It's early Spring, 2015. I take a deep breath of stale airplane air and glance past my 20 month old son towards the sweeping grasslands below, a vast expanse of brownish green waves giving remarkable clarity to the chaotic patterns of the West Texas wind. This must be the birthplace of tumbleweeds. The floor of the Permian Basin, increasingly sparse and arid, pulls towards us and slowly comes into focus as my son neatly arranges a line of goldfish on the tray in front of him. I can't help but think to myself that when it comes to food preparation, work is play for both of us.
The purpose of our trip seems simple enough: to conduct an authentic field study on the making of brisket. You can't do such a thing from my home in Denver. But in reality it is much more meaningful. It is a homecoming of sorts for me. While I've never been to Midland before, I spent all of my formative years in Dallas, Texas. From my childhood home all you had to do was walk out the front door, cross the street, thread the slim side yard of two neighboring houses, cross an alley, and walk up to the gently sloping back driveway of my best friend's house. Here was your classic home basketball court, site of thousands of Horse and Around the World games, and the genesis of my favorite way to get into a shooter's head: aggressively jig in a circle around the person while chanting "Pressure's on / like a pump" until their stoic refusal to acknowledge crumbles into laughter, and hopefully shortly thereafter, failure.
We grew up on this court, from elementary through high school. It was by any account a classic childhood. When the time came for us to spread our wings and ship off to college, I chose the University of Notre Dame, and he chose the University of Texas. While I endured the Davieham-Weis era, my friend dove headfirst, Scrooge McDuck style, into an embarrassment of football riches that included a couple of conference championships, at least one (maybe two if you include Reggie Bush's vacated 2005) Heisman trophy, and the holy grail that was the National Title in 2005 over the team that pushed ND's hopes and dreams back into the dark corner from which they came. What a great team those '05 Longhorns were though, running a table that included an early road victory over a top 10 Ohio State team and a Big 12 conference championship victory over Colorado by the score of 70-3. The last minute win over USC for the title will surely go down in history as one of the greatest college football games ever played. What sucks for ND fans is that, even though we lost that USC Bush Push game earlier that year, even though we were filleted and gutted at the last minute for the world to see, there was at least some pride knowing that it was the best game of the season . . . until that title game.
I don't want to get ahead of myself here, but all of this is to say that we seriously need to beat Texas on Saturday. I don't care who's rebuilding what. I don't care what the line is. This is going to be a tough game between two powerhouses that will be channeling the ghosts of champions, desperately needing to start their season with a win. A loss is simply unacceptable for either team.
Let's circle back to brisket. It's early Spring again and my plane is landing. Waiting to pick us up is my UT friend, who now lives in Midland. He's every bit the real deal cowboy boot-wearing shotgun-wielding drill bit-sculpting Texan you could hope for in a brisket cook. He's done immersive training at something called "Brisket Camp" and claims that he will make a fine brisket for an OFD football foods article. I have every expectation that he will do just that. Pressure's on, like a pump.
Almost immediately upon arrival, it's time to prepare the brisket. The first thing we do is execute the rub. While salt and pepper is perfectly acceptable and probably more traditional, my friend likes a bit of spice and heat in the bark (the crust of the brisket) and accomplishes this by adding garlic, onion, and chili powder to the mix.
Coarsely cracked fresh black pepper is a key component to the rub:
When it comes to selecting your brisket, you typically have three options in order of increasing quality: select, choice and prime. We opted for ten pounds of prime. This layer of fat on top will prove to be a built-in baster as the meat slowly cooks overnight:
While it was still visible, we made note of the flow of the grain, which compared to a flank stank was about as unpredictable as the wind patterns in the West Texas grass. As in most meats, cutting across the grain is a critical step in obtaining the most tender bites.
My friend carefully distributes the rub mixture after a light adhesive coating of vegetable oil:
Here's the rub:
High five anyone?
Next, we refrigerate for a few hours while we get the smoker and the coals set up. West Texas craft beer in the house.
The coals are hot and ready, so we dump them in the base of the smoker.
In hindsight I do believe this iGrill app was the key to how perfectly the brisket would ultimately turn out. You could keep track of the meat and coal temperatures and set alarms if anything changed outside of your designated temperature window. The ideal cooking temperature for brisket is somewhere in the 250 - 275 degree zone. Since we're smoking overnight while drifting in and out of conversation and sleep, anytime the temperature falls outside that window we're going to want to know immediately.
We chose mesquite wood chunks as our smoke source:
Once everything is smoking we try our best to fit the brisket on the grate:
There's a partition in this smoker for water, which helps keep a steady temperature. Note: It's important to monitor the water, vents, and charcoal every couple of hours in order to maintain a steady temperature:
TIME WARP! This is what the brisket looks like the next morning!
My friend had spent a significant portion of the night explaining to me what "The Stall" was . . . apparently a phenomenon wherein the temperature of meat will stay put for almost an hour until it climbs into edible range. I had no idea what he was talking about until he showed me this temperature over time graph in the morning:
You can see that the Stall occurred somewhere between 4 and 5 AM, as indicated by the flat line on the graph. So, shortly after the Stall we do this thing called the Texas Crutch where you wrap it in foil and stick it in a cooler. This is to aid in the tenderization and juicification of the brisket.
After a couple of hours of that, my friend likes to throw the brisket in the broiler for a bit to negate whatever softening effects the crutch had on the brisket's bark.
Alright alright it's time to eat breakfast. Let's just take a little peak at this brisket.
Oh lord have mercy, let's cut into it.
Here is another photo of cutting into the brisket:
Also, this is a photo of slicing the brisket:
Furthermore, here is a picture of slicing the brisket. Note the beautiful red smoke ring just beneath the bark:
We served it with a slice of white bread, some pickles, and a little onion. No more. No sauce. In fact I didn't even want the bread with this. And honestly, this was the best brisket I've ever had in my life, without a doubt. I had it for breakfast and lunch that day and would've had it for dinner if I didn't have to fly back home to Denver.