The region has no shortage of many things.
We have a fireworks store on nearly every corner – buy one, get 12 free. Need your oil changed? Those places are a dime a barrel. And when it comes to food, if you're looking for a Chinese buffet, it might take a year to get through them all if you tried one a week.
But what Northwest Indiana seems to be lacking is barbecue joints. Oh, sure, we've got them. Big Daddy's in Gary and Hammond has a stellar reputation. True BBQ in Munster provides a bit of an upscale option. And when Bombers in Munster came along, it seemed to be a not-so-subtle reminder that in a two-county area of nearly 700,000 people, we ought to have more low-and-slow options to keep some of us from needing to spend an hour in the car just to pick up some brisket and pulled pork.
Welcome to the era of home smoking. With a minimal investment, some trial-and-error, and a lot of patience, it has become infinitely easier for the home cook to try his hand at being a pitmaster.
Gone are the days of needing to have a trailer-sized smoker with a big pile of wood next to it. While it may be a bit of a sacrilege to barbecue purists, amateurs can get their smoke on using any number of smokers that are sized appropriately for rolling out of the garage on the weekend – including electrics.
That's how I got my start smoking meat nearly a year ago – with an electric smoker that is practically idiot proof. That's exactly what some of us need. My smoker lets me set the temperature, set the time, and has a built-in thermometer to monitor the internal temp of the meat.
"How can I go wrong?" is what I thought when I first got into the smoking business – when I made the decision to go with brisket right out of the gate. I hadn't yet had a conversation with John Stage, the founder and owner of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, the New York-based "cartel" of restaurants that earlier this year opened up its first Midwest spot in Chicago.
"You look at brisket as being the most difficult and work your way backward," Stage told me in May - after I was probably 10 brisket flats and $400 into my smoking career, with all of them being OK, but none of them the kind of result you bite into and tell yourself you'd be fine if that was your last meal. "You've got to put a lot of time into brisket to get it right."
So that's what I've been doing, every two or three weeks. The smoker comes out to the deck, and a 5- or 6-pound brisket flat gets dry-rubbed, and gets an injection marinade, and it heads into its home for the next half a day.
There's plenty of things that can go wrong when smoking meat, particularly brisket. If you don't cook it long enough, it'll be safe to eat – but too tough. If you cook it too long, you can actually make it too tender – meaning it'll start to crumble when you slice it.
But the biggest thing I learned, at least to get the results I'm looking for, is that no matter what you read about how long per pound brisket should take to finish, it doesn't matter. I'm going after a particular internal temperature of the meat when I pull it out of the smoker to wrap it, and then another temperature when I pull it out to rest.
In my early days, I got caught up in how long the meat was in the smoker compared to what I thought it was supposed to be. The internal temperature didn't seem to be moving. I thought certainly I had a bad thermometer. I panicked. I pulled the meat out. And it was ... well, we ate it. But it was far from what I knew it should be.
I hadn't learned about "The Stall," a process that Stage likens to the last collagens inside the brisket holding on for dear life, starting to break down. Once that has happened, you push through The Stall (a phenomenon that can play such mind games with barbecue cooks that it gets capitalized) and you're on your way.
"I think where a lot of people go wrong when they do good barbecue is they get frustrated with the amount of time it's taking," Stage said. "… With brisket, you're on brisket time. The brisket's not on your time. You've got to understand it may not be ready when you want it. … (The science) is the crux of it – you've got to peel that onion back 10 layers to really get to the heart of consistent barbecue."
For me, that means staying consistent with my dry rub (my recipe creates a great bark that has plenty of bite), staying consistent with my injection marinade, staying consistent with my smoker temperature, and most importantly, staying consistent with when I take the meat out. I pull it the first time at 190 degrees internal and wrap it in foil. It goes back in, then pulled out again at 203 degrees to rest for ideally a couple hours.
That's what has worked for me the last four or five briskets, and the results have been nothing short of amazing. But it took 20 very, very average briskets to get there.
The key to doing your own barbecue with a home smoker seems to be that patience Stage is so keyed in on. It takes patience on the day of the cook. But it also takes a lifetime of patience. On a long enough home cooking timeline, you'll have all kinds of chances to work at it to make it right.
Uncle MattE's Dr Pepper BBQ Sauce
1 can Dr Pepper
2 cups ketchup
1 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Liquid Smoke
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon Cholulua hot sauce
1. Add everything to a large sauce pot and whisk until well combined.
2. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until sauce starts to bubble.
3. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 10 minutes, or until sugar is fully dissolved.
4. Let cool.
5. Store in two 16-ounce plastic sauce squeeze bottles
Uncle MattE's Smoked Brisket
1 brisket flat (5-6 pounds)
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup granulated garlic
1/4 cup Chicago-style steak seasoning
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup beef broth
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Apple cider vinegar
1. Let the brisket sit at room temperature for about an hour. Trim the fat cap side of the brisket of the thickest areas of fat. Leave some marbling, but the thickest pieces should be trimmed off.
2. Pre-heat smoker to 245 degrees, and add wood chips after it's heated. (I prefer Jack Daniel's oak chips made from whiskey barrels.)
3. Rub mustard onto all sides of trimmed brisket. This is what will help the rub stick. Insert a toothpick in the meat so the tip is pointing the direction of the grain.
4. Mix pepper, garlic, salt, steak seasoning and brown sugar together with a whisk in a bowl, then coat brisket on all sides.
5. Mix beef broth and Worcestershire sauce, and using a meat injector, slowly inject into brisket every couple inches in a crosshatch pattern.
6. Smoke the brisket, spraying with apple cider vinegar every 30 minutes after it's been in for three hours.
7. When the brisket's internal temperature reaches 190 degrees, pull it out. Spray it with apple cider vinegar once more and drizzle honey over the top of it. Then wrap it in foil with the top tented just slightly.
8. Put wrapped brisket back in the smoker until internal temperature reaches 203 degrees.
9. Remove brisket and let sit, wrapped, for at least an hour before slicing.
10. Slice against the grain – which you should be able to find easier thanks to your toothpick. Serve with Dr. Pepper BBQ Sauce and your favorite sides.