Therapeutic Brisket Smoke
If you’re reading this article I already know two things about you:
- You had time to try new hobbies over the last year
- You need to take care of your mental health
The latter is a general requirement for all humans, the former is the product of a global pandemic. Just like you, I have had a lot of time on my hands in the last twelve months or so, and I have turned to hobbies to stay sane.
Smoking meats is not something necessarily new to me or my family (my last name means “butcher” in German). But it is a skill I had never taken any real time to hone. I started smoking meat during the pandemic purely because I like to eat the stuff, and I was tired of paying restaurant prices just to drive home with the food. I quickly found the process of smoking brisket to be a real joy for me on the weekends, and it has become something of a ritual for me.
What is brisket?
Brisket is not the only meat I smoke, but it is the best meat I smoke. It is an interesting cut of meat. The cut comes from the pectorals of the cow and consists of some of the strongest muscles in the body. This means it’s tough. Brisket in its raw form is a notoriously difficult meat to deal with. It’s fatty, tough, and not easily made into things like burgers or steaks.
It is full of tough muscles and sinews that are practically inedible if not cooked properly. The iconic black bark on the outside of the meat takes hours to build up. At the beginning of the process, a cut of brisket is just about as far as can be from the mouth-watering final result. This transformation is one that takes a whole lot of time and a whole lot of love.
Like so many others, I needed a good reason to get up on time on weekends during the pandemic. When the week blends into the weekend and my bedroom is my office, time becomes something of a flat circle. Planning a day-long brisket smoke demands that you rise early.
A 12-pound brisket would take me at least 10 hours in the smoker, plus prep time and an hour to let the meat rest on the back end. So if I wanted to feed the family Saturday night dinner, I was up at six in the morning to light the fire. The logs have to be the right size and type of wood, and the coals need to be hot before the brisket touches the smoker.
You cannot argue with a brisket
The meat will not be persuaded to cook. And while it is tough to completely ruin a brisket, it is tough to perfect one as well. Much ink has been spilt elsewhere on what rubs to use, and exactly what temperature, and how to trim the fat. I have opinions on those questions but they are for another time. No matter how you answer those questions, the end will be the same: the meat will not be persuaded. It will cook slowly, over the course of many hours, and you need to be ok with that.
There is something freeing in knowing that the process cannot be made more efficient. The time the brisket needs in the smoker is fixed. I have a lot of forgiveness for people with varying culinary opinions, but the high-temp, fast-smoke people are just plain wrong. The way to smoke a brisket is as it always has been: low and slow.
We live in an era of endless convenience and exponentially fast fulfillment of requests. Brisket doesn’t care about any of that. Brisket doesn’t care how hungry you are, or how much you are willing to pay to make it cook more quickly. It will be done when it’s done.
Brisket smoking is the antithesis of instant gratification
Even on my best smokes, the calculations are sometimes off and the meat will need hours more than I think it will. I have stayed up till midnight more than once working with a cut of meat. As strange as it sounds, this is an incredibly humbling process. Almost everything else I see or touch today is bespoke, custom, or tailored to me personally. My YouTube ads, my Netflix cue, and even my recommendations on Medium are all designed to serve me, on my schedule.
Brisket doesn’t care about my schedule. It will not be customized into cooking, or have its delivery sped up with brisket-prime. It is a hobby that simultaneously demands attention but does not guarantee its cooperation.
How to Wait
In some ways, the slow down of the smoking process is a reward unto itself. You can never leave the smoker unattended for too long. I have both a traditional two-chamber woodfire smoker, as well as an electric one. The electric one is much more forgiving and requires less vigilance; but the traditional one is always more satisfying to me. Smoking a brisket is an excuse to confine myself to my backyard for the day. I can’t go shopping, or take a nap, or go off and play video games for hours (as I am occasionally want to do). I need to be outside with the smoker. This is a good thing.
The indoor, sanitized, masked-up world has been a necessary one during this pandemic, but a break from it is a real blessing. Smoking meats is exactly the opposite world. It is outdoors, sooty, smoky, dirty, and maskless.
It is a welcome relief from so many of the required habits of the past year. As I sit and wait I find myself refilling the bird feeders and the birdbaths. I pull weeds from the garden beds and water any thirsty plants. My dogs invariably come by to smell the smoker and beg for food that won’t be ready for hours. I often take a cast iron skillet to the bed of coals from the starter fire and bake cornbread outdoors. I sit in my lawn chair and read the book that’s been on my desk since September. In my more melodramatic moments I am reminded of the poem by Robert Browning:
The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in his heaven —
All’s right with the world!
It’s almost never as idyllic a day as I have just made it sound, but that’s part of the process too.
The Joy of Feeding Others
It is no cosmic coincidence that all of the world’s major religions have food-related ceremonies. Islam has the feast of Eid, Judaism has the Passover Seder, and every Sunday Christians sit worldwide at a spiritual meal with God through the bread and the wine. In so many ways, to love others is to feed them, and to be loved is to be fed. Cooking is not the only hobby that allows the practitioner to serve others but it is certainly a good one for it. During a year that was isolating and segmented, it was a real blessing to draw people together for a meal. The neighbors might drop by to see what the smell was, my cousins next door would come get a slice, and of course, the patience of the dogs would be rewarded with a little piece for them too. Dinner on such days wouldn’t be served until 8 o’clock but serving it was the perfect capstone to a day of self-care choked in brisket smoke.