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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Barbecue Secret Number 14 - How to Get a Low & Slow Bark on a Hot & Fast Brisket

Blackhawk Brisket

This brisket recipe was inspired by a renowned 19th century Virginia beef barbecue cook named "Blackhawk." Yes, people in Virginia have been barbecuing beef longer than people in any other state including Texas and the tradition goes back to the 17th century. This recipe is my tribute to Blackhawk and all the other great, old time Virginia barbecue cooks that don't get their due.

The biggest problem many have with hot and fast brisket is the bark. The bark on a typical hot and fast brisket just doesn't measure up to the bark of a brisket that has been cooked for 12 to 14 hours at a lower temperature. So, this recipe is my attempt to rectify that situation. I call it Blackhawk brisket.

First, the basics: A good bark is the result of several things going on during the cooking process but one of the most important things is the Maillard reaction. This is where the natural sugars and proteins in the meat begin to brown while cooking. There are several main things that influence this reaction: sugar, protein, heat, and the pH level of the surface of the meat are a few. If you want to read more - try here.  Now, let's get started on how to barbecue a Blackhawk brisket.

Start with a large full packer brisket. I don't usually cook full packer briskets smaller than 12 pounds. Trim it up and remove the excess fat from between the point and the flat. This is done to increase the amount of bark I would have on the burnt ends. Check this post for the details on trimming a brisket. Barbecue Secret Number 11 - How to Trim a Brisket.

For this process to produce the best bark you need to remove all of the silver skin and as much of the fat possible from the top of the brisket flat. Then, using paper towels, dry the top surface of the brisket as much as possible.

Next, instead of keeping the surface of the meat flat and smooth, use a fork to cut some shallow "troughs" in the surface of the meat going in the same direction as the grain as shown in the pic. This is done in order to create more surface area for the bark to adhere to. And, as the great Adam Perry Lang taught us, more meat surface equals more Maillard reaction which means more flavor.

Brisket surface "roughed" up with a fork

The next important part of the process is to use something under the brisket while it cooks that will create a curved or slanted surface. This is important so that juices from the meat don't pool in one spot. The juices pooling will wash the rub off and eliminate any chance of a good bark developing.

Keep the surface of the meat curved to let juices flow off rather than pool.
You can inject the brisket at this point in the process if you choose. Just make sure you let it sit overnight in the refrigerator to let the injection work its magic. After an overnight rest, again use paper towels to dry the surface of the brisket. The overnight rest isn't needed if you don't inject the brisket.

Now, let's deal with the pH level of the meat. Sprinkle the top surface of the brisket with about 3 half pinches (just as much as can be picked up with thumb and forefinger) of baking soda. Yes! That's right! Baking soda! Just a light sprinkle all over the top surface of the brisket is needed. Don't use too much.

After the light sprinkle of baking soda, apply a light coat of peanut oil all over the surface of the meat. The last step in this stage is to apply a light coat of molasses. I use the molasses as the base of the bark. It won't make the meat taste sweet. It just sits in the background and turns to caramel as the meat barbecues.

Brisket with baking soda, oil, and molasses

Now, apply the rub. You can use any rub you like. One of my favorites is my Blackhawk rub and is made from the following:

4 TBS Sea Salt
6 TBS Coarse Ground Black Pepper (16 mesh)
3 TBS Fine Ground Black Pepper
1 TBS Fine Ground Cayenne Pepper
2 TBS Granulated Garlic

Apply the rub all over the surface of the meat. Touch it up, if needed, by sprinkling some fine ground black pepper over the brisket to cover any spots that need it.

While the prepped brisket rests, fire up your smoker to 325 degrees F. I use white oak chunks for smoke. Make sure your fire is burning very clean before adding the meat. The smoke coming from the chimney should almost be a clear vapor.

Put the brisket on the smoker and let it cook for 2 1/2 hours. After 2 1/2 hours, Wrap the brisket with foil but leave some space between the foil and the top of the brisket much like a foil tent.

Blackhawk brisket wrapped in a foil "tent"

Let the brisket continue to cook for about 2 more hours until it probes tender like "butta." I'd say the internal temp will be about 208ish F. But, please don't go by temperature alone. Make sure that if you peirce the meat with your thermometer that it feels like you are putting the thermometer through butter. Once tender, remove the foil and let the brisket rest for 1 hour.

Here are the results. The top pic was cooked using the Blackhawk rub. The 2nd pic was cooked using Smokin' Guns Hot. The burnt end was cooked using Blackhawk rub.

Blackhawk Brisket

Blackhawk Brisket

Blackhawk Brisket Burnt End

Now, there are two main things going on here. The molasses is caramelizing while the surface of the meat is also caramelizing because it is experiencing the Maillard reaction. The baking soda raises the pH level of the surface of the meat. This is important because the higher pH level causes the Maillard reaction to occur quicker which means it will now occur longer than without using the baking soda. This produces a bark that is much closer to a long cook brisket bark than a typical hot and fast cooked brisket.


  1. Great Post. Cant wait to try this one too. I too was a Business Analyst outside of DC until a couple weeks ago and now I'm a Project Manager for the federal gov. I enjoy your posts and have tried a number of tips and tricks you have mentioned in your blog. Keep up the great work.

  2. Thanks, Jim! Report back with your results.


  3. I plan on giving this a shot this weekend. Two questions. One, do you have any tips for removing the pesky silver skin? Two, when you rough up the brisket flat, are you simply digging in a little with your fork and dragging it with the grain? Thanks for the article.

    1. Hi Clint:

      I use a really sharp knife (be very careful) to remove the membrane. I cut under it as close I can to remove as little of the lean meat as possible.

      Yes, I use the fork to rough up the strands of meat with the grain. It's like little "ditches" dug between the strands. Good luck and report your results!


  4. I smoked my first brisket today using another hot and fast method: up to 175 degrees at 300, then foiled and up to 205 degrees at 350. I wasn't happy with the results...the rub sloughed off like goo, no bark, and it came out kind of like pot roast.

    Your method looks amazing, and I want to try it for Easter, with a few questions...

    1) Has your opinion of the method changed since you wrote the article?
    2) Can I use canola oil instead of peanut oil? The smoke point seems high enough and there's an allergy in the family.
    3) I'm cooking on a kamado, so there will be a diffuser over the coals. It looks like I won't need a drip pan since it appears you have the brisket bent inside a pan the whole cook. Is that right?
    4) Did you inject? I'm worried about the brisket getting too dry without a drip pan w/ water or injection, but maybe it wont since it's going fast and will be dripping its own juices.

    Sorry for the all the questions, but it's easter and I want it to be perfect!

    1. Hi Steve:

      My response is too long for a single post, so it will be in two posts.

      Great questions! Sorry to hear that you weren't satisfied with your first hot & fast brisky. Brisket is a difficult cut to barbecue well but it can be done with a little discipline and careful attention to details.

      The first thing I would recommend is, don't let the low & slow mantra deter you from barbecuing hot & fast briskets. Barbecue temperatures in the South range from 225 to 325 degrees. In the brisket Meccas of Texas, they have been known to barbecue briskets at as much as 500 degrees F. However, the typical range for some very famous places in Texas is in the 325 degree F range.

      All that being said, there are many factors that determine the optimal way to barbecue a brisket and one of the most important considerations is the quality of the meat. Places like Franklin's BBQ in Austin cook choice angus briskets that could be considered prime grade. The secret these places know is that USDA Choice grade has several levels of quality. Franklin uses to the top level grade of choice graded angus beef. To the untrained eye, it looks just like prime beef and, in my experience, tastes like it too.

      So, if people like you and I want to cook a great brisket, the first thing we need to do is get the best cut of beef that we can and then adjust our cooking method accordingly. For example, sometimes the best I can get is a select grade brisket. That means the meat has less fat and marbling in it than a choice graded brisket. Since that's the case, I wrap it earlier than if I were cooking a good quality choice or Wagyu brisket. The reason for that is the fact that there just isn't as much fat in the meat to keep it moist after long cooking than a higher quality cut. My job as a barbecue cook is to preserve as much of the natural moisture in the meat as I can. Wrapping earlier is a way to do that.

      Keep in mind, brisket is full of connective tissue. That's what makes it tough. But, it's the connective tissue along with the fat content that helps to make it moist after it's barbecued. The secret that great brisket cooks understand is that they know to cook a brisket no longer than it takes for the connective tissue to turn to gelatin. That's why a good barbecued brisket sticks to your fingers. The connective tissue has turned to gelatin in the meat and the cooking process was ended before those connective tissues liquefied and ran out of it.

      So, let's say we have a typical choice grade brisket. Forget about internal temperatures! Those don't matter. What matters is how we preserve the rendered fat and gelatinized connective tissue.

      Let the meat barbecue unwrapped at about 300 to 325 degrees for two hours. If the meat is on the low end of the choice scale or a select grade, let it barbecue unwrapped for about 1.5 hours at around 300 to 325 degrees F. Go by time, not internal temperature. Then wrap the meat in either foil or butcher's paper and let it cook at the same temp for about another two hours. Then, check it for tenderness. The very moment it reaches the correct level of tenderness, pull it out of the smoker and let it rest for about an hour. The idea is to preserve as much of the natural moisture in the meat as possible. At hot & fast temps, the internal temp will most likely be around 205 degrees F.

    2. Part 2 -

      One other thing, since you are cooking hot and fast, use more wood chunks than if you were cooking low and slow. You need to get as much good smoke (wiffs of blue) into the meat in as little time as possible. More wood chunks help that process.

      Now, on to your questions.

      1) Has your opinion of the method changed since you wrote the article?


      2) Can I use canola oil instead of peanut oil? The smoke point seems high enough and there's an allergy in the family.

      I've never tried it but, as long as it doesn't burn, it should be OK.

      3) I'm cooking on a kamado, so there will be a diffuser over the coals. It looks like I won't need a drip pan since it appears you have the brisket bent inside a pan the whole cook. Is that right?

      I barbecue brisket in a pan because I don't like cleaning all of the fat out of my smoker and, also, it has, from time to time, caused flare ups without it. But, if you don't have those problems, it's perfectly fine to cook without one.

      4) Did you inject? I'm worried about the brisket getting too dry without a drip pan w/ water or injection, but maybe it wont since it's going fast and will be dripping its own juices.

      Injecting is OK, but, in my opinion, the only value to it is getting salt down inside the meat. After 4 hours of barbecuing, the injection just runs out of the meat. But, there is no reason why you couldn't do it. Remember, what will give you a moist product is the gelatinized connective tissue and the rendered fat.

      In closing, let me say that I can't guarantee success with these instructions. Just like anything else, barbecuing takes practice and time to learn. My suggestions here can provide a starting point, but you will have to work at making adjustments based upon your smoker, the quality of the meat, and other factors.

      Good luck and I hope the brisket turns out good!


  5. Thanks for all the great tips Joe! I took your advice on the quality to heart and bought a 13lb prime packer from my local butcher. Compared to their black angus and the crappy choice flat I used for my first brisket, this meat looks incredible. I'll let you know how it goes!