Where’s the beef? Hopefully, it’s in your smoker

The summer is upon us, and grills and smokers all over the DMV are heating up as well. For the series “Fired Up with Jake and John,” WTOP’s Mike Jakaitis and John Domen talk with some of the region’s best pit masters about their methods, with the goal of helping you level up your barbecue game.

Not much in life tastes better than a nice steak or burger thrown on the grill. Why would you want to mess with something so time-tested and proven?

Well, it turns out taking a few hours (or more) to smoke something else can taste even better.

Any talk about smoking beef starts with brisket, a cut of meat that used to be cheap and unpopular for years until barbecue gained popularity and people began to realize how good it can be.

Alas, the degree of difficulty is high — it’s hard to make a great brisket (although it’s also hard to make a bad one).

Even if you don’t nail it just right, odds are it’ll still be good, though for what you’ll pay for it, you want it to be more than that.

Kyle Norris, who owns Big Kyle’s BBQ, in Leesburg, Virginia, said brisket is his favorite, and while it’s difficult, it’s worth it. “It’s a little bit gratifying when you have a customer say, ‘You know, I’m from Texas and that’s some of the best brisket I’ve ever had.’”

Most grocery stores usually carry either the point or the flat, though some stores will carry an entire brisket, which can run over 10 pounds and a couple of feet wide.

The amount of fat on it can also vary, and while most experts say you should trim it down to about a quarter-inch thick, Norris said he likes leaving a little more on.

“You need that fat to render down into the meat and keep it moist,” he said.

Fired Up with Jake and John

After the brisket has been in the smoker for two to three hours, he wraps it in butcher paper, which is what pretty much every pit master uses.

“Foil steams it and it speeds up the cooking process,” said Norris. “Butcher paper is going to let some of the steam out of it and contain the juices at the same time.”

Norris prefers to cook the brisket fat side down, because it gets a better bark. World barbecue champion Myron Mixon agrees.

“You want the fat down, because your heat in most cookers is coming from the bottom up and I want it to hit the fat before it hits my lean [meat],” said Mixon. “Always cook it fat cap down.”

Not everyone agrees though.

“Fat side up my friend, fat side up, fat side up,” argues Fernando Gonzalez, the owner of 2Fifty Barbecue, in Riverdale. “For our smokers, they tend to develop a great bark on top of the brisket, and the fat side up kind of protects the meat first.”

Norris tends to start his brisket at a much lower temperature than Mixon, and Gonzalez is somewhere in between them.

“Once you develop that bark you were looking for and once you’re slicing up that brisket it’s more enjoyable,” Gonzalez argued.

The mix of spices everyone uses for a rub tend to be pretty standard: They all start heavy with salt and black pepper; some will add some garlic or spicier pepper on top as well.

You’re aiming for an internal temperature of around 200 degrees. Depending on how well insulated your smoker is, when and whether you wrap the meat, and how big it is, it might take between six and 12 hours.

But once you take it out, it’s still not ready. The brisket has to rest for at least an hour — and that’s only if you’re in a rush; if it’s really big you might let it rest even longer.

In most cases, pit masters will use an insulated cooler, with the meat sometimes wrapped in a towel or blanket. Initially, the meat will cook a bit more, but the juices will start to settle back in and become more evenly distributed.

When the temperature falls back to around 150 degrees, it’s time to eat.

Beef ribs are another popular cut of meat to smoke, and you would cook them pretty much the same way as a brisket. But you have more options than that.

Prime rib roasts and New York Strip roasts are also excellent out of the smoker, and cook faster than brisket. For those, you typically need two to three hours of smoke time, and an internal temperature of around 140 gives you a roast cooked medium-rare.

A chuck roast will take a little longer, but can be a cheaper alternative to brisket with similar results and flavor. It’s even possible to put ground beef in a foil tray, and after an hour in a smoker, you’ve enhanced the flavor of tacos or chili.

Lastly, you can always take a good, thick steak — the thicker, the better — and “reverse sear” it.

Steven Raichlen, whose newest cookbook is titled “How to Grill Vegetables” and who hosts “Project Smoke” on PBS, said the reverse sear is a good way to make sure thick steaks — 2 to 4 inches thick — cook evenly.

“If you think about a thick steak that you cook on a direct grill, you’ve got sort of a char on the outside and then a thin layer of gray, and then it maybe sort of grays down to pink… and then you have a blood-red bull’s-eye in the center,” said Raichlen. “In reverse searing it’s a much more even process.”

Throw the steak in the smoker for about an hour, give or take, depending on how thick it is, until you get close to the internal temperature you’re looking for. Pull it out when it’s about 10 degrees away from the desired outcome (medium-rare, medium, whatever your preference).

From there, throw it on the grill for about a minute or so on each side, then let it rest for a few minutes and dig in.

Listen and subscribe to the “Fired Up with Jake and John” podcast on Podcast One.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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