In all of my columns to date, the hog has figured prominently as the premiere icon of American barbecue. Not all barbecue lovers, however, grew up in the Carolinas or Memphis, where pork barbecue is the stuff of legend. As the smoke trail wends its way west, the regional influence of beef becomes more and more pronounced, and when it comes to beef barbecue, there is no grail holier than a great slice of brisket.
In a way, beef brisket is barbecue's ultimate challenge. Infamously difficult to cook, brisket, more than any other meat, requires a long-haul commitment and substantial attention to detail from anyone who wishes to transform this primal cut of beef into something delectable. When the job is done right, beef brisket barbecue can stand up to any serving of smoked pork.
Every piece of a good brisket, from the leaner flat to the fatty deckel to the smoky, tender, melt-in-your-mouth burnt end, is a distinct joy in texture and taste.
It's a sad truth that many who embark upon the path to bovine bounty never reach success. Bad brisket can range from tough, dry and bland to disproportionately fatty and near-disintegrated. After eating downright unpleasant brisket across this country, I've avoided ordering it whenever visiting a smoke house for the first time.
Hill Country's smoked brisket is a man-made miracle. Inspired by founder Marc Glosserman's memories of eating barbecue in central Texas as a child, this massive hunk of beef is a faithful tribute to the quality of smoked meats served at Kreuz Market, Luling City Market, and the many other barbecue shrines that form a smoke house ring around Austin.
The texture—supple and marbled to the point of being laced with liquefied collagen—is heavenly. The taste—simple, salty, fatty and meaty—is undeniably pure. If anyone in New York yearns to know firsthand the taste of outstanding brisket barbecue, Hill Country (with a stop at restaurants.com for a stupidly amazing gift certificate) should top the list of destinations. But why exactly is their brisket so damn good?
"It's mostly in the cooking," stresses assistant pitmaster Josh Bowen, who emphasizes simplicity over all else. According to Bowen, there is nothing particularly special about Hill Country's meat source, and the entire Hill Country staff makes no secret that the only seasonings applied to their brisket are salt, pepper and cayenne. Meats come out of the refrigerator, the very simple dry rub is applied, the smoker is warmed to 200°F, and in they go.
Unlike the brick-and-tin, coal-powered constructions of its ancestry, Hill Country's smokers are gas-powered and smoke-infused. Cords of post oak are imported directly from Texas, burned down into live wood coals in the restaurant's industrial wood furnace, and placed in the smoker throughout the cooking process to impart a soft but full-bodied hint of smoke to every brisket.
With temperature under strict control, the smokers rotate the briskets for 12 to 14 hours, a significantly longer and cooler affair compared to Kreuz Market in Lockhart. When enough time has passed, Hill Country's pitmasters begin pulling briskets out of the smoker to rest, jiggling the fatty deckels to see if they have just the right amount of bounce to be declared ready for service.
With every pound of brisket served, Hill Country's staff makes it look easy. But, the fruits of their combined expertise and experience add up to far more than watching the clock and jiggling the fat caps. Robbie Richter, pitmaster and seasoned veteran of the competitive barbecue circuit, is quick to point out that neglecting the slightest details can knock any cowboy's brisket off its high horse.
In addition to temperature and time, says Richter, starting with a brisket that is large, marbled and thick enough to survive the strain of slow smoking is key—briskets that start off too small, taper off at one end, or lack enough protective fat to cover all of the flat are doomed to dryness. Also important are proper setting time, the separation of flat and deckel, and cutting against the grain (which runs in different directions in each half).
In discussing the endless list of mistakes he's confronted in his years in barbecue competition and judging, Richter reminds me that the simplicity of brisket is not only in how it's cooked but how easy it is to botch.
His current presentation of brisket takes barbecue's "slow and low" mantra to the extreme, smoking with split oak logs at a temperature he believes to be one of the lowest in the country. Whereas Hill Country's brisket is almost immediately thrown into the smoker, Fatty 'Cue's brisket goes through a two-day marinade-and-seasoning process before being smoked for around 12 hours. The deckel, once separated from the flat, is then thrown back into the smoker until it's essentially buttery beef candy.
The result of this labor-intensive process is a clear culinary progression from the salt/pepper/cayenne barbecue of central Texas' hill country. The taste of Richter's brisket flat is more complex than its predecessors, marrying salt, peppers and fat with a juicy rush of flavors that include the subtle sweetness of coconut milk and the umami boost of fish sauce. All of these flavors are blessed by an undercurrent of smoke and brought to life by a texture that is hefty, yet delicate. The fundamentals of fantastic brisket barbecue remain front and center.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand great brisket is to take a cue from Richter and embrace fat. While the typical grocery store brisket is sold "deckel off," the briskets smoked by barbecue kings are cooked whole. Many cooks will serve only the leaner portion of a brisket, discarding the fattier pieces altogether. However, starting with a well-marbled, well-formed packer's cut and allowing that fat to work its magic seems key. In doing exactly this, Hill Country and Fatty 'Cue have surmounted the brisket challenge, and New York is all the richer for their efforts.
Who makes great brisket barbecue where you live, and what makes it so good? The Serious Eats barbecue bureau wants to know!