Pork may be the preferred barbecue east of the Mississippi (think of the pork shoulder of the Carolinas and the ribs of Kansas City and Memphis), but in Texas beef is king — especially beef brisket, which comes moist and smoky and tender enough to cut with a fork. (Not that any self-respecting Texas barbecue buff would use a fork.) Barbecued brisket is simultaneously one of the easiest and most challenging recipes in the world of barbecue. Easy because it requires only one main ingredient: brisket (even the rub is optional). Challenging because pit masters spend years learning the right combination of smoke (lots), heat (low), and time (measured in half days rather than hours) to transform one of the toughest, most ornery parts of the steer into tender, meaty perfection.
Over the years, I’ve found that two things help above all: choosing the right cut of brisket —namely, untrimmed, with a thick sheath of fat — and then cooking the brisket in a shallow pan. The pan keeps the juices from dripping onto the fire and the meat from drying out, while allowing for the maximum smoke penetration from the top. A whole brisket (the sort cooked by a restaurant) weighs eighteen to twenty pounds. Here I call for a partially trimmed brisket — a cut weighing five to six pounds. Do not attempt to make this with a two-pound trimmed, fatless brisket; it will turn out much too dry. To achieve the requisite smoke flavor, you need to smoke the brisket in a charcoal grill — or in a smoker. A gas grill will not produce enough smoke.
Advance preparation: 4 to 8 hours for curing the meat (optional); also, allow yourself about 6 hours cooking time.
Special equipment: 6 cups hickory or mesquite chips or chunks, soaked for 1 hour in cold water to cover and drained.
1. Rinse the brisket under cold running water and blot it dry with paper towels.
2. Combine the salt, chili powder, sugar, pepper, and cumin in a bowl and toss with your fingers to mix. Rub the spice mixture on the brisket on all sides. If you have time, wrap the brisket in plastic and let it cure, in the refrigerator, for 4 to 8 hours (or even overnight), but don’t worry if you don’t have time for this — it will be plenty flavorful, even if you cook it right away.
3. Set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling and preheat it to low. No drip pan is necessary for this recipe.
4. When ready to cook, toss 1½ cups of the wood chips on the coals (3/4 cup per side). Place the brisket, fat side up, in an aluminum foil pan (or make a pan with a double sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil). Place the pan in the center of the hot grate, away from the heat. Cover the grill.
5. Smoke cook the brisket until tender enough to shred with your fingers; 6 hours will likely do it, but it may take as long as 8 (the cooking time will depend on the size of the brisket and heat of the grill). Baste the brisket from time to time with the fat and juices that accumulate in the pan. You’ll need to add 10 to 12 fresh coals to each side every hour and toss more wood chips on the fresh coals; add about 3/4 cup chips per side every time you replenish the coals during the first 3 hours.
6. Remove the brisket pan from the grill and let rest for 15 minutes. Transfer the brisket to a cutting board and thinly slice it across the grain, using a sharp knife, electric knife, or cleaver. Transfer the sliced meat to a platter, pour the pan juices on top, and serve at once.
Recipe Copyrighted by Steven Raichlen, The Barbecue! Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition, Workman Publishing Company 2008.