Big Green Egg

With last week’s weather doing an excellent impression of early September, I decided it would be foolish not to put the Big Green Egg to use again.  And since I’m becoming fairly comfortable with various cuts of pork on the Egg, I figured it was high time I tried my hand at one of my favorite types of barbecue: Beef Brisket.

Like pork shoulder, brisket is a tougher (and thankfully less expensive) cut of meat which requires a low-and-slow cooking method to tenderize the meat and render it truly delectable.  Sure…you could braise the meat in an oven or a slow cooker, or you could brine it and turn it into corned beef, but there’s no substitute for really good beef barbecue.  And the best part is that it’s actually rather forgiving – even if you overcook it a bit (which I may or may not have done…don’t judge me!), you should still be able to enjoy plenty of delicious, tender brisket.

Details on preparation and cooking and a few cautionary notes after the jump.

When I decided to smoke the brisket, I knew that my first order of business would be buying the brisket itself.  Funny thing about eight-to-ten-pound cuts of meat…they don’t tend to populate the average grocery store’s meat department too often.  They may offer trimmed briskets that run three or four pounds each, but these ARE NOT the cuts you want to be throwing onto your smoker.  They cook far too quickly and they are frequently separated from the fat cap that melts into an untrimmed brisket while it’s cooking.

Sure, you can order a whole brisket from the ‘butcher’ at Safeway or Harris Teeter, but I prefer to look at barbecue as an opportunity to bring in the big guns.  So I paid another visit to the guys down at Canales Quality Meats in Eastern Market, where I purchased the ribs for my previous BGE undertaking.  They had trimmed and untrimmed briskets in their case ready and waiting.  At $3.99 a pound, the brisket was significantly cheaper than most cuts of beef, and I was able to walk out with a nearly eight-pound brisket (complete with fat cap) for less than $35.  Considering the fact that I was planning to feed a small gathering of people with the brisket, the price was definitely right.

I took it home and prepared it in a traditional Texas style – rubbing the brisket all over with a spice blend from The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas.  Once the brisket was coated in this magical dust (which, according to the ingredients on the label, is nothing more than salt, pepper and cayenne pepper), I wrapped it tightly in plastic and let it sit for an hour or two while I set about starting the fire in the Big Green Egg.

And this is where I made two key mistakes.  First, I attempted to correct for a temperature gauge that seemed to be reading on the high side by allowing the temperature to settle in higher than I should have.  Even a few degrees’ difference can have catastrophic effects when you’re cooking for almost twelve hours.  Second, I failed to notice that several of the lumps of charcoal that I started and dumped into the egg had managed to escape.  Not knowing this had happened, I stepped on the coals and remained oblivious until the click-clacking of my right footsteps made me stop to see what was wrong with my shoe.  Turns out the coals had burrowed their way through the sole of my shoe and taken up residence after cooling and allowing the rubber they displaced to cool, as well.  Not my finest hour.

The brisket went into the Egg, where I was cooking with lump hardwood charcoal and hickory chips and using the plate setter to provide a more indirect heating source.  I was hoping to just set up the Egg and walk away, but I just can’t bring myself to do it like that – I always have to hover and react to every little fluctuation of temperature.

After almost a dozen hours on the grill, it was time to remove the brisket.  I opened up the Egg and was greeted by the requisite puff-up of wood smoke…a delicious aroma.  The brisket itself, sad to say, was tasty but not exactly perfectly prepared.  Even with the fat cap and the slow cooking process, the portion of the brisket that had been most directly exposed to the fire showed a significant charring – this was more than mere “bark.”  Fearing the worst, I wrapped the brisket in aluminum foil and set it to rest for an hour.  This would hopefully allow the juices to redistribute themselves throughout the meat (they draw into the very core during cooking).  Failure to allow for this is one of the chief culprits behind dry, tough meat, and I’ve learned to let everything I cook rest for at least a short period before cutting into it.

When it was time to carve up our crispy critter, the fat cap was the first thing to go.  I could practically scrape off the remaining layer of fat, exposing juicy meat with just a hint of a pink smoke ring.  Turning the brisket over, I attempted to remove the charred bottom layer from the rest of the meat.  This took a bit more effort, but it was worth it.  Finally, I set about cutting the meat against the grain, which cut through the muscle fibers and allowed for tender slices instead of the long, ropy strands of meat that would have resulted from cutting with the grain.

Thankfully, despite letting the meat cook a bit too long at a temperature higher than it should have, the reactions were uniformly positive.  Even our friend Georgetown Jenny, a Texan, was pleased with the results.

I walked away from this experience with some really good lessons about using the Big Green Egg for brisket:

  • Always err on the side of caution when setting the temperature.  You can turn it up for finishing, but you can’t dial it back down.
  • Even a disturbingly burnt-looking piece of meat can be quite delicious if you let it rest and restore its juices.
  • In moderation, the ‘bark’ (crispy outer layer formed by contact with heat) of brisket tastes a lot like jerky.  In larger quantities, it just makes you sick.

I’m definitely going to be testing my mettle against the BGE again soon – I’ve been looking into how to smoke a turkey, and I think we could definitely make it work.