Yield: 8-12 servings
Prep and cooking time: 6-8 hours
I live in a city apartment where it’s impossible to barbecue. Nevertheless, I love barbecued meats, so I’ve developed a method to duplicate it in an ordinary household oven. It’s not perfect, but it’s dramatically better than restaurant barbecue: in fact, it’s surprisingly close to the real thing. This recipe illustrates beef brisket oven barbecue, or “pseudo-q,” but the method works equally well with beef ribs, pork shoulder, spare ribs, and baby back ribs.
First, let’s consider what barbecue is, and isn’t. It is not charcoal grilling. Grilling involves very high temperatures and lots of radiant heat to create a delicious crust on meats, and it does not necessarily involve wood smoke. Barbecue is done at a relatively low temperature, and always involves wood smoke. There are two types of smoking: cold, in which the meat is not cooked, and hot, in which the meat is slowly cooked. Cold smoking is done at around 80 degrees F, and is used for bacon, salami, certain types of ham, and other uncooked meats. Hot smoking cooks the meat fully and is usually done at 200 F or above. So barbecue is simply a type of hot smoking.
Now, you might think that you could oven-roast meats at a low temperature and end up with barbecue minus the smoke flavor. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple: barbecue is only appropriate for meats with a great deal of collagen, which can be cooked slowly to an internal temperature between 165 F and 185 F. At these temperatures, the collagen dissolves in the meat juices and creates the extraordinary succulence for which barbecue is so justly famous. Any meat that’s good for stewing is good for barbecue, and brisket certainly qualifies. However, if you were to put a plain brisket into the oven at 220 F, and cook it for hours until it reached, say, 175 degrees internal, you’d end up with beef jerky. On the other hand, if you were to barbecue it slowly, it would remain juicy. That’s because smoke residue accumulates on the surface of the meat and creates a moisture barrier. This is what we’ve got to duplicate for pseudo-q to work.
Powdered gelatin, dissolved in water or apple juice, will do the trick. By basting the meat regularly with this mixture, you will gradually build a moisture barrier similar to that provided by the smoke residue. And as for the smoke flavor, we will add that in the dry rub and in the sauce.
Many barbecue enthusiasts like to work with a whole brisket, which consists of two sections: the flat and the point. In the confines of a home oven, it’s more convenient to work with the flat alone. I would also note that the flat contains a good deal less connective tissue and collagen than the point, so it cooks faster. Thus you might find that when the point is done, the flat has become overcooked. If you should get whole briskets for this recipe, I would recommend removing the points and reserving them for corned beef. Brisket points are richly marbled with fat and delightfully involved with collagen, and there’s no better way to cook them than very slowly in barely simmering water.
When choosing a brisket flat, look for one with a thick layer of fat. This will protect the meat as it cooks. Most meats today are “close trimmed” at the processing plants, and this practice unfortunately includes primal and sub-primal cuts. At the market, you may have to root through quite a few briskets to find one with a decent layer of fat, and even then, there may be bare spots. If there’s a butcher who works with whole carcasses a convenient distance from you, you can ask for exactly what you want.
This recipe is demanding, but your labor can easily be divided: the dry rub and barbecue sauce can be made a day ahead—indeed, a week ahead if that suits you.
1 brisket flat
1/2 cup dry rub
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1-1/4 cups warm water or apple juice
3 tbsp liquid smoke
1. Preheat your oven to 220-250 F, according to the brisket’s size: larger ones need a slower oven, smaller ones a hotter oven (see notes below). If you use a convection oven, the fan must be kept off. Trim the meat side of the flat, removing any silver skin. Cut off any sharp corners, which would dry in the oven, and save the bits for stock or mince.
2. Apply the dry rub to both sides. The half-cup called for in the ingredients list is a rough guide. A small flat might end up over-salted with that amount, whereas a large one might need more seasoning. Always apply the rub just before the brisket goes into the oven. Marinating it with the rub prior to cooking, which is often recommended by experts, is a bad idea: it will draw out too much moisture.
3. Put the brisket, meat-side up, directly on a rack near the center of the oven, with a foil-lined sheet pan six inches or farther below to catch drips (it’s important that hot air surround the meat). The drip pan should be kept full of water to prevent splattering. Roast the brisket between 220 and 250 F. Use an oven thermometer and try to maintain that temperature range throughout the cooking. (Below 220, the meat will have to remain in the oven for so long that nothing will prevent it from drying. Above 250, the sugar in the dry rub will burn after a few hours, while the meat will cook too quickly to develop the characteristic succulence of barbecue.)
4. Dissolve the gelatin in the warm water or apple juice. It’s not necessary to soften it first in cold liquid as one does for jellies and aspics because it’s only going to be painted on the meat. To the gelatin mixture, add the liquid smoke and, if you like, a tablespoon or two of the dry rub. When the brisket has been cooking for approximately 30 minutes, dab (do not brush) the meat side with the gelatin mixture, covering it completely and taking care not to disturb the dry rub on the surface. Repeat this every thirty minutes, until about 2/3 of the gelatin mixture has been used.
5. When about 1/3 of the gelatin mixture remains, turn the brisket fat side up and continue basting it every thirty minutes until all of the gelatin has been used. Leave it fat side up throughout the remainder of the cooking. It’s important to start with the meat side up so that it can be protected immediately with several applications of gelatin, but the fat will protect the brisket from moisture loss more effectively, so that side should be exposed to the higher heat throughout the majority of the cooking. Naturally, the air temperature above the meat will average higher than the temperature below.
6. When it’s done, remove it from the oven, wrap it in aluminum foil, place it between a couple of towels, and let it rest for about an hour. If you’re using a temperature probe, don’t remove it until the meat is fully rested. When it’s ready, slice it across the grain into 1/4 inch thick strips, and splash on some barbecue sauce. The sauce will give it a final addition of smoke flavoring and make the dish almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Serve it with something cool and refreshing: cole slaw is the classic accompaniment, but potato salad, macaroni salad, pickled beets, or pickled red cabbage work nicely too. For a hot accompaniment, sauerkraut simmered with smoky bacon, chopped onions, dry vermouth, and apple juice works beautifully. Serving it without bread would be criminal.
It’s impossible to predict how long the meat should cook, or even what internal temperature it should reach. That’s why this is an advanced recipe: you must use your judgment. I will note that the slower the meat cooks, the lower the internal temperature will be when it’s done. If it cooks in the 220-230 degree range, it will likely be done when it reaches 165 degrees internal. If it cooks in the 240-250 range, it will take less time, and will likely be done when it reaches 175 F internal. But these are just estimates: the brisket’s size in area, its thickness, whether it’s been aged, and its quality (UDSA grade) are significant variables.
Another variable here is my own bias: I dislike “falling off the bone” meat, and prefer traditionally well-done dishes like stews and barbecue with a bit of chew left in them. This recipe reflects that bias, so if you prefer these meats cooked to a greater degree of tenderness, you’ll have to make adjustments.
Some barbecue experts advocate wrapping the meat in foil for the last hour of cooking, increasing the cooking temperature, and taking it to an internal temperature of 185-195 F. This will steam the meat and soften it considerably, but be warned, it will also draw out most of its natural moisture. The meat will be very tender indeed, but too dry for my taste. No amount of sauce can compensate for the loss of the meat’s own juices.
Since the rate of cooking affects the meat’s ideal internal temperature, and several other factors also come into play, how can one know when it’s done? One trick is to put a probe thermometer into the meat and set the temperature alarm to about 150 F so that you can be warned (or awakened) when the meat is approaching doneness. When the temperature probe can be removed with moderate resistance, the meat is ready. If you can shift it about with no resistance, it’s overcooked. If the meat seems to be gripping it, so to speak, it’s undercooked.
Unfortunately, there’s no formula, but there are two basic rules: First, the cooler the oven is, the slower the meat will cook, and the lower its internal temperature will be when it’s done; conversely, the hotter the oven, the faster the cooking, and the higher the meat’s internal temperature will be when it’s done. Second, the larger the piece of meat, the cooler the oven should be and the lower its final internal temperature should be; conversely, the smaller the piece of meat, the hotter the oven should be, and the higher its internal temperature should be.
Thus it’s best to cook large cuts like a brisket flat or a Boston butt in the 220-250 F range, and remove them when they reach approximately 165 F internal. Racks of beef back ribs, pork spareribs, or pork baby back ribs should cook at 320-350 F, and are done when the meat shrinks from the bone exposing about an inch of rib. (Because there is so much bone in these cuts, using a probe thermometer is impractical.) Individual beef short ribs should cook at 370-400 F, and reach about 185 degrees internal. As you can see, both oven temperature and internal temperature should increase as size decreases.
The basic technique here, using the dry rub and the sauce to create a smoked flavor, and using gelatin to prevent moisture loss, will work with beef back ribs and short ribs, and with pork shoulders, spareribs, and baby back ribs. For pulled pork, use a boneless Boston butt. Open it up a bit more with a knife and apply some rub to the inside surfaces. If there’s plenty of surface fat, slice off some and place it inside, to lard the meat. Then tie it up, and cook it according to the brisket directions above, roasting it meat-side up at first to apply the gelatin where it’s needed most, and fat-side up for the majority of the cooking time. I would not take it past 170 F internal. If it’s very large, it will likely be done between 160-165 F internal. In any case, a good, hour-long rest is crucial.
Pulled pork is very susceptible to oxidation and will develop a stale flavor literally overnight. Leftovers should be submerged in barbecue sauce, brought to a simmer so that the sauce percolates throughout the bits, then refrigerated with plastic film laid directly on top. The pork will keep for at least three days in this condition.
Racks of pork ribs or beef ribs need to cook at a higher temperature, and must reach a higher internal temperature, than large cuts of meat. Again, gelatin goes a long way toward keeping them juicy in the oven. They too should be cooked directly on an oven rack with hot air circulating around and a drip pan several inches below. You can keep the pan filled with water to prevent splattering and to keep the oven humid. Again, convection ovens must be set to cook without the fan, which would dry the meat. It’s not necessary to turn the ribs; they can be roasted meat-side up throughout, and only that side needs basting with the gelatin. During your prep, it’s good to remove the membrane from the bone side so that the dry rub can be applied there as well and flavor the meat between the ribs on both sides. They’re done when the meat shrinks from the bone, leaving a one-inch strip of rib visible along their length. However, as with any oven-q, you’ve got to perform a balancing act. If you cook the ribs too slowly, they will dry out regardless of the tricks you employ. If you cook them too quickly, the collagen will not have time to dissolve in the meat juices and bring about the succulence you’re after. I recommend an oven temperature of 320-350 F, but, again, this is a rough guide.
As for beef short ribs, if you can get well-marbled, meaty ones, the gelatin is not necessary. Cook them bones down on a sheet pan with a good application of dry rub all around, and at least one-inch gaps between each. They should cook at a fairly high oven temperature, 370-400 F, but keep in mind that the sugar in the rub might burn at higher temperatures. They’ll be done in 35-45 minutes, which leaves them too little time to become dry.
Barbecue is a demanding and tricky dish to pull off, even with traditional equipment. Doing it in a household oven is trickier still, if more convenient: at least you don’t have to tend a fire. Still, if you’re an experienced cook, you’ll be able to manage the very delicate balance of temperature and time that all barbecue enthusiasts struggle with. It’s challenging and time consuming, all right, but the opportunity for apartment dwellers to enjoy a succulent barbecue at home is too good to be missed.