There are plenty of ways to screw up a brisket, but when you get it right it’s a beautiful thing. If you’re smoking it at home, it’s not a terribly difficult process. Start by purchasing the right grade, then trim it properly, season it with your favorite rub, and smoke it until the tough cut of beef gets as tender as a ribeye steak. At this point, you will have made your guests very happy–and you’ll probably be pretty proud of yourself, maybe even have the gall to say, “Hey, Franklin, what’s so hard about this?”
While the cul-de-sac barbecue champion may have worked hard, he doesn’t realize how easy he has it compared to the commercial barbecue joint. I’m not talking about the challenge of watching dozens of briskets at one time or even dealing with paying customers; I’m talking about holding the meat–that is the stage between the smoker and butcher paper. Even the best pitmaster can serve you a substandard brisket if he hasn’t mastered the art of how to keep smoked meat tasting fresh hours after it comes off the pit. In the world of commercial barbecue, how you hold the meat is almost as important as how you smoke it.
Most barbecue joints cook in one or two large batches. The briskets that are being served at 10:30 a.m. likely finished cooking hours earlier, but they’ve got to stay warm for service. Barbecue joints across the state share this problem but solve it with a variety of methods.
Tim Byres at Smoke uses a Bewley pit with adjustable shelves inside the smoker. The top shelf is hotter and that’s where the active smoking is done. The lower shelf hovers around 175 degrees and that’s where they hold the briskets. The briskets served at lunch stay unwrapped and are sliced as fast as they can plate them up for service. The meat that will be used throughout the afternoon are wrapped in butcher paper. When asked about his choice of wrapping material, Byres said “The tables in the restaurant are covered with butcher paper so we had plenty of rolls of the stuff laying around.” He also notes how well the paper absorbs the grease and creates a protective shield over the meat. It also allows moisture to escape therefore not degrading the crust. Using foil, he contends, would create a more humid environment which in his experience washes out the smoky flavor over time.
The benefit of foil is also the precise reason that Byres eschews its use. It holds in the moisture. In this more humid environment its easier to keep briskets from drying out, and can even help along in the cooking process. Holding in all that moisture will allow a brisket to slowly braise in its own juices and is a pretty solid guarantee against dry brisket. For this reason it’s often referred to as the “Texas Crutch.” At Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, they use foil on every brisket. Pitmaster Kerry Bexley argues that it doesn’t affect the smokiness of the meat as long as you wrap it late enough in the smoking process. It’s hard to argue given the accolades received by Snow’s for it exemplary brisket. The briskets are so tightly spaced into the huge steel smoker that it’s just too hard to keep an eye on every one of them during the frantic Saturday mornings that are the norm at this busy joint. Bexley said he wraps the briskets about two-thirds of the way through the cooking process. They are then held in the pit until it’s time to cut, at which point a large metal bowl is filled with steaming briskets as they’re ferried inside the restaurant to be sliced and served. This process is repeated over the next three or four hours every Saturday morning until the meat is sold out.
This foiling process gets flip-flopped at Big Boys BBQ in Sweetwater. In his direct heat pit, Gaylan Marth lets his briskets cook for a couple of hours directly over the flames, then he wraps them tightly in foil for the final four or five hours until the meat is done. The briskets stay in the foil until it’s time to slice and serve them.
Pecan Lodge in Dallas also uses foil but only after the briskets come off the smoker. Once they’re done the pit is emptied to make way for other smoked meats. The briskets are taken into the kitchen, wrapped loosely in foil then placed on racks in an electric warmer where they’ll sit for the next couple of hours until they open.
The holding period for briskets at Franklin Barbecue is lengthier than many. The pits need to be cleared out for ribs in the middle of the night. When you’re cooking 1,500 pounds of meat every day, the pits have to do double duty. Butcher paper wrapped briskets are taken off and are moved to rest on sheet tray racks in the kitchen. They’ll rest here while the ribs are put on the four now empty smokers. Once the ribs are settled the briskets are taken to an Alto Shaam warmer that lives beside the cutting table at Franklin. The first one will be unwrapped at 10:15 when they open for pre-orders, and the warmer will slowly be drained of briskets over the next four or so hours until they’re all gone.
Franklin said he chose butcher paper because it was cheaper than aluminum foil. Now he loves it for the same reasons as Tim Byres. It allows the meat to breathe while keeping it encased in a warm blanket of fat soaked paper.
At Louie Mueller in Taylor, wrapping has been part of the smoking process since they opened. In a 1973 article from Texas Monthly about great barbecue joints in the state, they highlight Louie Mueller and their pitmaster Fred Fontaine.
Operator Fred Fountaine [sic] is one of the few outsiders in this business; he came to Texas from Rhode Island in 1946 and mastered the art as few others have done. His secret: keep the beef wrapped in paper after it’s cooked; the result is an unusually moist, tender brisket that you can cut with a fork.
According to Wayne Mueller who now runs this historic barbecue joint, his dad Bobby, (who learned from Fred) carried on the use of butcher paper. When Wayne could no longer find the right waxed butcher paper that Bobby used he tweaked the material. A combination of clear plastic wrap and butcher paper is now employed at Louie Mueller. Once the meat is about 95 percent done, they wrap it in the clear plastic wrap to hold the moisture in, but to also hold the moisture right at the surface rather than let it condensate on a surface like foil. Don’t be alarmed about melted plastic here. The smoker temperature is under 300 degrees and the plastic wrap is rated to 450 degrees. The top layer of paper acts as a barrier to the heat from the pit, and the meat remains wrapped that way while it finishes on the pit. It’s then transferred to a Cambro warmer to rest until it’s ready to serve. You may have noticed a vertical pit next to the cutting blocks at Louie Mueller. Once the a meat wrap has been breached for slicing and serving it remains in this warming pit until the meat from the package has been served. Then they grab another tightly wrap meat package from the Cambro warmer and start slicing that one.
I asked Wayne why he bothers wrapping at all. The many steps and stages make it all seem overcomplicated, but he has his reasons. “I’ve tried not wrapping. It doesn’t work. You may get a decent moist end, but the flat will just dry out. It doesn’t matter if it’s one or forty-one briskets in the pit.”
Even if a joint doesn’t wrap their briskets during the cooking process, they all seem to have a wrapping technique to hold them, and holding is half the battle.