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I try my best to hide it. I never do it in the house, and I make sure all the windows and doors are closed and she's out of the house before I light up. Yet somehow she knows. Maybe she smells it on my breath or in my hair or my clothes. I've promised her I'll stop, but old habits die hard, and addiction is a cruel master.
"You've been smoking again, haven't you?" Adri asked me as she walked in the door.
It was true. The whole house smelled of it. It seeped in through cracks, leaving its lingering aroma on the curtains. It was only after the pillows, sheets, and dogs started smelling that my wife firmly put her foot down and made me flush my half-empty pack of hickory chunks down the metaphorical toilet.
It was okay. My research was complete. I'd gotten what I'd come for: sublimely tender, juicy, and smoky barbecue beef chuck.
See, for the last several months, I've been working on sous vide adaptations of classic barbecue dishes, which has meant an awful lot of smoking (and an awful lot of barbecue to find homes for—there's only so much we can eat ourselves). I'd finished up pulled pork and smoked brisket and was about to retire the smoker for the rest of the summer, when a thought struck me: Why not chuck?
Beef brisket, as incredible as it can be when done properly, has a few problems. First off, it's typically not cheap—at least, not in any place I've lived. More importantly, brisket is composed of two distinct muscles, and it's much easier to find the drier, leaner flat cut than it is to find the more desirable, fatty point cut. In my neck of the woods in the Bay Area, it's nearly impossible without making a special order or visiting a high-end butcher.
Chuck roll, on the other hand, is inexpensive and widely available. It's cut from the shoulder, so it gets a good workout during the steer's lifetime—a prerequisite for cuts worthy of barbecue, in which low, slow heat transforms tough connective tissue into tender, moist gelatin. Why couldn't I simply cook the chuck just like a brisket?
It all made sense in my head, so I gave it a shot. I rubbed down a five-pound hunk of beef chuck with coarsely ground pepper and kosher salt, tied it up (to help it hold its shape a little better while smoking), fired up my grill to 250°F (121°C), added some hickory chunks, and placed the chuck on the cooler side of the grill to smoke. Then I waited. And I waited. And I waited. Then I added a few more coals and some wood chunks, and waited some more. I repeated this process all day, probing the meat occasionally to test its tenderness. After eight hours, it still hadn't tenderized, so I let it go even longer. Ten hours. Twelve hours. At 15 hours, it still felt firm, but I finally called it, pulled the meat off the smoker, and sliced into it.
The connective tissue in the center had clearly broken down—I could shred the meat easily with my fingers—but the outer layers were still tough as nails. That seemed odd, given that the center should have actually been cooking more slowly. I ended up chopping it and using it to flavor a pot of beans.
So why did it never tenderize? I had a couple of theories.
Theory A: It Cooked Too Slowly
The first was that it actually did tenderize, but it went on to dry out so much that it hardened up again. Beef chuck has so much strong connective tissue, it takes much longer to break down than a short rib or a brisket. The fact that it's such a thick cut exacerbates that effect, given how long it takes for heat to travel through a piece of meat. So, by the time the connective tissue has broken down, the meat around the exterior will have dehydrated until it's as stiff and dry as a cracker.
Theory B: It Lacked Sufficient Moisture
My second theory was that the exterior was drying out before it actually had a chance to tenderize. The reaction that converts tough connective collagen to gelatin requires water and heat in order to take place. Without adequate water, connective tissue will never break down. If you've ever tried to roast a chicken, a turkey, or perhaps a suckling pig with very dry skin, you'll notice this effect. Rather than getting tender yet crisp, it ends up leathery and tough. If the exterior of my beef chuck was drying out too much before that collagen had a chance to break down, that might explain why it was staying so tough.
In both scenarios, the solution seemed to be to cook the meat through a moist cooking method, like braising or steaming, for at least part of the process. Employing the good ol' Texas Crutch (i.e., wrapping the meat in foil for part of the cooking process) seemed like it could work. In scenario A, in which the meat is tenderizing and then drying out, it would make sense to add the foil-cooking step toward the end, in order to allow the center of the meat to finish tenderizing without the exterior drying out excessively. In scenario B, it would make more sense to add the foil step at the beginning, tenderizing the entire piece of meat before unwrapping it to add smoke and bark.
Testing Theory B
I first tried this via the scenario B method: moist cooking, followed by smoking. I wrapped a beef chuck tightly in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil, cooked it at 275°F (135°C) for five hours, then removed the foil and smoked it for a further four hours, until it was tender and smoky. Remembering how successful my sous vide smoked brisket technique was, I also cooked a batch sous vide, letting it cook at 155°F (68°C) for 36 hours, then removing it from the vacuum bag and smoking it for three hours to develop bark.
Both versions were outstanding, with the sous vide version coming out just a little juicier.
Testing Theory A
How would this compare to the reverse method—smoking, followed by moist cooking? I knew only one way to answer this question: try it out. I threw another beef chuck on the smoker and let it go for four hours. By that point, it had hit what's known as "the stall."
When you first throw a piece of meat in a smoker (most people talk about brisket when referring to the stall), its temperature will steadily rise until it hits around 150°F (66°C), then flatten out. It won't rise above this temperature, sometimes for hours. There are various theories as to why this happens, but our friends over at AmazingRibs.com discovered that it's all caused by evaporative cooling. As the muscle proteins start to contract, they squeeze out liquid. This liquid comes out of the surface of the meat and evaporates. This evaporation takes energy—energy that would otherwise be used to heat the meat—and the temperature rise stalls out until all of that excess moisture has been whisked away into the atmosphere.
Wrapping the meat tightly with foil prevents that liquid from evaporating and completely solves the problem of the stall. This is true for brisket, and, as I found out, it's true for beef chuck as well.
I wrapped my chuck tightly in two layers of foil, then moved indoors to finish cooking in a 225°F (107°C) oven.
Many barbecue guides recommend cooking the meat to a specific internal temperature—203°F (95°C) is a commonly cited number for brisket. I find this to be an unreliable method. While temperature is a good indication of doneness for fast-cooking meats, like steak, chicken breast, or pork chops, for slow-cooking meats that require the breakdown of collagen, temperature alone is insufficient information. Collagen breakdown is a function of temperature and time. The lower the temperature, the longer it takes to break down, but it will still eventually break down. This is what makes tenderizing a brisket in a 155°F water bath possible, given enough time. Relying on that magic number of 203°F alone doesn't account for the temperature curve that has already taken place. Bring your meat very slowly up to 203°F and it will overcook; bring it up too fast and it will still be tough.
Long story short: For slow-cooked meats, like braises, stews, and barbecue, you can use temperature as a rough guide to what's going on, but touch is really the most reliable way to tell if braised meats or barbecue has fully tenderized. In the 225°F oven, this took an additional six hours of cooking. Unwrapping it and cooking it directly on a rack during the last half hour was essential for re-crisping that bark.
I opened the oven door, and a giant waft of smoke-scented air escaped. I saw the crackling, pitch-black bark and poked at the meat. It wobbled seductively, letting me know that it was moist and tender throughout and sending me into a momentary stupor that was broken only when I realized that I was going to have to find a quick way to get the smoky air out of the house before my wife got home.* (For the next few tests, I made sure to do 100% of the cooking on the grill outside, wrapping the chuck in foil and finishing it over indirect heat.)
* Here's the moral of the story from the guy who knows: Check with your cohabitants before you start if you want to keep things harmonious.
Is it as good as brisket? Well, that's hard to answer. It's definitely moister than the majority of brisket I've tasted in my day, and after smoking a few more, I'd also say it's more foolproof (at least, without a sous vide circulator). Certainly cheaper. But the meat has a different flavor. Where brisket tends to be a little more minerally and metallic, chuck is richer and deeper. Let's just say that both are excellent flavor-wise, and leave it at that. Even barbecue expert Daniel Vaughn (who took issue with some elements of my sous vide smoked brisket recipe) has nothing but good things to say about smoked chuck: "I never thought I'd find a cut to rival brisket for beefiness and juiciness, but this one was a contender."
Conclusion on Wrapping Methods
As it turned out, both wrapping methods worked. Whether the connective tissue fully breaks down and then toughens up through excessive drying, or whether excessive drying prevents the connective tissue from fully breaking down, as long as you trap moisture during some phase of cooking, it solves the problem.
Given that I didn't see much of a difference in cooking time between the two non–sous vide wrapping methods (nine hours in the case of wrapping first, and 10 hours in the case of wrapping toward the end), my decision came down to flavor. Though both produced good results, my preference was for wrapping later, which delivered a little bit more smoke flavor to the meat and formed a better smoke ring.
The only tricky part about a chuck roll is carving it. Brisket is easy. It has a clear grain that runs in one direction.** Chuck is a bigger mishmash of different muscle groups, but in general, you should be able to see at least two distinct, large muscle bundles. The trick to carving a chuck roll is to first split it between those muscle groups.
** A whole packer brisket has grain that runs in two directions, one for the flat and one for the point. So if you've cooked a whole brisket, it's a good idea to divide the two muscle groups—which are easily identifiable because they're separated by a distinct vein of fat—before slicing.
I do this using a long, sharp slicing knife, while the twine holding the meat together is still intact. (Incidentally, if you're in the market for a slicer—which I recommend if you like to barbecue or roast large cuts of meat—the Tuo B&W Series Slicing Knife is the best value I've found, with a thin, razor-sharp blade, solid construction, and a well-designed handle for under $40 at the time of this writing.)
Once the chuck is split in half and the twine is removed (easy to do after you slice through it), I rotate both halves so that they're sitting cut side down on the cutting board.
This aligns the chuck so that the grain is running parallel to the cutting board and perpendicular to the knife—exactly what you want for cutting against the grain and maximizing tenderness. With the chuck in position, just slice it into thin, even strips. Depending on the exact part of the chuck you got, you might occasionally find a very large fat pocket or two. You can discard or eat these at will. (I'm a fat lover, but even I had a tough time with some of the larger bits.)
The resulting slices of chuck are everything that you want good beef barbecue to be: fall-apart tender on the inside, with a crisp, smoky bark on the outside, juicy, and packed with beef flavor. A word of warning to those who are thinking about trying this: The smallest taste can lead to a lifetime of addiction, and smoking is a tough habit to break. Even now, at one in the morning, I'm getting the urge to go outside and light one up. Adri is fast asleep, and surely she won't notice, right? Right?