"I Prefer to Smoke Totally Naked"
A Brisket and Ribs Manifesto

From Pachanga
NOTE: manifesto as it applies in the title means; " a written statement declaring publicly the view of the author of the article."
If you are interested and decide to read this manifesto, grab a cup of coffee, a glass of iced tea or a cold one. This is going to take a while.

What a view.

Not outside the window, look at what is on the table.

Ten briskets aged and ready to smoke.

Now I must ask myself, “to foil or not to foil”.

“Brisket and ribs – To foil or not to foil. That is the question.” This is a not so famous quote from a little known work of Shakespeare; Campfire Cooking for the Traveler – Hamlet’s Guide to Smoked Road Kill. As you can see, the subject of wrapping meat in foil while cooking has been debated for a very, very long time.

I am not looking to get in a spitting match or any contest dealing with a lower appendage here (however, I will take it as it comes). I am certainly not trying to disparage anyone else’s techniques. I believe an intricate part of barbequing and smoking is sharing successes and failures and the knowledge conveyed by each. This custom is so well reflected by the interchange of this board. I want to relate my experience to the board on the pros of smoking naked (not foiling or boating) during the actual smoking or cooking process and the science behind foiling and not foiling. These opinions and observations are based on personally smoking over 150 briskets in the Bradley.

I am NOT speaking of the Foil, Towel, Cooler (FTC) method used after removing the meat from the heat source. This process holds a finished brisket or other meat at its optimum temperature for several hours while the connective tissue continues to break down. I use this procedure with great results but do not consider it a requirement.


Authentic Texas Barbeque Brisket and Ribs:

is defined as entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features: made or done the same way as an original.

Texas, as I used it in the string of words, is intended to be a regional method. That is why I include Texas pit bosses in the definition of barbeque. There are nuances and this can be further divided into West Texas and South Texas Pit bosses as opposed to Central and East Texas.

Food and recipe change follows immigrants and their cooking styles. Food preparation is also a matter of supply. Early settlers lived off the land and adjusted their cooking style to the meats available and cooked with the wood obtainable. The Texas/Mexico border has the Mexican barbacoa buried in moist covered pits. Central Texas hill country Germans and their Deutschland sausage smoking techniques in brick and stone structures were applied to brisket and other tough meats. West Texas chuck wagon/cowboy cooking involving beef and wild game on the cattle trail and line shacks is still celebrated in chuck wagon cook offs. The blacks who had learned to cook all manner of tough meats with techniques that had been handed down from their slave ancestors became some of the most renowned pit bosses. Other immigrant groups such as the French Cajuns also contributed their share of ideas. The Native American Indian lattice smoking and their other cooking and meat drying methods did not go unnoticed by early settlers.

By the 1900’s these techniques had began to blend and homogenize. The 1950’s catering barbequers further refined these unique, yet similar, methods and combined them to a style of their own. The “new” style was geared toward mass production of slow smoked meat for large crowds. This different, yet familiar hybrid easily translated to the taste buds of Texans. In an era before custom feeding of animals to produce tender flavorful meat, patrons were amazed at the taste of this product called Texas barbeque.

Barbeque is a cooking technique. A single definition of barbeque is debated hotly. Guns are drawn and fists fly during the calmer of these discussions. I do not promote such a single definition I also do not jump from airplanes without a parachute.

There are two subcategories to barbeque; high temperature grilling and low and slow smoking. These two methods can be further divided into world wide sub groups. Variations abound. It is generally agreed that both of these methods involve primarily meat (but seafood, freshwater fish, crawdads, etc. or vegetables are included) cooked from start to finish over a heat source that involves smoke from the coals of various burned down hardwoods (although other sources of smoke are occasionally used). This can be in an uncovered or covered dugout pit, a stake or spit near or over coals, an elevated grate or porous platform above coals or in a manufactured enclosed permanent or portable pit which may be built of brick, metal or other materials.

In a subcategory of the low and slow smokers, the meat is smoked in a traditional method used by Texas pit bosses whose cooking evolved from the blending of the methods described in the Texas definition above. It involves indirect heat, the light smoke from the coals encircling the meat most of the time and long term smoking over low heat. It may involve various rubs, mops, sops, bastes and slathers to tenderize, flavor and retain moisture in the meat. This method has changed from open pits to mostly enclosed pits. However, either is applicable. This is the style most widely known and recognized as Texas Barbeque.

Brisket is an easy definition. It is a cut of beef meat. It is from the breast area, near the end that a steer wrestler grabs. If he misses, he will end up right amongst the brisket. For barbeque, I prefer packer cut but the term could certainly include a trimmed flat or the separated deckle. See above photo.

Ribs: Another cut of meat. They can be beef or pork. There are several names such as baby back, St. Louis cut, spare ribs, Kansas City style, country style (which really are not ribs) and others. I prefer the St. Louis cut pork ribs (spare ribs with the brisket bone removed) or the regular spare ribs, but any that are available will be fine.

Braising: A cooking technique in which the main ingredient is seared, or browned in fat, or other method and then simmered in liquid on low heat in a covered container where the meat is steamed. Oven roasting and crock-pot cooking would be common forms of this method. See the dictionary.

Without further introduction, here are my comments on foiling during the cooking process. Let the ashes fall where they may.

Foil wrapping or boating during the cooking process is called the Texas Crutch on the BBQ circuit. (I think a guy form Oklahoma or Kansas started this rumor and intended it to be a disparaging remark to us Texans. I don’t know why they had to go and make up such a thing. There is enough true to cuss about us as it is). At any rate, Texans are certainly not the only ones to use foil as is proven by reading posts on this board.

Let’s ask first, what is the reason we use the Texas Crutch? The answer is threefold. The meat is wrapped in foil during the smoking process to (1) stop smoke penetration, (2) stop moisture loss and (3) speed up the cooking process. This is especially necessary for dry heat and strong wood smoke but real Q’ers have won many a competition without the crutch because they know their pit, their wood coals and how to use them. While many competitors use the crutch and win, I have read judges’ opinions that inform us that they can tell a distinct difference between a brisket finished in the crutch and one that is finished without. The Texas Crutch (as the name implies) is frowned upon by many pros.

A foil wrapped brisket is really being cooked using two distinct methods; Barbequing and Braising. This will work fine and produce a great product but also a product with a different taste and texture than authentic barbequing. My wife makes a brisket (a trimmed flat) covered in the oven using liquid smoke. It is a fall apart tender brisket and tastes great. People call it barbequed brisket because she serves it with BBQ sauce but it is not barbequed brisket. It doesn’t cut the same; it has a different texture and a different taste. It is a 100 % braised brisket. A crutched (or boated) brisket is somewhere in-between a braised brisket and a real barbequed brisket.

By the very nature of the cooking methods, barbeque and braising produce different products. Braising does not produce Authentic Texas Brisket which is a barbequed product. I am not saying that braising a brisket does not produce a tender, tasty product and I am not disparaging anyone’s cooking method, technique or recipe. But to call a braised brisket “Barbequed Brisket” is inaccurate. A new term has been coined to describe this hybrid; barbeque braising or barbeque braised.

History is full of examples of design characteristics that carry through to today that were once utilitarian necessities and now are useless. For instance, the button hole on a suit lapel was used to thread a button attached to a string which was sewn to a hat. When the wind blew hard, you wouldn’t have to watch your hat rolling down the street. It would remain tethered to your lapel. These strings and buttons are still wrapped around the hatband of fine hats but many just have a useless button sewn to the hatband. But few men use the lapel button hole for that purpose anymore. In fact, if I bet all of you the same amount of money that your lapel button holes are not even open, I would win handsomely. However, we still expect a button hole to be sewn onto our lapel even though it is no longer needed. I feel that the lapel button hole and foil wrapping have a lot in common when using the Bradley.

It cannot be disputed that the Texas Crutch is indeed handy for those using dry heat, want to speed up the cooking process or want to continue to cook on a wood pit without smoking and need their smoking to be a little more forgiving. Nor can it be disputed that many winning competitors use the crutch (but few will tell you exactly how they use it or when). The crutch has been the savior of many an abused brisket or rack of ribs. The crutch has a reputation of assured success with a greater margin of error in certain smokers. This is especially true with inexperienced Q’ers using those certain smokers. This assured success is not free, it comes with a price. The foil crutch is a design characteristic that has unnecessarily carried over to the Bradley (and I believe in any other pit as well).

So, why wouldn’t we continue to use this successful approach in a Bradley? Keep in mind the three reasons we use the crutch; (1) smoke control, (2) moisture control and (3) time control. In a Bradley, we can (1) shut the smoke off at anytime and we can (2) regulate the moisture easily enough. The trick is to keep moisture in the bottom of the smoker at all times. I replace the little bowl provided with the smoker with an aluminum pan that covers the whole bottom of the smoker. The back lip is tall enough that I have to bend it a little to get it under the heating element. Fill and refill it with boiling water so there is no recovery time. The water can be laced with beer, apple juice, etc. A big bonus is this will also help to hold the temperature in the proper temperature range below 225F or so degrees. There is also a school of thought that steaming in foil can actually release more moisture than meat smoked in a high moisture smoke and there is good science that backs this up. (How much liquid is in your foil or boat when you are finished?) Not foiling, crutching or boating means moister meat is my experience. (3) Speeding up the cooking process has never been much of a problem for me. If I wanted fast food, I wouldn’t be barbequing while drinking my favorite ice cold adult beverage and listening to Willie and Waylon and the boys with some Eagles thrown in. I would be at McDonalds. Actually, I would be at WhatABurger (a Texas chain serving a jalapeno burger) or grilling my own.

Spritzing or basting has been a big part of barbequing for a very long time. It replaced the moisture that covering the earthen pits with leaves used to provide. Mopping, a common word used in Texas for basting, kept the meat wet and prevented drying out (you may have seen pictures of men using kitchen mops to apply baste while barbequing over a long earthen pit of meat at the LBJ Ranch or mopping forty-two cows at a little get together in Victoria, Texas in 1921). When a mop is applied to meats being smoked several things happen. Moisture and usually oil are applied with some sort of seasoning, juice or vinegar. The moisture and oil keep the meat moist but eventually evaporate and circulate in the pit; leaving behind a layer of flavoring that is built up over time. This layered flavoring hardens and becomes part of the bark of the brisket. This bark coating is the hallmark of Authentic Texas Barbeque.

Let me repeat this last statement. The bark coating is the hallmark of Authentic Texas Barbeque. Webster’s defines hallmark as a mark or sign of authenticity or excellence; an outstanding or distinguishing feature.

How a nicely developed bark should look like.

This bark is formed during the Maillard reaction. This chemical reaction is responsible for the browning of meat, vegetables, bread and other products. It is what produces that unique meaty flavor. It’s hard to describe the flavor that results from this browning, but is more than obvious when it is missing. The Maillard reaction is retarded or stopped in a high moisture environment. This is an undisputed scientific fact.

When this same mop is applied and then the meat is foiled, a different process occurs. The moisture cannot escape the foil package and becomes steam. The same flavors are still in the foil package but instead of drying out and hardening into part of the bark; they are left suspended in moisture on the surface of the brisket (think crock-pot). At this point in the life (or more appropriately, death) of the meat, the steamed meat is trying to exhale moisture and there is not much if any transfer of absorbed flavor. The result is a softening or dissolving of developed bark, a retarded or halted Maillard reaction and a braised product with a steamed texture. This is not bad, but it is different than Authentic Texas Barbeque. Removing the foil before finishing can firm up the bark that has not dissolved and restart the Maillard reaction but the meat has still been braised. This cannot be reversed.

Meat is seared or browned in many cooking applications. This browned meat formed by the Maillard reaction is pure flavor and adds a lot to the party. It becomes a condiment to the interior meat; like ketchup on fries. On a smoked brisket, this flavor is in the bark and acts as the condiment. We want to keep this flavor on the brisket. Remember the liquid in the foil or boat talked about earlier. I have read some notes on this board saying to be sure and save this liquid as it makes an unbelievable sauce. This is good advice. You see, this contains flavor dissolved or steamed out of the bark. To keep this concentrated flavor in the bark and on the brisket, we do not want to steam it out; we want to dry it out; dried slowly with layers of basting adding more flavoring. This cannot be done with a foil covered brisket.

As one of the most prize winning Q’ers of all time plainly states, “We weaned ourselves from the crutch more than a decade ago. We like bark, and it is near impossible to get bark with the crutch.” (Paul Kirk, the Baron of Barbeque) He is the recipient of 425 cooking awards, including champion of the American Royal Open (the largest barbecue competition in the world) and seven World Barbecue Championships. I personally think his statement goes a little too far because people do have techniques of removing foil and achieving bark but his point is noted. Barbequed bark is different from barbeque braised bark. Bark formation is not as pronounced in a braised product and depending on foil removal and timing; it will be softer with some dissolved, especially toward the bottom.

The fact is the100 % humidity sealed micro environment created by foil wrapping or boating is very different from the adjustable lesser humidity of a water and smoke stoked Bradley.

I judge Authentic Texas Brisket against the methods used by Texas barbeque pit bosses for over 100 years (heat, smoke, and mop). I know several pit bosses or owners including one who barbequed at the White House. Another pit boss, a black owner, pit boss and one of the best, would give me a brisket plate when I was a busted and broke college student. I would go in before or after the lunch crowd and hang out around his pit. I never saw a foiled or boated brisket in his barbeque joint or any other Texas Barbeque Joint I have frequented. I have seen a lot of barbeque joints mop their meat with jealously guarded secret mop recipes but I have never seen a pit full of foil wrapped briskets. (I have heard of one.) With hundreds and hundreds of these joints in Texas, everyone is looking for an edge but I’ve never seen any of them use a crutch. Keep in mind, these people are proud of their product and most know what they are doing (some have been in business for over one hundred and thirty years). Their livelihood depends on their skills and product.

My brisket is judged against these joints every time I serve my family or a crowd. So, how does the Bradley brisket stand up to this stiff competition? So far, when I announce brisket is being smoked, my dinner table is elbow to elbow full or my brisket is the first item to go at pot lucks and church dinners. Sauce, a crutch in its own right, is used in limited quantities which is a good indication of a moist brisket. My family doesn’t go out for brisket or ribs anymore.

A single brisket (10 to 12 lbs.) takes 12 to 15 hours. Multiple (3 or 4) Bradley briskets take 16 to 22 hours in a six rack Bradley (all in the Bradley, no oven time) and my briskets are moist, fall apart tender and totally naked without a sheet of foil in sight. Sliced brisket holds together but cuts with a fork. The bark is dark and with just the right amount of firmness.

Some pros to NOT foiling or boating are:
  1. I do not have to remove the brisket from the Bradley to foil wrap.
  2. I can continue to spritz or baste as necessary or as mental therapy dictates.
  3. The bark continues to darken and firm up which always takes place at the last for me.
  4. The final product is an authentic Texas barbeque as opposed to a barbequed and braised product.
  5. I can easily move my temperature probe (which I also use to judge tenderness).
  6. I can check for fork tender without removing the foil.
  7. I can use tongs to feel the brisket for tenderness and spring.
  8. Moisture is retained in the meat (my experience says more than in braising).
  9. There is one less step for my feeble mind to deal with.
  10. The meat texture, bark and tooth all scream authentic 100% Real True Blue Texas Barbeque.

Ribs with a developed bark.

Cross section ribs. Juicy, tender with a little tug.

To foil or not to foil. That is the question.

I have answered that question for myself after smoking over 150 briskets in the Bradley (a conservative number, probably over 200) and I have not a clue as the number of rib racks. I just do not think we need to foil wrap, crutch or boat brisket, ribs (or most other cuts) during the cooking process in a Bradley or most other pits. Eliminating the crutch makes for easier, more controlled smoking, basting, probing and checking for tenderness. A layered and complex bark forms and true authentic barbeque is born (at least as it is known in Texas). This makes good sense to me.

I am not advocating this because I am a barbequing purist or fanatic (we are using an electric Bradley and pucks for goodness sake). I do not think my way is the only way. I do however, encourage you to think about the reason foiling and lapel button holes came into being and the current need for either. Consider the science taking place during smoking and what is happening to the meat. Understand what you are doing with foil and do not blindly wrap your briskets or other meats in a blanket or sail them in a boat in the kitchen oven unless you are intent on braising and you know its ramifications. Learn how to use your smoker, heat, wood , mop and moisture and there will be no reason to foil and braise.

Experiment with two briskets or rib racks and see which you prefer. Smoke them at the same time if possible. If you like the taste of True Authentic Texas Barbeque, you will find that NOT foiling will translate to a lot of other meats that you are currently wrapping and braising at some point of the cooking process (ribs, loins, butts, chicken, etc). If you enjoy the taste and texture of a combination barbeque braised product better, then by all means, foil the meat and continue to cook in that manner. A bonus is that you will have a Texan to cuss for a few days. You may even end up calling me a “crazy old baster.

I, however, will still prefer to stand by my Bradley and smoke totally naked.

See you around the pit. Good luck and slow smoking.