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"Aye, there's the rub.."
There is much ado about rubs. (It's hard to get away from Billy Bob Shakespeare when you write about grilling.) A rub is just a mixture of seasonings and has much less influence on the final result than rub club rooters would admit - even if they knew.
Seasoning for any meat should complement the meat's natural flavor, not over power it. We value meat, as the price reflects, for its taste and texture as well as a prime source of protein. It is illogical, therefore, to over season, over smoke and over cook. Of course, it is difficult to overcook the brisket.
I am amazed at the range of ingredients considered to be proper for a brisket rub. Salt is an essential ingredient because it serves as a conductor of flavors. Salt enters the meat by osmosis and can carry along certain flavors, but no externally administered flavors will penetrate very far into the meat - especially through that layer of fat. Chili powder, cumin and oregano are, in my opinion, more aptly used in chili and other Southwestern dishes. Sugar belongs in the dessert course and only a sissy would use a tenderizer.
Over the years, I have found a simple mixture that seems to bring out the best in beef without any off notes of taste and it doesn't over power the beef flavor.
Mix thoroughly: one c. salt, 1/4 c. each garlic and onion powder, 1/8 c. each ground thyme, ground bay, black pepper, celery seed and Hungarian paprika. Spanish paprika has only color. Overloading with paprika and overcooking paprika will create a bitter after taste. Using it as you would for proper saltiness, rub this into the brisket a few minutes before it goes on the grill. Use this as a starter and build your own to suit your taste.
When a rub with salt as a significant ingredient is put on meat, the salt begins to draw moisture from it. That's why salt is used in curing processes. Moisture is very important in the cooking mechanism. Water conducts heat much more readily than dry tissue. It follows, therefore, that the longer you can retain moisture in the meat, the quicker the heat will be conducted from the exterior to the interior. Getting the inside done before the outside is burnt to a brick like texture is the secret to successful barbecuing.
Cooking a brisket is a long term relationship. Producing a better brisket requires 8-18 hours at consistent temperature with minimal smoke exposure. You can roast a brisket at 350 degrees in a couple of hours, but the result would challenge a pit bull's jaw muscles. Cooking temperatures in the 200-215 degree range are most likely to bring a brisket to its optimum potential. This is the traditional range for barbecuing that is a result of centuries of trial and error. Brisket would actually be more tender if cooked at below 200 degrees, but the time on the grill goes up drastically.
Smoke blowers need to comprehend that a little smoke applied over 10-12 hours accumulates to an excess. There are only two fuels for properly barbecuing a brisket: wood coals and charcoal. Flaming wood produces tars, phenols, cresols and other noxious products. For a century, until EPA banned it, cresol was the active ingredient in sheep dip. It is my studied opinion that anyone who can tolerate to eat over smoked meat probably has some sheep herder in his ancestry. Only confirmed Lysol freaks would enjoy the phenol flavor. Both cresols and phenols are known carcinogens.
Those who have cooked, burning wood in offset firebox, may have, unwittingly, been saved by the placement of the exhaust vent. Where the vent exits from the top of the cooking chamber, the hottest gasses go out first. The meat, resting on the grill below, doesn't get as contaminated with the vile products of combustion.
Don't sweat the ‘smoke ring.' The ring of color grading from dark on the outside to a pale pink deeper into the meat is not really a smoke ring at all. It is a chemical reaction of meat's constituents. The depth of color depends more upon the moisture of the meat than upon the density of smoke. It has no bearing on flavor and is only important to smoke blowers. Next time you eat Chinese, check the "smoke" ring on the roast pork which has never even had a passing flirtation with real smoke.
Build a proper bed of coal by burning down sufficient wood or charcoal to bring the whole grill up to 350 degrees, then shut down the air intake to reduce the temperature down to 225. Put on the briskets, fat side up and close the lid. Check in 20 minutes to see if the temperature has stabilized around 210. If it hasn't make adjustments in the air intake. If it has, go find something interesting to do.
How often you need to check the grill depends on the grill. If you are working with a small kettle grill, you may need to replenish the coals and move the brisket frequently. If you have properly heated and stoked a massive iron sidewinder, it may maintain its temperature for four hours and will require less frequent, if any, turning.
Did you say, "What about the water pan?" Tell me that you are joking! A water pan in a closed grill is, at a minimum, a gross waste of fuel. It takes more heat to boil a gallon of water than it does to cook a 10 lb. roast to 185 degrees. And what do you get in return, "Nothing of value." The water pan was introduced by manufacturers of dinky little tin can cookers, without air flow control, as a means of controlling the temperature. As long as there is water in the pan, the temperature will not exceed the boiling point of water. It is only useful for those who cannot control the temperature of their grill. Grilling is cooking meat in dry heat. Water has no place in grilling.
We may as well discuss that other grilling abomination, aluminum foil. Anybody who cooks his brisket wrapped in aluminum foil, probably puts catsup on his steak. - after he has cooked it ‘well done'! At barbecue cook-offs in other parts of the country, aluminum foil is known as the ‘Texas crutch.' Aluminum foil is a crutch for those who over smoke and over cook at temperatures too high. By hermetically sealing the damaged goods in aluminum foil, the abused brisket is braised (cooked enclosed with moisture) to try to retain moisture and tenderness. Is this grilling? Certainly not! What, other than the thickness of the container, is the difference in heavy duty aluminum foil and a pressure cooker.
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Smoky's 5th basic position for really great barbecue'n.
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