Charlie McKenna on How to Smoke the Perfect Brisket

Labor Day cookout recipes from the city’s finest pitmaster

By The Editors
August 31, 2016 9:00 am

If you’re any kind of meat-loving man, beef brisket is your best friend.

… unless you’re in charge of cooking it. Then it could be your worst enemy.

“Brisket is the hardest and most unforgiving piece of meat to barbecue,” says Charlie McKenna, pitmaster extraordinaire and owner of Lillie’s Q in Bucktown. “But don’t get discouraged. Because when it’s right on, it’s amazing.”

True, it’s a gamble. A whole brisket is an overwhelming hunk of meat that, if not prepared properly, will disappoint you and your meat-loving comrades. That’s why we asked McKenna for a few tricks and tips on smoking the perfect Texas-style brisket, just in time for the long weekend ahead.

Little secret here: it’s easy, and worth it.

And because we love ya, we also included McKenna’s side recipes for mac and cheese and potato salad.

Here’s the skinny.

Go to a reliable butcher.
In Chicago, McKenna recommends Paulina Market and Gepperth’s Meat Market. Tell your butcher you’d like a full brisket with the point and flat intact, anywhere from 12-15 pounds. McKenna trims the fat so it’s ¼ inch-thick across the whole brisket. Unless you’re comfortable doing so, ask your butcher to trim it for you. The fat’ll keep meat moist during the “low and slow” cooking process.

Prep simply, season aggressively.
Season the meat liberally. McKenna uses his own salt-based Q Rub as a base, then hits the meat with cracked pepper second.

Get your grill ready to smoke.
You need a smoker. No way around it. If you don’t have a dedicated smoker (McKenna recommends Backwoods Smoker), you can convert your charcoal grill into a smoker by building a flame on one side of the grill and placing the brisket on the other side the grill, or the “cold” side. Same method applies if you’re trying to convert a gas grill into a smoker — fire on one side, meat on the other.

You’ll also wanna soak some wood chips overnight. McKenna recommends fruit woods or nut woods. Those go in a steel container that’ll go directly on the coals or gas, to impart the meat with natural, wood-smoked flavor. Do not skip this step.

Monitor it, but let that meat lie.
Place the grate on the grill. All in, shoot for a consistent temperature of 225-250 degrees. You’ll have to work at maintaining the heat, but it’ll be worth it, trust. Check the coals and wood once an hour.

Smoke the brisket to an internal temperature of 150 degrees. It’s at this temperature where your brisket has reached a cooking plateau. Pitmasters call this “the stall”. Pull the brisket out. Wrap it in unwaxed butcher paper and continue to smoke until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 198-203 degrees. You’re looking at 8-12 hours all in.

Let it rest.
For at least 30 minutes. Slice thick against the grain. Enjoy.

Mac & Cheese
Serves 4

1 lb Cavatappi Noodles
1 cup Toasted Bread Crumbs
1 cup Grated Gruyere
2 oz cornstarch
24 oz heavy cream
8 oz buttermilk
8 oz whole milk
3 egg yolks
1 lb white cheddar cheese
½ lb american cheese
1 oz salt
1 oz black pepper

To make the cheese sauce, heat the heavy cream, buttermilk and whole milk to 140 degrees in a small pot. Whisk in cornstarch mix and heat to 180 degrees. Mix in cheese. Add salt, pepper.

To build, drain cooked noodles from the water. Place in mixing bowl and toss with cheese sauce. Plate with grated gruyere and toasted breadcrumbs and serve.

Rosemary Potato Salad
Serves 4

10 red potatoes (larger ones)
6 oz whole grain mustard
4 oz mayonnaise
5 pieces of bacon and reserved fat
2 tbsp chopped rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut potatoes in evenly sized pieces. Roast in 450-degree oven until browned and just cooked through. Cook bacon in oven until very crisp. When potatoes come out, pour hot bacon fat from cooked bacon onto the potatoes and toss. Add chopped bacon. Add chopped rosemary, mustard and mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If it seems a little dry, add more mustard and mayonnaise.

Nota bene: Love brisket, don’t love the idea of working for it? Then head to Lillie’s Q, where they’re serving up smoked brisket every Tuesday. Do take note, however: once it’s gone, it’s gone. 

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