices from a wrapped brisket from a Texas pit will soak through several layers of butcher paper.
[Moist brisket from City Market Luling,TX]
Lean or Moist?
This comes down to personal taste but the brisket point, with its rich marbling, will be juicier, more flavorful, and generally more tender than the flat. It is what most barbecue aficionados opt for. Lean meat will often be a little cheaper per pound than moist.
You sometimes will see "rainbows," or an iridescent green sheen in freshly sliced brisket (and other meats) this is not an indication of anything other than refraction occurring as light hits the meat surface at a particular angle.
Brisket is generally sold by weight with prices varying wildly between regions costing 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. That's why you are charging $20 per pound. 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, 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 the City
To be frank, barbecue in NYC has traditionally been dreadful, especially brisket. There have been some standouts over the years — Pearson's Stick To Your Ribs, which opened in the late 1980s, springs to mind immediately as an early pioneer — but by and large, NYC has not had any sort of barbecue culture worth discussing. That began to change in the early 2000s when we saw the emergence a number of restaurants that took barbecuing seriously such as Blue Smoke, Dinosaur Bar-B-Q and Daisy May's, which joined early pioneer Virgil's (1994). These places offered pan - regional menus drawing on barbecue influences from across America. This lack of specificity didn't necessarily produce the best brisket, but it laid a necessary foundation for what was to come. Certainly Adam Perry Lang's brisket at Daisy May's was the best brisket served to date. (Lang is no longer associated with Daisy May's.)
The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, founded in 2002 by Blue Smoke pitmaster Kenny Callaghan, helped introduce real pit barbecue to many New Yorkers. It also helped set the stage for the next leap forward, which saw narrowly defined, region specific barbecue come to NYC. The openings of RUB (2006) and Hill Country (2007) respectively brought the styles of Kansas City and Texas to the city.
The Barbecue Renaissance?
We are at a point where there is some truly world class barbecue being smoked in NYC. But perhaps more importantly, there is a distinct barbecue culture developing here. While it certainly draws on disparate regional elements and influences, there is something uniquely parochial about it. Whereas the big box corporate barbecue restaurants — Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Virgil's, Dinosaur Bar-B-Q, Wildwood (now closed) — are (or were) all located in Manhattan, the joints that define this new NYC style emanate from Brooklyn. BrisketTown, Hometown Bar-B-Que, Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue, Morgan's, and Beast of Bourbon have all opened within the last two years in Kings County, joining early pioneer Fette Sau. Even Mighty Quinn's Barbecue, which opened a brick and mortar location in Manhattan, started off at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn. Brisket is significantly featured on the menus of all of these restaurants. It has become a staple of NYC style barbecue.
Time for Some Tough Love
With such a potentially high standard of meat being smoked here in the city, it is time for barbecue aficionados to become more critical. There is enough quality barbecue out there that we no longer need to settle for dry and leathery brisket or suffer cloyingly sweet sauces. Here is a list of the city's noteworthy briskets, with rankings based on recent visits to NYC barbecue restaurants. In barbecue, you are really only as good as your last smoke:Read More