Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (2015)
• Chapter Five
As someone who makes his living selling enormous quantities of cooked meat—we’re talking 2,000 pounds on our busiest days—meat quality is something I care deeply about. High-quality meat is by far our number one expense. Unfortunately, by far my number one headache is also the work it takes to secure the consistent supply of meat at the quality level we require. When things are going well, our supply of well-butchered, ethically raised meat is something I don’t have to think about too much. But when things go wrong, they can make for the worst times in this line of work. I’ll never forget our one epic month of brisket drama.
In 2013, the meat plant that supplies our briskets caught on fire and had to shut down for about a month. Luckily, we had just taken delivery of a couple of pallets—about three hundred briskets. But we saw the trouble on the horizon and tried to ration our meat accordingly. We were slightly stingy for a couple of weeks, cutting it close as to how much we cooked to get through a day, and more careful than ever about how we cut our meat and what we might throw away. But our stocks on hand dwindled and dwindled and eventually our supply ran out.
Within about two days of having used up the last of the meat in our own walk-in, I exhausted the entire supply of all-natural (hormone- and antibiotic-free) brisket in the state of Texas. For a few days, we had to dip down and use an entirely different grade of brisket, the crappy commodity stuff that’s widely available everywhere (and that most barbecue joints use). This truly was the last resort, because our commitment to high-quality, ethically raised meat is something I never want to compromise. Indeed, before we even took this step, the idea of closing the restaurant until we got our beef back did enter my mind, but that was impossible. We have customers who may have organized their trips and planned months ahead to eat at our restaurant, not to mention employees who need to work. The show, as they say, must go on, so we had to figure out a way to cook the second-rate briskets.
And it was tough. Yes, the meat, but also those few days! It was probably the hardest period we’ve ever had. Trying to nurse that meat into something our customers would still rave about was almost impossible. The briskets were so incredibly lean and tough. We resorted to techniques we never do: mopping with oil, butter, onions, and garlic to add moisture, richness, and fat; wrapping them with foil (the dreaded so-called Texas crutch) to try to seal in what little juiciness they had. It felt as if I were running a different restaurant for those days. And unfortunately, a food writer happened to come in at the time, resulting in the only bad review we’ve ever received. All of this was the result of some guy at the meat processing plant leaving a tool on a conveyor belt and burning down part of the factory.
The whole time I was feeling pretty crappy about the quality of our product, not to mention the welfare of the animals the meat came from. I worked maniacally to source more, better brisket. The benefit of having one source for all of my briskets is the convenience of dealing with one vendor who knows exactly what I want. The risk—well, the risk is obvious. If something breaks down, there’s nowhere else to go to pick up the slack. You can’t just order one hundred cases of brisket (five hundred to six hundred pieces) from a purveyor you don’t normally use, because they don’t keep that much extra product in their supply chain.
We were scrambling. Within a day, calling in every favor I had, I exhausted all of the briskets in Austin. We were working every meat supplier we could find. I went through San Antonio. I went through Dallas. Trucks were showing up at 2 in the morning with briskets from Oklahoma. One day, I had to drive two hours out of town to meet a semi on the side of a highway behind a truck stop to pick up meat, because the driver couldn’t go any farther off of his scheduled route to meet me. After that strange transaction, I hauled ass back to the restaurant, rubbed the briskets down, and threw them on the smoker. I barely got them cooked on time.
Finally, our usual supplier came back online, just in time for the Texas Monthly barbecue festival—an annual festival showcasing the magazine’s Top 50 barbecue joints—at which we were scheduled to cook for thousands of people. It was a huge honor, since the magazine had just named us the number one barbecue joint in the state, but I’ll admit I was stressed. Our deliveries had only just started arriving again, which meant the meat was completely fresh because we were starting from scratch. When the briskets arrived, I discovered that they had been butchered so quickly and carelessly that only two of them looked what I’d call acceptable, and we needed eighty. Normally, we like some postmortem wet aging on the briskets (see Dry Aging versus Wet Aging) because it tenderizes them and deepens the flavor. These were from animals that had been alive a mere three days before we were preparing them. Thus, we unfortunately appeared with brisket that was clearly not on top of its game.
That’s what happens when you run a place that deals with as much volume as we do. Supply will no doubt never stop being an issue. If I was shopping every couple of weekends for a brisket or a few racks of ribs, as the average home barbecue cook does, it would be much different. I’m sure I’d enjoy the process of procuring meat. But we go through so much meat and have such rigid standards about it that simply getting as much meat of as high a quality as I want is a constant challenge.
Some people get all excited about their brines, rubs, injections, and all of the other various treatments they subject meat to. We don’t have that option, because at Franklin, we don’t do much. We keep things simple, secure in the knowledge that it’s the smoke and the cooking methods that are the keys to our success. And meat quality is at the heart of that.
We serve brisket, pork ribs, sausage, pulled pork, and turkey breasts on a daily basis. And once a week, on Saturdays, we also sell beef ribs. Now, just as with wood and fire, I do think it’s important to have some understanding of what you’re cooking and where it comes from.
It’s true that a bumper sticker on my truck reads, BRISKET IS MY SPIRIT ANIMAL. If Texas barbecue has one emblematic cut, it’s the brisket. It’s the longest to cook, the hardest to perfect, and the one meat by which every Texas pitmaster is ultimately judged. If your brisket is tough, dry, or flavorless, you’re going to hear about it.
As long-standing and venerable as the tradition of Texas barbecue is, brisket, surprisingly, wasn’t always the main attraction it is today. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, which probably hit its stride in the 1970s. That’s when what we call “boxed beef” became widespread. Before the advent of boxed beef, cows were pretty much slaughtered locally or shipped as whole carcasses—what the industry calls “hanging beef.” In those days, Central Texas barbecue joints were really just meat markets where shop owners would break down whole animals and sell the most desirable parts for people to cook at home. The leftovers they would cook up themselves. This would most likely include the brisket—a tough, ornery piece of meat—but was hardly restricted to it.
When IBP (Iowa Beef Processors, now Tyson Fresh Meats) introduced boxed beef and pork in the 1960s, it was the beginning of a revolution. Rather than shipping whole carcasses, IBP started breaking down steers into their constituent cuts at a central processing plant and then vacuum-sealing each cut individually. This accomplished a number of things. Vacuum-packing allowed the meats to remain sanitary for longer (something that was previously accomplished by just shipping the animal carcass whole, which made it slower to decay). Vacuum-packing also reduced the cost of shipping because it meant processors could leave unwanted trimmings, fat, and bones behind. And for customers, boxed beef allowed them to order and receive precisely what they wanted to cook without the hassle of having to break down a huge hunk of meat and figure out what do with the less desirable parts. Most people would consider brisket a less desirable cut. But what it had working in its favor was that it was extremely cheap relative to steaks and loins, and, in the right hands, it could become something magical.
Today, brisket has become Texas’s sacred cow, to the point that Texas A&M University’s meat science department offers Camp Brisket for the meat and barbecue curious, an intensive two-day investigation into everything having to do with this holy piece of meat. One of the founders of Camp Brisket, Dr. Jeff Savell, has become my go- to guy whenever I have a meat-science question.
What Is the Brisket?
Brisket is the pectoral muscle of a steer and is roughly comparable to a human’s pectorals, which gird the chest. (It’s a bit larger, though—okay, a lot larger. A brisket used in Texas barbecue might weigh anywhere from 8 to 16 pounds.) If you imagine the cow standing on its hind legs, it’s the big muscle stretching across the chest and right under the neck. A steer has two briskets, one on each side. Large, dense muscles, briskets are worked heavily in their role supporting a majority of the animal’s enormous weight. Although briskets often come with a robust fat cap, inside they are fairly lean and sinewy, dense with connective tissue that enables the muscle to do heavy lifting.
“You’ve heard that phrase eating high on the hog?” says Dr. Savell. “Well that saying comes from the fact that meat from higher on a standing hog or steer is softer. Anything that is on the back is the most tender, anything down on the front end is tougher, and on the legs even tougher. It’s not that the muscles are any different in the way they function from other muscles in the body; it’s that they have more connective tissue to help harness that movement.” In other words, the more work a given part of the cow has to do to walk, run, or just support its weight standing, the tougher the meat. It makes sense then that the cow’s legs (shanks) are toughest and its back (tenderloin) is most tender, with brisket falling in between.
A single brisket is actually comprised of two distinct muscles, the deep pectoral (pectoralis profundus) and the superficial pectoral (pectoralis superficialis). Colloquially, these are called the “flat” and the “point.” The flat is the lean, broad, rectangular thinner muscle that is the major part of the brisket. The point, or supraspinatus muscle (commonly known as the rotator cuff on humans), is an almost pyramid-shaped mound of muscle connected to one end of the flat. The point has more marbling and connective tissue than the flat and becomes very tender and juicy with long cooking. One of the challenges of brisket is that the point rides right on top of the flat, but its meat is of vastly different consistency and has a completely different grain. They’re separate but connected.
Brisket would be an even greater challenge to eat if not for the massive layer of fat, called the fat cap, that covers one entire side of it. Its gradual rendering over long cooking times adds flavor and keeps the meat moist. Try to grill, sauté, or otherwise flash-cook and you’ll be unhappy—left with tough, sinewy muscle and a pretty much impermeable layer of fat. But cook it slowly, at perfect fat-melting temperature, and that fat cap liquefies and imbues the muscle with its delicious flavor and texture.
“We did a study of the tenderness of forty major muscles of the cow when cooked in the same manner, over direct heat like a steak,” notes Dr. Savell. “And the brisket was thirty-ninth in tenderness. But the fact that in Texas barbecue, you’re taking one of the worst pieces of the animal and converting it into one of the best is a miracle itself.” Amen.
How to Buy a Brisket
There are many things to look out for when buying a brisket, and knowing the difference between different grades and breeds will help you choose the right meat for your cook.
In my early days of cooking brisket, I could occasionally buy very low grades of meat on sale for $0.99 a pound. Those days are long gone, but brisket is still one of the cheaper cuts you’ll find. For a long time, cheap, low-grade brisket was probably what everyone was cooking. But, over the years, with the increased attention that brisket is getting, the grade of the meat has come into sharper focus and can affect the way you buy meat, the way you should cook it, and what you can expect of it when done.
When you get beef from a USDA-inspected facility, it usually comes with one of three grades: Prime, Choice, or Select. Prime is the best grade, Choice and Select a little lower down the ladder. There are lower grades still, but we won’t mess with those. The grades are composite scores issued by highly trained meat inspectors based largely on degree of marbling—tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Marbling, or intramuscular fat, by definition from Dr. Savell, is “the intermingling or dispersion of fat within the lean.” It’s easy to see the marbling—little wavy strands of white within the lean, red meat. Marbling is very, very important for brisket.
Prime beef is defined as being from young (nine to thirty months in age), well-fed beef with abundant marbling. Choice is considered good quality but lower in marbling than Prime. And Select beef, according to the USDA, is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. “It is fairly tender,” the USDA says, “but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades.”
THE FLUCTUATING PRICE OF MEAT
In the barbecue business we deal with many vagaries—temperature, humidity, and wood quality, to name a few. But one of the most inconsistent factors we deal with is also one of the most important: meat. Barbecue is supposed to be a relatively inexpensive food, but these days it’s hard to keep meat costs down. Meat has always been a luxury item for mankind, but now many, many factors affect our costs. For one, meat is in greater demand worldwide than it ever has been. This point has been made a lot in the news, but as growing populations like that of China attain new affluence, they want to enjoy more meat, just as we all do. Of course, with limited production, this means a much more competitive global marketplace and escalating beef prices. There are, of course, other factors too. For instance, drought in Texas and other southern and midwestern states has taken its toll on cattle farming, as the price of grain and water has gone up. Escalating fuel prices also affect meat prices, as the meat has to be shipped to me everyday across several states. Yet despite these rising costs, barbecue seems to be steadily rising in popularity. This is a good thing for me, but (hey!) it also means more competition and higher prices for meat.
All grades of brisket are used in the professional barbecue world; everyone has his or her preferred grade. The most popular around the state of Texas is probably Choice, because it’s relatively affordable and in the hands of an able pitmaster can still produce fairly juicy brisket. I use Prime grade, which is by far the most expensive, but its marbling is important to the style of brisket I’m going for, which pushes tenderness and moistness to the extreme. In many grocery stores, you’ll be fortunate to find Choice or Prime, but it’s worth putting in some effort to try to track one of them down. This is especially true if you’re just beginning, as there’s a larger margin for error with fattier grades. Then again, the errors are more painful with more expensive beef.
What’s most important to me is that the beef we use comes from ethically treated cattle who are raised and slaughtered in a peaceful, comfortable environment. I have visited the plant and talk frequently with the company that supplies our meat, so I do have confidence that we’re getting what we pay for. And we pay a lot for it: it’s more expensive to raise cattle in an ethical way, and that cost is reflected in the price of beef. Looking at what goes into industrial-farmed cattle and how they’re treated, our decision to spend more on better quality and better treatment is an easy one to make. But the supply for this kind of beef is much smaller than the market for conventionally raised animals, which is why we occasionally run into issues.
Breeds and Brands
The breed we use is Angus, which is well respected but also quite common in American beef. You may see packages labeled “Certified Angus Beef.” But if your meat doesn’t have that stamp, that doesn’t mean it’s not Angus beef. It still might be Angus, so that’s a distinction that you really needn’t worry about. The CAB (Certified Angus Beef) brand was started by the American Angus Association in 1978 and is just one—admittedly very big—seller of Angus beef. It has stringent standards, in that the beef CAB sells must bear a grade of either Prime or top-tier Choice. That makes it pretty reliable and popular among chefs. But there are other brands that both raise Angus breed cattle and maintain high standards, even though they don’t have the CAB seal, including Niman Ranch (California), Creekstone (Kansas), and Meyer Natural Angus (Montana). If you’re going to be doing a lot of barbecuing, I suggest that you take a little time to research the brands available in your area to find one or two that work well for you and then stick with them. You don’t have to own a restaurant to value things like consistency and reliability. If you’re investing 12 hours into cooking a brisket, you want some assurances that the product is something that you’re comfortable cooking.
Another beef breed you might see occasionally is Wagyu. Its name when translated from Japanese is much less exciting than when you don’t know what it means—wa means “Japanese” and gyu means “cow.” Japanese cow, that’s all it is. But you probably know that Japan is known for its ultra-marbled beef, such as the famous cows from Kobe. Kobe beef is not produced in the United States, only Japan. But we do have beef that comes from cows bearing Japanese bloodlines, though most of these animals have been interbred with American breeds to help them adapt to local climates and conditions. Still, American Wagyu tends to be extremely well marbled and is a popular brisket on the competitive barbecue scene for its sheer decadence. I’ve cooked many Wagyus for various special events and always find them extremely moist and tender, if not always delivering the deepest, beefiest flavor that I prefer. Still, they are magically textured, with all of that intramuscular fat melting slowly and turning that piece of beef into a buttery, smooth, melt-in-your-mouth kind of experience. Naturally, Wagyu beef is really expensive, but I’ve always had great success with the product from Snake River Farms in Idaho.
Choosing the Package
Sometimes at the store you’ll find a brisket already broken down into the point and flat cuts to make for smaller, more easily workable pieces for the home cook. Brisket is also one of the premier foods in Jewish cuisine, where it might get turned into corned beef, pastrami, or braised brisket with horseradish and onions. No doubt it became popular in Jewish cooking, as in barbecue, because of its low cost. But this is also in part because brisket is from the forequarters, the only part of the cow that is certified kosher in the United States. Pastrami is yummy, but don’t buy your barbecue brisket preseparated. You want the entire thing, untrimmed. It will probably come whole, sealed in a Cryovac package, which is called a “packer-cut” brisket.
You’ll likely find briskets that weigh anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds. Deciding on size is just a matter of preference. But don’t forget to take into account that larger briskets will take longer to cook, 1 to 1½ hours per pound, depending on the temperature at which you cook. Consider the size of your smoker and what else, if anything, you might want to cook at the same time. Big honkers of briskets take up a lot of space on a small grate.
Pack Dates and Aging
If you go to buy a single brisket at the store and see that they’re all individually Cryovac packaged, you’re going to have trouble determining the date the brisket was packed. It’s not that the processors are trying to keep it a secret from you. It’s just that they put the pack date on the whole case, not on each individual brisket. Your best bet is to ask your grocer about the pack date. (And in case you’re curious, the slaughter date will likely be no more than two days prior to the pack date.)
Of course, if the brisket has been flash frozen, the pack date doesn’t really matter, since meat won’t age when frozen. All the brisket we use has never been frozen. Freezing breaks down the fibers in the meat somewhat, and you’ll end up with a mushier product. Always look for fresh meat, though you might not be able to avoid frozen at big-box stores. If you see a lot of blood in the Cryovac-packed brisket, or if it feels overly floppy, it’s likely been frozen. If in question, it never hurts to ask the grocer.
The question on aging and briskets is an open one. According to Dr. Savell, the research is conclusive that aging tenderizes and boosts flavor in ribs and loins (steaks). But he says that official research has not been conducted on brisket. Yet unofficial research is being conducted all of the time. Even though the USDA doesn’t suggest there’s any benefit to aging briskets, I think there is. In competition barbecue, I’ve heard of people holding on to a brisket for forty days or so from the packing date, pushing it as far as they possibly can. I wouldn’t take it quite that far, but I do keep my briskets anywhere from fourteen to twenty-one days after the packing date before cooking them.
DRY AGING VERSUS WET AGING
Dry aging refers to beef that has been hung or placed on a rack to dry, whereas wet aging refers to beef that is aged in a vacuum-sealed bag (which helps it retain moisture). If you encounter someone trying to sell you a brisket that’s been dry aged, avoid it, if your intent is barbecue. I had to cook dry-aged briskets once, and they were very unpleasant. They’ve lost so much moisture by the time you cook them that it’s already a dicey proposition. Then you have to cut off all of the outside meat and fat that is crusty and dry. By the time you’re finished, the cut is so small that it looks like a squirrel brisket. Then a long cook in the smoker further removes so much fat and moisture that you end up with a dried piece of driftwood. Don’t ever waste your money on dry-aged brisket.
If you’ve got a number of vacuum-sealed, packer-cut briskets in front of you at the store, how do you choose which one to buy? Some people will start enthusiastically telling you about the importance of a brisket’s flexibility. But we’re not talking about Mary Lou Retton on the uneven bars here. So instead of talking about meat’s flexibility, I tend to use the more fun word floppiness.
The idea is that a brisket with more marbling and softer fat will have more give. So if you press on it gently, pick it up, and sort of toss it around in your hands for a few seconds, you might find one brisket that’s floppier than the others, and that’s the one that you’ll want to buy.
I give some credence to this idea. If the briskets are not frozen yet still hard as a rock, that stiffness may not disappear entirely during cooking. Stiffness may be due to the hardness of the fat. Huge amounts of hard fat are undesirable, though some is unavoidable. Plus, vacuum-packing is snug and the plastic these briskets are wrapped in is tough, so it’s not always easy to get a sense of flop value just by handling a brisket at the store. But if you’re about to drop anywhere from $40 to $100 on a piece of meat, it doesn’t hurt to be thorough.
Fat and Grass
Speaking of fat, I really do try to avoid briskets that sport heavy, compacted layers of rock-hard fat on the outside. In my experience, this kind of fat is a hallmark of a cow that’s been raised industrially on grain and fed all kinds of growth hormones and antibiotics to be brought quickly and unhealthily up to a slaughtering weight. I find much less of this fat on briskets from cows that have been more humanely raised. Tender, white fat is something I really like to see.
If that fat is not white but has a yellowish tint, that might be a sign that the animal was grass-fed. Grass-fed beef is a growing movement, and in general I support it, but not for brisket meant for the barbecue. An animal that’s been raised entirely in the pasture will have a much more diverse diet than one raised primarily on grain. That diet will be reflected in the diverse organic compounds found in the meat and fat, resulting in a stronger flavor and aroma when the meat is cooked. A grass-fed steak can be an interesting and rewarding eating experience. A grass-fed brisket cannot. Trust me, I’ve done it. The long, slow cooking of a huge, fatty piece of grass-fed muscle brings out too much of that funky, herbaceous, beastly flavor. It’s not an enjoyable meal.
Some people in Texas say that they like to cook only a left-sided brisket—that is, the brisket from the left side of the steer. Their reasoning is that most steers sit on their left side when they’re lying down to ruminate or rest. That suggests that they’ll have to push harder on their right side to raise the majority of their mass. Therefore, these people contend, the left-sided brisket is less worked and more tender than the brisket on the other side.
For the record, I think this is a joke. In all the thousands of briskets I’ve cooked, I’ve found no evidence that the meat from one side of the cow is noticeably more tender than the other. I guess I slightly prefer the shape of left-sided briskets because it’s easier to wrap, but it’s not really something I pay much attention to and I recommend that you don’t worry about it either.
A lot of the animals we use are pasture raised for the first part of their lives and then transitioned onto a grain and corn diet for the last part. That seems to produce healthy animals with good flavor and fine, soft fat.
Meat on the Flat
The thinnest strip of meat on the brisket is going to be at the end of the flat, where the muscle starts to taper down. You can see this part through the packaging, and it is a good indicator of the level of marbling and general evenness of the meat. One side of the end of the flat tends to be thicker than the other, so I always look for a flat that has a fairly consistent thickness across the end because it will cook more evenly and slice better. If I don’t have a choice and have to use a brisket that tapers off wildly, I’m going to end up trimming that back anyway until I get a more even shape. So if you do have a choice, look for a consistent thickness across the end of the flat.
Almost as iconic in Texas as the brisket, beef ribs are spectacular for both cooking and eating. Incredibly rich, tasty, and delightful, they’re also really expensive and take pit space away from our staples like brisket and pork ribs. But they’re delicious, so we cook them only on Saturdays. People love them and it’s not hard to understand why: they are truly impressive cuts. At Louie Mueller in Taylor, the spot that’s probably most famous for them in Texas, the beef ribs are served as a giant hunk of meat with an enormous, caveman-style bone sticking out one end. The meat is succulent, juicy, and thickly coated in black pepper.
The cuts of ribs on a steer and on a pig have both similarities and differences. Of course, they come from either the top or the bottom of the animal. One major difference is that a steer is much, much bigger than a typical pig, meaning that there are much greater differences between the ribs on one end versus the other. Another difference is in the nature of the meat that attaches to the ribs on the top and bottom of the animal.
The rib cage and shoulder area of the steer is so big that it’s divided into three main sections called primals: the chuck, the rib, and the plate. The chuck and rib primals are on the top of the animal and the plate primal is underneath. The division between the chuck and rib is made with a cut between the fifth and sixth ribs. Ribs 1–5, which are on the head end, go with the chuck primal, and ribs 6–12 go with the rib primal. Chuck meat, which is the hardworking shoulders of the steer, is best cut up for braises and stews. Those few ribs on the chuck side are often found cut very thinly and horizontally (with each piece of meat containing multiple round pieces of bone) as flanken- or Korean-style short ribs. Not too many people barbecue chuck ribs.
Back ribs come from the top of the animal, much as baby backs do on pigs. The difference is that the meat that beef back ribs are cut away from is the rib-eye, the most desirable cut on the whole animal. Therefore, butchers cut as close to the bone as possible to preserve as much on the boneless rib-eyes as they can, which can almost always be relied on to leave shiners on the ribs. Obviously, not a lot of meat is left, and it’s generally found between the bones, not on top of them. It’s tasty though not hugely popular at a lot of barbecue joints.
The real showstopper, the kind of ribs we use, comes from the plate primal. (To situate you, the plate primal sits on the underside of the cow just behind the brisket and in front of the flank.) The plate short ribs are the meatiest, with the meat on top of the bones layered with fat. The meat on these is heavily marbled and also dense with connective tissue, making them richly flavored and ideal for long, slow cooking. Shorter cuts of these are often sold as short ribs. We go for plate ribs 6, 7, and 8—right in the middle of the rib cage—which have the longest, widest, meatiest bones, like brontosaurus ribs. They make spectacular barbecue. Although beef plate ribs are perhaps not the easiest thing for the professional to cook every day, they are fantastic for the home cook.
The conventional wisdom has it that Texas barbecue means beef, and the barbecue from most other places is mainly pork. In this case, the conventional wisdom has it wrong. Although there is a strong beef tradition here, Texans have also been smoking pork for a long time. And visiting various barbecue joints across the state will show you that all manner of pork is widely available on menus, from shoulder to ribs to chops. At Franklin Barbecue, we offer pulled pork (not a Texas specialty), but we’re even better known for our ribs.
As a beer from Texas, Shiner can be quite desirable. But as a quality on a rack of ribs you’re buying, it’s something to look out for. On ribs, a shiner is the term for a bit of the bone that’s showing through on the top of the rack where there should be meat. This happens when overzealous butchers rob the rib of meat in order to give it to another cut (or when a piggy was just too skinny).
Shiners are more likely to be found on spare ribs than on baby backs for the simple reason of the cut spareribs sit next to. Baby back ribs are next to the loin, which is not a highly desirable cut of pork and usually sells for less than the baby back ribs. Therefore, when separating the back ribs from the loin, it actually behooves the butcher to leave a little more meat on the ribs because he’s getting more per pound for ribs than for loin. Spare ribs, on the other hand, are taken from the belly. The belly fetches some of the highest prices on the pig. So it tempts butchers to leave as much on the belly as possible when removing it from the rib. And if they remove too much and cut too close to the bone to where you can see the bone on top, that’s a shiner. Avoid them and look for meaty ribs.
It wasn’t too long ago that baby back ribs blasted into the American consciousness, but even though most people are familiar with the term, they have no idea what it means. Baby backs come from the top of the rib cage. So, if you visualize the ribs of a pig being long and rounded (like us humans’ ribs), you can imagine that the baby backs are taken from up near the spine, which is where they get their signature curve. They might just as easily be called back ribs; instead, they get their name not because they come from baby pigs, but because they are smaller than the spare ribs (the longer, bottom half of the rib cage). Attached to the loin, which is a lean cut of meat, baby backs are typically leaner than spares. But their meat is still juicier and fattier than the loin, which is one reason for their popularity. Another reason is a certain boppy commercial jingle for a national restaurant that never seemed to go away.
Baby backs are nice, but for the kind of smoking I do, I prefer spare ribs. Spare ribs—also spelled spareribs—come, as noted above, from the bottom of the rib cage. They’re not called spare because they’re thin or left over or not as good as strike ribs or kept in the trunk in case your main ribs get a flat. According to Merriam-Webster, the word sparerib is “from Low German ribbesper—pickled pork ribs roasted on a spit.” More important, they’re the opposite end of the rib cage from baby backs. That places them down at the belly, to which they’re connected. (I shouldn’t need to remind anyone of the glorious fattiness of the pork belly—just remember that that’s where bacon comes from.) Spare ribs also connect to the breastbone. Usually coming thirteen to a rack, spare ribs are straighter, have more bone, and have more fat and connective tissue than the baby backs. It’s that last reason that makes them particularly appealing for long, slow smoking. The meat is juicier and richer down on the belly, which translates to robust flavor and fall-away tender meat.
I use a bone-off spare ribs, which I’ll explain more in the section about trimming ribs in the next chapter. Put simply, the ribs are separated from the breastbone, and the rib tips are not cut off, giving the rack a vaguely rectangular shape with fairly even consistency, which makes the ribs good for cooking in large numbers every day, which we do, starting at 2 a.m.
How to Choose Spare Ribs
When buying pork spare ribs, I look for as much marbling as possible. Like briskets, the ribs may come prepackaged, but you can always get a good look at the meat, which should show lots of wispy threads of marbling throughout the pinkish red meat. You should be able to see the square ends of the bones, where they’ve been sawn from the baby backs on one side. The other side ends in soft cartilage where the breastbone was. Sometimes you’ll see this section of the slab taken off in the “St. Louis cut.” That section, composed of meat and cartilage and connective tissue, can be cooked up into rib tips, which make tasty little snacks. Or you can leave this delicious end on the rack itself, as I do, because it provides good eating and actually cooks better when it’s part of the whole.
The Solution Problem
Most of the prepackaged ribs you’ll find at the major store chains and in big grocery stores will have been what they call “enhanced.” Always be suspicious of words like that, which are designed to make you think you’re getting something better without telling you exactly what has been done to it. In this case, they’re not trumpeting the word enhanced but rather printing it in very small letters, if at all. The enhancement in question is the common practice of big meat packers to inject solutions consisting mainly of water and salt into the pork and poultry they sell. Other components of the brine might include sodium phosphates and sugar. They might offer all sorts of reasons for this, but they all pretty much mean that it’s an industrial solution to the industrial problem of mass-producing and mass-distributing pork. “Enhancement” adds artificial moisture to pork that’s otherwise dried out, extends its shelf life, reduces the amount of liquid that seeps from meat that’s been sitting around for a while, and, most insidiously, makes meat more profitable by adding weight to something you’re buying by the pound. I never buy solution-injected products.
Now it can be tricky to identify these products, as that’s exactly what packers don’t want to happen. It’s also possible that your local supermarket won’t carry anything but solution-injected pork. Look for terms like enhanced, improved, injected, marinated, or basted, then, as with any food product, look at the list of ingredients. If it includes more than one thing, you’re holding a piece of meat that’s been “enhanced.”
If you do find yourself unavoidably trapped into cooking with some of this stuff, be aware that it’s going to have unnaturally large amounts of water already in it, making it more likely to steam than roast or fry. And also be careful about oversalting, as these cuts are basically prebrined. But my best advice is to find a meat market that will sell you pork that has not been messed with.
Breed has much more of an impact on pork than it does on beef, and you’ve probably heard a lot about heritage pork over the last few years. There are dozens of different heritage breeds available these days. As the term suggests, these were pigs raised in different places (and thus different conditions), but always outdoors. Heritage pork comes from farm animals who often forage and dig for their own food. Because they live outdoors, they exercise and develop a healthy layer of fat to combat the cold. In addition, their meat tends to be darker and more flavorful.
Heritage breeds were once the standard, but after World War II, things began to change. Consolidation and vertical integration led to more industrial pig farming, which also meant focusing on a few breeds designed to live indoors and on muscle rather than fat. As we all know, fat usually means flavor. Purveyors decided to develop a strategy to market pork as a health-conscious, lean alternative to poultry. Remember “the other white meat” days? Eventually people started to notice the declining genetic diversity in American pigs, and a movement began to popularize heritage breeds.
The pork ribs we use are from pigs of a hybrid heritage breed, a combination of the Chester White and Duroc breeds. The mix yields great marbling, tenderness, and juiciness—perfect for smoked ribs. Plenty of information about heritage breeds exists online, but my major recommendation is to look for ribs from heritage breeds. That’s where you’ll find that beautiful, richly colored, heavily marbled meat that is a bit more delicate but has so much flavor.
Pulled pork is something that you hardly ever used to find in Texas, but these days it is becoming more and more popular. Why? I’d hazard that Texans have traveled more and experienced the wonders of pulled pork from Tennessee and the Southeast, and they have been inspired. We’ve also had a lot of people move to Texas from other parts of the country, and they may have brought their pulled pork skills with them.
My inspiration came from a really good meal I had in Memphis once when I was on tour. I’d never had pulled pork before, and it really just struck me. In hindsight, maybe this place wasn’t so great. I’ve been back several times since then and it didn’t seem as good. But at the time it blew my mind. When we got back from the tour, I went right home and bought some pork butts to cook.
The pork butt is the most misleading of food names (along with Rocky Mountain oysters, headcheese, and geoduck). At least the pork part of the name is legit. It has nothing to do with the rear end of the pig and everything to do with the shoulder, which, in fact, it is.
A whole pork shoulder may come divided into two parts. These are the lower and the upper cuts, which are almost always divided. The top is known as the Boston butt or simply pork butt, while the lower is known as the picnic or the picnic ham. (Just to make matters even more confusing, picnic ham does not refer to the ham you know and love. That ham comes from the butt—well, the hind leg, or haunch, of the pig.) In pulled pork circles, there is always debate about whether the butt or the picnic makes for the better preparation. The pork butt, coming from higher up, has more connective tissue and less bone, thus is more tender and meaty. Some say the picnic is more flavorful, and it definitely has more bone and is prone to larger pockets of fat that won’t dissolve with long cooking. I always use the pork butt.
Whichever cut you use, make sure to take the skin off, if that’s how it’s presented at the store. While pig skin is edible, it’s tough as a football when barbecued and will absolutely block both smoke and rub from flavoring the meat. There will be a shoulder blade bone in the pork butt, which I advise leaving in. Taking it out can cause the meat to cook more unevenly, and it is much, much easier to remove when the meat’s done cooking.
Sausage is a work in progress at Franklin Barbecue. Don’t get me wrong: I love sausage and eat a sausage wrap practically every day. But a critic once dinged us (her only complaint) because we don’t make our sausage in-house. Instead, we’ve had someone else make it for us to our recipe. There’s a reason for this. Primarily, it’s that sausage making is very labor-intensive, and we’ve had our hands full dealing with just the day-to-day running of an insanely busy restaurant. But making our own sausage in-house is something I’ve always planned on getting around to (in fact, I’ve been working on it while writing this book).
Sausage doesn’t have the glamour that brisket and ribs do. But here in Central Texas, which was settled early on by German and Czech settlers with rich sausage-making traditions, it’s taken very seriously. A lot of people really pride themselves on their sausage, and rightly so. I don’t care how good your brisket and ribs are, when you nail sausage, it’s a thing of beauty. But nailing it isn’t easy, and that’s why it’s been an evolution here at Franklin. That said, I’ve done lots of research, and performed plenty of sausage-making experiments, so I can talk about it a little.
Generally speaking, sausage is an excellent and efficient product of whole-animal butchery—a way to use up the bits and scraps that wouldn’t otherwise get cooked and served (I’m looking at you, intestines). In its purer forms, sausage is just meat and fat that is ground together, seasoned, and stuffed into casings. So why do people get so squeamish about it? Commercial sausage manufacturers—the ones who throw salivary glands, nostrils, and eyeballs into the mix—are the ones to blame. Buy a random hot dog or chorizo and who knows what’s in it? But I digress.
At Franklin Barbecue we take a more old-school approach, which means we treat our sausage as an efficient use of all of our brisket and rib trimmings. We trim quite severely, and to toss that stuff in the trash is basically to throw money away, especially since we use Prime brisket and all-natural heritage pork. Even so, sausage making is a labor-intensive (and consequently costly) endeavor. The trimmings themselves have to be trimmed (separating the lean from the fat), then there’s the tricky task (craft, really) of stuffing and tying off the individual sausages.
Coming up with a sausage recipe isn’t terribly difficult—it’s hard to get wrong, really—but variations in the meats you’re working with can make following an exact recipe a difficult proposition. And because sausage is largely composed of scraps, what you have available to put in it might vary. Having a restaurant that produces a consistent volume of scrap meat makes it easier for me to have a consistent mix. But for home cooks, feel free to play around with your own mixtures and to discover what works best for you. The main things to remember are to include enough fat to ensure that the sausage is juicy inside and not to be bashful with seasonings, as you want the flavors to really pop.
Generally speaking, a good rule to follow for sausage is 70 percent lean, 30 percent fat. At Franklin we get there by mixing about 60 percent Prime-grade brisket, about 10 percent pork (mostly from the pork butt), about 27 percent raw brisket fat, and around 3 percent all-natural beef hearts for depth of meaty flavor. When coming up with your recipe, you must consider both the amount of fat you want to grind into your stuffing and the fat content of your meat. For instance, because we use Prime-grade brisket, I add less pure fat than someone who is using Select. Meat from a heritage pig like a Duroc or Berkshire is going to have more fat than meat from a conventional pig. It’s something you have to judge for yourself.
Seasoning a sausage is a measure of balance. The spices are there to enhance the meat and the savory appeal of each bite. It’s important not to overspice, as you don’t want to drown out the flavor of the meat. When you’re tweaking your recipe at home, season, then break off a small nub of the filling mixture, shape it into a patty, and grill it. Taste the cooked sample for seasoning and add more if you need to.
The biggest challenge when it comes to making sausage is finding the perfect casing. I’m a perfectionist, and perfect sausage is an elusive thing. A perfect sausage is one that’s been cooked and looks smooth and glistening on the outside. When you bite into it, your teeth meet a little resistance before the casing breaks with a snappy pop and all that delicious flavor bursts onto your tongue. A great bite of sausage is a textural, flavor, and even aural experience.
How do you get the perfect casing? It’s incredibly hard, because the casing is the one variable in sausage production that we at Franklin Barbecue don’t have full control over. Casings, which are made from hog intestines, are never uniform and tend to have varying dimensions, textures, and lengths. (Note that you can buy synthetic sausage casings—they’re more prevalent, actually—but I always say you should go for the real thing.)
We use a 30- to 32-millimeter-diameter casing made from pretty young hogs. For small batches, you can buy them packed in salt, then rehydrate and clean them in water to get the salt off. (When bought in bulk, sausage casings usually come in a bucket of solution.)
But the real issue is that all of the casings come from commodity pigs. It’s seemingly impossible to get casings that are all natural, made from animals that were well treated and raised cleanly and sustainably. Here, we are filling the casings with all-natural pork, really high-grade beef, and all-natural beef hearts from ethically raised cows, and they could be coming from anywhere—China, Mexico—where we have no inkling of how they were produced. This means that we can’t claim all-natural sausage, because we aren’t at all sure. Almost all pork casings are supplied by DeWied, a big corporation that describes itself on its website as “one of the largest selectors of hog casings worldwide.” That alone suggests that the casings can and probably do come from anywhere, and that DeWied does not have much control over the original animal. It’s a problem for which I still don’t have a solution.
Honestly, I don’t have much to say on the subject of turkey. But I do have a recipe for smoked turkey breasts in this book, and chances are if you own a smoker, you’ll cook a bird in it at some point in your life. So my advice is simple: don’t buy turkeys that come prebrined or preinjected, because you’ll have no control over the saltiness or moisture content of the meat (not to mention the random chemicals manufacturers might decide to squirt up in it). As I suggest earlier in this chapter with regard to pork, read the packaging or consult with your local meat purveyor to find unadulterated, natural, or organic birds if possible. Heritage breeds are cool, but they’re usually very expensive and more unpredictable to cook than the conventional, untreated turkeys we cook here at the restaurant. They’re delicious, however, and turkey on a smoker is always a good thing.