How to Smoke Brisket on a Charcoal Grill
I live in LA but I’m from Texas. I usually drop that little nugget right after I tell someone my name. Just to get it out there. I like to see the reactions of people from around here when I say it. Most people give me this sort of “oh, poor you” look. They joke about cowboy hats and boots. They ask about guns or if I’m really lucky, it’ll be someone who expounds on race, politics or religion in Texas. Basically everyone in California has an opinion on Texas and Texans and to tell you the truth, they’re all bullshit. Even the people that lived there before have no clue what they’re talking about.
I know full well my state has a fucked up record on the big three: race, politics and religion. I also know that every other state has the same problems. One of the biggest music festivals in the nation is Coachella, not too far from LA. Every year young music lovers, who I argue would unequivocally define themselves as liberals, make the trek out to the middle of the desert for this festival.
Do you know what the high school mascot is for Coachella Valley where this festival is held?
An Arab. And here is what he looks like.
I don’t know about you but even as a Texan this is pretty racist.
Just three weeks ago the school district finally succumbed to pressure from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab Community at-large to update the mark. Not the name, just the graphic that depicts the Arab. So excuse me if I don’t give two shits what someone from California has to say about my state. If the California liberals really cared, they’d boycott the music festival until the school changed their name. But no one’s doing that because the festival is too much fun and they don’t really care.
Anyway, my point wasn’t to bitch about California hypocrisy but instead to talk about fire and Texas brisket.
Every man likes to burn things. Most of us have a little pyromaniac tucked down deep inside. When I was a kid, my friend and I set a dead bird on fire. We weren’t twisted enough to burn a live one. We also used to do this thing where we’d dip our hands in water, then squirt lighter fluid on them, and finally set them ablaze. We theorized that the water layer would allow our hands to burn longer without getting hurt. I don’t have any scars to prove that I set my hands on fire. So I guess the water layer worked. (Don’t do this kids. Also stop reading this blog, it’s not for kids.)
In Texas, brisket is the BBQ king. Most men start their grilling experience very young. Perhaps they watch their father man the grill. I have to say, I never really learned to grill. I don’t remember my dad doing anything more than hot dogs and hamburgers. When my sister married, her husband was more adept at grilling. By then I was too old and stubborn to admit I didn’t know anything about anything so I never gave him the opportunity to teach me.
It’s fine though. It’s never too late to learn to BBQ. I bought a charcoal grill last year and I’ve been experimenting ever since. Some days I do well and some days it takes me an hour to light the charcoal. The first thing you really have to get down is lighting the fire. All I remember my dad doing was dousing the coals in lighter fluid and dropping a match. It seemed easy and I thought that all burgers were supposed to taste like gas.
In my quest to learn how to grill, I discovered the chimney starter. Keep in mind I’m using the word discovered pretty liberally. I’m sure everyone in the world knew of its existence long before I “discovered” it. The beauty of the chimney starter is that you don’t have to use lighter fluid and you can get a strong fire burning faster and more efficiently.
The starter is broken into two parts:
1. The top where you pour in the coals.
2. The bottom where you light the coals above.
First thing you do is take sheets of newspaper and roll them into tubes. Be sure you don’t use any coated paper, like the slick Sunday sales papers. Avoid those. Use only the rough, dryer paper. A good rule is if the ink rubs off on your fingers, that’s the paper for you. Take the tubes of paper and coil them under the bottom of the starter.
Then you pour in your coals. The more coals you pour in, the longer it takes the fire to be ready and the hotter your grill will eventually be. More coals = more heat.
Once you have the paper in place and the coals inside, you light the paper through the holes in the side.
If all goes well, you’ll then see why they call it a chimney starter.
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Once your chimney starts smoking, you’re in good shape. So take a break, checking on it every now and then of course because you don’t want to set anything on fire that shouldn’t be on fire. Give it about twenty minutes and then you’ll see fire coming out of the top.
Once the corners of your top briquettes start to ash, then it’s time to go. The starter has a handle for you to lift and pour the coals into your grill. Do that and arrange them for what you’re grilling.
If you have somehow stuck with this post for this long, then you’re in for the best part: the meat.
This was my first time to make brisket. All great Texas BBQ brisket recipes call for a smoker. I don’t have one of those. I have a charcoal grill. So I had to make it work. It wasn’t as tough as you might imagine. Of course, I’m not going to win any competitions for my BBQ brisket, but we have to start somewhere.
I found a great recipe for the rub at Epicurious. Although my brisket was a few pounds less than the recipe, I went ahead and made the rub just how they describe it.
* I tablespoon Kosher salt
* 1 tablespoon chili powder
* 2 teaspoons sugar
* 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
* 1 teaspoon ground cumin.
Mix all of that in a bowl.
Then rinse your brisket and pat it dry with a paper towel. After that go crazy with the rub. Spread it all over the meat. Don’t leave any bit uncovered. After you’ve rubbed it in, cover the brisket with plastic wrap. Then let it sit in your fridge for 6 hours.This is just the beginning of a long day of cooking. So keep your schedule open.
After six hours, pull it out and drop it in a metal pan. I used the throw away aluminum pans.
Then set your grill up for indirect heat. That means that what you’re cooking isn’t directly over the fire. What’s easiest is simply to pour all of the burning coal from your chimney starter onto one side of the grill. Then you’re meat on the opposite side, away from the fire.
For this recipe you want to keep the temperature, low meaning between 250 degrees and 350 degrees. I fucked this up and overfilled my starter. So my fire was 450 degrees out of the gate. I had to spend some time taming the fire to bring it down to about 300 degree before I put my meat on. The easiest way I’ve found to tell the temperature is to put the lid on and then slide my instant read thermometer through the top vent. A lot of people say you can judge by how long you can stand to hold your hand over the fire, but that tells me nothing.
As I said before, this is usually something you want to smoke. The smoke gives it a nice, well, smokey flavor. To achieve this on a charcoal grill you simply add wood chips to the charcoal. You can find these at Home Depot or some grocery stores. You can’t just throw them on the fire or they’ll burn away, providing only a small amount of smoke. To get a nice full smoke from the wood chips you soak them in water for an hour before you’re ready to cook. Then after you’ve set your coal up for indirect heat, you pull a couple handfuls of wood chips from your water. Make sure you shake off the excess water or else you’re just going to throw water on your fire. Drop the two handfuls of chips on top of the coals and you’ll start to see smoke. I used hickory wood chips.
Then put your lid on. Be sure your bottom and top vents are open. Put your thermometer in the vent and make sure you stay between 250 degrees and 350 degrees.
Every hour check on it. You’ll want to add more coal and wood chips each time if the temp is falling. For the first two hours, I also basted the brisket with the fat that gathered in the pan. At the end of the third hour, it was looking pretty good, so I measured the internal temp and it was right at 195 degrees. The best temp range seems to be between 190 degrees and 205 degrees from what I’ve read. Most of the things I read also said don’t ever let it go past 205 degrees.
After you pull it, cover it with foil and let it rest. Some say as long as four hours. We were starving and so we waited about 15 minutes. Then we cut into it. You should cut against the grain in slices. Then serve. Ours was great. It wasn’t as tender as I remember Texas brisket.
Next time, I’ll try to stick much closer to 225 degrees or 250 for longer and try letting it rest longer.
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