(Matthew Benson from "The Brisket Chronicles" Workman Publishing (c) 2019)

Steven Raichlen's epistle to the brisketeers is what you need for Memorial Day

"The Brisket Chronicles" will get your brisket game sorted this Memorial Day


Manny Howard
May 25, 2019 5:00PM (UTC)

For enthusiastic (some say aggressive) barbecue types, the move from semi-pro to full-blown humble-braggard happens the moment you master brisket. A notoriously tricky cut from  the chest of a cow, this prime cut is made of two considerably hard-working muscles and so requires respect if you're going to present it at table anywhere near delicious. The destination is worthy of the journey in this case and the good news is that the patron saint of smoke cookery, Steve Raichlen has just written an epistle to the brisketeers called "The Brisket Chronicles."  Raichlen joined me on "Salon Talks" and guided me through along the golden path to brisket prep perfection. If you're ready to take on the brisket challenge here's Raichlen's barbecue sauce DIY. Find all our "Salon Talks" food episodes here.

You've taken on the hardest topic in barbecuing.

Yeah. I call brisket the Mt. Everest of barbecue. If you can scale it, ascend it, you can cook anything.

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You said that brisket is struggle and truly good brisket comes from that struggle.

Well absolutely. You think about the anatomy of brisket. First of all it's a barbecue that should never be, right? Because it's two separate muscles connected by a seam of fat. One of them is extremely lean. One of them is extremely fatty.

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The grains of the two muscles run at about an 80-degree angle to one another. So carving it, slicing it is almost impossible. And when you barbecue a brisket, you have to figure out a way to cook both of those muscles, the lean part so it stays moist, the fatty part so it renders the fat, the whole thing so it becomes tender. So it really is a very challenging cut of meat to cook.

And the cooking of those two different kinds of meat is multi-staged as well, is that correct?

Yeah. It actually . . . I think it took me about four pages to go through the eleven steps to brisket nirvana . . . but first of all selecting the meat. That's really important, because you can go prime, you can go choice, you can go Wagyu. And then if you're shopping at a typical supermarket, what you're likely to find is the flat, that's the lean muscle. But if you really want to do the big Kahuna, you need to get a whole packer brisket, which you typically get at a butcher shop unless you're in Texas and then you can find it at a supermarket.

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And that's a 14-pound piece of meat.

Could be anywhere from 12 on the small side, up to 18 on the big side. So yeah, it's the largest cut of meat most of us will ever bring into our homes to cook.

Right. So we went very deep and very geek just now in terms of the brisket stuff. And I know that that's your audience that . . . I'd like to talk a little bit about what you . . . when you were looking into this and you were going worldwide, what you found when you were writing the book.

Well, I'm so glad you asked. Let me reassure people that barbecue is a large part of this book. It's probably half this book, but that's not the whole brisket story. Not by a long shot. So, let's travel around the world. Texas, barbecued brisket. Kansas City, barbecued brisket but very different. New York City, we're in the realm of delicatessen so we find pastrami, which if you take a jump up to Montreal, it becomes smoked meat prepared in a similar but slightly different manner that gives you very different results.

Then we jump across the pond. Ireland, the birthplace of corned beef, which has been around for eight centuries. We go to France where I did my culinary training after college, and I was a French literature major. So I used to eat something called boeuf a la mode, which was a brisket braised in red wine with mushrooms, bacon and onion. Fantastic.

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Down to Germany, we find bierfleisch, which is brisket braised with caramelized onions and beer, a preparation that is reprised in the Flemish speaking parts of Belgium, where it's known as carbonnade. And if you jump down to the Caribbean, Cuba has something called vaca frita, which is a boiled, shredded brisket that's fried with onions and garlic . . . deep fried, so those little filaments get crispy.

Is that sliced when it's prepared?

No, no, no. You boil the brisket and then when it's still warm with two forks, you shred it. And the finer you shred it, if you really do it right, the shreds of brisket are as thin as angel hair pasta. And then you deep fry and they get crispy with the onions.

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So it's like a cloud of-

It's like a crispy . . . it's like . . . I guess it's like crisp brisket cotton candy with garlic and onion. Yeah. It's pretty amazing. But you know, you can continue around the world. In Cashmere, you find hiran gosht, which is a brisket braised with spices.

You jump down to Korea, and you find . . . this is really cool because common wisdom says brisket must be cooked low and slow, right? Low heat, long time either in a pit . . . well, you want to win a hundred bucks with a bar bet? Bet somebody, "I can cook a brisket in one minute, start to finish."

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So, what the Koreans do is they freeze it. They put it on a meat slicer, slice it paper thin. And then those paper thin slices you can grill on a hibachi in 30 seconds per side. And the way it's served is really cool, too. On a lettuce leaf with chili jam, with Korean pickles. So it's sort of barbecue health food.

Right, and that's a way a lot of the beef in Korea is-

It is.

. . . is served, right? In that taco of lettuce.

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Yeah. Well, also in Vietnam. You know, finally, I say brisket's apotheosis is in Vietnam, where it's boiled for the better part of a day to make the broth for Pho, which is Vietnamese beef noodle soup. And then my favorite version of Pho, they take the brisket, they thinly slice it on a meat slicer, and that floats on top.

So it's pretty extraordinary. And there's so many cultures that call brisket their own. And I think it's a comfort food in every single one of them.

Now does . . . when you cook the Pho and you have the brisket, is there flavor left in the brisket?

Definitely.

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Right. But, it's because of the cut.

Right, because there's so much flavor in it. Because let's remember, brisket comes from the chest of the steer. It's a load-bearing muscle. It's the muscle the steer uses to locomate, to get up when it's laying down. So it's extremely well exercised. Not like beef tenderloin, which is just nothing.

Just lies around its whole life. And that's what makes . . . that's what makes all the different cuts tender or not tender, is how much work they do, right?

How much work they do. Yeah. And brisket is loaded with a . . . it's a protein called collagen. And it's a triple helix of protein strands that wrap around the meat fibers. The whole key to cooking brisket, whether you're braising it, whether you're barbecuing, whether you're boiling it is you have to melt that . . . transform that collagen into gelatin.

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Right. And that's done at a specific temperature, right? I mean-

It starts about 140 degrees. And then if you're barbecuing, I think it's probably the collagen conversion mostly done by 180. Although if you have brisket in Kansas City, where they typically cook to 185, it's a little firmer, little tougher. They slice it super thin on a meat slicer and pile it on a bun for a sandwich. Whereas the Texans go to about 205. And we really are getting geeky here.

That's all right. Sometimes we got to go there, right? Especially with the . . . I mean, especially with the brisket, because it's such a difficult meat to cook well.

Well, you know, it's funny. Yes, it's difficult if you're barbecuing it, but braising it, you just . . . you throw a brisket in a sealed pot with a flavorful liquid like wine. My aunt Annette used Manischewitz. And either aromatic root vegetables like onion, celery, carrot, or sweet fruits like prunes, apricots and raisins. Put in the oven for three hours and forget it.

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Yeah, and served it . . . serve it in that state. You don't brown it off or anything.

Yeah, and I have kind of a cool trick for that, which actually I learned from my wife. Which is, when braising the brisket, you slice it halfway through because it's . . . if you wait until it's completely soft and done, it's kind of hard to cut into meat slices unless you use the-

Because it falls apart.

Right. Unless you use an electric knife. So you slice it halfway through, put it back in the braising liquid and finish cooking it.

Right. And that way all the slices get the benefit of the braising liquid. Yeah.

You bet. You bet.

And the way I understand barbecue is that for a long time, it's been a very competitive field. And people have very strong feelings about their hometown . . . this is one thing you talk about in the book is that certain kinds of wood are required for barbecue. And it tends to be, as you I think so reasonably say, is that it usually is the wood that's nearest to the barbecue pit. But people get very intense about which is the right wood to use, and sometimes range around. But it's always been a very competitive field. And something's changing now.

Absolutely. And that is . . . well, two answers to that question. So, in the field of barbecue restaurants, I think much less competitive. Like, Billy Durney, with whom I was last night. Billy Durney is the owner of Hometown Barbecue in Red Hook Brooklyn.

Which is fantastic, yeah.

Best buddies with Wayne Mueller down in Texas. Best Buddies with Aaron Franklin. In fact, Aaron Franklin built his pits. So these guys are the . . . you know, these are the brisket brethren. However, on the competition barbecue circuit, it's still pretty competitive. And there's a big difference between a competition brisket and a restaurant brisket.

Oh yeah. Why's that?

Competition . . . okay. So you've got maybe 60 teams all submitting brisket at the same time to be judged. So they're trying to differentiate their brisket as much as possible. First of all, they're cooking flats because you get a prettier slice to look at. They're probably injecting, maybe with a mixture of bouillon and melted butter. They're putting a rub. They're certainly putting a sweet glaze on, because our brains are hard-wired to respond favorably to salt, fat and sweet.

Whereas a restaurant brisket, it's salt, pepper and wood smoke. That's it. Just super simple. By the way, all your-

Oh sorry.

I may . . . I go the restaurant route. I like to keep it pretty simple.

Salt-

and pepper, yeah.

. . . and pepper. And your . . . and one of the restaurants you bring up over and over in Texas.

. . . because she's an interesting story. And also an interesting paradox.

So . . . and what's the name of the restaurant?

It's called Snow's. And it's in Lexington, Texas.

Now, Tootsie at Snow's in Lexington, Texas is a great example of a salt and pepper restaurant.

Absolutely. It's called a dalmatian rub. Because it's half or some proportion of course salt and some proportion of cracked or fine . . . coarsely ground black pepper. So it's speckled black and white like a . . . I like to make, by the way, a little variation on that. It's called a newspaper rub. It's black and white with red pepper flakes in it. So black and white and red all over. Which I'm sure millennials won't know because they don't read newspapers but-

Right. That's funny.

Oh, well. But anyway, the other thing Tootsie does . . . you know, at some point during the cooking process, you wrap a brisket. That's usually about two-thirds in. And the Aaron Franklin school holds that you wrap the brisket in unlined butcher paper. So it seals in moistness and yet it breathes so it doesn't trap in the steam. Tootsie Tomanes, 85 years old and still up at two in the morning lighting the pit every morning, uses what's called the Texas crutch. And she wraps her brisket in aluminum foil.

Now, I once got into a Twitter war with the late Anthony Bourdain about wrapping and he thought that was a terrible thing to do to a brisket.

Is that where the crutch comes from? It's a little bit of a nudge, there.

Well, what it does . . . what the tin foil does is it sort of turns the process of barbecuing into braising. You're trapping the steam, so you're doing exactly what my aunt Annette did when she . . . and I-

With the Manischewitz.

Well, with the sealed pot.

Right.

Braising with the sealed pot. I used to use the Texas crutch. I don't anymore because I find it results in a slightly pot roasty consistency. And even the Snow's brisket, which is a fabulous brisket, but . . . has that pot roasty quality. It brings us back to that whole notion of struggle.

I want a brisket . . . when I'm eating a brisket, I want some parts to be a little tougher. I want some parts to be a little softer and more tender. I want some parts to be a little burnt. I want other parts to be kind of . . . it's that incredible variation. You taste the struggle. You taste conquering the struggle.

Right, the victory.

The victory. Exactly.

I mean, why . . . if there were an elevator to the top of a mountain, nobody would be free solo, right?

That's exactly right. And this is . . . and the level of detail is astounding to people who aren't . . . for folks who are just getting into this. You . . . the grind of the pepper, number 18.

Big deal.

Right. People have really strong feelings about how big the pepper . . . how coarse the pepper-

Oh, my God. And the proportions. Billy Durney is . . . Aaron Franklin is one to one. Billy Durney is four to one. Wayne Mueller is eight to one.

Right. And they all get along.

They all get along. And you know what? Their briskets are all fabulous.

That's right. Yeah. And that's the important thing.

You know what's also amazing about brisket . . . barbecued brisket? This is the brisket moment. And it's the brisket moment, first of all, because it's on everybody's mind. Everybody wants to eat it. Everybody wants to cook it. People are even writing books about brisket. But 50 years ago, you couldn't even buy a barbecued brisket in Texas. The first restaurant to serve it was Black's. And before that, Tootsie Tomanes when she was a younger woman, she had a butcher shop, they used to grind the brisket up and make hamburger out of it. "Who would ever want to eat barbecued brisket?" she said.

So what changed, and why this is a celebrated cut now? Is it because of the difficulty? Because people learned to conquering-

Well, I think . . . well, I mean historically what changed is the way meat was distributed changed. And we went from hanging meat, which was whole or half carcasses that were sold to butcher shops that would break them down to boxed meat, where the beef is broken down at the meat packing plant and then sold cryovaced in boxes. So all of a sudden this cut that never used to be separated from the shoulder . . . now the shoulder was broken into many different cuts. And the brisket was sold separately.

Right. And even at 14 pounds, more manageable than when it was attached to the shoulder.

Right. Exactly. Yeah. And interestingly, in Texas, the first written mention of the word brisket was 1910, and it wasn't at a barbecue joint. It was at a Jewish grocery store where you could get it smoked. You could get it braised. And pastrami of course. I mean, pastrami starts as brisket. But that wasn't always the case, either. That's a really fascinating story.

It started as navel, right?

Well, even before that. So we go back to the Ottoman Empire, and in the middle east today, there's a dish called pastorma, which is long strips of meat coated with spices, one of which is garlic and sweet spices like mace. And pastorma was a cured meat. It was salted but not smoked. It gradually moved west to Romania, where tons of garlic were added. Remember, this is vampire country. And people used the cheapest meat, which at the time was goose. And at one point, that was a huge business. Then Romanians started immigrating to New York's lower east side at the turn of the last century. And they found beef at incredibly reasonable prices, so they started pastrami-ing beef. And along the way, they invented a restaurant where you could eat pastrami. It became known as the delicatessen. And beef navel, you're right, that's the equivalent of a pork belly, but in a steer, was the traditional or the original meat for pastrami.

And it's similar, the cut.

Yes and no. It's much fattier. It's much . . . the layers are much more striated. It's tougher. There's still one place that serves pastrami made with beef navel. That's Katz's Deli. But most of the other places have switched, I think quite felicitously, to brisket.

One of the elements in this book is a guide to describe how the pros judge brisket as . . . one of the elements in this book is how the pros judge brisket. Can you talk to us a bit about what they're looking for?

Well, absolutely. So first of all, let's talk about doneness. And every pro you meet will swear that he never uses a thermometer, that they don't even own thermometers. Meanwhile, you go to Aaron Franklin's there, they're probing with these, the stick thermometers in every possible corner of the brisket. But you're looking for . . . it's been described sometimes as it sort of jiggles like Jello. That's one-

Meat Jello.

Meat Jello. Meat Jello. But a couple tests. So thermometer, 205 degrees. If you're using the . . . with the bend method, you slide a insulated, gloved hand under the brisket, lift it up and if it droops like a sad mustache, you're in business. Another test is you take one end, you shake it. It'll jiggle like Jello.

A wave, like a rivulet thing.

You bet. And then you can take a chopstick and if you can insert a chopstick through the brisket, it's tender enough.

In terms of judging the quality of a brisket, so I mean first of all you look at it. It should be almost jet black. It should have on the outside, they call . . . we call it a bark. And it's a sort of semi-crusty, salty, smoky, crisp layer on the surface.

Then under, just underneath if you've done it right, you'll find a subcutaneous layer of sort of a reddish pink that goes anywhere from an eighth to about a half an inch into the meat. That's the smoke ring. A naturally occurring chemical reaction between the nitrous oxide in smoke and the CO2 in smoke, and the hemoglobin in the meat.

The meat itself should be tender . . . tender enough to . . . you hold it up. You can pull it apart, but it should not fall apart. You taste it, it should be luscious, it should be moist. You press your fork against it, you see the juices come to the surface. You bite into it, it should be tender but still . . . it's not baby food.

Right. That's something. And one final thing occurred to me as you were talking was that the quality of the meat isn't necessarily a judge of how good the cut is going to be at the end. People don't use prime just reflexively. There are other cut qualities.

Very interesting. So, I started this book at a place called Camp Brisket, which is a 48 hour seminar put on by Texas A&M University's meat department, Meat Science Department. And we learned about brisket anatomy. It's the only school I've ever been where they wheel out a whole steer carcass and the students don't recall with horror, but they lick their chops in anticipation.

And they did a series of blind tests. One of them is that they smoked a select, a choice and a prime brisket. The same method. And interestingly, the one that was preferred in a blind tasting was the choice, not the prime. Most of the guys these days are using prime. But Tootsie Tomanes uses select. You know, that's sort of a commercial food grade. And she was named number one in Texas Monthly.

Right.

I mean, art plays a big part of it. The other thing that's happening, I think is really interesting is that . . . it's the old saying, know where your meat comes from and how it's raised matters as much as you smoke it. And people are really paying attention to . . . want to source animals that are humanely raised. There's a couple down in Asheville, actually outside of Charlotte, North Carolina that cook only grass-fed briskets. And grass-fed's harder because it's leaner.

Right.

You've got to have a conscience.

Yeah, that's right. And so amazing details, and there are so many more in Steven Raichlen's book, The Brisket Chronicles. It's a fantastic book. Steven, thank you so much for coming in.

Thank you.

It's a great pleasure.


Manny Howard

Manny Howard is executive producer of Salon, and the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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