No one likes to really talk about it, and several of them will make excuses and offer explanations. But talk to enough barbecue experts long enough, and a sad truth starts to emerge. The number of people who want to smoke a brisket, who can smoke a brisket, seems to be suffering a serious decline.
“A lot of people just don’t seem to know how to do it,” says Gary Burks, who has done a little catering, a little restaurant smoking, and a little backyard barbecue for as long as he can remember. “They just don’t know brisket and what to do with it.”
Granted, it may be difficult to believe that the brisket – the staple of Texas barbecue for as long as there has been Texas barbecue – has fallen on hard times. But think of the names that are gone, whether Bob White or the Ranch House or Two Podners (or, for long-time residents, the Pig Stands that used to dot the neighborhood). Think of the picnics and cookouts and family gatherings where brisket has been replaced by chicken or turkey. Think of all the meals that used to be barbecue that aren’t any more.
Or blame it on the increasing difficulties of running a neighborhood restaurant in a world dominated by Chili’s and McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Says 28-year veteran Frank Hart of Back Country Barbecue on upper Greenville: “This is kind of a love-hate business. There are lots of parts I love, but it’s hard work – especially the marketing part. I’m not a marketing kind of guy.”
What he is, though – along with more than a few others throughout the neighborhood – is a person who still believes in the power of the smoke. They may be restaurateurs or caterers, professionals or amateurs, but they still have the same goal – to make the best barbecue they can.
“When you get a bunch of people together, they’re still going to want a brisket,” says Abe M. Burton, who once smoked 47 briskets for a barbecue at Hamilton Park’s New Mount Zion Baptist Church. “And they want it not just smoked, but so tender they can cut it with a fork. And that’s what I try to give them.”
TAKING THEIR TIME
Smoking a brisket into tenderness is not cooking as much as it is patience. Leave it there. And leave it there. And then leave it there some more. Says Hart: “If it doesn’t cook long enough, it will taste fine, but it won’t be tender. And what’s the point of that?”
In fact, ask a barbecue master for the secret to their success, and it comes down to time every time. At least 12 hours, and even longer, if possible. Most professionals start the meat in the late afternoon, let it smoke over night, and don’t really worry about it until the next morning. It’s not unusual, they say, to let a brisket cook for 16 or 18 or even 24 hours.
This, it seems, makes more of a difference than the wood used to smoke the meat.
Much has been made over the years about the merits of mesquite vs. hickory vs. pecan (or whatever wood seems to be popular at the moment), but what’s more important is controlling the heat so that the brisket is neither under- nor over-cooked. If there is a rule of thumb for these things, it’s an hour a pound at somewhere around 200 degrees (hence 12 to 15 hours for a 12- to 15-pound brisket, a typical restaurant cut).
There is also a fair amount of food science involved, dealing with effect of heat on proteins and the boiling point of water.
But, as any barbecue master will point out, this is as much art as science, and any guideline is just a place to start. Oliver Rhein, whose barbecue experience goes back 24 years, even has a technique that involves smoking the meat and then letting it rest in foil in the refrigerator for four or five hours before warming it up again.
In this, brisket is probably the most difficult piece of barbecue to perfect. In the long and quarrelsome (and, by now, a bit tiresome) debate about which makes the best barbecue, something that is usually overlooked is that Memphis-style or Carolina-style barbecue starts with a significant advantage. It’s pork ribs or pork shoulder, and neither represents the challenges of the brisket. Ribs have bones, which add flavor to the meat. Pork shoulder is fattier, and that adds flavor to the meat.
Georgia author Joe Dabney, who knows as much about pork barbecue as anyone has a right to know, notes that every great pork pit master he has ever talked to cites that fat as one key to success, since it keeps the pork moist throughout the long cooking process. A brisket, on the other hand, is a tough, leaner piece of beef that, as Julia Child once put it, “is never tender like steak, but should be pleasantly chewable and have a real beefy flavor.” So anyone who can produce a smoked brisket that doesn’t taste like a man’s belt that has been sprayed with hickory room freshener has truly accomplished something.
And, in our neighborhood, they’re doing that. The numbers are amazing – 3,500 pounds a week at one restaurant, 3,000 pounds at another, 2,100 pounds at a third. And that doesn’t include the smoked turkey and the smoked pork and the ribs and the sausage. Even caterers, who don’t smoke every day, can do 200 to 400 pounds of brisket during a busy month.
“It’s just an all-American dish,” says Hart. “It lends itself to different flavors, to different ways of cooking it. It’s just so Texas.”
ON THE SIDE
This raises the touchy question of sauce. Traditional Texas barbecue, as defined from generation to generation, does not require sauce. The meat is tender enough and smoked enough and flavorful enough to be complete without it (not unlike the commandment that true Texas chili doesn’t have beans). And it certainly doesn’t require the mustardy and vinegary sauces typical of Carolina barbecue, many of which seem to call for uncommon amounts of Worcestershire sauce.
There seems to be a consensus, though, that a bit of sauce served on the side, a sauce that’s a little thick, a little sweet and a little spicy, is acceptable. What no one should do is baste with any kind of sugary sauce during cooking, since the sugar could burn and char the meat. Says Burks: “The thing to remember is that brisket is not about the sauce, it’s about the meat.”
Surprisingly, there is less uncertainty about side dishes. We may live in a modern, all is possible culinary world, where anyone can get organic arugula or Madagascar vanilla beans at a moment’s notice, but when it comes to barbecue, traditional rules. Mustard potato salad. Cole slaw. Baked beans. Pinto beans. Macaroni and cheese. And even grocery store white bread. Says Burton: “You can’t beat potato salad and baked beans.”
Because, in the end, barbecue is about that kind of tradition and about time, whether it’s the time to prepare it or the time to appreciate it or the time it has been around. By some accounts, that has been hundreds of years, when the first Anglo settlers were forced to figure out a way to make a tough cut of beef edible.
“Why do I like to do it?” asks Burks. “Well, because I know brisket and I can make a good one. But also because I’m happy to sit down and serve someone else and watch them enjoy it.”
NAME: Frank Hart
EXPERIENCE: Owner, Back Country Barbecue, since 1975
FAVORITE DISH: Chopped beef sandwich from the end of the brisket (usually without sauce)
TRICK OF THE TRADE: Give yourself enough time, and five to six hours isn’t enough time. Don’t be afraid to start the day before.
QUOTABLE: “People always ask us how good we are. I always tell them it doesn’t matter what we think. You tell us how good we are.”
NAME: Abe M. Burton
STANDING: Amateur – uses two hinged bathtubs for his smoker
EXPERIENCE: Cooking for church picnics and family gatherings on July 4 and Juneteenth
FAVORITE DISH: Sliced brisket
TRICK OF THE TRADE: Only uses pecan for smoking
QUOTABLE: “When I was a kid, my people used to have picnics and such, and I helped out. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed like I was doing the cooking. I guess I liked the taste of my barbecue, and since I couldn’t buy it, I had to make it myself.”
NAME: Gary Burks
EXPERIENCE: 20 years cooking for family, arts festivals, some catering
FAVORITE DISH: Brisket
TRICK OF THE TRADE: Know which wood gives which flavor – if you want a hickory smoke, don’t use mesquite.
QUOTABLE: “If you’re going to barbecue with sauce on the meat, you might as well cook it in the oven. When you do that, you lose all the flavor the wood brings to the meat.”
NAME: Oliver Rhein
EXPERIENCE: Has owned or cooked at several restaurants, including Oliver’s, Raymond’s Barbecue and the Lake Highlands Knights of Columbus
FAVORITE DISH: Memphis-style pork ribs
TRICK OF THE TRADE: Buy the best quality meat you can afford to buy..
QUOTABLE: “There aren’t too many things better than to have people out by the pool at the KC Hall with a couple of smokers going and everyone waiting for brisket.”