Like any masterpiece a great smoked brisket starts with the raw materials. You need the right cut of meat, good wood for smoke, and the proper techniques to start you brisket masterpiece.
In Texas, barbecue means brisket, just as barbecue means pulled pork in North Carolina. In fact, barbecue is the only way to eat brisket. brisket is cut from the tough underside of the cow. This part of the cow is tough and filled with fat and collagen.
Collagen is a fibrous protein that connects tissues together. It is very strong. As collagen cooks it turns into a gelatin and dissolves into the meat. This is one of the things that make smoked brisket so good. But Collagen breaks down very slowly and at low temperatures. Also to keep the brisket from drying out and becoming tough, you need to cook at a low temperature.
A brisket is generally divided into two parts, the flat and the point. For barbecue brisket, you will want it undivided. You will also want it untrimmed, also called a "Packer's Cut". This cut will have a strip of fat running through the middle and a layer of fat on the top. The layer on top is called the fat cap. The fat cap is very important, as it will keep the brisket moist while it is smoking. The fat cap should be about 1-inch thick.
The Brisket Champions of the cook-off circuit will tell you that you need to get an expensive cut of Brisket.
USDA Prime from grain feed cattle or nothing. Unfortunately, the highest quality Beef tends to get shipped off to Japan because they are willing to pay for it. I've had good success with a $1 a pound Brisket. You might want to shop around if you get serious about Brisket, but I don't recommend sinking a lot of money into a brisket if you're just starting out.
As for the size, plan on the brisket losing about 30% to 40% of its weight during smoking, so don't worry about having too much. Briskets easily weigh in over 10 pounds and more.
Buying a Brisket
Whatever you buy, try to get a brisket with good marbling, white fat and a deep color in the meat. There should be good fat throughout the meat and not just in one place. Though the fat cap will add moisture to the meat during smoking, the fat spread throughout the meat will be much more effective. If the fat cap is more than 1-inch thick you might want to trim it down. It's best to have a single even layer. When smoking you will want the brisket to cook fat side up so that the melting fat will run over the brisket and keep it moist.
Before the brisket hits the smoker it needs to be rinsed in lukewarm water, patted dry with paper towels and be at about room temperature. If you are going to marinate it should be done for at least 12 hours before you smoke in the refrigerator. If you are going to apply a rub it should be done at least an hour before you smoke.
To enhance the tenderizing effect of smoking you can marinade the brisket with lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar or any other acid based marinade. This will help break down the tough fibers in the meat and the acid will carry any flavor you add to the marinade deep into the meat. You can still apply a rub to your brisket if you marinate it. Just let the marinade run off the surface before you apply the rub.
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