It isn’t easy admitting mistakes — much less writing about them for the world to see. But even grilling experts like me can occasionally get too big for their britches, so I’m sharing my smoker screw-up with you to help you make sure you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
In honor of St. Patty’s Day, I decided to try out a new twist on smoked brisket and come up with a fun recipe that would make you smile. I asked several friends – all of whom have a great deal of experience with barbecue, and especially brisket – for their opinions and all of them had pretty much the same answer: “Why?”
When I spoke to my butcher, he gave me sage advice about the steps necessary to prepare a corned-beef brisket for cooking on the grill or smoker. I also consulted a trusted online resource for grilling, Derrick Riches, who had a step-by-step recipe for grilling corned beef.
Brimming with confidence, I set out to find quality hard-wood chunks. For this cook, I knew I wanted a wispy blue smoke to gently surround and permeate the meat. I try to get my hands on the Char-Broil bags of wood whenever I place an order online. Since I was out, I visited the local camping galore store and bought a bag of the commercial prepared compressed wood biscuits (Mistake No. 1) that you can find at every convenience store and super market. While these are perfectly fine for many uses, they were the wrong choice for this cook.
Using the advice I collected from my sages, I soaked the corned-beef brisket for about two hours in warm water – changing the water several times. I chose not to boil the brisket, as this was not something universally recommended by my advisers. Mistake No. 2.
I set up my The Big Easy® Smoker Roaster & Grill by Char-Broil®, figuring on two to three hours to properly smoke my five-pound corned beef brisket, and then a finish at low temp until tender. By the way, brisket prepared this way is excellent if you get the internal temperature to as high as 190°F so all the connective tissue and collagen breaks down to flavor and tenderize the meat.
I also filled a water pan with a mixture of about 4 cups of water and English-style dark brown nut ale, to add flavor to the moist air, and continued to add more as it cooked down. You don’t have to do this, especially with an electric smoker – but it’s a nice flavor touch if only for the aroma of ale mixed with wood smoke out on the patio!
This technique is called a hot smoke. That simply means we’re adding some smoke flavor to an already cooked corned beef. I kept the smoke at a consistent thin blue wisp – creating a perfect aroma. At about three hours, when the smoke began to peter out, I prepared a glaze of ½ cup of apricot marmalade and another 12-ounce bottle of the dark ale, brushing it on the already smoky surface of the brisket. I repeated this a couple of times during the last hour while also wrapping the brisket in foil to help cook.
When my friends arrived, I told them to be patient since the internal temp hadn’t quite achieved 190°F and I wanted to make sure we got there. (Often when smoking a larger cut, the internal temp will hit a plateau and you just have to be patient; don’t panic and add more heat – just keep it consistent and it will begin to rise on its own.)
Finally, after more than four hours of smoking, plus two hours of roasting, and 20 minutes of resting, I was ready to slice. As I dug in my carving knife, I noticed it felt just a little too resistant. I checked to make sure I was cutting cross grain and then thinly sliced more. I plated the brisket with the side dishes and let my friends dig in.
Sam proclaimed the smoke flavor perfect and particularly liked the glaze in combination with the smoke. Dan didn’t say much but made his way back to the cutting board for seconds. Henry had thirds going before I got to take my first bite.
I confess — I was disappointed. The flavor was there, but the texture of the meat was a bit rubbery to my way of thinking. I like my brisket to be tender with just the right amount of resistance to my teeth. This was not what I wanted.
There are several reasons why I think this happened. First, I didn’t soak it long enough to draw out the salt that was brined into it during the corned-beef process. While brine is a favorable contribution that can improve the texture and taste of pork, game, fish and foul – brine with beef it isn’t a good idea, and corned beef is usually cooked using a braising technique, so the salt continues to be drawn out.
Another preparation method for corned-beef brisket is boiling with cabbage, carrots and potatoes, which helps to draw out the salt. In hindsight, I should have boiled this piece just a bit to soften it and draw out the salt. I also think my thermometer reading may have been off due to a persistent cool wind blowing – cooling down the chamber so there wasn’t a constant temperature for the full three hours. Low & slow barbecue and smoking requires a very consistent temperature to help you gauge cooking time.
Finally, I think purchasing a pre-cooked corned beef was a huge mistake. I was thinking “ham” that I can add smoke to and just warm up. This was not the case, and the results were poor. My friends said they liked it – and they did go back for thirds – but they are both bachelors, so not necessarily the best judges, if you know what I mean.
Since that mistake is still in my craw, today, I’m slow-smoking a beef brisket point-cut that I ordered from the meat counter at my grocery store. I’ve invited the fellas over to enjoy the results later this evening, and plan on serving it with sides of corn bread, baked beans and steamed greens with bacon fat. I wish I could share it with you.
Well there you have it…sometimes it’s a feast and sometimes, uh…not so much! Welcome to the Cookout!
— Barry CB Martin
- Use a corned beef that hasn’t been already precooked. This should help to get a smoked corned beef brisket that isn’t dried out, chewy, or too salty.
- Be sure to soak the corned beef for at least 2 hours prior to cooking to draw out some of the salt in corned beef. We recommend letting it soak 30 minutes for every pound. Change the water and rinse the beef every hour to keep the water fresh and working the way it should.
- Consider boiling the corned beef before smoking just to further help that salt come along. It might even be a good idea to put the corned beef over low heat while for the time it is soaking (as in the step above).
- Choosing the right wood: Use high quality wood chips that will compliment and even enhance the flavor of the corned beef. A chart of wood chip flavors can help you decide which variety will be most appealing to you. Cherry, hickory, and mesquite are a few great options for cooking beef with fire wood.
- Place your smoker or grill in a shaded spot that won’t be affected by wind to ensure that the temperature reading is accurate. If this isn’t an option, just keep the weather conditions in mind while checking the temperature of the beef.
More Smoked Corned Beef Tips:
- Smoke for about 2-3 hours and finish at a low temperature. You want the internal temperature of the beef to reach 190ºF before removing from the heat.
- Place a pan with about 4 cups of water mixed with English-style dark brown ale in the bottom of the smoker while cooking to add flavor and moisten air. (optional)
- Prepare a glaze of 1/2 cup of apricot marmalade and a 12 ounce bottle of the same dark brown ale and brush onto the smoked brisket in the last hour of cooking. Brush a few more times before the brisket reaches 190ºF and you take it out of the smoker.
- Let rest for about 20 minutes to let the juices soak in. When ready to slice, go with the grain of the meat to carve large, whole slices.
- Because traditional corned beef is served with a stew of cabbage and potatoes, adding a side of roasted cabbage would compliment your smoked beef nicely (and gain a little forgiveness from the corned beef traditionalists).