Sunday, February 3, 2019

I'm Here for the Brisket

To the tune of "Here for the Party" by Gretchen Wilson 10 (!) years ago.

Almost exactly two months ago, I posted about some Barbecue 401 stuff I was starting into.  Most people just call it sous vide cooking, but the manufacturers like the term precision cooking.  (Intro from one of the big names in the business)

Since I rather inartfully let on that today's my birthday, and sous vide barbecue was the centerpiece of the day, I might was well update my Barbecue 401 piece.

So why sous vide cooking?  In virtually all cooking you actually want to cook the outside and the inside differently.  There are tricks to cook them effectively separately and sous vide is one way.  If you want a classic rare steak, you want a cool pink inside and a seared outside.  You control what the oven or grill turns out by controlling time.  You cook the outside and heat conducted deep inside cooks that to some point on the rare to well-done scale.  If you leave it on the flame too long, too much heat is conducted to the inside and you overcook the center and the converse is true if you don't leave it long enough.  With sous vide, your vacuum bagged steak is cooked top to bottom to that cool pink temperature (120 or 125F).  After 1 to 2 hours, or enough time to conduct that 120 to the center (and don't be alarmed, the outside does oxidize and turn browner/grayer), then you remove the steak from the vacuum bag and quickly sear the outside.

Take this sous vide T bone steak I cooked.  Medium rare top to bottom (130 I think) then seared on the outside briefly in a very hot frying pan.  It could have been seared darker, but it was my first attempt.  A very popular alternative is to use a torch instead of the frying pan or the charcoal grill. Seriously. 

Today I finally made a sous vide barbecue brisket.  It was the best brisket I've done.  There's still something I need to work on - more on that in a minute.

First, I used the Serious Eats sous vide brisket tutorial page.  Let's start with the obvious question of "why?"  Everyone cooks brisket in a regular smoker for 16 hours or so.  The famous restaurants in Austin have a night shift that put tomorrow night's briskets in the smoker during tonight's cleanup. I've done three that way.  They were good, but none of them were killer good because brisket is hard to do.  A full brisket, called a packer, is two distinct pieces of meat.  A fatty thicker portion called the point (or sometimes deckle) and leaner, tougher portion called the flat.  As Serious Eats puts it:
Two factors: It's tough, and it's lean. With traditional smoking methods, a pork shoulder will tenderize in a matter of hours, and it has tons of connective tissue and fat to help keep it moist as it slow-cooks. A brisket, with its tougher meat, needs to be cooked overnight to completely tenderize. Not only that, but there isn't as much fat or connective tissue to lubricate the dry meat when it's finally tender. Unless you have either the experience or the luck to nail every single step of the process, moist, tender brisket exists only in the realm of dreams.

Sous vide cooking changes all that by allowing even a novice to produce brisket that's as moist and tender as the very best stuff you'll find in Austin or Lockhart.
The question is how do you want your brisket?  Like the traditional Texas barbecue or more like a steak?  With the precision cooker it comes down to two combinations:
135°F for 36 to 72 hours Firm and meaty, like a tender steak
155°F for 24 to 36 hours Extra moist, with a traditional texture
I opted for the traditional texture, heating to 155 for 36 hours.  With intent to have smoked brisket for birthday lunch, that would mean leaving 3 to 4 hours for the smoker, so I put the brisket in the water at 6:30 Friday night.  Over the course of the couple of months I've been playing with this, I've gotten a couple of accessories that made this trivially easy compared to previous attempts.  A tank and a tank cover.  In 36 hours of heat, I might have lost a quart, but I'm not sure it was that much.

My local source doesn't carry packers, so I was left to use a flat. Serious Eats comments on this, saying to get the fattiest cut you can find with both marbling and a good fat cap.  I did what I could.  

Standard practice after a long soak like this is to put the vacuum bags in ice water.  This stops the cooking process so that it doesn't overcook in the smoker (Serious Eats shows how to finish in an oven, too).  Once that's done, you apply a second barbecue rub and then pop it into the smoker, keeping the chamber temperature at least 250.  This is the brisket at about 11:30 this morning, right after pulling from the smoker. 

What do I need to work on?  Getting a better bark. Around the front of the portion on the left, you can see a dark crust on the left edge and some on the top.  The rest of the top looks like granules of the salt and spices that haven't flowed into a bark.  The smoked barbecue source describes bark this way:
Bark is an incredibly tasty crust that forms on your smoked meat. It is actually the result of some complex chemical reactions that have happened throughout the cooking process. Specifically, the Maillard reaction and polymerization.

In basic terms, bark forms when the surface of the meat is exposed to heat and oxygen. When the meat is also exposed to smoke, the bark will become a dark, licorice color. Without exposure to smoke, the bark will be more of a dark red, mahogany color.
A persistent myth is that adding sugar helps with getting a bark, but sugar doesn't caramelize until heated beyond the temperature for the Maillard reaction.  300 vs 285. 

Late in the day, I looked at the bottom of the piece on the right and it had a good black bark on it.  A check of the other piece showed it also has a better bark on the bottom than the top.  Since the Maillard reaction depends on proteins, and the top of both of those pieces is the fat cap on the brisket, it makes sense that they may have less protein than the bottoms. 

While it's tempting to say that's why the bark isn't as good as I'd like, I've gotten better barks on the briskets I've cooked the conventional way. I still need to research this.


  1. Drooling is not compatible with surfing the 'Net, unless you get one of those plastic keyboard covers.
    Thanks, SiG. Not your fault, really, but how about a NSFK (Not Safe For Keyboards) warning, next time?

  2. Well, crap. It's bedtime and now I'm hungry. Tomorrow we may be iced with no way to get to work. Darn. Also no way to get to the grocery store where the meat is. Dammit! Sigh. Thanks for complicating my life, SiG! :-)