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I Tried Smoking My First Brisket and It Was Terrible

The smoker of dreams.
The smoker of dreams.
Gavin Cleaver

Looking back, I think I had been scared to try smoking a brisket. Having never seen chunks of meat that size back home, it's a scary commitment for two reasons. One, you can't eat a brisket by yourself. That means you have to invite people round for brisket. This has to be done in advance, and that means the promise of edible brisket. What you've done there is set yourself up for a fall when, actually, the brisket turns out to be terrible. Your guests will go hungry, probably destroy your property in a fit of rage, and eat anything they can find, even that expensive cheese you were keeping for an occasion more special than your house being ransacked by former friends.

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Two, it takes so long to do it right that you need to block off two days of your time. In this busy merry-go-round world we all live in, where demands on our time are everywhere and anywhere, who can actually spend sixteen hours or so doing one thing? Unless that thing is video games, obviously. No one's relying on you to complete Fallout 3, though.

That said, the purchase of a grill/smoker type-thing for my housemate's 30th birthday, and the fact that said smoker was purchased three days in advance of the party at our house, could mean only one thing. It was time to sacrifice our brisket virginity at the altar of meat and friendship. Cobbling together all of our combined knowledge from living in Texas, me and my brave housemate (who is from Virginia, of course) braved Costco to purchase the largest piece of meat I had ever even tried lifting.

The smoker we had bought, which was only purchased because it's one of those cool oil-drum with a chimney-type ones you see behind dozens of little barbecue places all over Texas, was barely big enough to accommodate the meat. While I was preparing a rub from a recipe I was completely inventing while trying to remember what Tim from Lockhart Smokehouse told me to do, and remembering that a bunch of his ingredients were secret, my housemate was trying to maintain a constant temperature on a brand-new smoker he'd only assembled the day before. We were either brave pioneers, taking back brisket for areas of the world traditionally not associated with slow-smoked beef, or idiots who were about to receive their comeuppance.

My rub was one part kosher salt to three parts brown sugar, with a completely random amount of paprika, garlic salt, and chili powder in. My stepson was watching me the whole time, so I had to appear completely professional, lest I shake his confidence in me. We didn't have a deep pan big enough to fit the whole brisket in, so I arranged a terrible set-up with bowls underneath either end of the brisket, which I caked in a layer of randomly-compiled rub that I now realize was ruinously thick, more of an earth's crust than a gentle bark.

Once it had sat there for a couple of hours, with the salt in the rub hopefully doing salt-type things, we had the smoker up to a consistent-ish 180 degrees or so. It didn't have a separate fire-box (or at least it did, but that was an extra $70, so, whatever) so we'd arranged the coals on one side, placing on top of the coals a metal box with water-soaked woodchips inside and holes in the top. As you can imagine, we were taking this, and ourselves, very seriously.

 

An almost-done brisket.
An almost-done brisket.
Gavin Cleaver

With the caked-over brisket diagonally in place (fat cap up, we're not total amateurs), all that remained to do was wait, we presumed. The temperature, however, had other ideas. After I abandoned all hope at 2am on a very cold Saturday morning, my dogged and resilient housemate, who was presumably more worried about his own birthday party than I was, woke up every two hours to find the temperature too low, and apply more coals and wood. It was at this point, I think, that his confidence was shaken. Would we poison all our guests? Was our back-up plan of sausages and cake sufficient to halt the inevitable food riot that would result from a lack of the promised brisket?

Morning came, and with it a very cold and overcast day. With the party starting at three, and cleaning to be done, we checked the temperature on the cheap smoker temperature dial every hour or so. The atmosphere was tense. At three, the brisket was jiggling. I took jiggling to be a sign that brisket was done. My housemate was more concerned than I was. Not wanting to kill all his guests, he went out to buy an internal meat temperature thermometer. This cursed piece of equipment said the internal temperature of our brisket was 135f, some way short of non-deadly brisket. We soldiered on. Guests arrived (but only around 5pm, because Americans are always late for everything), and were distracted with my wife's delightful salad while all of our prayers were directed towards the smoker. It was two hours before the internal temperature rose from 135.

Now, at this point, we should have figured out something was up. Instead, in a final fit of desperation at it being the actual evening and there being no brisket or even room to grill sausages, we wrapped the bastard in foil and put it in the oven. After an hour in the oven, the internal gauge hadn't moved.

The brisket, when it eventually emerged, was overdone. All the fat had disappeared into the ether, and it was pretty tough. You know what it was? That goddamn internal thermometer. If we had just trusted the jiggle when it was lovely and jiggly, we'd have been enjoying delicious brisket hours earlier, rather than largely overlooked by drunken guests brisket at about 9pm. Also, the rub was shit.

The internal temperature thermometer is lying on my kitchen counter, in disgrace. And you know what that bastard says the temperature is in my kitchen right now? 160 F.

Goddamn you internal meat thermometer. Goddamn you.


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