Texas-style Brisket in an Electric Smoker
July 4th, 2010 · 38 Comments · Posted in Blog, Recipes
Here’s a piece I wrote three years ago about smoking a whole brisket, Texas-style, on an electric smoker. I do believe this contains just about everything I know on the subject. I get my whole brisket from a butcher at the Eastern Market here in the District of Colubia. You should also be able to order them through the meat department at Whole Foods, or check your nearest Jewish supermarket.
Of all the wacky things coming out of Washington, DC, these days, this may beat all: Me, a decidedly urban, inside-the-Beltway kind of guy, telling Texans how to barbecue. But here’s my dirty secret: I make a mean barbecued brisket, and I do it on my deck, barely a mile from the White House and you-know-who.
Frankly, I was barbecue-deprived as a child. Where I grew up outside Chicago, we had to make do with a strange, reddish goo they slapped on a hamburger bun at the local root beer stand. Even after I moved to the nation’s capital and started cooking for myself—oh, a century or so ago–barbecue seemed to fall into that “don’t try this at home” category. I could only dream about great Texas brisket, about coaxing flavor from smoldering wood, about slowly imparting that incomparable flavor to that stubborn cut of meat, and about how my eyes rolled back in my head at the first bite into the meltingly tender beef.
But then a certain appliance entered my life, and I said, Hallelujah: the electric smoker.
I know, I know. I hear the howls of protest already. Barbecue out of that little ol’ thing?
True, it’s only 36 inches high. True, it’s only 16 inches in diameter. And true, it isn’t fueled with hardwood. But I happen to believe Texas barbecue champion Harley Goerlitz when he says he can make barbecue in almost anything. With a little imagination, with a bit of patience, and with 1,500 watts of electricity, I can—I assure you–turn out barbeque at home that would make Goerlitz weep with delight.
Here’s how it works:
My $80 electric smoker consists of three main parts. At the bottom is a base containing an electric element like the one in your oven and either a reflecting pan or—in my case—lava rocks on which to place wood chips. Above that is a metal cylinder with brackets to hold two metal food grates and one large water pan, which helps create a moist cooking enviroment. A domed lid completes the smoker’s trademark bullet shape.
The heating element is designed to keep cooking temperatures low, somewhere between 215 and 250 degrees, during the many hours it will take your meat to cook. The flavorful smoke is created when you place wood chips—oak, hickory, possibly mesquite–near the hot element.
Several manufacturers make electric smokers, but the most widely distributed—usually wherever outdoor grills are sold–may be Brinkmann (based in Dallas) and Charbroil.
Once you’ve spent a few minutes assembling your smoker, you are ready to cook your meat. This could include pork shoulder, for “pulled pork,” or pork ribs, lamb, goat, chicken, turkey. But as anyone who knows barbecue will tell you, beef brisket reigns supreme.
Proceed as follows: Soak some wood chips in water. Season a large piece of brisket with a mix of spices and herbs called a “rub.” Mix a basting liquid called a “mop.” Then fill the smoker’s water pan with hot water and scatter some wood chips around the heating element. You can then put the meat on the cooking grate, cover the smoker and plug it in. Later that day—typically eight hours later for a 6-pound piece of brisket—you are likely to have barbecue.
No messing with hot coals. No lugging a propane tank around. No adjusting vents to get the right temperature. Heck, the electric unit may even be legal in your condo or apartment building. And the hands-off approach allows me to romp with my 4-year-old daughter so she doesn’t think her dad is completely obsessed with his barbeque.
Well, it might not be quite that easy. There is, for instance, the issue of judging when the meet is done. For a seasoned “pit master,” or barbeque expert, this is a matter of ingrained visual, tactile and olfactory recognition. Meaning, he can take one look at his brisket, poke it with his finger, sniff the air, and know whether it’s done or needs another hour or two.
For the amateur cook, the best guide is temperature. Normally I would use an instant-read thermometer to see what’s going inside my brisket. It’s done at 190 degrees. But it takes some effort to get a reading, and every moment the smoker’s lid is open extends the cooking time. Plus, there are all those holes in the meat from the thermometer letting precious juices escape.
Consequently, my newest toy is a probe thermometer that inserts into the meat and stays there throughout the cooking process. It has a heat-proof cord that attaches to a digital readout pad about the size of a small calculator. You can close the smoker lid on the cord, place the pad on a nearby surface, and watch the meat’s temperature rise or fall on the digital display. You can even set an alarm to let you know when the meat’s done. A second sensor on the probe tracks the temperature inside the smoker.
Every hour or so, check on your brisket. Give it a little baste. Make sure the water pan isn’t empty. Add a few more wood chips.
Wondering when you will be serving your brisket if it takes so long to cook? Well, you could get up at the crack of dawn and have it ready for dinner. But the flavors only improve with age. I like to smoke the meat a day or two ahead and then refrigerate it. It slices much more easily cold. Simply reheat the slices in a 200-degree oven. Or, remove the entire cooked brisket from the fridge an hour before guests arrive, then place it in a 200-degree oven, lightly covered with foil, a half hour before you sit down to eat.
Meanwhile, you can cook up some sides: cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans. Serve with some soft potato rolls and homemade barbeque sauce and, of course, ice cold beer. Need I say more?
The keys to great barbecued brisket are a choice piece of beef with a thick layer of fat and plenty of patience for the long, slow cooking process. You can’t rush great barbeque.
A whole, untrimmed brisket weighs anywhere from 10 to 14 pounds. It should be several inches thick at one end, then taper to a large, flat slab about 1 ½ inches thick, with a layer of fat—called the “cap”—covering the whole thing. The thickest end has multiple layers of meat and fat and subsequently is more unctuous. The thinner end is prized for its even grain. A whole brisket is too long to fit on a small smoker. Instead, have the butcher cut a 6-pound piece from whichever end you prefer. Insist he leave on the fat, which will protect the meat and help baste it while it cooks.
This brisket can be made in an electric hot water smoker, or in a charcoal version if you are willing to tend the coals. Use an instant-read thermometer, inserted in the thickest part of the brisket, to measure the internal temperature of the meat periodically. Even better, use a probe with a digital readout that you can leave in the meat and monitor during the entire cooking process.
1 6-pound, untrimmed brisket
1-2 pounds oak or hickory chips (either small chips, or knobs about half the size of your fist)
Several days ahead, place the wood chips in plenty of water to soak. The wood must be thoroughly moist so that it doesn’t flame and overheat your smoker. Flaming chips will cause the temperature inside the smoker to spike.
The day before you plan to cook the meat, cover it all over with dry barbecue rub (recipe follows), massaging the spices into the meat. Cover the seasoned meat with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Two hours before cooking, remove the meat from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.
Meanwhile, remove the top portion of the electric smoker from its base, exposing the reflecting pan or lava rocks underneath the heating element. Also, remove the grilling racks from the cooking chamber. Fill the water pan with hot tap water and replace the pan.
Place a handful of soaked wood chips (or a good-sized knob of wood) in the reflecting pan or on the lava rocks, being careful not to place chips on the heating element. Carefully lift the smoking chamber back onto its base. Replace the upper grill rack. Put the meat in the center of the rack, fat-side up. Place the lid on the smoker. Plug it in.
Too much smoke is the most common problem with barbecue. You should see trails—not clouds—of smoke coming from the smoker after the element heats up. Check on the progress of your barbecue every hour, moistening the meat with mop liquid and adding wood chips as needed. Although the manufacturer may not like you doing so, this will mean lifting the smoking chamber off its base, being careful not to spill any water on the heating element.
Also, the hot water pan may need a refill at some point. There should be a door on the front of the smoker for this purpose. I use a funnel with a foot of hose on the end of it to get water into the pan.
The meat is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees. Remove it to a cutting board and let it rest, loosely covered with aluminum foil, for 15 minutes before carving. Cut into thin slices and serve with barbeque sauce (recipe follows) and—my favorite—soft potato rolls for making sandwiches.
Variation: After several hours cooking in the smoker, a brisket can be finished in the oven. When the internal temperature of the meat reaches 165 degrees, remove it from the smoker. Heat your oven to 225 degrees. Place the brisket in a disposable aluminum pan just large enough to fit the meat. Pour any remaining mop liquid over the meat. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, leaving the temperature probe, if using, in place. Place meat in oven and continue cooking until internal temperature reaches 190 degrees, about 2 ½ hours.
Some Texas pit bosses swear the only seasonings needed for a perfect brisket are salt and pepper. They let the flavor of oak or hickory smoke carry the day. But usually some sort of spice mix is rubbed into the meat prior to cooking to add zest. Make it more or less piquant, more or less herby, according to your tastes.
For a 6-pound brisket:
2 tablespoons chili powder
l tablespoon coarse salt
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons garlic salt
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl.
You can go wild with ingredients for your mop liquid: onion, celery, bay leaf, green pepper, lemon juice, sesame oil, soy sauce. The possibilities are endless. But I figure there’s already plenty of flavor in the spice rub. I just use the mop to keep the meat moist. And rather than trying to mop the liquid onto the meat, I opt for a small spray bottle. It’s just as fast and less messy.
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 cup lager-style beer
Mix liquids and pour into a spray bottle.
Simple Barbecue Sauce
There is no correct barbecue sauce for smoked brisket, only endless variations and dispute. Some traditional meat markets, such as Kreutz Market in Lockhart, regarded by some as the epicenter of Texas barbeque, consider sauce an abomination and refuse to serve it. Elsewhere, the sauce recipe is a closely guarded secret, passed from generation to generation.
I happen to like an extra bit of lubrication on my brisket sandwich, and I don’t get too carried away in the preparation: just a bit of sweet and tangy with some smoky undertones. You may have all of the ingredients already in your pantry.
2 cups ketchup
¼ cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons dark molasses
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon dried cumin
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Mix all of the ingredients together. Serve in a bowl with a spoon.