Around here, brisket is often pickled and turned into a corned beef or pastrami sandwich. But there is another brisket. One that might be described as corned beef's country-western cousin. Out West, this same cut of beef is treated far differently than in these parts. It is rubbed with seasoning, cooked slowly over a wood fire, sliced against the grain, and served as a sensational supper.
Tom Mackin is familiar with the joy of smoked brown brisket. About once a year, Mackin, a transplanted Texan now living outside Baltimore in Howard County cooks about 50 briskets at a summer picnic for parishioners of Christ Church Episcopal in Columbia. Folks lap it up, he said, even if they aren't sure what they are eating.
Rich Davis knows a lot about where the brown brisket eaters live. He makes K. C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce and has six barbecue restaurants in Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. When I called Davis in Kansas City, he described the Brisket Belt, the section of the nation that runs from the upper Midwest down to Texas and Oklahoma, then loops out to the Southwest.
In the Brisket Belt, he said, folks line up for "burnt ends," the prized charred tips of the brisket. But pockets of brisket eaters can spring up in communities outside the belt, he pointed out. A good way for a brisket fan to tell if he or she is in a brisket-eating community, he said, is to read the weekly food advertisements in newspapers. If brisket is on sale, he said, you're among friends.
I talked to Davis and Mackin because I had a hankering for smoked brisket. I had it since I returned to Baltimore from judging a barbecued ribs and brisket contest, Bones & Brew, in Portland, Ore. Portland may not be within the Brisket Belt, but it did have brisket ads in the newspaper.
At the contest I quizzed the cooks about how to go about transforming this hunk of steer's chest into smoked delight. When I got back to Maryland I pumped Davis and other Kansas City barbecuers about their cooking methods. And I tried to get Mackin, the local expert, to give away a few of his secrets as well.
What I learned was that brisket-smoking is a long-haul, low-fire, semi-secret undertaking.
It could be a daylong affair. "If you want a brisket for Sunday dinner you start cooking Saturday night," said Terry Day of the Sweet Meats Cookin' team from Euless, Texas, one of the entrants in the Portland contest.
Joey Sutphen, whose Texas Thunder team travels from Borger, Texas, to barbecue contests around the country, said he allows three hours of cooking time for each pound of brisket meat. In Kansas City, Ed Roith, whose Happy Holla barbecue has picked up prizes throughout the Midwest, said he allows 1 1/2 hours cooking time per pound of meat. That's half as long as Sutphen's cooking time but hardly fast-food time. It takes so long because the fire is so low, he said. Moreover, the meat does not sit over the fire; it is off to one side.
Roith said he keeps the temperature in his cooker between 220-250 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature range mentioned by most of the brisket cooks. Each cook, however, uses different types of wood. Mackin burns seasoned oak; Roith makes his fire with a mixture of cherry wood, hickory and charcoal; and Billy Bones Wall, of Sanford, Mich., who won the competition in Portland, cooks over an apple wood fire.
There are plenty of secrets swirling around brisket-smoking. Mackin, for instance, was not about to divulge the ingredients in the dry-rub mixture he put on the raw beef.
Other cooks were somewhat forthcoming. Roith said his dry rub contains salt, sugar, peppers, onion powder and oregano. But he didn't mention proportions. He said that instead of using a mopping sauce, he keeps the brisket moist by spraying it with apple juice.
I found other ways, besides talking to cooks in a hushed voice, to learn the fine points of brisket cooking. Davis has several recipes for smoked brisket, including one using a kitchen oven. That recipe is in a cookbook he wrote with Shifra Stein called "All About Bar-B-Q Kansas City Style" (Pig Out Publications, 1995).
Roith sells a 90-minute, $30 videotape on how to cook brisket ("Championship Barbecue Kansas City Style," Happy Holla, P.O. Box 822, Shawnee Mission, Kan. 66201), and the Kansas City Barbeque Society has a toll-free hot line ( 963-5227) that distressed smokers can call.
But there is nothing like getting an insight from a championship cook while standing right next to mounds of meat. Out in Portland, one smoky-smelling fellow told me that the secret to a superior brisket is to cook the meat with its fat side facing the fire. "Fat side down," he told me as we parted.
A few minutes later another veteran at another pit showed me his perfectly smoked brisket and told me how I could follow in his boot steps. The secret, he said, is to cook the meat with "the fat side up."