Let’s continue talking about brisket. (We started in the post for barbecued brisket, garlic grits, corn stuffing balls and broccoli with pimentos.)
18 pounds of brisket from Fischer Meats, smoked, by Jeff Sandquist, on Flickr
In brisket cooking, there’s really only three methods you’re likely to employ, but let’s try to understand why we choose those three.
The magic of brisket is in all that connective tissue–collagen, actually. You want that collagen to turn into gelatin. Collagen turns into gelatin (slowly) between 160 degrees and 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and there’s a lot of it throughout the meat, so you want the meat to reach an internal temperature of 160 and hold it there as long as you can. Oh, and one more thing–water is part of the process of converting collagen into gelatin, so you want there to be some moisture involved.
Advertisement for pastrami from the December 23, 1949 edition of the Oneonta (New York) Star.
On the other hand, the muscle fiber in meat is rare at about 130, medium at about 140, and you can imagine what happens at 160. If you cook a tenderloin to 160, for example, congratulations; you murdered an intelligent animal for no reason, because that’s not food anymore. But tenderloin doesn’t have the protective collagen that brisket does.
So what do we do? Well, we want to make it easier for the collagen to break down, if possible; we want to increase the resilience of the muscle fibers to dehydration, if possible; and having done that, we want a situation where we can control the temperature and keep it relatively low and as steady as possible.
One thing that actually helps break down collagen is acid, like citrus or tomato. Too much acid will break down the muscle, too, but it takes less acid (delivered via soaking or injecting) to start breaking the covalent links that hold collagen together. (While there are some hydrogen bonds involved in muscle fibers, which are weaker than the covalent bonds in collagen, the muscle is actually held together in an alpha helix, so the levels of acid that will tenderize muscle by breaking the hydrogen bonds can actually cause collagen to denature.)
Wait, I actually can explain that. Okay, picture a slinky:
That’s the helix of the muscle fiber. Now imagine pouring Elmer’s Glue all over it. The glue represents the hydrogen bonds between different coils on the helix. If you grab the ends of that slinky, it’s possible to pull it just enough to break the glue and extend the slinky without damaging the metal. Pull too hard, however, and it comes apart.
What’s fun for a girl and a boy? Everyone knows it’s animal flesh! You’re going to get some animal flesh!
Okay, step two: how do we avoid drying out muscle fibers as much? Well, we can brine the meat, or kosher it by packing it with salt (as we do for corned beef); either way increases resilience to dehydration. We can wrap the meat so that it doesn’t dry out as quickly. Or we could cook the meat in liquid altogether.
Put those options together with a need to control temperature and we’ve got three basic options. The first is inject acid, then wrap the meat in foil and put it in a smoker or barbecue pit for a long period of time, searing the meat either before or after the wrapping (before would be safer). The second is to brine the brisket, then put it in the oven at a low temperature for eight to 16 hours (I’m aware this card says less is fine; I disagree). The third is to use a pressure cooker to get the job done in about an hour.
Pastrami sandwich by acme, on Flickr
A few more observations. Like any other cut of beef, you want to carve brisket against the grain, but the brisket point and the brisket flat actually have grains that are perpendicular to each other. Usually the flat extends for about two-thirds of the length of the brisket, but obviously, keep your eyes open while you carve. If you’re braising the brisket, well, it’ll fall apart as soon as you try to cut it the wrong way, but that’s never slowed me down any.
Also, you might think dry-aged brisket is an odd choice because you want to retain moisture, but it’s actually the best option when you can get it. The aged brisket has even more concentrated flavor, takes the brine every bit as well as the fresh, and ends up with the beautiful, almost purple color we associate with New York pastrami.
And there’s a bit about brisket. I’m sure we can talk Dori into making her famous chili sauce brisket sometime.
From the box of F.J. from Sun City, Arizona. Some cards suggest a family history in Missouri and Kansas.
5 or 6 lbs. of brisket
Sprinkle both sides of brisket with: onion salt, celery salt and garlic salt.
Place fat side up (very important) in pan with tight fitting lid.
Pour over salted brisket: 1-6 oz. bottle liquid smoke; sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon black pepper over it.
Let stand (covered) in refrigerator overnight (or 5 to 10 hours).
Take out as-is and run into oven set at 250 deg. Bake 1 hour to the lb. (More doesn’t hurt it.) During this time don’t uncover or peek at it.
Then take out of oven and uncover — (be careful lifting the lid — there’s lots of steam inside. It can cause a deep burn).
Cover all over the top and sides with bar-b-q sauce (no smoke) and cook uncovered 1 more hour.
Take out — cool — and slice thin.