Brisket is a big deal in Texas. There are brisket smoking competitions. It takes hours to smoke a perfect brisket, tending the fire to keep the temperature just right, and spraying the brisket with liquid (such as apple juice) to keep it moist. This is a lot of work and it can turn out wonderful, but there is a substantial risk that after all that work the brisket still ends up dry.
By cold smoking the brisket and then cooking it sous vide, it is possible to get a very good result that is perhaps not exactly the same as a prize winning brisket, but very good all the same. It is less work and there is lower risk of dry meat. And cooking sous vide will produce a very flavorful smoky gravy as a bonus, which you will not get when smoking it in the regular way.
It is very important to use good quality beef with sufficient marbling, intramuscular fat. This is fat inside the meat, not a layer of fat on the outside. That intramuscular fat provides both flavor and unctuousness. A lean brisket will turn out dry, even if you use sous vide.
For cold smoking you will require a device to produce smoke without heat, a so-called cold smoke generator. The smoking dust is arranged in a spiral and will burn up very slowly. You have to put the generator together with the meat in a closed off space, such as a large outdoor grill with a cover. Cold smoking will not cook the meat, it will remain completely raw. Cold smoking takes about 8 hours and can best be done in winter, as in a warm summer day the meat may go bad. Cold smoking works best when the meat is dry on the outside, which is the opposite of regular (hot) smoking, which works best if the meat is moist on the outside.
It is best to prepare a whole brisket at once and freeze what you won’t need at once, because doing a larger batch at once require very little additional effort and you will then have a supply of perfectly smoked and cooked brisket in your freezer that you can regenerate and serve in an hour or less.
- one whole brisket, 4 kilos (9 lbs) (after trimming)
- 40 grams salt (1% of the weight of the beef)
- 2 Tbsp black pepper
- 1 Tbsp onion poweder
- 1 Tbsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp New Mexico chile powder
- 1 tsp chipotle powder
- 2 tsp mustard powder
A whole (packer) brisket consists of two parts are attached to each other, the point or deckle and the flat. The direction of the muscle fibers (grain) is different and there is a layer of fat in between. To be able to carve the meat nicely against the grain and to prevent a thick layer of fat in the slices of brisket, the point and flat should be separated from each other. You can ask your butcher to do this, or do it by yourself. The photo shows how the muscle fibers run in different directions. You separate the two parts by finding the layer of fat and trimming it away. It is also advisable to trim the outside fat layer to a thickness of 2 mm (1/12 inch), as the fat will not render fully during the sous vide process.
You will end up with two parts, with the point being thinner and smaller than the flat.
Divide the meat into slabs that will fit into your sous vide container. Season them with salt on all sides, using about 1% of salt by weight of the meat (this is about 1 tablespoon of fine table salt for every 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of meat). Allow the salt to penetrate into the meat overnight in the refrigerator.
I apply the dry rub after smoking, because I think the smoking process will work better without the rub blocking the smoke. The dry rub won’t penetrate deeply into the meat anyway, and it will have enough time to flavor the outside of the meat during the long sous vide cook.
Pat the meat dry with paper towels and use a cold smoke generator to cold smoke the meat for about 8 hours.
Prepare the dry rub by combining 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon onions powder, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 2 teaspoons New Mexico chile powder, 1 teaspoon chipotle powder, and 2 teaspoons mustard powder in a small bowl…
…and mixing well.
Rub the smoked slabs of brisket with the dry rub on all sides. This is easiest in a large container, so you can reuse any rub that falls off.
Vacuum seal the slabs of brisket.
Cook them sous vide for about 48 hours at 68C/155F.
After sous vide cooking, grill the slabs of brisket you will be serving right away over direct heat on a charcoal or gas grill. This is only to get a nice crust. In summer it may be wise to briefly allow the slabs of brisket to cool by submerging the bags in cold winter. In winter when it is near freezing this is not needed, as the meat is cooling off on the side not facing the heat.
Pour the gravy from the bag into a pan. Add a slurry of cornstarch with cold water, stir well, then bring to a boil to thicken the gravy somewhat.
Slice the brisket against the grain, and serve with the gravy on preheated plates. Serve with sides like coleslaw, potato salad, or Texan beans.
This is great paired with a velvety red wine with a bit of smokiness, soft tannins, and not too high in acidity, but with enough body for the strong flavors of the rub. We’ve tested it with 7 different wines at wine pairing dinners and all of them were good to excellent pairings. The best were an Etna Rosso from Sicily and a Pinot nero Vigna Cantanghel from Trentino. The oaked Barbera from Piemonte, Bricco dell’Uccellone by Braida, was also excellent, but perhaps a bit too nice a wine for this dish. the Schioppettino from Friuli was very good as well. The Ribeca, a Perricone from Sicilië was good, but a bit too powerful for the dish. The Spätburgunder from Germany and the Pinot Nero Riserva from Alto Adige did not have enough body.