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Brisket Dispatch 01
A balance of temperature and time
Author’s note: this is the first in a series of articles on cooking brisket. The insights shared below were gained in my experimentation and have yielded my current recipe. Even that is by no means definitive, however, and is likely to be amended as I continue to discover new approaches.
Brisket, always a popular cut of beef, has become even more so in recent decades with the increasing use of pellet smokers. These devices have made what was once a somewhat challenging subprimal cut much more accessible. High in both fat and connective tissue, brisket requires a long cooking process in order to properly render that fat and convert all the collagen into gelatin.
As the brisket is the largest single cut you’ll receive when buying a half or whole cow in bulk, it’s well worth learning how to approach cooking it without resorting to trial and error. Here are a few optimizations I have started to employ based on experiments over the past couple of years.
Tip #1: Learn how to trim from the pros
Trimming is a critical step that can have a huge impact on your final result. Leave too much fat on the outside and it won’t be fully rendered out. Leave pointy edges and they’ll burn. Carve into the meat too much and you’ll create heat pockets that will overcook some of the best parts of the brisket.
I also recommend this mini-seminar that Aaron Franklin gave at Texas A&M:
If you don’t want to take on this process yourself, when filling out your cut sheet, ask your butcher to pre-trim the brisket to be ready for smoking.
Once the meat is trimmed, you can go in a couple of different directions. Most cooks will apply a dry rub just before putting the meat on the smoker, but I’ve started adopting a new method:
Tip #2: Consider dry brining the whole brisket
Dry-brining a brisket is no different than dry-brining a steak. When you add salt to the surface of the meat, it initially draws moisture out. This moisture then dissolves the salt, creating a brine that is reabsorbed into the meat, allowing the salt to penetrate deeper into the cut.
For the dry brine, use roughly 3 grams of salt per pound of meat, and make sure you use a good salt that doesn’t have anti-caking agents or other additives (my favorites are Redmond, Celtic Sea Salt and Diamond). Spread the salt evenly over the surface of the brisket.
Tip #3: Don’t rush the final stages of the cook
The crux of my latest experimentation was determining the ideal final cook temp and how to get it. The common thinking in cooking briskets is that you should achieve an internal temperature of around 203-04°F. You will then have rendered out most of the fat and broken down the collagen. However, as you approach that high internal temperature, muscle fibers begin to constrict and their ability to retain moisture is degraded.
"Short ribs and other tough cuts of meat contain lots of tough collagen. To make such cuts tender and succulent, you must convert the collagen to gelatin through chemical reactions that occur only at temperatures of 55°C/122°F and higher. The hotter the meat, the faster the conversion happens. But there is a trade-off: high heat also squeezes more juices out of muscle fibers and accelerates the unraveling of proteins." ~Modernist Cuisine at Home p.227
Have you ever had a braised beef dish where the meat was literally submerged in liquid for the duration of the cook, only to find that it still tasted dry and chalky? That's precisely what's being described above. If you want to dive deeper into the technical details of what is happening at various temperature stages, the Science of Cooking has a great breakdown.
As a result, I decided to incorporate some advice from CJ Wilson, who suggests finishing the brisket at a temperature of around 193°F, 10 degrees lower than the standard recommendation. CJ then allows for a longer resting phase in a cooler. As the meat cools down, it starts to re-absorb the moisture that was squeezed out at higher temperatures.
I don’t like wrapping my brisket. I find it cumbersome and annoying.
In looking for an alternative, I decided to leverage my Anova Precision Oven. It’s the perfect size for a full-sized brisket1, but has the added benefit of being able to maintain 100% humidity, ensuring that there is plenty of moisture available to be re-absorbed into the meat. And by avoiding going beyond 193°F, I have been able to drastically reduce the amount of muscle fibers that are ruptured.
Other nice things about the Anova steam oven are its built-in probe and its configurability. I can plug it in, set it to an oven temperature of 200°F and tell the oven to monitor the temperature probe. Once a probe temp of 193°F is reached, it will switch to a new stage of the cooking process and drop the oven temperature to 155°F. This is all done automatically.
In summary, an optimal brisket cooking method that is reliable and user-friendly:
Trim and dry-brine the brisket 12-24 hours before you start cooking.
Coat the brisket in pepper, then place it on the smoker at 200°F until it reaches 160°F internal temp.
Transfer it to a steam oven at 200°F and set the temp probe for 193°F.
Once the target internal temp is reached, drop the oven temp to 155°F (or just shut it off and leave it closed).
Can be sliced and served at any point after 1-2 hours of rest time.
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After allowing for initial shrinkage of the cut that occurs in the smoker.