Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Brisket that's worth the time and effort

For years, I used a brisket recipe handed down by my former father-in-law. All you had to do was sprinkle the brisket with Lawry's Seasoned Salt and garlic salt, top it with sliced onion and bell pepper and douse it with some liquid smoke. Cover the whole thing in foil and cook in the oven for several hours on low heat. A half hour before it's done, remove the foil, slather on some Woody's Cook-in' Sauce and cook for another 30 minutes. It took about 10 minutes of prep time, then you let it cook all day, and voila, you had a pretty decent brisket.

I traded potential taste for ease of preparation, but deep down in my heart, I knew I was taking the easy way out.

The fact of the matter is that great brisket takes time and careful nurturing. You don't cook it in an oven, and you don't use liquid smoke to impart a true smoky flavor. That can only be achieved by wood and charcoal.

So, when Bon Appétit published the Southwestern Barbecued Brisket with Ancho Chile Sauce recipe a few years ago, it caught my eye, and I decided to quit being so lazy and put in the work it takes to make a great brisket.

Oh man, was it worth it!

The recipe listed below is simple in its preparation, but plan to spend all day nursing this baby to fruition. As I've said before, I abhor gas grills. Charcoal is the thing for me, and that means it's more difficult to maintain a constant 250 degree incubator. You have to cook the meat slowly to break down the naturally tough brisket and give it plenty of time to absorb the smoky goodness of the hickory chips.

The ancho chile powder used in the rub and sauce isn't easy to find (at least in Amarillo), but try to avoid substituting just plain old chile powder. Ancho chile powder is made from poblanos, and it has a smoky flavor quite different from your typical chile powder.

While I've added the preparation information for the sauce, I prefer my brisket with only the rub. It really doesn't need any sauce to enhance it; however, barbecue is admittedly a matter of personal taste, so if you have to have sauce, this is a good one. I have to add the disclaimer, though. The only time I made the sauce, I didn't have ancho chile powder. Like I said, it's hard to find it in Amarillo, but the last time I was in Houston, I picked up some at Whole Foods.

I know that you're thinking that you don't have time to spend all day babysitting the grill just to make a brisket, but I promise that you won't be sorry. Find a day when you're planning on staying home anyway, maybe doing some chores around the house. All you need to do is check the grill about every 15 minutes or so to ensure that the temperature is staying close to 250.

Once you've tasted your efforts, don't be surprised if you start thinking about buying one of those trailerable barbecue rigs and hitting the road for one of Texas' many barbecue cook-offs.

Southwestern Barbecued Brisket with Ancho Chile Sauce
  • 4 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ancho chile powder*
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 5-to 5 1/2-pound flat-cut (also called first-cut) brisket with 1/4- to 1/2-inch layer of fat on 1 side
  • 4 cups hickory or oak wood chips, soaked in water 1 hour
  • 4 disposable 6 x 3 3/4 x 2-inch mini aluminum loaf pans (for wood chips, if using gas grill)
  • 2 11 3/4 x 8 1/2x1 1/4-inch disposable aluminum pans (for brisket)
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Ancho Chile Sauce
Mix first 7 ingredients in small bowl. Rub spice blend over brisket. Wrap brisket in plastic; refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.
For charcoal grill:
Remove top rack from barbecue. Prepare barbecue (low heat). Light briquettes in chimney; pour onto 1 side of lower grill rack (you'll need to light more briquettes in chimney to replenish 2 or 3 more times during grilling). Drain 2 cups wood chips. Scatter 2 cups wood chips over coals. Return grill rack to barbecue. Heat barbecue to 300°F.
For gas grill:
Remove top rack from barbecue. Prepare barbecue (low heat). If using 2-burner grill, light 1 burner. If using 3-burner grill, do not light center burner. Drain 2 cups wood chips. Stack 2 mini loaf pans (one inside the other); fill with 1 cup wood chips. Stack remaining loaf pans; fill with 1 cup wood chips. Place pans over flame (if using 3-burner grill, place both pans on 1 lit side). Return rack to barbecue. Heat barbecue to 300°F. (If temperature rises too high on 3-burner grill, turn off burner without chips.)
Unwrap brisket and arrange fat side up in 11 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 1 1/4-inch aluminum pan; place pan over unlit part of barbecue. Cover barbecue. Cook brisket until instant-read thermometer inserted into center registers 160°F, adjusting vents or adding more charcoal as needed (if using charcoal grill) or adjusting gas levels (if using gas grill) to maintain temperature inside barbecue grill at 250°F, about 31/2 hours. Baste brisket occasionally with pan juices and add more drained wood chips as needed.
Remove pan with brisket. Discard pan and juices. Wrap brisket tightly in 2 wide sheets of heavy-duty foil. Place in clean 11 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 1 1/4-inch aluminum pan. Return to grill over unlit side, maintaining temperature inside grill at 250°F, until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of center of brisket registers 190°F, about 1 1/2 hours longer. Transfer brisket in pan to rimmed baking sheet. Let rest at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours.
Carefully unwrap brisket, saving any juices in foil. Transfer juices to small pitcher. Place brisket on work surface. Thinly slice brisket across grain; transfer to platter. Brush brisket with some of juices. Serve with any remaining juices and Ancho Chile Sauce.
* Available in the spice section of many supermarkets and at Latin markets.
Ancho Chile Sauce
  • 1 dried ancho chile, stemmed, seeded, coarsely torn*
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin


Place chile in medium bowl. Pour enough boiling water over to cover; let soak until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving soaking liquid.
Heat oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until soft, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Add tomato paste; stir 2 minutes. Add garlic and stir 30 seconds. Add wine and softened chile; simmer 2 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons reserved chile soaking liquid, ketchup, and all remaining ingredients. Simmer 3 minutes, stirring often. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cool slightly.
Puree sauce in blender, adding more reserved soaking liquid by tablespoonfuls if too thick. DO AHEAD: Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.
* Available at many supermarkets and at specialty foods stores and Latin markets.

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