OVER TIME, I've come to notice that a few constant, fairly surprising things are capable of wholly consuming a man. Things you wouldn't expect. The tango, for one. I've lost a handful of friends to tango dancing. And chickens. I have (had, really) friends who post about their stupid little chickens so often on Facebook, you'd think they would be ashamed of themselves (the people, not the chickens). Far less offensive are the friends for whom barbecuing the perfect brisket has become a cornerstone of their identity.
Brisket, the cruel mistress at the top of the barbecue skill pyramid, is a moving target: No two cook the same, and it takes about half a day of constant smoking to see if you've ruined the $40 thing again. Once you get one right, a primal bell rings within you—and it cannot be un-rung. But with the next brisket you must start over again near the bottom, and there you are... chasing the dragon.
It is therefore far easier, safer, and more socially correct to seek good barbecued brisket in a restaurant. But what is good brisket, exactly?
Like with chocolate, wine, and cheese, it's crucial to have a set of vocabulary for describing what a good (or bad) brisket is like. The following terms are helpful to keep in mind when gauging how well your friend, or favorite barbecue restaurant, is doing with this bitch goddess of a muscle.
Aroma: It is said we eat first with our eyes, but we also eat with our noses. Does your brisket smell of anything? Hopefully it's hardwood smoke, and not steam or sauce. One good brisket in town has an aroma that reminds me of hickory-smoked bacon.
Appearance: Most briskets will be a little gray/brown at the center, like a roast beef, but the thicker the bubblegum-pink smoke ring around it, the more appetizing it will look. A glistening, near-black bark contrasting with the pink ring is just about the sexiest thing in the world of barbecue. Monotonous-looking brisket will taste that way.
Bark: This is the crust of caramelized sugar and spices on the exterior of the meat. The closer to black, the deeper the flavor. Shiny is preferred to dull matte.
Moisture: Squeeze some between your thumb and forefinger. It should leave a visible residue.
Smoke Ring: This is the enticing pink ring, ideally 8-10 millimeters thick, that begins at the surface of the meat and travels toward the center during smoking. Thickness is prized, as it's a sign of very carefully controlled cooking. See footnote (1) for a more scientific explanation.
Taste: This is highly subjective, but sweetness, saltiness, spices, and smoke should commingle with, and not overpower, the central flavor of beef. If you can't taste the meat, what's the point?
Tenderness: The meat should have some elasticity to it, but pull cleanly apart without much force. It should not fall to pieces or crumble easily between the fingers. Your teeth should leave a "watermelon bite" in the meat: only the part bitten should come away.
Thickness: A thick slice is sometimes an indicator of an overcooked brisket, which would fall apart if sliced more thinly. Some of the more rigid schools of judging disallow any slice thicker than a No. 2 pencil. Conversely, too thin of a slice—think lunchmeat—can be used to disguise an undercooked brisket, by cutting the tough meat fibers shorter and making them easier to chew.
1. "[The smoke ring is caused by] nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas, which is generated in trace amounts (parts per million) by the burning of these organic fuels. It appears that NO2 dissolves at the meat surface to form nitrous acid (HNO2), which diffuses into the muscle tissue and is converted to nitric oxide (NO). NO in turn reacts with myoglobin for a stable pink molecule, like the molecule found in nitrite-cured meats." Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking