Dry brisket. Could be the bane of every BBQ enthusiast’s experience. The final result, after paying up for the best quality brisket, committing to the “low and slow”, and gently tending to the biggest challenge in BBQ/smoking, was consistently dry and tough.
We have tried various equipment at different price points, and finally invested in an SM025 made by CookShack. Success at home quickly followed with smoking spare ribs, St. Louis style ribs and baby back ribs, chicken, pork butt and pork shoulder, all to perfection. Failure was certain with brisket.
For Valentine’s Day this year, we invested in an overnight Brisket Boot Camp at Mason Dixon BBQ Services in Greencastle, Pennsylvania. Yep, that’s right, it’s on the Mason Dixon line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. We couldn’t wait for June 29-30 to arrive, especially since our BBQ/smoker season started in March.
Now that we are on the other side of the Boot Camp, we wanted to share the transcendent glory of this experience which was not only educational but life-changing. Franklin….watch out, the BrewSherpa and BrewSherpette are in the club! Our confidence level is high, however, we haven’t created our own brisket success story at home yet, fair warning.
Our trip to Mason Dixon BBQ Services started with a quick lunch at Shakedown BBQ in Grantville, Pennsylvania, listed as the Best BBQ in Pennsylvania on Love Food posted on MSN. Their ribs and brisket were excellent, cooked by owner Chris Heilig on one of two 500 gallon smokers, and their hot BBQ sauce (made from Chris’ home-grown hot peppers) is exceptionally hot and tasty. Try his grandmother’s coleslaw recipe if you want to be blown away.
We were in a bit of a rush to get to Mason Dixon BBQ Services, wondering if we could survive this overnight experience. We got to Mason Dixon at 5:30, and set up our camper in the parking lot, prepared for anything. There were other camper vehicles there (including a retro VW van with a pop up roof, and the other an enormous hotel on wheels).
The Brisket Boot Camp was sold out, which means there were 25 “students of the art” in for the night, along with the good folks from Mason Dixon (owner Eric Forrester and his crew). I believe the winner of the travel the furthest, came via motorcycle from Rochester, New York (400+ miles).
We were seated outdoors under a tent, each with a personal large tin roaster, injector, knife, blue grilling gloves, 1 quart of injection, and a vast selection of rubs. We were then introduced to Roger Martin, owner of Penn Avenue Meats in Hagerstown, Maryland. Roger provided choice quality “packers” to each of us. For Texas-Style barbecued brisket, we used the whole brisket, containing both the “flat” and the “point”.
My “packer” was huge, weighing in at nearly 12 pounds, 20 inches long and about 12 inches wide. Roger has been a butcher since the 1960’s, and with his constant smile, cute jokes and deft handling of a knife, taught us how to identify the flat and the point, and how to carefully trim the “packer” without separating the flat from the point. We all got to work, trimming off the “hard fat” that would never render, while leaving on a significant potion of the soft fat.
After trimming the packer, we injected an entire quart of injection (with phosphates, enzymes and powdered rub that had been previously steeped) into each of our packers. Messy as it was, the entire quart eventually was injected. Then we rubbed only a tablespoon of yellow mustard on each side of the brisket as the base for the bark, and heavily coated both sides of the brisket with a rub of our selection. In order to determine which side the fat should be on in the smoker, we had to select a smoker and determine from where the heat was emanating (fat side down if heat is from the bottom and vice a versa). Our smokers both heated from the bottom, therefore, the fat side was down. A “sacrifice cut” was placed on the end of the flat to indicate where slicing should begin “against the grain” for later. The prepared brisket “rested” for approximately 15-30 minutes prior to being wrapped in cellophane for an additional 60 minutes. Then ready for the smoker (directly on the grill without the tin roaster) and with the cellophane removed (of course).
Mason Dixon BBQ Services sells many different type of smokers, from the smallest starter versions up to commercial types. Eric explained the differences between smokers, and we each selected the type of smoker we wanted to use. I chose the 270, and the BrewSherpa chose the Backwoods BBQ Party. Both were fired with cowboy coal and wood, using a blow torch fire starter (think Call of Duty flamethrower).
Target temperature was 225 degrees in the smoker(s). Initial target meat temperature was 165 degrees. Of the nearly 20 different smokers being used, the 270 was the most efficient in terms of timing. All briskets entered the smoker(s) at 1:30 am. Our briskets reached 165 degrees at about 5:15 am. Many of the other briskets on other smokers were significantly behind on reaching temperature, including pellet smokers, Big Green Eggs and Amish made Meadow Creek BBQ equipment.
At 5:30 am, we wrapped our brisket(s) in double tin foil (with about a cup of beef broth), placed in the tin roaster, back into the smoker(s). Temperatures were frequently checked until 195-210 degrees (really checking for feel as well as temp). This took about 2 hours for meat temperatures to reach 205-210 degrees and feeling done. The 270 again produced the fastest “finish” due to the heat convection of the system. Meat was removed from heat, left in foil and wrapped in a towel for about an hour.
At this point, it was 8:45 am or so, and my brisket was ready to open. This was when we separated the point from the flat, as it nearly slid apart. The point was trimmed and sliced into 1″ squares, adding BBQ sauce and additional rub(s), placed back in the smoker for about an hour, and transformed into heavenly burnt ends!
The flat was also ready for slicing, and using a sharp knife, was sliced into thin strips “against the grain” starting at the marker we placed earlier as the “sacrifice cut”.
The burnt ends were delicious, and the brisket slices were savory and moist. Everything we dreamed of as it relates to brisket came true. A brisket nirvana had been reached! We are now consuming the mounds of take-home brisket, including brisket tacos, brisket chili, brisket hash and brisket. We are prepared to fine tune our home brisket game, including experimenting with our own injections and rubs to personalize the experience to our taste.
CONCLUSION: We highly recommend Brisket Boot Camp, and thank Roger Martin from Penn Avenue Meats, and Eric Forrester and his staff at Mason Dixon BBQ Services! We learned so much, and are appreciative of the generosity offered with their time serving dinner, snacks, beer/water/soda and a gourmet breakfast. We would love to return for another adventure soon!