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September 3, 2018 - The Road From Rote To Mastery

or, a frustrating night of BarBeQue.

tl;dr And worse, philosophical. But not "scientific" (Thanks to Blind Dog Cooley!)

Sometimes I get frustrated with new bread bakers. They want all the answers handed to them on a silver platter. And calibrated. "How can I use whole wheat instead of all-purpose flour?" "Can I use beer to make bagels instead of water?" "When is my bread done?" That last one is especially interesting for me today.

Some bakers go by time and temperature. 45 minutes at 400F. Done! Others go by internal temperature, when it gets to 205F, hey, it's done! Jeff Hamelman goes by color, by the heft of the bread, by how it sounds when he thumps the bottom. He's a master baker. I've never had luck thumping the underside of a loaf. I'm not a master baker. Still, I've seen him do it at Camp Bread 2007 (1), and they were perfect. He is, again, a master.

One of the campers asked about internal temperature and he commented that he just couldn't bring himself to ruin a loaf by poking a hole in it with a thermometer. I commented that I cut those loaves up into samples at the farmers market. After a bit, he decided the only way to shut us up was to poke a hole in a loaf. And, there it was, dead on 205F. Again, he's a master.

Getting there is simple though. Mastering your formulas, your fermentation, your rise, loafing, your ovens and time. And 30 years of experience. Easy peasy! More seriously, when a master does it, it looks easy.

And now that I am getting more into barbeque, I find myself asking the same sort of newbie questions. "How can I tell when the brisket is done?" Aaron Franklin commented that brisket is our horribly overcooked meat. "You cook it until it's done, and then keep cooking until it's tender." For those not in the know, brisket is not normally a tender piece of meat, but it does benefit from long, low temperature, cooking. Think somewhere between 225F and 275F, somewhere between 12 hours and darned near forever.

At the Camp Smoke (1) Brisket workshop at Lockhart Smokehouse, Will, the pitmaster, said, with great political incorrectness, that he looks for something in a brisket similar to what a teen-aged boy looks for in a teen-aged girl's bikini. He dropped a cooked brisket onto a table and it quivered. It jiggled. It wiggled. Beautifully. It filled our lunch with inexpressible joy and delight.

Yeah, but, what temperature should I cook the darned thing to? My WiFi enabled thermometer can tell me temperature, but it can't tell me wiggle and jiggle and quiver!

Aaron Franklin said all briskets are different, and they are done at different temperatures. *sigh* Yeah, OK, but, what temperature should I cook it to?

Last night I decided that the Costco Prime Brisket should be cooked to 205 and then we'd see where we were. I started cooking around 8:00 AM. Around midnight it finally got to 200. And then it went to 201. And the fire cooled off, so I added wood to the fire. It went to 199. 200. 201. Time to add more wood to the fire. I added a LOT of wood to the fire. And the brisket wouldn't get to 202, much less 205! At 2 AM, I decided whether or not the brisket was done, I sure was.

When I got it to the kitchen I discovered the brisket was overdone. Was the WiFi thermometer stuck? Had the brisket hit another perverse stall?

For those not into barbeque, when a brisket gets to about 165F, the meat stops heating for a few hours as the moisture in the meat evaporates which in turn cools the meat as fast as it is cooking. The stall is very frustrating, but people didn't even know it was there until they got instant read thermometers - once thermometers, especially wireless thermometers, came out newbie barbeque enthusiasts got antsy. Until then, they knew it would take 12 to 20 hours and opened another beer as they kept looking for the wiggle, the jiggle and the quiver.

There are a number of ways of dealing with the stall. The best, from where I'm sitting, is to open another beer and wait it out. Some people wrap the brisket in butcher paper (Aaron's preferred way) or aluminum foil to trap the heat and force the brisket through the stall. Each method has its fans. Me? I like beer. And the crispier bark of an unwrapped brisket.

Anyway, does it matter what was happening? No, what matters is I should have been at the pit looking for that wiggle and jiggle and quiver. Not looking at a thermometer. A thermometer is a poor replacement for human judgment!

The thermometer's role is to foster learning and build technique, not take its place. Whether you are baker, or a budding pitmaster, or are involved in any of a thousand other crafts, at some point you need to move beyond dependence on coarse tools and develop craft mastery.

This has been a report from someone on the road to brisket mastery. Whether I will get there is another question. Last night's brisket? It's nice, very nice in fact. But it could have been better had I gone to the pit instead of looking at temperature readings on a browser screen. And I would have gotten to bed lots earlier too!

Until next time, may your dough always rise, and may your brisket get properly overcooked, no matter how you choose to manage your processes.
-Mike

(1) PS - Does it seem like I go to a lot of camps for an old guy? Yeah. I also go to WordCamp, a camp where words are rehabilitated. No, it's for WordPress enthusiasts. Camps for adults are at least as much fun as camps for kids, probably more fun because the adults really want to go! And there are adult beverages in the after meetings. Look around see what's happening in your area - you could be a camper too!

PPS - for the budding barbeque junkie, here's a video of Aaron Franklin comparing an unwrapped, a paper wrapped, and a foil wrapped brisket.

And for people wanting a bit more detail about the stall, there is this article at Amazing Ribs.

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