We partnered with Chef Ben Ford of Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, CA to celebrate the release of his new cookbook, Taming the Feast. In the cookbook, Ben shows us how to wow a crowd with handcrafted meals of epic proportions, including this 12-Hour Whole Packer Brisket. Read on to learn how it’s done!
To make brisket, I use a competition grade offset smoker. Offset refers to how the fire comes from the side, not from underneath the cooking area. This helps ensure that whatever you are smoking gets cooked from the smoke and indirect heat, not from the direct heat of the fire. A lot of newer grills have an offset smoker component to them. You could also use an Ugly Drum Smoker or create a smoker using a gas or charcoal grill (see directions for 8-Hour Smoked Brisket); note that you’ll need one grill per brisket. In addition to the smoker, you will need the following:
1 (15.7-pound) bag mesquite natural lump charcoal
30 to 40 pieces of oak wood
4 large heavy-duty aluminum roasting pans
Digital meat thermometer
Large plastic cooler a little bigger than the briskets’ combined size. (Don’t use styrofoam.)
One large (80- to 120-quart) cooler
12-Hour Whole Packer Brisket
A whole beef brisket is a huge piece of animal that can come off the pit almost black, looking more like a meteorite than a meal. But cooked correctly, beneath that blackened crust lies the juiciest, smokiest, most tender and flavorful meat you’ve ever eaten. My father-in-law, Monte, makes a great brisket. When he came out and visited us after our son Waylon was born, Monte made his 12-hour brisket. While Emily and I were up all night with the baby, he was up all night with his “baby”—that brisket. Watching Monte inspired me to try making brisket myself.
In figuring out how much brisket to cook, the rule of thumb is 1 pound of raw brisket for each person. Brisket is very fatty, so it shrinks a lot when cooked. By the time it’s cooked and you’ve cut off the ends to make burnt ends (below), you’ll end up with less than half a pound per person. Because Californians are a bit daintier with their portion sizes, I count on slightly smaller servings.
4 whole untrimmed (packer) beef briskets (12 to 14 pounds each)
3 recipes Texas BBQ Dry Rub
1 recipe BBQ Mop Sauce
4 recipes Spicy Texas BBQ Sauce, warmed, for serving
Rinse the briskets and pat them dry with paper towels. Trim off all but a 1⁄2-inch fat cap; don’t remove the fat layer between the fat and the point of the briskets (see Anatomy of a Brisket, below). Apply the rub to the meat, making sure to coat the meat evenly. Let the briskets sit out for 1 hour to come to room temperature before cooking.
Fire up your smoker according to operating instructions; alternatively, if you are using one or more grills to smoke the briskets, refer to the instructions for the 8-Hour Smoked Brisket. After about an hour, when the temperature gauge registers 225°F, add a few large pieces of wood and adjust the chimney damper or grill vents to two-thirds open.
Put the briskets on the smoker, close the lid, and cook the meat for 2 hours. Open the lid and use a barbecue mop or a large basting brush to apply the BBQ Mop Sauce on all sides of the briskets, working as quickly as you can so you don’t lose all your heat and smoke. Rotate the briskets in the smoker. Close the smoker and cook the briskets for 2 more hours, then mop and rotate them again. Cook the briskets for another 2 hours (for a total of 6 hours), remove the briskets from the smoker, and apply the Texas Crutch (see below). Return the briskets to the smoker, close the smoker, and cook them for 3 hours, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 190°F. (To check the temperature, insert the thermometer in a few places, aiming for a thickest part of the meat each time, and avoiding inserting it into the fat. You’ll really know your brisket is done when the thermometer stem slides into and out of your meat without resistance; it will feel like a knife going through butter.)
Line your cooler with a towel. Take the briskets off the smoker and put them in the cooler to rest, still wrapped in foil, for at least 2 and up to 5 hours.
To serve, unwrap a brisket and place it on a cutting board. Run a knife between the fat and the point to separate the two muscles. Trim the excess fat from each muscle and slice each against the grain about the thickness of a pinky finger. You want the meat to hold together, not fall apart or crumble. If the first slice falls apart, cut thicker slices. Serve the meat with the barbecue sauce on the side.
Originally, burnt ends were just the crispy edges of brisket that fried in their own fat while the rest of the brisket cooked. In barbecue joints, they were often given to customers free or thrown into a pot of beans. All that changed in 1974, when Calvin Trillin, in his marvelous book American Fried, wrote the following about Arthur Bryant’s restaurant in Kansas City:
The main course at Bryant’s, as far as I’m concerned, is something that is given away for free—the burned edges of the brisket. The counterman just pushes them over to the side as he slices the beef, and anyone who wants them helps themselves. I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I’m in some awful overpriced restaurant in some strange town—all of my restaurant-finding techniques having failed, so that I’m left to choke down something that costs seven dollars and tastes like a medium-rare sponge—a blank look comes over my face: I have just realized that at that very moment someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges free.
Today, those burnt edges are sold as a menu item and prized by at-home barbecue aficionados. To make burnt ends, cut off the crisp, triangle-shaped portion at one end of the brisket; usually these will be 2- to 3-inch segments. Chop the portions you cut off into 1⁄2-inch cubes, removing and discarding any big chunks of fat you come across. (Even though fatty brisket is delicious, you wouldn’t want anyone to get a bite of only fat.)
Put the chopped brisket in a large skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat and fry it, stirring often, until the meat begins to crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in 1 1⁄2 cups Spicy Texas BBQ Sauce and 1⁄2 cup of drippings from the pan or foil that the brisket was crutched in. (If you don’t have drippings, substitute beef stock or water.) Cook the meat for a minute or two to warm the sauce and bring the flavors together. Serve the ends on their own or use them to make Brisket Sloppy Joes tomorrow (find the recipe in Taming the Feast).
In Texas barbecue, there is a step about halfway through cooking time called the Texas Crutch in which brisket is taken off the smoker, basted, wrapped tightly in foil, and then put back on. The crutch prevents what is called the “stall,” when the surface evaporation from the meat causes the meat to “stall” in its cooking process. Hours can go by and the temperature of the meat does not increase or decrease. By wrapping the meat in the “crutch” step, the meat will power right through the stall. In addition to bypassing the stall, the Texas Crutch speeds up the cooking process, shaving a couple of hours off the total cooking time; it protects the meat from absorbing too much smoke flavor, and it braises the meat which helps to tenderize it and keep it moist.
To apply the crutch, take the briskets off the smoker at the time specified in the recipe and lay each brisket in a disposable aluminum pan or on a doubled piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Generously mop the brisket all over with the BBQ Mop Sauce. Cover the pan with foil or close the foil tightly and put the wrapped briskets back on the smoker. The briskets will stay wrapped for the remainder of their cooking time and while the briskets are resting.