If there’s one thing I like almost as much as stuffing my face full of smoked brisket, it’s barbecuing it myself.
Okay, that is a lie. Barbecuing brisket — and pork shoulder for that matter — is one of those things I really, really look forward to doing. And I maintain the kid-on-Christmas-morning glee until one of the following
- The shopping trip turns into a shit-show of an obstacle course
- The weather decides not to cooperate
- Five hours into the proceeding and I’m just trying to stay awake
- When the food is served and everybody’s all, “THIS IS AWESOME” and I’m thinking “This is shit. It’s crap. It doesn’t taste like Black’s or Franklin’s or Hill Country or Brisketlab. AND OH MY GOD, DID YOU JUST PUT SAUCE ON THAT?!?!”
But this last barbecue? It was going to be different. Because I’d learned something while in Texas with Nick on our Fabulous Brisket Tour. And it was game-changing.
(If you want to skip all the story and just get to technique, scroll down to the bold subhead below)
Hard-core home barbecuers — and I’m talking about people who barbecue, not people who throw some Bubba Burgers on a gas grill (not that there’s anything wrong with that — in other parts of the country typically pull all-nighters to get their cue right and to get it done on time. This isn’t exactly practical in my part of Brooklyn, where billowing smoke at 1 in the morning is likely to generate a call to the fire department. (This almost happened during the day once.) And creeping around in the dark out back might generate a call to the police or animal control. “There’s a really large raccoon crashing around back there. And I swear it’s playing with fire.”
In the past, my earliest start time for lighting the coals has been 5 a.m. Which makes for tight deadlines and a cranky Ken. Even pushing the heat to just above 300 (which actually is perfectly fine, you 225-ers) and using the Texas Crutch, a 16-pound brisket is going to take at least eight hours, if not 10 or 12. And, as they say, brisket likes to rest — for at least an hour off the smoker. So if folks are coming over at 6 and would like to eat before 9, that doesn’t leave much time for error.
And though it’s not an all-nighter, waking up at 4 a.m. and having your face in a smoker all day and stressing out about whether it will get done or not isn’t conducive to being a chipper host. “Hi! Welcome! I’m, uh, look, the brisket’s wrapped in foil in that cooler, just help yourselves. I’m going to go sit in that chair and sleep-drink.” Conversely, nothing caps off a day of hardwork with being told repeatedly, “Man, you’re looking kinda rough.”
So imagine my delight, while studying the Texas Monthly 50 Best BBQ Joints in the World issue, when I came across the entry for Black’s, which noted the restaurant’s odd methodology. They smoke briskets for eight hours, pull them off and put them in storage for two days, then put them, the day of serving, put them back on for four hours of final smoking. This sounds crazy, but let me quote Texas monthly.
This may be the weirdest smoking routine in Texas, but it’s hard to argue with the results. A thick black crust covers the tender beef, and there’s plenty of well-cooked fat with a deep and powerful smokiness that just isn’t found elsewhere in town.
Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it. And it made my little smoke-crusted heart skip a beat. Why, I could put in a solid eight hours the day before. Then, the day of the barbecue I could simply fuss over it for four hours, have everything done on time, and be wide awake!
But dare I try it? I had the perfect group of guinea pigs available. As managing editor, every summer I host the Ad Age Editorial Barbecue. At least 30 people milling about in the backyard ready to hoover up some meat and booze and sides. This was going to happen on a Saturday. I could do the bulk of the cue on Friday.
But what if the method didn’t work? Hell, HOW did the method work? Would it work with pork shoulder? After all, with all the barbecue tech talk of time and temp, there’s a lot that can go wrong. And this was very vague. How MUCH did you smoke it during those eight hours? Would one day of rest instead of two screw it up? How cold was it supposed to get? What if I spent eight hours on Friday, then couldn’t get the meat up to temp on Saturday. And the question that hurt my mind the most: If a cold hunk of raw brisket takes 12 hours to get to an internal temperature of 200 degrees, how can you put a cooked one the fridge, get it just as cold, then put it on a pit of the same temperature and get it up to 200 in four hours on the second day?
Texas Monthly wasn’t spilling the pinto beans. I even tweeted at Barbecue Editor Daniel Vaughn (yes, that’s his job title, and yes, he probably sold his soul to the devil). I think I even emailed Black’s. No luck.
So I took to the web. From previous scouring of the best barbecue site in the world, Amazing Ribs, I knew that Meathead held a really dim view of attempts to reheat meat. It’s not barbecue, it’s leftovers, he’d written. But lo and behold, he’d updated that part of the site with exactly the sort of information I was looking for.
So I was all set to go. And then reality struck. Or tried to.
I’d taken Friday off to get my shopping done. Now, I’d have to get a really early start on the day–like a 5:30 a.m. early start–get to Lowes for charcoal and such, then get to Western Beef for all those delicious animal parts. At 6:30 a.m., as I was tossing four 20-pound bags of charcoal into the back of my rented minivan, it started raining. Then Western Beef turned into an hour-long ordeal. Finding meat at Western Beef is easy. Finding everything else, not so much. It’s a bit of a ghetto store with a befuddling layout. I only shop there twice a year, so I’m not fluent with it. And Cara had put a couple of low-fat items on the shopping list. Apparently Western Beef in Brooklyn does not carry such foolishness.
Eventually, I finished, but not until after American Express decided that a 7 a.m. shopping trip to Western Beef right after a 6 a.m. trip to Lowes counted as suspicious activity.
By the time I got home, the rain was really coming down. The weather gods hate me. This much is clear. But I’d sort of tricked them this year. I was okay with it raining on my Friday process–as long as it was clear and sunny when all them damn people showed up at my house. Which it would be.
START HERE FOR THE SHORT VERSION
By 9 a.m., I was ready to roll.
The brisket, I injected with beef stock, then rubbed with a little olive oil, before giving it a healthy dry rub of kosher salt and black pepper.
The pork shoulders, I injected with a mix of apple juice and apple cider vinegar, then slathered it with yellow mustard before rubbing it with one of the rubs found in Smoke & Spice.
I also did ribs and chicken, but we’re not here to talk about ribs and chicken. In all, I had over 30 pounds of meat.
While the meat sat there snug in its rub, I got the fire going.
At noon, the meat went on. The plan, such as it was, was to keep the heat around 300 or so and get the meat to an internal temp of 185. I figured I’d be done by 8 p.m.
But getting and maintaining a temp of 300 was proving damn near impossible. I’m thinking it was partly the rain. A lot of moisture in the air. I’m also thinking–and this was backed up with experimenting the next day–I simply didn’t have enough charcoal in the fire box at any given time. Lesson learned.
I didn’t want to use the Texas Crutch on this, figuring two days would give me plenty of time. But I did. Not only that, but by 8 p.m., I wasn’t quite there and I’d had enough of sitting under a tarp in the rain and the mud and now the dark. I was exhausted. So I did the unthinkable (for me at any rate): I took my crutched meat and chucked it in the oven for the last hour. This did the trick.
It also did another trick when the bone in one of the pork shoulders broke through the aluminum foil and dumped about two quarts of pork juice all over the bottom of the oven and started burning and I had to turn everything off and unscrew the bottom plate of the oven to get in there and clean it and I JUST WANTED TO MURDER EVERYTHING. But I had a drink and calmed down.
When the meat hit 185, I took it out, wrapped it in more foil. Lots of foil. Triple wrapped it. Then put each hunk in its own construction grade garbage bag, then placed that garbage bag in a cooler full of ice, praying to the barbecue spirits that the bags not bust and all my precious meat get flooded with water.
Then I went to bed.
The next day, I woke up. Around 8, I started the fire so that I could do my own personal rack of ribs and the chicken. (And to give me something to do, because I really wanted to put that brisket and those shoulders on early, just in case). I was able to maintain the temp between 275 and 300, which was good enough for me.
At noon, I put the brisket and shoulders back on the pit, still wrapped in foil. I would have liked them to be bathed only in smoke as opposed to steaming in juices, but I’d been able to tell the night before that it had gotten plenty of smoke. And I still had my doubts about that whole “getting up to 200 in four hours” business. But sure enough, the temperature started to climb, and kept climbing. Once it hit 205 and stayed there for a bit, I unwrapped it and hit it with more smoke for another hour. Then I took it off, wrapped it and let it rest until people started showing up.
End result? Best brisket I’ve ever cooked. By a long shot. And best shoulder I’ve ever done. I’m my own worst judge and even I liked it! And I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and in a decent mood when guests arrived.
I still have to figure out what to do about the flat of the brisket. When kept attached to the bigger part, it simply gets too dry by the time the point is up to temp. I know the competition guys don’t even serve that bit and restaurants chop it up for burnt ends, but it seems a waste of meat. Maybe next time, I’ll cut it off and cook it for a shorter time.
But other than that, no complaints with this technique. And the Ad Agers had no complaints either. Over 30 pounds of meat and no damn leftovers. Animals.
Brisket — injected with beef stock, rubbed with olive oil, then a salt and black pepper rub. During smoking, sprayed with a half-half mix of Worcestershire-water.
Shoulder — injected with apple juice/cider vinegar, slathered with mustard, then dry rubbed. During smoking, sprayed with apple juice.
Heat source: Charcoal, with mix of hickory, oak and apple wood chips.
Day 1. Smoked for eight to nine hours between 250 and 300, until internal temp hits 185. Crutch if necessary.
Overnight: Wrap tightly in foil, place in strong garbage bags, then in a cooler full of ice.
Day 2. Placed on smoker for three-or-four hours or until internal temp hits 200-205. Keeping wrapped speeds up the process, but unwrapping toward end will firm up the bark so that it’s not too wet.
Rewrap, then let rest for at least an hour before slicing brisket or pulling/chopping pork.