monterey county herald

The Ticket to Brisket is Time

"The perfect slab of meat requires the right combo of heat, smoke — and time"

By Mike Hale, Herald Correspondent. September 14, 2011

montery herald

monterey herald

monterey herald

Little known fact: Cattle do not have collarbones. To support their massive weight, they possess deep, hard-working pectoral muscles in the lower chest.

It's here we find a humble cut of meat called the brisket. Despite its high volume of connective tissue and deep layers of surrounding fat, true beef connoisseurs recognize brisket as a carnivore's diamond in the rough.

In the wrong hands, brisket can be tough, chewy and downright unappetizing. But in the hands of an expert — who cooks it low and slow, breaking down the collagen and rendering the fat — the lowly brisket becomes a showstopper on any table.

It's not for the faint of heart, however. Only two restaurants in the county (Monterey Cookhouse in Monterey and Central Texan BBQ in Castroville) even attempt to cook it, given the time and patience involved.

"It takes some doing, but the brisket is simply luxurious in my opinion," said local meat purveyor Orlando Orozco of Bassian Farms in San Jose. "It's surrounded by a tremendous amount of fat that helps keep the meat moist. It's a very diverse piece of meat and everyone has their own culture and method of cooking it."

Even those who shy away from red meat should be sufficiently impressed by brisket's versatility. It can be dry-rubbed and slowly cooked over aromatic wood chips; braised in liquid like a pot roast (it's traditional for Jewish holidays such as Passover); cured, cooked and sliced to make New York-style pastrami; or thinly shaved and floated in a bowl of Vietnamese pho, just to name a few.

The whole world uses brisket, but when it comes to barbecue, this cut of meat has put Texas on the map, much like what pork shoulder means to the Carolinas or ribs to Memphis.

Texas pit masters will tell you that brisket is at once the easiest and most challenging meat to cook. It's easy because it requires only one ingredient — the brisket itself (even a dry rub and sauce are optional) — and challenging because many a weathered Texan have died before perfecting the exact combination of heat, smoke and time.

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but a Texan walked into the Monterey Cookhouse one day . . . "He wanted to try my brisket and he had a little attitude," Cookhouse owner Linda Cantrell said, laughing. "You're not in Texas," she warned him.” I said, 'We do things different here in California. In Texas you like blondes. My brisket is a red-head or a brunette.” According to Cantrell, he ordered the brisket and loved it. "But he said, 'It's just not Texas brisket.”

In Texas, cooking brisket is a religious experience that takes about 15 hours start to finish. First the rub, then the smoke, then the injected flavor and moisture enhancers. What comes off the pit in the end resembles a meteorite, with its craggy, dark mahogany-black crust. But cut through the crackling "bark" and you find moist, tender meat tinged by a deep red smoke ring.

When Cantrell opened her restaurant two years ago, the first thing she did was install a huge Treager smoker. Midweek it's filled with huge, fat-capped briskets, absorbing low heat and applewood smoke for 10 to 12 hours.

Cookhouse manager Bill Susalla came up with the recipe, but he's not exactly forthcoming with his secrets."Most barbecue experts will let you sleep with their wife before they give up their secrets," Cantrell said. "It's true. No one will say anything. You just need to figure it out for yourself."

Susalla, a Michigan-born country boy who owned Deli Treasures in Carmel Valley before signing on with the Cookhouse from Day 1, lists two keys to cooking good brisket — quality of the meat and patience of the cook.

When shopping for brisket, look for the highest grade possible, and hand pick the slab with the most striation visible. If there is no USDA label, it's probably "Select." Susalla recommends at least a "Choice" cut, or the home cook will be disappointed in the results.

"The biggest thing is the time aspect. Long and slow is the name of the game as opposed to fast and hot," Susalla said. "In the restaurant we like to set it and forget it."

The Cookhouse leaves intact the entire fat cap. They apply a dry rub by hand the night before (brown sugar-chile powder base, along with salt, paprika, black pepper, garlic powder and oregano). It goes in the smoker for at least 10 hours (225 degrees the first hour; 160-165 degrees after that). Then it's put in a hotel pan, topped with a coffee-and-beer mop sauce, wrapped in foil and allowed to braise for another hour. The liquid in the pan is then reduced and applied as a glaze. Housemade barbecue sauce comes on the side.

Bits and ends are added to the restaurant's cheesy brisket dip, and brisket is also put on the off-the-menu brisket burger (half pound ground beef, quarter pound brisket, double cheese, barbecue sauce and homemade onion rings between two buns). It's huge, and rings in at $16.95.
"It's as big as your head," said Cantrell. "But like bacon, everything tastes better with brisket."

The Monterey Cookhouse features California cuisine, a delicious fusion of cooking styles and ingredients from around the world. We are well-known for our wood-fired cuisine. Our house specialties include delicious flame broiled steaks,
lightly smoked and barbecued ribs and briskets, and fresh seafood.
Traeger Smoker - Oak-fired Grill - Wood-fired Pizza Oven - Family friendly
Barbecued ribs, brisket, & pulled pork. Oak-grilled steaks. Smoked prime rib. Fresh seafood. Wood-fired pizza.