I inherited a lot of things when I moved into my apartment - chairs, a TV, random clothing. But one of the better finds was a metal smoker left on the back porch, presumably too big or heavy for the move.
The smoker sat unused for roughly eight years, never knowing the pleasures of being loaded with delectable cuts or bright vegetables to be cooked slow and low, full of flavorful smoke. It wasn't a super-fancy smoker with temperature gauge or water pan - just a tray for coals or wood, grate for meat, and a lid.
But as always, the Fourth of July inspired me to bring out the heavy artillery - in both meat and explosives. No cookout is complete without a tender, tasty piece de resistance, so I chose a brisket for my first smoker experience. Online recipes and methods abounded, but I stuck with "beginner brisket"-level.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Sarah Sepanek
I got a 2.5 pound brisket from Catullo's Prime Meats. That might not sound like a lot, but it is. A lot. It fed well a party of eight. The butcher was very helpful in helping me pick out the right cut and gave me information on cooking times. Let your local butcher help you find the best cut.
Next, some wood chips, which are soaked with water to enhance the smoke. You can use charcoal as well to get the fire going. Wood chips aren't hard to find; you can get them at sporting goods stores, grocery stores and garden centers. I mixed cherry and pecan.
After unwrapping the brisket from its paper packaging (something I always love to do - all that's missing is the white gloves and "going to town" hat), I coated it Italian dressing and then in a store-bought rub made from pepper, cayenne, onion powder, coffee, paprika, and sea salt among other things. Get the rub on nice and thick, then wrap it in plastic and refrigerate overnight. The rub sticks on pretty good, and doesn't come off much during the cooking process.
2.5-3 pound brisket (with fat cap left on)
6 cups wood chips (cherry or pecan)
1/2 cup Italian dressing (with 1/4 cup to baste)
1 cup dry rub
Coat brisket in dressing, then coat with a thick layer of rub. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. If fat cap is more than an inch thick, trim with a knife.
Soak wood chips 1/2 hour, drain. Scatter over charcoal and light according to your smoker's specifications. Heat to about 200-225 degrees. Cover grill grate with foil. Remove brisket from plastic wrap and place on grill, fat side up. Cook 1.5 to 2 hours per pound of meat. Replenish wood chips if needed. Marinade with dressing and/or drippings occasionally. You can add a favorite barbecue sauce before removing.
When meat temperature reaches about 185, the center is pink and the meat is fork-tender, remove. Let rest in a pan for 15 minutes. Slice against the grain - about 1 inch thick for eating plain, thin for on the bun. Slices at narrow end are leaner but less tender - slice thinner. Reheat leftovers in a 300 degree oven for 30 minutes, or cook in Crock Pot with beans or vegetables.
Once the soaked wood chips were burning, I was concerned the fire wouldn't be hot enough. The griddle was still able to be touched. I forgot that the smoke cooks the meat, not the flame - patience is needed as to not overcook the meat. A good slow-n-low temp is 200-225 degrees. You can go slower and lower if you have the time. Also, the smoke does most of its flavoring at the beginning of the process, so it's OK to let the charcoal take over if the chips burn off.
The marbled fat layer, called a "fat cap," kind of self-bastes the brisket, but you can add some marinade if it looks like it's getting dry. Try not to check too often, which lets heat escape.
You can smoke overnight, or get up really early. I chose the latter, paranoid I'd burn the house down. At about 1.5 hours per pound, I was looking at at least four hours total.
My primitive smoker worked just fine. Internal temperature should be about 185 degrees. The last half hour, I sauced the brisket, then served it, removing the fat cap with a long knife. Some ate their serving plain, with more sauce, or on a bun. Overall it came out pretty good for my first brisket - flavorful, meaty, saucy. It could have been a bit more tender; next time I won't second guess the temperature. Leftovers went into the Crock Pot with some mixed beans - it also came out fantastic.
If you want to impress at the last cookout of the summer, try a brisket. It's science, cuisine and caveman all in one.