From Texas to Croatia: A brisket’s barbeque journey
There is no better place in the world to enjoy a great barbeque than in Texas. This is a story of probably one of the best briskets you can eat in a restaurant, and how to make a decent one by yourself.
I don’t know much about cooking, but I like barbeque. So I took a BBQcourse and read a blog created by the chef that says making a brisket is both a spiritual and physical journey full of obstacles along the way. It’s a difficult challenge that brings joy and happiness to everyone that completes it. He wasn’t exaggerating.
Back in 2017, I was fortunate enough to visit Austin, TX, for the first time. After traveling a lot around the USA, I was thrilled to finally see what the music capital of the world is all about. I was in town for their version of “March Madness” that is SXSW, the music, film, and interactive festival that transformed the city into one of the most exciting places not just in the USA but in the world.
There was so much going on that the F.O.M.O (Fear of Missing Out) effect was ever-present most of the time. With 200,000 people in the city attending conference events, sessions, keynotes, concerts, and films, you were missing out on so much stuff. Having that in mind, even considering waiting in line for 5 hours to grab a meal, seemed like a considerable waste of time. Nevertheless, every morning people do just that, queuing in line for probably the best BBQ in Texas.
This BBQ joint’s name is “Franklin’s Barbeque”. It used to be a small trailer that opened in 2009 by BBQ enthusiast Aaron Franklin. Two years later, they opened a brick and mortar location at the same place and never looked back. The BBQ joint is nothing special from both the outside and inside, but it’s often featured as one of the best BBQ places in the world. The only way to eat there is to stand in line in the morning and wait for 4-5 hours. The last one in line who gets to eat are people that come no later than 10 am. They sell all the food they prepared for that day in no more than 2 hours. The closing time is around 3 pm.
I was there on a rainy Friday morning hoping to kill time that I spend glued to my cellphone. It turned out I used it only to take a few photos and send some tweets. I was thrilled to meet some interesting people, musicians, and filmmakers that were mostly regulars at Franklin’s joint during SXSW. That was the year Barack Obama was the keynote speaker at SXSW. The last time he was in town he also waited at Franklin’s and paid lunch for everyone that was waiting in line. It didn’t happen this time. Instead, he went to Torchy’s for Tacos.
We were given coffee and beer while standing in line, and some people brought chairs. It was like waiting for the launch of the new iPhone. Five hours in, we finally went in. The menu was simple – ribs, pulled pork, turkey, sausage, and brisket. I was fascinated with the beef brisket. Brisket is a cut of meat from the lower chest of beef that requires long, slow, 10-hour smoking. The idea is to break down the collagen in the connective muscle tissues to achieve the tenderness of the meat.
My first bite of brisket ever was love on the first bite. I was amazed by the tenderness of the meat and the great smoked flavor. I immediately started exploring the history of brisket. And what better place to do that than watching to owner’s Aaron Franklin’s Masterclass.
Central Texas-style BBQ
The BBQ culture is very expansive throughout Texas. There are whole hogs, pulled pork, and chicken in the south, but in central Texas, it’s always been about the beef. If you’re a Texan, BBQ has always been a special meal. It’s been passed on through generations of Texans. And the king of all BBQ is, of course, brisket. One of the main reasons is the fact it’s so labor-intensive.
If you’ve tried it before and had to put sauce on it, it must have been bad. You must have really messed it up. Your traditional Texas BBQ is simple – bread, meat. maybe a pickle, and a slice of onion or tomato. The idea is to experience the flavor of the meat, not to hide it.
The origins of central Texas BBQ started in the early 1900swhen Czech and German immigrants began inhabiting the area. With them came butcher shops and grocery stores. They would butcher cows on the spot, being that this was before refrigeration. At the end of every week, they had to cook the meat, or it would spoil. That was the beginning of the BBQ. Tenderloins, rib eyes, whatever didn’t sell during the week got smoked. Smoke is a form of preservation so that the meat would last longer.
The meat was then placed in the offset pits. Those were brick pits dug into the ground (hence the name pits).
Those offset pits actually inspire today’s smokers to dug it into the ground. You’d have a fire, the grates, and a stack.
After the war
Some of the older BBQ joints opened in the early 1900s, but the vast majority opened in the late 1940s. The owners were military guys returning from WWII with some money to spare, searching for something to do. At that point, BBQ didn’t have a specific meat, yet. Then in the 1950s, boxed meats were introduced to the market. BBQ joints started ordering briskets.
They didn’t have to buy a whole animal anymore, which made briskets much more available and less expensive. That was the reason for the boom of brisket in the ‘60s, despite the fact it’s not a premium piece of meat and has a lot of fat, especially when compared to tenderloin and various steaks. It’s a perfect meat for slow cooking over fire.
It’s served with onions, pickles, white bread, and some cheese. All of these used to be sold in those Czech and German markets in the early 1900s. You’d go to the smokehouse in the back and buy the meat and all ingredients that go with it. No fancy and spicy sauces, just meat and bread.
My first homemade Brisket
A few years later, I bought a Weber charcoal kettle. After watching a few YouTube videos, along with attending Aaron Franklin’s masterclass, I finally decided to smoke my very first brisket. In Croatia, it’s almost impossible to order a brisket at a butcher shop.
Thankfully, I was able to find a butcher that knew something about it. I even made my recipe based on the experience of others. Making a good plan is crucial if you want to make it through a 10-hour slow cooking experience.
First, you have to make a rub and regular salt and pepper will do. The rub has to be put on the meat an hour before cooking. While the meat rests, there’s time to set up a grill. You will need a three-quarters full water pan and two piles of briquettes on each side of the grill. You can also use a snake method to start a fire. After the temperature reaches 110-130C, place the brisket on the grill, fat side up, and it’s a kick-off at 7 am.
I used the WeberiGrill thermometer to check the meat temperature. The essential thing in this phase is to throw on some wood for smoking and control the temperature of the grill using upper and lower vents with the lid closed as much as possible. Don’t forget to grab a beer.
After 4-5 hours of slow cooking, the surface color, known as the bark, will appear on the brisket which is fine even if it looks black. The brisket will enter a stall phase at around 60-70C. That is the time to take the brisket off the grill, wrap it up in foil paper, and return it to the grill.
Although brisket purists would not approve, you can use the oven as well for the second part. It will help loosen the muscles and absorb moisture back in the brisket. After 4-5 hours in foil, the brisket will feel soft and tender and reach approx.90C. That is the time to take it off and let it be while enjoying another well-deserved beer.
I managed not to fall asleep throughout the day. The main challenge was staying focused, controlling the temperature, and playing with the grill and grill thermometer that showed different readings due to different positions. All that would be much easier with a regular smoker, but Weber charcoal kettle was more than good enough. I may not be a pitmaster, but hey, I was in it for the journey, and it was quite a ride. I recalled what Aaron Franklin said when he was starting his small BBQ joint. Practice makes perfect. Each brisket is a small step towards that goal. He was right, and so was my local BBQ teacher. “Brisket has gone a long way. It needs a rest, and so do you, the pitmaster. Take that one last bow for the brisket, and yourself”.
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