It all began at 'The Jack' in 2013, where the brisket recipe you can taste today at Bluegrass went up against the best of the best America had to offer. It came 2nd from a field of 25 competitors in the Winner's Circle.
The Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue Competition is essentially the 'Superbowl' of American BBQ Competitions (‘The Jack’). We competed alongside Jackie Weight, the only non-UK, female winner of The Jack in history.
So, want to know how we make it?
Get the right meat
Let's start with the bad news: America makes great brisket. Why? Largely because it's grain-fed, and you can be assured of its quality via the USDA system, more on that below.
You can get grain-fed beef in the UK, but most beef you'll find will be grass-fed. Grass-fed beef has great flavour, and there's a lot of debate about the best beef out there, but one thing's for sure - grain-fed beef will usually be much fattier, which when it renders down makes for tender, moist smoked brisket.
We'll talk about how you might do things differently throughout the process if you're using grass-fed beef, however you can also find great grain-fed beef from Canada and Australia, or you can look out for Wagyu if you can find it.
We use USDA brisket at Bluegrass BBQ, imported from the States and if you can find it too, shoot for at least 'High Choice' (CAB) or Prime.
What is Brisket?
Brisket is one of the nine beef American #primal cuts and is cut from the lower chest. It's tough, but super flavoursome. Collagen fibres run through #brisket, which need to break down if we want tender brisket (and oh, we do). It comes in two parts, the flat and the tip, which is the thicker, fattier end of the brisket.
You can't just throw this meat on the grill. It needs to be slow-cooked or as we do it, slow-smoked: something that's been going on for hundreds of years in the southern states of America (long before there was a flag).
We smoke our brisket for around 18hrs and all this time in the smoker imparts a beautiful smokey flavour to the meat.
Tip - Allow 1/2 to 1lb raw brisket per person, depending on hungry you all are and what else you're smokin' / servin'. Expect to lose 30-60% of this in the smoker depending on how you smoke
Wood & Smoke
You want smoke? You need wood. We use hickory for the sweet, savoury, almost bacony smoke it produces, which we import from the states. You can use most wood though, although generally you want to steer clear of softwoods like cedar / pine and stick to hard woods. You also need air-dried wood, fresh wood contains water which creates steam (we want #smoke, not steam).
Hickory is a great all rounder and we love it, but you can also use lighter hardwoods (Maple, Cherry, Apple) for lighter meats and more flavoursome / heavier woods for red meats (Oak, Mesquite).
Trimming the Brisket
Marbled fat is one of the keys to a tender, melt-in-the-mouth brisket, but you don't want an inch of it around the edge and there's a lot of fat in the 'Deckle' that you can cut out.
Get a good sharp boning knife and trim the 'fat cap' (the fatty side) down to around 1/4". Cut the hard fatty deckle out (from between the point and the flat). If there's any silver skin on the other side, you can trim that off too.
These are the important parts and you can stop here if you like: this amount of fat will protect the meat from direct heat while still allowing the smoke to penetrate the meat. Once you know what you're doing you’ll be able to trim a brisket in about 3 minutes..
Tip - it's easier to trim when the meat is cold, so chill it well before starting. It's also better to under-trim than over-trim, so don't go crazy until you know what you're doing..
Here's the Rub..
Before you smoke up your brisket, you'll want to #rub your meat with a salt / spice mix. Why? To dry-brine and to add flavour and crust to the finished brisket.
Sugar (flavour & crust) and salt (dry brine) are your friends and make up a good part of the rub, although there a many different styles - in Texas, it's salt & pepper and absolutely nothing else: a 'Dalmation rub'.
If you're preparing for competition or are unsure of the ratios, you can apply the salt separately, dry-brine and then rub with the rest - otherwise all together is just a good once you've worked out your recipe. Our exact rub recipe is a #secret, but ours is a mix of 9 spices including a foundation of kosher salt, brown sugar & paprika. You'll find plenty of great recipes online.
Whatever you do, stick that rubbed brisket in the refrigerator for at least 6hrs or overnight to let the science do its bit.
Tip - if you're new to smoking brisket, you can cut a small corner now (or before rubbing) against the grain on the flat end, this will make it easy to cut once it's smoked and you can't see the grain so easily
Prepare the Smoker
We smoke a lot of meat. Much more than a tonne a week, so we need big smokers that can cope with smoking 24/7.. They don't make those this side of the pond, so we ship ours over from Oklahoma from a gentleman named Fast Eddy, who we met at the Jack in 2013.
Unless you are smoking for hundreds of people, you don't need these though - you can smoke in a Big Green Egg, a small electric smoker or even a Weber..
We'll throw in a couple of tips about how to smoke in a traditional grill BBQ here and you'll find many blogs online that will tell you how. The main key is making sure your meat is not over direct heat and is cooking in the smoke / indirect heat.
Tip - if you're using a traditional grill BBQ like a Weber, turn the meat so that the fatty point and fat cap are nearest the (indirect) heat source, this will help protect the brisket from overcooking
Low 'n' Slow
Why smoke at all? Slow roast in the oven instead? You could, but if you did, you'll miss out on all those smokey flavours and you'll find it harder to keep it tender with perfectly rendered fat.
Let's keep the science on the simple side, but the smoke reacts with something in the meat called #myoglobin which attracts the important parts of the smoke into the meat, building a delicious smokey flavour. While that's happening, at low temperatures something called cellulose in the wood helps break down the collagen in the fat, making it soft and tender, rather than tough.
Whatever you use to smoke your meat though, you'll want a good 'clean' smoke and to get the indirect smoker temperature up to 225F-250F (that's 105C-120C, but if you're thinking in Celsius, you're not really getting into the spirit of southern style smoking.. 😉).
Tip - for thinner & grass-fed briskets, you'll usually want to smoke at a lower temperature
You'll have to spend a lot of effort keeping it there, more than this and you'll overcook the meat, much lower than this and those reactions that need to happen in the meat.. won't.
One way to help with this is to add a bowl of water to the smoker, this helps keep the environment a little bit moister but the biggest draw of adding water is that it will help keep the the smoker temperature steadier.
Tip - start with already hot water, don't wait for the smoker to heat it up..
You'll want to smoke your brisket for about an hour / lb or slightly more. So you might need to plan to take up to 18 hours in all (as we do).
Tip - you might want to rotate your meat if you're using a Weber, the meat is near the direct heat source or the temperature varies a bit around the smoker
All Good Things
Time. Probably the most important ingredient to great 'cue after wood and fire..
"If you're lookin' you ain't cookin'"
There's some truth to this and so you should check in on the meat as little as possible, especially during the first 6hrs or so, but if you need to briefly then do: the benefits of spritzing / rotating / not burning anything, outweigh the short drop in temp / smoke escape. Check it too much or unnecessarily though, and your bark may turn out underwhelming.
After 6hrs though, you may want to spritz (water / apple juice) but try not to do more than about once an hour.
Tip - if you're using grass-fed or leaner brisket, it could use a hand in the fat department. This is where a fatty, buttery 'mop' can help (use instead of spritzing). You could also try wrapping your brisket in bacon, or massaging with olive oil before you smoke it
If you're monitoring the internal temperature of the meat (you should) you'll find there comes a time where the temperature stops going up, sometimes for hours - this is called the #stall. Why? Because the internal temp (now around 150F) has got to the stage that moisture is evaporating from the brisket, dissipating heat.
You can wait for the brisket to get over the stall by itself and some pit-masters swear by this however, for our style, we want to preserve more moisture in the meat so we wrap it in foil part way through the stall when the bark is just right, adding a little apple juice, and stick it back in. They call this the #TexasCrutch. You can also experiment with butcher's paper, which is a compromise of the two techniques.
Tip - watch out, a Texas crutch will speed up the next stage of the smoke.
Don't wrap it too early though: it may be tempting as it begins to get darker, but you want a sticky, dark caramel coloured bark to form all over the brisket, this takes time and it won't happen in foil.
Time to Rest
Finally (after another 3-4 hours), your brisket can come out of the smoker. You're looking for 200-205F internal temp for perfectly done brisket.
Ready to slice? No! Let it rest. For at least an hour, but you can rest for longer. Keep it wrapped and somewhere insulated. Resting allows the juices trapped deep inside the brisket to settle and permeate back throughout the meat. Slicing now will release all that moisture and you'll be left with dry brisket.
Moment / Ring of Truth
After resting, you can slice. You need to slice against the grain, which is trickier for a brisket as the grain runs a different way in the point end than for the flat (these are two different muscles that meet in this cut).
In Texas, you'd slice the flat one way against the grain (use the corner cutting tip mentioned earlier if you're starting out), then turn the brisket 90 degrees and slice the point.
Alternatively you can separate the point from the flat, slice the flat against the grain and use the fattier point for those mouth-watering #burntends that we also serve at Bluegrass, made famous in #Kansas city (more on that another time).
Tip - retain any juices let out while carving and spoon over the brisket when serving (you can separate the fat if you want to)
However you slice, you're looking for the #ringoftruth. If you take a look at the photo of our brisket above, you'll see a darker pink ring around the inside of the brisket, this is where that reaction with the myoglobin has been most intense and it's a sure sign that it's been authentically smoked low 'n' slow, as it should be.
Tip - if there's no 'Ring of Truth' on brisket, chicken, ribs or any other smoked meat.. Ask whoever's served you what they used to cook it, chances are it may not have even been smoked and the meat may just be flavoured with BBQ sauce.. You'll never have to ask at Bluegrass
Did you do a good job? The proof is in the eating after all, but you can use the 'pull test': a slice should not fall apart under it's own weight, but should pull apart easily.
We at Bluegrass hope we've inspired to you try smoking your own brisket, or at least to come and try the real deal down here in the smokehouse. We serve our authentically low 'n' slow smoked brisket alongside our double-smoked burnt ends, homemade fries & raw 'slaw.
If you do go it alone, then experiment: every cut is different and yours may need more or less of anything and take copious notes, so you can do better next time.
Thanks for reading, y'all.
Bluegrass, home to Authentic BBQ