While lots of people might be upset that the Irish have a bye week and won't be taking the field today, a week off allows fans to take in a full day off football without the added stress of an ND game. For a number of Irish fans that are lucky enough to attend multiple games in person (such as yours truly), the bye week is one of the few chances to spend all day on the couch with multiple screens watching as many games as possible. This is a nice change from focusing complete attention on a single game and missing the rest of what's going on around the country. The bye week is the perfect time to wake up early, get a fire started during Gameday, and spend all day moving between the TV and the grill, preferably while drinking some of your favorite beers. Since a brisket can take up to 15 hours of cooking, we've got a long day ahead of us.
Choosing and Preparing Your Meat:
For those that are unfamiliar with this particular cut of meat, the brisket comes from the "chest" of a cow, just above the front legs. It is considered a tough cut of meat due to the significant amount of connective tissue present in the cut. As such, almost every method of cooking a brisket will be done "low and slow" (low temperature for a long time). Off the cow, the brisket weighs between 8-16 lbs, although it can be cut to a smaller size. Since I'm both on a budget and only cooking for a few people, I found one that only weighs in at 3 lbs. Like all cuts of beef, let your brisket thaw slowly in the fridge in the days leading up to your smoke (I moved mine from the freezer Wednesday morning for a Saturday cook). Before applying rub, you'll want to remove some of the fat around the edge of the cut, but DO NOT remove the layer of fat that completely covers one side of meat. You'll need this to keep the meat moist during the cook and to add flavor. You will however, want this layer of fat to be of roughly equal thickness along the whole piece of meat, so some trimming might be necessary. Any other really large chunks of fat can be trimmed since they will probably not be rendered down during cooking.
While you can find fantastically complex and flavorful rubs for brisket, I prefer to use a minimalist approach and let the majority of the flavor come from the smoke and meat itself. My brisket rub only contains salt and pepper in roughly equal parts. That said if you want to experiment here, feel free to do so, I just tend to save my more complex rubs for pulled pork. When applying the rub, you'll just want to apply a thin layer to all sides of the meat. Since there's only salt and pepper there's no need to completely cover the entire thing to get a flavorful cut of meat. Generally people use too much rub as opposed to not enough, so go easy on it. After applying the rub, you can let the meat warm up to room temperature, or put it on the grill/smoker right away. Since this is such a small piece of meat, I'm putting it on cold to give it more time in the smoke before it gets up to higher temperatures.
Cooking the Brisket:
Like all BBQ, low and slow is the name of the game with brisket. The easiest way to ruin a brisket is to let it dry out from cooking it at too high a temperature, so having a thermometer to monitor the temperature of your fire is essential. I try to keep the temperature between 225°-275°F for the duration of the cook. I'm using a Weber One-Touch with the Smokenator attachment that helps set the unit up for smoking. To adjust the temperature, open or close the vents on the grill to allow more or less oxygen into the unit. Opening the vents adds more oxygen and should raise the temperature, while closing the vents lowers it. As a heat source, I'm using a mix of hickory chunks and standard charcoal, but there are a variety of other options. Experiment to your heart's content. Another trick to help keep the meat from drying out, control the temperature, and to add humidity to the grill, is to place a container of water between the meat and the heat source. The Smokenator has its own water pan, but simply using a sauce pan with water works great. You'll want to have the heat source all set up before placing the meat on the grill. Unlike other meats, it is important how you orient the brisket to the fire. You will want the end of the brisket with the thickest layer of fat closest to the heat source. Lastly, shut the top and let the meat cook.
The rule of thumb is that you should cook your brisket for 90 minutes/lb. For a larger brisket, this means that you could be spending nearly an entire day cooking and will need to wake up pretty early to get things started. You can keep an eye on the thermometer, but don't open the top more than once an hour. Opening the grill/smoker lets all of the heat escape and will increase cook time. I generally open the grill to refill the water pan, add fuel if it's running low, and spray the brisket with some apple cider vinegar about every 90 minutes. This lines up nicely for a quick check at halftime and between games during the noon and 3:30 windows. Spraying the meat isn't necessary, but it does help keep it moist and prevent it from drying out. Additionally, you can use water, normal vinegar, apple juice or hot sauce instead of apple cider vinegar. After you get a nice bark on the brisket, you can wrap your meat in tin foil or butcher paper to (sense the common theme) prevent the meat from drying out. Some people think this is cheating, but since I'm only worried about the end result I usually wrap anyway. Wrapping will also decrease the cook time a little bit, but not significantly so. The brisket will take as long as it will take, so don't try to rush things. Ideally, your TV is just a short walk from where you're cooking, and your beer fridge is well stocked. Relax have a couple beers (I'm having Boulevard 80 Acre, Zon, and Oktoberfest. Go Royals!) and enjoy one of our precious few fall football weekends. When the meat feels soft and pliable it's close to finished. The internal temperature you're shooting for is 185°. At this point, you can take it off the heat. Lastly, when your meat is finished, let it cool for at least 45-60 minutes before starting to cut it. I know you're probably hungry, and want to enjoy the fruits (meats?) of your labor, but this allows all the juices to redistribute within the meat.
One great way to pass the time while the brisket is cooking is to make a sauce. Ideally, you won't need any sauce to enjoy your brisket, but I do enjoy a small amount of sauce for texture reasons. Since I'm lazy and would rather watch football than make a sauce, I'm using a restaurant sauce from Franklin's in Austin, Texas. I've got sauce from Gate's and Oklahoma Joe's from Kansas City in my cupboard, as well. I think these are a solid step up from your basic KC Masterpiece or Famous Dave's sauces, and don't require any of the work that comes from making your own. These specific sauces might be hard to find depending on where you live, but there's a decent chance your favorite local place will sell their own sauce at their restaurant or nearby grocery stores. If you're adamant about making your own, an easy sauce you can make while you wait is below. Adjust amounts as needed and feel free to add or subtract ingredients to your heart's desire.
½ lb butter (2 sticks)
½ yellow onion (diced)
1 ½ cup ketchup
½ cup apple cider vinegar
2 oz brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 lemon worth of lemon juice
¼ tsp cayenne powder
Melt butter in a large pot. Add onions and let cook for 2 minutes. Add all other ingredients and whisk over high heat. Bring to boil then cover and let simmer at least 15 minutes.
Slicing and Serving:
After taking the meat off the grill and letting it cool, it's time to slice the brisket. You'll want to cut against the grain in roughly ¼" strips. If your meat is a little tougher than you want, cut it into thinner strips. If it's a little too tender, cut them a little thicker. Since cutting the meat will cause it to dry more quickly, don't cut what you're not planning to eat right away. Brisket can be served on a sandwich with or without sauce, or plated without a bun. My favorite is without a bun, plated with some fries and baked beans with a little sauce for dipping. Enjoy while watching the evening and night games, and wash it down with your favorite beer. If everything went right, you'll have some leftovers for a sandwich to help keep you awake during halftime of the late night PAC-12 game. A full day of football with some delicious smoked meat, does it get better than that?