Just once in your life, cook a brisket, over smoky charcoal heat, on the grill. Do it for the solemn pride of having done so, and for the rime of authority it will lend to your future haughty pronouncements on the quality of others’ briskets. Do it because brisket—a massive cut of tough working muscle from the chest of a cow—is one of the pillars of barbecue mastery, and a good challenge to take on for yourself. Do it because it will make enough delicious, smoky meat for everyone you know to enjoy some. Do it because I am telling you to do it. And, do it just once, because it will take most of the rest of your life to finish. My God it takes fucking forever.
Strictly speaking, not much actual work goes into the cooking of a brisket. You get a brisket, you season it, you leave it alone in a hot, smoky, enclosed space for a long time, and it’s done. It only feels like the most laborious goddamn thing you ever did, because you’re on the hook the whole time, uncomfortably aware all the while that the longer it takes, the better the end result must taste to justify the time you invested in it. This probably is not amounting to much of an argument for cooking a brisket.
Nevertheless, cook a brisket. It will taste divine, and you will forever after be A Cooker Of Brisket, Sage And Authoritative, Like Gandalf Would Be If He Cooked A Brisket. It’s a long weekend, which is good for brisket-cookery, because you can give a friggin’ day to the process and have time leftover for recovery. And for eating brisket. Which you will only be able to do after you have cooked the goddamn thing, so let’s get started.
The first thing you’ll need to do is acquire a brisket. Many regular supermarkets won’t have briskets, and many of those that do will have small, shitty two- or three-pound briskets with all the fat trimmed away; slow-cooking one of these over a smoky charcoal fire will yield a wad of compressed wood pulp and a howl of grief tortured enough to bring Mandy Patinkin racing to your doorstep. You’re looking for a big ol’ brisket—somewhere between six and ten pounds, with a nice thick sheaf of fat on one side—and might have to hunt around for it.
The next step, once you’ve found your brisket, is staring at it, shaking your head, and muttering, “Christ, what the hell am I gonna do with this fuckin’ thing.” It looks like a barge! If you weren’t cooking it, you could stretch a fitted sheet over it and take a nap. But don’t. It is the breast of a cow.
Congratulations! By traveling to the butcher shop and back, you have completed like 64 percent of the actual work of preparing a brisket. The trick is, even though you’ve done most of the work already, you’ve only put in a fraction of the time; the cooking part takes forever. (You: “Oh, so, roughly as long as reading this column.” Me: “Shut up.”) Which means you’ll need to have gotten your brisket the day before you intend to cook the fucker, unless you intend to eat it in the middle of the damn night, alone, probably between sobs, like a weirdo. So! Get on with your day, because you are not eating or cooking brisket until tomorrow.
Good morning. It’s early as hell, and time to prepare your brisket. Prepare the brisket itself by unwrapping it, patting it thoroughly dry with a wad of paper towels (owing to its size—it’s bigger than your damn Playstation!—this will take longer than your morning ablutions did) seasoning it, and letting it rest. Do this on a cookie sheet or a double-layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil, so as not to get horrifying meat-liquids all over your kitchen counter.
Now, listen. People have their spice rubs, and that’s cool. If you have a Lloyd’s (your name is Lloyd, in this formulation) Signature Smokin’ Spice Rub that you insist on talking up literally any time you are in the presence of meat and other human beings, use your spice rub, and that will be fine. (If you do not have a spice rub, you could do worse than salt, brown sugar, ground cumin, garlic powder, cayenne powder, and black pepper. A small fistful of salt, a similar portion of sugar, and big pinches of the other stuff.) Rub it all over your brisket, generously.
Just know, though, that you don’t actually need to do this. The only thing your brisket really needs is salt. Salt the hell out of it. Like, a heaping tablespoon of salt per side, rubbed all over. That’s a lotta fuggin’ salt! Wrap the brisket in aluminum foil and let it hang out in its salt outfit on the counter for at least an hour; this, in my experience, gives the salt time to flavor the brisket’s juices. You can use this time to get your shitty charcoal grill ready.
That part is pretty straightforward. You’ll need to set it up for indirect heat. If it’s a large enough grill for you to build a fire under one half of the cooking grate and place the brisket on the other half, so that there’s no burning charcoal directly beneath it, that’s the way to go; otherwise, you’ll need to setup your charcoal in a ring around the edge of the bottom grate and cook the brisket in the middle. The important thing is, you won’t want your brisket cooking directly over hot coals.
Oh and also! Buy, and soak in water, some wood chips. Hickory or apple or [ducks] yes, mesquite will be fine. Have these ready. You’ll use these to make smoke, so that you can say you smoked your brisket, so that internet weenies can say actually, no you didn’t, because you did not do it in Amarillo or wherever the fuck.
Lastly, you’ll need to make a decision about how you want to prevent your brisket’s rendered fat from igniting inside the grill, and plan accordingly. You’ve got a couple options, here. You can place an aluminum foil bread pan under the part of the cooking grate that will be hosting your brisket, so that it can catch the fat as it renders and drips down through the grate, or you can do that and use a few layers of that heavy-duty aluminum foil to fashion a little shallow pan for the brisket itself to sit on as it cooks. The virtue of the latter (which Epicurious does, to its credit) is that this will keep at least some of the drippings above the grate, where they will help keep the brisket moist and you can use them to baste it when you check on it every once in a while. What I am saying here is that you should fashion a little shallow pan out of aluminum foil for your brisket to sit on as it cooks. Or don’t! It’s your damn food, after all.
Grill ready? Brisket ready? You ready? Cool. Time to cook this fucker. Drain a big fistful of those soaked wood chips and toss them on the hot charcoal; lay the brisket fat-side-up (in its little pan that you made!) on the part of the grate that is not directly over the charcoal; shut your grill’s vents nearly all the way to lower the heat; slap the lid on that fucker so that the vents are over the brisket, not over the charcoal; set a timer for an hour, and immediately begin fretting.
(Another thing you can do, that we did back when you slow-roasted a pork shoulder on the grill, was to stick a pan of water on the grate next to the meat. This is still kind of a neat thing to do: The water evaporates over time, keeping the air inside the grill more damp than it would be otherwise. Also, it gives you a quick way to gauge the temperature inside the grill with just a peek under the lid: If the water is boiling vigorously, the air inside your grill is hotter than water’s 212-degree boiling point; if it’s not boiling, it’s cooler than that; if it is blood, and the sky is blood and everything is blood except for all the skeletons, you have made at least one grave mistake. This section is in parentheses both because this step is optional, and because presenting it as though it is optional even though it’s clearly a smart thing to do enables your internet food person to pretend that this procedure has fewer steps than it actually does.)
The fretting is important! Or anyway it’s unavoidable, so you might as well sell yourself on the idea that it somehow works to the benefit of this far-off feast of smoky meat. Fret and fret and fret. Try to distract yourself with work or reading or tossing a frisbee, but really: fret. Is the fire too hot? Not hot enough? Should I check it? If I check it, will I ruin it? Have I already ruined it? Am I, myself, ruined.
It’s going to be okay. This thing has a long while to go on the grill; you mostly can’t ruin it in the first hour, so long as the heat is very, very low—definitely less than 250 degrees, and as low as 220 if you can maintain it there. To that end, if you don’t have a grilling thermometer or aren’t very confident in your ability to judge the heat of your grill, make sure those vents are pretty much all the way closed: you’d much rather err on the side of too little heat than too much, at least for the first little while, until you get a sense for what amount of airflow will settle the water in that little pan you (“optionally”) parked on the grate into a steady simmer.
Wait just a damn minute, you are saying, side-eyeing so hard your eyebrows hurt: Just how damn long is this “a long while to go on the grill”? Ah. Hmm. Well. Yes. See, the thing is, you’re going to want to check on your brisket every hour or so—
But how long will it be on the grill.
—to baste it with its juices (if you did the aluminum foil pan thing) and refresh the charcoal and wood chips as necessary—
You are being evasive.
—and, hhhhhhehhh, well, yeah, you’ll be checking it at least, uh, six times.
(Possibly as many as twelve, depending on the size of your brisket.)
I will kill you.
It doesn’t have to be that many! After five hours or so of the refreshing-the-coals-and-wood-every-hour-or-so routine, if the temperature in there mostly hung between 220 and 250 degrees, the brisket will be as smoky as it’ll get, and you can move it to the steady security of a roasting pan in a 225 degree oven until it’s fully cooked. This still might take a while! I hope you were not planning on doing anything cool today, other than cooking a brisket, which is cooler in the abstract than as an actual way to spend a summer day. But, if you do it this way, at the very least you will not have to worry about refreshing charcoal and wood chips every hour.
You’ll probably need to cook your brisket for at least an hour per pound of meat, I am very sorry to say. After that, it will be tender enough that you could, for example, rip it into hunks with your bare hands and pelt them at an internet food person in your great pent-up wrath, but please don’t. If you have a thermometer, you can jam it into the thickest part of the brisket, and it’ll register right around 200 degrees. That means your brisket is done. Haul it out of the oven or grill and let it rest for another half-hour (hey, what’s another half-hour when you decided long ago not to even waste your time with this shit?) on your countertop. While it does that, and while the smell causes your nose to tug impatiently at the flesh of your face in hopes of detaching itself and crawling across the floor to nuzzle against the giant wad of hot meat, let’s talk about barbecue sauce.
Grilling dorks like to sneer at barbecue sauce, but it’s a fine condiment for brisket—so long as you make your own, so that it’s not just corn syrup with liquid smoke and brown food coloring in it, and so long as you use it in moderation, so that it does not drown out the smoky, meaty flavors you spent so much time cultivating in your brisket. Your brisket doesn’t need it, strictly speaking, because it is delicious and you worked very hard to make it so, but the stuff can add some welcome accompaniment.
Making barbecue sauce is easy, and even kind of fun. You’ll need some sweetness, some tartness, and some heat; within that broad framework, do what you like. Tomato paste, molasses, white vinegar, and maybe some powdered cumin and cayenne will do nicely; so will ketchup, hot sauce, a splash of beer, and a spoonful of grape jelly; so will gochujang and honey and yellow mustard. Really. Heat the stuff in a small saucepan so the flavors come together; when it tastes good and coats a spoon, it is good barbecue sauce.
Eventually that half-hour of resting time will elapse. Slice the brisket thinly, at a 90-degree angle to the grain; dump these slices into a big disposable casserole dish and pour any remaining drippings over them. You have cooked a brisket. Are you ready to hug? No? Still in more of a murdering frame of mind? That’s cool. We can hug later.
You can decide for yourself how to serve your brisket, of course. Your basic barbecue presentation—beans, greens, coleslaw, buns or bread for making sandwiches, etc.—will be just incredibly satisfying, a smoky, greasy, meaty, outrageously indulgent feast. Or, you can figure you did enough cooking already without having to make friggin’ beans, too; in this case, chop some raw stuff (cilantro, avocado, onion, cabbage if you’re particularly enlightened), put out some warm tortillas, and have brisket tacos. Or, you can drop that tray of sliced brisket on the table from slightly too high, bark, “Here. It’s ready.” at your guests, and go off to a quiet corner to shake and mutter off your resentment at the hours you gave to this giant slab of beef for this buncha goddamn ingrates.
Bring a little plate of brisket for yourself, though. It damn near melts on your tongue! You did great, and I’m proud of you.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.