I can't hide it any more, guys. I've started to vaguely understand what this brisket business is all about. As you might be able to see from the archives, I have eaten a fair amount of brisket over the last eight months or so. I know it should be moist, smoky and fatty. It should have a delicious rub. And I know it should be in my face. When I started out I had no idea what was going on. I was totally overwhelmed. Still though, I've not developed anything approaching technical vocabulary beyond "holy Jesus," which I am led to believe is the phrase for brisket you are currently eating.
So, by way of continuing my crash course in brisket, I thought a good idea might be attending the Smoke Camp that is run intermittently by Lockhart Smokehouse, where recent TV-featured BBQ pitmasters Will and Tim promise to let you in on all the secrets of how to smoke a good brisket while you look at hundreds of pounds of beef and salivate.
I do have a selfish motive for this, beyond my development from a food-reviewing simpleton circus act into something approaching a food writer. When I get home I want to open a barbecue food truck. Ridiculous, you say. Who would eat meat that you, a man who had never heard of brisket until 2012, had cooked? People that have never heard of brisket ever, that's the answer. There's literally no market for it over there. That's not because they tried it and rejected it; it's because they've never heard of it or moved past barbecuing frozen burgers over charcoal.
So, in pursuit of becoming an instant millionaire, the investment in Smoke Camp seems a pretty good deal. You get a free beer, a T-shirt, and as much barbecue as you can eat for $75, as well as two hours of Will and Tim's valuable time. We started out with Will and his magnificent beard, in front of Lockhart's pretty amazing $30,000 custom built smoker. As impressive a tool as the smoker is, no one there really understands it. The heat should be set to a "4" (there is a big arrow drawn at the number 4 on the dial, to illustrate the inadequacies of the numbers 3 and 5) and the temperature dial broke 10 days after they bought it. Basically, Will tells if a brisket is done using the "jiggle test". If the fatty part of the brisket essentially jiggles like a boob, that brisket is done. If it feels like said boob is actually made from silicone, the brisket requires longer. Then, while visualizing boobies, we all got to jiggle a gigantic properly cooked brisket, which, to be honest, must have looked pretty weird to the customers, who we were standing in plain sight of. "Yeah, I'll get me some bri ... [spies six aroused people rubbing a brisket] ... ribs. Definitely ribs."
Will's basic tips include the temperature a brisket should be smoked at (about 225, for a very long time), which way to point the thing (fatty side up, with the fat towards the heat), and the importance of temperature consistency. A well-made smoker like theirs can run pretty much all the heat required on just a couple of pieces of post oak. It should be pointed out that while Will is giving an entertaining lecture and letting you gaze into both his beard and a smoker of delights, beer orders are taken, and the combination of this, the smell of everything, and the fact I hadn't had dinner yet and was staring at a few thousand dollar's worth of incredible were combining to make me delirious with hunger.
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But no, we were then ushered into the kitchen, where Tim stood astride several impressive slabs of meat (hah!). We got taught about selecting a good brisket (it's all about the marbling and the flop), how long to leave meat at room temperature, the ingredients of a good rub (a surprising amount of salt versus brown sugar and spices, to help the meat fats be broken down before it gets smoked), and how to ensure final product consistency before you even do anything. Briskets were laid out in order of quality, and we got to inspect them all, and what it is about them that makes the cut different quality. These slabs of meat were so big that I could suddenly see exactly where these fitted onto a cow. It's all pretty fascinating.
I guess my take-home thing for cooking a good brisket is that it's all about the fat. You should season the fat heavily, keep it topside and towards the heat, and then jiggle it to see if it's done. Presumably Dickey's use the corpse jiggle test, where if their brisket jiggles like a fresh corpse, then it's done. Mmm. Corpse.
It's a bunch of stuff I had never considered, and I now feel equipped to conquer Britain, as well as be vaguely competent at whatever it is I do for the Observer. Can I patent smoked brisket in one country? Is that possible? Anyway, finally, we're led through to a huge plate of brisket and ribs, and can finally take out all the frustrations of the last two hours on some perfectly cooked meat. Like all good brisket, that meat was soon right in my face.
Smoke Camp - it comes recommended.