But First, The Butcher
Before we talk about brisket. let’s talk about butchers. There are three types of butchers in Ireland (excluding supermarket butchers who I have little experience of).
The Dry Aged Brand Name Butcher
I like this kind of butcher. She buys premium animals that are probably heritage breeds and from very local farms. She most likely slaughters and breaks down the animals herself. She butchers the animal into mostly roasts and steaks. She then dry ages the animal for a long time, cures it in a nice home-made brine, or makes very high-quality sausages and mince. This butcher sells at a premium price and for the most part supplies a fixed range of cuts. Peter Hannon, FX Buckley, and James Whelan are some butchers than spring to mind.
We’ll be very honest here and tell you that if you are buying your meat from this type of butcher then you are buying meat that should not be covered in sauce or dry rub. The butcher has done the work for you and the meat should be well flavoured and will need nothing but some premium sea salt. Is that a good thing? Well personally I am not a huge fan of very dry-aged beef so for me I prefer to add flavour with spices or just salt, but I do get it.
The Granny Pleasing Butcher
This butcher is an "expert" on all matters meat. If you ask him how long to cook a leg of lamb, he will have exact temps and timings off the top of his head. If you ask him what steak is best, he will tell you with confidence that the one he is trying to sell is the only one he ever eats and it has great flavour. If you ask him for that cut of beef you saw on YouTube he will assure you that there is no such cut in Ireland and then he will reach for the nearest beef joint to his hand and tell you it is the equivalent and tastes even better.
I don’t like granny pleasing butchers. I really don’t mind if I go into a butcher and he looks at me as if I have ten heads and says “sorry, we only have what’s on display”. But don’t lie to me. I have had butchers tell me that brisket can’t be got in Ireland (it can), that beef ribs are inedible (they are beautiful), and that a Boston Pork Butt is the American name for ham (it’s not). All butchers will do a certain amount of granny pleasing and that is ok – grannies want the chat and to feel special. But there is a line.
The Craft Butcher
Be warned that every butcher is a craft butcher according to the sign over their door. But the one we are after is easily identified. When you ask her a stupid question her eyes light up instead of greying over. She rubs her hands in her apron to clean off the blood - as subconsciously she is already planning to take your phone from you to look at the recipe or the photo. She doesn’t stock every cut of meat but if you can come back on Monday she will have exactly what you want. The next time you need that cut just phone ahead and ask for her by name.
She is so confident in her knowledge and love of meat that if you ask her for a cut she hasn’t heard of she doesn’t feel the need to lie to look smart. She is smart and if she senses an opportunity to be even smarter, she is all over it like pepper sauce on fillet steak.
A craft butcher, when found, is to be loved and cherished. When they get to know you the magic words they utter - “have you ever tried…” - will fill you with excitement and tease you with thoughts of new tastes and culinary adventures.
Our sauces and rubs are made to be sold in craft butchers. The same butcher who will tell you that his sirloin steak is too good for our Steak Rub will also tell you that our Pork Rub and Scotch BBQ are the secret ingredients for turning his Boston Butt into a world-class pulled pork bap. Honesty is what you want from a butcher. Don’t accept anything less.
And Now, The Brisket
Buying Beef Brisket
Brisket is a classic of the BBQ scene in the southern United States. Texas brisket is particularly famous and if you want the ultimate brisket porn then look at Aaron Franklyn on YouTube. Brisket is a really hard cut of meat to get right. There are many hurdles, with the biggest being that it is difficult in Ireland to get brisket that is trimmed the way we want it. Let’s try and understand a brisket before we go to the butchers.
The brisket comes from the animal’s chest. It is the flabby bit that swings about between their front legs. In Ireland brisket is usually found in the form of corned beef, stewing beef, or a tied and rolled pot roast type cut. But a full brisket is actually a very large piece of meat – as much as 7kgs. It contains two muscles – the point and the flat. It also contains a large amount of fat on top called the “fat cap”. The point muscle is a lovely stringy piece of beef with lots of marbling. It is very commonly used for pulled beef (i.e. in tacos). The flat is a large rectangular muscle that is not as fat and that slices very cleanly. It can be a little dry sometimes and it can be very tough if not cooked right.
This recipe is for a full brisket that we will smoke (or fake bbq in the oven). You need to ask your butcher for a full brisket that includes the point and flat muscles and that has not been trimmed of all its fat. If you butcher really knows BBQ then you can ask him or her to trim the fat to get rid of excess, but in most cases I would rather do it myself.
Most BBQ cooks like their brisket “streamlined” or squared off. The idea is that any excess meat will burn so it is better removed. I personally hate cutting away meat so I don’t do this – if it burns you can cut it off afterwards.
You want to remove all but about 1cm of fat from the brisket. Any fat that is hard or yellow should be removed. You can remove the silver skin (the layer of sinew) from the bottom of the joint if you wish, but I have never noticed it after cooking.
Read this article on how to trim brisket if you want more information, but don’t get too worried about it – the end result won’t vary dramatically.
Seasoning the Brisket
Shake sea salt on your brisket. We absolutely love Oriel Irish Whiskey Smoked Sea Salt here in Great Northern Larder and that is why we sell it on our site. It brings smokiness and deep salty flavour right into the muscle of the meat. Ideally, leave the beef for about an hour to absorb the salt. When the brisket is salted cover it with a nice even layer of Beef Rub, or if you don’t have beef rub (go and buy it) you can use lots of pepper, a little chilli powder, and if you have it use some garlic powder. Or if you want a classic Texas brisket just use lots and lots of black pepper.
Cooking the Brisket
If you are using an oven, then pre-heat it to 120°c/250°f/Gas Mark ½. If you are using a charcoal or wood BBQ smoker then get it to the lowest temperature you can sustain. If you are using a pellet smoker then set it to “smoke” or the lowest temperature setting (usually around 70°c/160°f).
I like pecan wood for smoking beef, but oak, hickory, and mesquite are all popular as well. If you want smoke in your home oven then apparently you can just place soaked wood chips in a tray in the bottom of it. Don’t blame me if your house goes on fire!
Place the brisket in the BBQ or oven with no wrapping and preferably on a wire rack rather than an oven tray. Cook it for 2 – 4 hours or until a “bark” has formed. A bark simply means that the rub you used has gone hard and can’t be easily scraped off with your fingernail.
At this point if you are using a smoker the meat will have taken on a very smoky flavour. It should also have a pink “smoke ring” when you cut it open later. Around now your brisket is probably at around 50°c/120°f if you are using a BBQ and maybe more if you are using a domestic oven. If you try to stick a skewer into the brisket it will feel tough. Turn your BBQ up to around 120°c/250°f (your oven is already at that temp) and continue cooking for another 4 to 8 hours. You can wrap the brisket in butchers paper or tin foil if you like – some people say do and some people say don’t. In my humble opinion, I think I would wrap in tin foil in the domestic oven to stop the meat drying out. You could also add a tray of water in the oven for moisture.
The brisket is cooked when it reaches about 100°c/212°f and when your skewer goes in with no pressure (like poking butter). Take it off the heat and leave it to rest for about an hour.
Serving the Brisket
Cut the brisket in half. Take loads of photos for Instagram. Cut off the point muscle if you can identify it (it is not always easy) and pull it apart. Cover it in Scotch BBQ sauce and serve it as pulled beef. Slice the flat muscle and sever it drizzled in BBQ sauce, mustard, or gravy.
P.S. The first 3 or 4 times I cooked brisket it was tough and tasteless. Even now I occasionally have one that is only “alright”. Sometimes it’s the meat, sometimes it’s impatience and not cooking it enough, sometimes who knows. Try again as a good brisket is as good as beef gets.
BBQ Life Ireland
If you need advice or help or just inspiration then head over to BBQ Life Ireland on Facebook. Almost everyone who BBQs in Ireland is on there, including some championship BBQ teams, guys who BBQ professionally, and the owners of all of Ireland's BBQ equipment stores.