Few meats gain as much flavor as a properly smoked brisket. Chicken can be grilled and still taste excellent. Pork butts can be palatable with a slow cooker. However, everything about smoking lends itself to application with a brisket, from the slow cooking process ensuring moist meat to the robust beefy taste that can stand up to the power of smoke.
In fact, that robustness is one of the primary reasons that beef brisket works so darn well with smoking. While a pork loin or fish would quickly be overpowered by all but the mildest woods, the depth of flavor present in brisket means that it can be smoked successfully with a variety of woods.
But before we get into all the woods that pair beautifully with brisket (and oh so many of them do), it is imperative to understand exactly what goes on during the smoking process, how smoke cooks meat, and what the differences are between different types of smoking mediums.
Smoking a food involves cooking it at a low temperature, often not more than 250 degrees, for several hours. Time to complete can vary greatly; a chicken breast can take as little as two hours, while a brisket will certainly take at least twelve. Because of this technique, there is a reduced risk of leaving meat dry that would come with cooking at a higher temperature. This can still happen; after all, there is only about a twenty degree band between the point where a chunk of meat’s natural gelatin melts into juicy perfection, and when we are left with little more than shoe leather.
Because of this longer cooking period, it is worth repeating that you should always follow proper food safety procedures. For this reason, it is always advised to keep the smoking temperature above 200 degrees, especially during the first four hours or so of cooking.
Now that we’ve made sure that our meat is safe, let’s talk about how to best prep the meat for smoking. No matter what kind of meat you are wanting to use, consider trimming your meat. While fat does add flavor, too much of it, especially too much surface fat, can hinder the formation of one of the best parts of making brisket, the bark.
While amateurs may think that it is a sure sign that the meat is burnt, the bark is instead a heavenly mix of smoke particles, liquefied proteins, and sugars. It is, in short, everything that anyone smoking brisket should want to achieve, and we are going to make sure that it tastes all the better because of good wood selection.
The Woods For Smoking
Just as all meats are not created equal, all woods are not created equal for smoking purposes. While we don’t advocate chewing different types of wood to see what you think would pair best, there is no need to approach the process with the pretentiousness best reserved for fine French wine. Before we go any further, there are three basic rules to be followed at all costs.
First, never smoke with soft woods. While you may have just chopped down plenty of pine, soft woods like pine have a lot of resins in them that essentially turn to tar. That tar ends up on your meat, and leads to a very unpleasant experience.
Second, know the difference between chunks, chips, and pellets. Some smokers take wood pellets, which have varying amounts of binder. Others instead use wood chips, especially those that have propane fuel sources. Many purists prefer to use chunks, but do not feel the need to compete with anyone (unless, of course, you’re in a competition).
Finally, understand the difference between smoke and fire. Smoking involves smoldering wood, and shouldn’t be the primary fuel source for your meat. While there are some exceptions, smoke is more a flavor, not a fuel, for your brisket. Otherwise, you run the risk of using too much.
With those rules out of the way, it is now time to examine different types of wood:
As a general rule, lighter woods include sweeter flavors, like apple, peach, or cherry. They tend to be fruit woods, although some woods like pecan can be included here as well. These woods tend to be a bit underpowered for brisket, but in concert with something stronger can be truly wonderful. However, because they are lighter in smoky taste, they are especially well suited for beginners.
A wood does not have to come from a tree that produces fruit to make great smoke. For many classically minded smokers, there is no better smoking wood than oak. It provides a mellow smoky flavor that guarantees that your meat will be the star of the show. At the same time, maple and alder can be used with considerable success. These flavors show a bit smokier flavor, so it is important not to overdo them.
For many in the American South, nothing says barbeque like hickory. The readily available wood provides a perfect smoke for brisket, and while it is commonly associated with bacon and pork butts, it pairs very nicely with the strong beef flavor. However, it is imperative to only smoke with hickory for about half the total cooking time.
Mesquite and Other Strong Smokes
Of course, when we talk about brisket, for many that only means mesquite. It is the most robust smoking wood commonly found, and has come a long way from its beginnings as a pest tree found throughout Texas. Mesquite’s strong aroma can provide a deep contrast with everything that a brisket can offer, and its pungent flavor makes its bark formation unparalleled. However, because of its strength, mesquite is best used sparingly, often in concert with other woods. That said, for the true brisket connoisseur, no better smoking wood exists.
That said, a number of other woods are starting to find a place, many of them capable of rivaling mesquite. One of the most exciting newcomers is olive, which has many of the same qualities of mesquite, but has the added benefit of bringing a touch of Mediterranean flavor to your meat. If you are wanting to smoke some lamb at the same time, the flavor could be truly exemplary.
Off to Smoke!
One final note: everything in this article is a starting point. There is no doubt that there are experts out there who are shaking their heads (or worse) at some of the advice given above. While it is a useful jumping off point, please let us know below!