The last time I barbecued a brisket in New York, I spent $100 or more for what was once considered an inexpensive hunk of meat. Last week, I spent $30 on a brisket at Walmart. It turned out to be one of the best I’ve barbecued to date.
This was to be my first barbecue in Colorado, the first time I had people over, and it was all for the LSU-Alabama game. The game went about as I expected. Thankfully, the meat — brisket, ribs, and chicken — did too, despite a lot of worrying about barbecuing at altitude with variable weather conditions.
Does altitude make a difference for barbecue? Maybe? Who knows. It definitely affects baking. It certainly changes the way you cook rice or grits. Water boils at a lower temperature up here, which means it disappears faster, which could conceivably mean your meat dries out faster on a long-slow cook. The Colorado State University Extensions High Altitude Food Preparation Guide says that simmering and braising can take longer, but that oven roasting shouldn’t be affected. Multiple barbecue message boards didn’t provide conclusive scientific evidence — just anecdotal warnings that it might take longer and that you definitely should wrap your meat at some point.
While I always wrap my meat, I was a little worried about taking longer.
To date, I’ve never done an overnight cook and I wasn’t about to start out with that as a newcomer to the neighborhood. The houses here are really close together and there are no fire-pits allowed in town so I didn’t want someone to see billowing smoke at night and call the fire department. I’ve had enough problems with fire departments. The game started at 6. I told people to come over at 5. Proper daylight didn’t arrive until 7:30 a.m. So factoring in starting charcoal in a chimney, then getting the smoker up to temp, I’d be getting meat on no earlier than 9 a.m. And you need brisket to rest a long time.
I considered doing the cook the day before and then rewarming in the oven. But I had to work on Friday and while calling in at the last minute and saying, “I can’t work today. I have to smoke a brisket,” is a very Ken thing to do, I felt a little embarrassed by the prospect. Also, I like money. Knowing what I know about my smoker (it’s fast) and that I was working with a smallish brisket — 9 pounds after trimming — I decided to risk it. (And I bought extra ribs just in case.)
This is how it went down.
- 7:30 a.m. Charcoal chimney fired up. Temperature 44 degrees. Little to no wind. Cloudy. Ground wet from previous night’s rain.
- 8:00 a.m. Blazing charcoal added to unlit charcoal in smoker.
- 9:00 a.m. Smoker temperature between 260 and 275 (depending on shelf). Brisket goes in. Also threw in some pork necks to be used for flavoring other dishes later.
- Noon. Brisket is already at 169 and has been sitting there a bit. Wrap brisket tightly in foil. Pork necks come out. Ribs go in.
- 2:00 p.m. Ribs wrapped. Chicken goes in.
- 2:30 p.m. SLEET!
- 3:00 p.m. Ribs out. Placed in oven to rest. Brisket has been sitting at 197 for an hour or more.
- 3:30 p.m. Brisket out. Placed in oven to rest.
- 3:45 p.m. Chicken out. Chicken chopped. Placed in oven to rest.
- 7:21. Brisket sliced. We eat. (Yes. Over three hours of resting. This is fine and proper.)
That seems like a super short amount of time to smoke a brisket. But that’s the way the smoker’s been running since I have it. In fact, I kind of forgot about the speed when it came to the ribs and they were slightly overdone for my liking. (They were fall off the bone, but according to the rules of competition barbecue, that’s overdone.)
I have to assume it’s the giant water pan in the bottom. Water pans ad moisture, but they also stabilize temperature and work other magic. I know other folks use water pans, but they’re typically much smaller. That’s a full-size catering pan 13 x 20 on the lowest shelf, so I’ve got gallons of water down there. Wrapping, of course, helps.
Wrapping, especially in foil, gives some people fits about bark formation, but I was happy with the bark and even got a smoke ring (even if the smoke ring is mostly horse-shit and says nothing about the amount of smoke or quality of the finished product).
A few things I did differently this time.
- I was aggressive with trimming the brisket into a rectangular shape. There wasn’t much taper to the flat to begin with, but I had a nice boxy slab of meat when I was done. What did I do with the hunks I lopped off? Threw that in the smoker, too. Used it for the beans. (This recipe from Amazing Ribs is great. I skipped the bacon and just went with meat right from the smoker.)
- I was NOT aggressive with trimming the fat on the bottom. I did go after the deckle and any other yellow solid fat I could find. But I left a nice cushion on the rest.
- I put the thermometer in the flat rather than somewhere in the point. I figured the moist part would be moist no matter what and residual cooking would get it where it needed to be. This was the first time that I didn’t end up with half of an unusable flat because it had dried out. (Note: When you do end up with dried out bits of flat, don’t throw it out. Freeze it and use it later in beans or chili — or reheat in some oil or butter and throw in a hash or on top of nachos.)
At any rate, the first barbecue in Colorado was a success. I was quite pleased with the brisket — and I’m almost never quite pleased with it.