Flavour Guy: Lessons from my life long teacher, brisket — that tough hombre

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I have much to learn. The meat has much to tell.

This one is a brisket, a tough cut. Treat it the wrong way and you’ll wish you had served shoe leather instead. The brisket comes off the shoulder or lower breast, the working part of the cow. Steaks, particular tender filets, don’t do much work. They lie further back and down. It’s legs and shoulders that give the flavourful tough cuts: shanks or shins, the round, the flank. The closer you get to either end of the animal, the more leathery the cut. Once you get to the brisket, you’re talking de Niro tough — you talkin’ to me?

So the brisket and I are facing each other. It’s a thick slab of meat, from a local abattoir, 4th generation on PEI, where we spend our summers. I know the butcher, I may even know the farmer. It’s local beef, grass fed, aged for a few weeks. The brisket is on the table. I want to cook it long and slow, Texas style. I could go for a long braise, Rosh HaShanah is coming up and brisket is not an unusual dish for the High Holidays, but that’s too easy. Put a brisket in a pan, season, add a little liquid, maybe some root vegetables, cover and cook in the oven at a low heat for several hours.

It is hardly a fair competition. But try it on an old fashioned bbq, a charcoal and wood fired, covered and smoking bbq, with the coals pushed to the side and the brisket cooking only over heat and smoke, no direct flame, and you can take nothing for granted. If the meat wins — if it comes out as tough as it went in — I lose. If I can retain my composure, not poke or prod too much, and carefully attend to the fire, the brisket will come off achingly tender and the taste can be sublime.

So I prepare. I start the fire and salt and pepper the meat. Good meat needs little else. The fire is brought to between 250 and 300 F and kept there, for hours. After a few hours or so, I take a peek, maybe turn the meat so that it cooks evenly. Pacing is everything. A beer or two comes in handy. I might also use some of that beer to occasionally baste the meat if I think it is getting too hot, too soon. After all, this is a summer day. I am outdoors. There are traditions to be upheld. This ritual will take several hours more. Depending on the size of the brisket, 14 hours would not be unusual.

This one is smaller, 7 or 8 pounds, so maybe an hour a pound. If I can keep the heat on target,the meat will hit a temperature of about 160F in a few hours. Technically, it is safe to eat, but it is going to taste like dinner from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. At 160 the brisket hits a stall. This is when the meat talks back. The temperature doesn’t change for a long time, too long, it seems; and then suddenly starts to rise again. Now the collagen and fat melt into the meat. The remaining water moisture is pushed out, the temperature rises to about 200F and the brisket shifts from “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?” to “Come up and see me sometime.”

When it hits that mark, I take it from the bbq and wrap it in foil for about an hour. Leaving it on a part of the grill that is warm but no longer hot, letting the meat recuperate and the juices slowly resolve through the meat as the temperature comes down. Were I to cut it right away, the brisket would have the last laugh as those delicious meat juices poured onto the platter. Letting it rest puts everything right again.

When I am ready to serve, I carve the meat across the grain. If I cut with the grain, that is parallel to the fibers, the meat will still be tough and from far above, in some stockyard in the sky, the cow would look down and say … you still have much to learn.

For many people, any BBQ — that is meat that is cooked slowly over a long time — requires a sauce. The best are fairly simple, balancing sweet and tart. I like to mix ketchup with apple cider vinegar and maple syrup. This is a basic St-Louis or Memphis style sauce with a Québecois accent. During the cooking, I might water this down and baste the meat in the last hour or so. I don’t put a thick layer of the sauce on until near the end of cooking since the sugar in the tomato sauce can scorch or burn. For those not keen on ketchup, a South Carolina mustard style sauce works too. Substitute regular yellow mustard for the ketchup and add a bit of sugar for sweetness and the apple cider vinegar. These sauces all work well with any meat including burgers and chicken. Bbq-ing is about what tastes good, and we all have our preferences; just don’t let the meat talk back.

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