This past Saturday evening into Sunday midday was my first time smoking a brisket. As I mention in the standard introduction to my podcast, also called “Biscuit Aisle” on Spotify, I come from the land of pizza and bagels. The main thing that’s smoked there is salmon from Zabar’s and now weed in Times Square. (Apparently, it’s a bit like Woodstock but with fake Spidermen shysters and without Jimi Hendrix.)
Smoking a brisket
Smoking a brisket falls into a cooking category referred to as “low and slow”–low temperature over a long time. Like sous vide but in a smoker rather than a pot of water. Incidentally, in an upcoming podcast episode, I speak to a Danish man who longs for a smoker to make dishes such brisket and pulled pork but, because his neighbors would throw a fit about the smoke, must satisfy himself with sous vide cooking. (Not a bad second at all.)
That’s one of the natural and, I should add, delightful aspects of smoking a brisket: to stand near the smoker and feel and smell all the smoke of the meat becoming more tender and flavorful.
There are of course different kinds of grills, and I have owned three: (1) charcoal: everything from a $25 cheapie you throw out at summer’s end to a quite decent $200 grill we had on our porch in NYC; (2) gas, which I had in Massachusetts and grilled all kinds of meat and fish and veggies, year-round and which I thought I missed; and now, replacing my former love, (3) a Traeger.
Traeger as a brand is near synonymous with the type of grill it is: wood pellet. And it has a following with a hashtag that always says everything about the brand itself: #traegernation. (The only thing that has a fan base as devoted but no similar hashtag is Texas, which is already a nation.)
How I got mine
Family and people I had met through Instagram had talked about Traeger, but somehow the mechanics of it eluded me, and I also didn’t know what the big deal was. Deciding to get a Traeger was more of a discipleship process than actually buying and setting it up. Which, since it came assembled, wasn’t an issue. (More of an issue was getting in it the back of our Hyundai Santa Fe, which we did gingerly.)
I first heard about Traeger from an Instagram foodie friend named Angela Schweikert, who was a pescatarian until she met a pitmaster boyfriend who converted her not only to eating meat again but also to cooking everything on a grill from meat to seafood to something she calls “Bambi Bites” (you can guess) and even pies. You can make in a Traeger anything you can make in an oven. She told me about the grill–as had my brother-in-law Brian some time back, but it didn’t stick–and she referred me to another devotee, an authority named Pat (@Traeger.rage.BBQ) on Instagram. (He plays a role later in the narrative.)
I continued to research Traeger and finally got a Pro Series 34 at Home Depot here in Kerrville, Texas.
I have to say, it is impressive, and my first meal was chicken kabobs, which cooked in about 8 minutes. I like the idea, also, of burning wood and not charcoal or gas. It of course gives it a more pure flavor, and while the fumes are not as clean as real wood, it’s better than standing over a charcoal grill.
First time smoking a brisket
As I mentioned, I first made kebabs on my Traeger, which turned out not only respectable but rather quite good. I then tried smashburgers, which were just ok. I cooked something else which I now can’t remember. But it was time for me to try what a grill/smoker is known for, at least in the nation of Texas, which is brisket.
I must say, I was quite intimidated at first.
Brisket seemed the meat dish that required the most patience, finessing, time and know-how, not to mention a Texas passport. I had only the patience, which came in handy.
I was going to go to a butcher called Bernhard’s Meat Processing up Junction Highway between Kerrville and Ingram, Texas. It’s known for high quality, but I ended up getting mine from H-E-B, which has a 25-yard long waist-high refrigerator with nothing but brisket. I chose a 9.5lb job, and there were choices at least in the 16+lb range. As it was, we still had enough left over after two ravenous sons dove in to give a chunk to my mother- and sister-in-law and also make ourselves chopped brisket sandwiches for two meals. Homemade macaroni and cheese (cheddar and gruyere) accompanied the meat.
I can see how brisket would be the perfect choice for a large group of people.
There are a lot of nuances about brisket that I didn’t know and won’t go into here, such as differentiating between the fat cap and thin end, and other essentials as what kind of rub, and a myriad of variations in how to cook it.
Jedi Masters are real and they sometimes suck as friends
One of the people I had met on Instagram was a well-known devotee within the Traeger fan base, and I sought his counsel on a number of fronts early in my use. I knew I’d need to ask his counsel during this maiden brisket voyage.
He was super helpful until… I was following a recipe on the Traeger iPhone app and also using this man’s basic framework. That was a mistake. There is the Jedi way — which must be the Jedi Master’s way — and there is everything else: the dark side. For example: those who use foil or butcher paper to wrap the meat toward the end, admittedly resulting in different outcomes, each defend their way to the hilt. Especially butcher paper, which is the Jedi way. My sense was that foil users feel less strongly about their way and could be coaxed to the butcher paper Way, but once you are in that camp, to go back is true apostasy.
When I chose to use foil toward the end, because the app said I should and because I didn’t have butcher paper to follow Master’s way, I asked a question related to the app instructions, and his text back to me was curt:
Sounds Like A Good Enough Process.
I don’t do that.
Ciao Brother.– my “Jedi Master”
Some might write that off. “Guy’s an asshole” and all that. But this was my first brisket and when you get right down to it, I trusted him more than the 27,813 reviewers (really; there were that many) who gave the recipe a 4.8-star rating. Because it’s all too possible for 27, 813 people to follow a recipe and be merely satisfied, giving it a high rating, rather than follow a Jedi Master and get proven Jedi results.
I wanted to learn the Jedi mind tricks necessary to please my eaters. And I did. They were overcome with the result and apparently forgot I was a Yankee making the national meal of Texas.
18 hours and 4-5 N/A beers
Traeger instructions are quirky. In a good way. As you read through the set-up and initial firing up steps, each step is accompanied by the icon of a six-pack of beer, with individual bottles disappearing along the way, showing you how long each step and the entire process should take. Likewise, recipes often have that same time-to-beer pacing icon.
Since I drink only non-alcoholic beer, the metrics would no doubt be different.
Or so I thought.
I found myself, at around 3AM, pacing through my six pack of non-alcoholic Bitburgers. I had probably drunk 4 or 5 since 6PM the previous day. I had never, and I mean never, had more than two at any one sitting. (Which is telling for a guy who calls himself a recovered alcoholic.)
And though I nearly finished off “a six” while cooking, there was no hangover the next day.
Only the smell of smoke permeating the living room (next to the patio and the grill), which I didn’t notice since I’d been breathing it in for more than 18 hours.