Tips for smoking without a smoker from local pit master Brad Austin, aka “BBQ Brad”
By Phil Lindeman
Texas brisket: The whole package
Brad Austin uses similar spices in his rubs and sauces to marry all the flavors. The following ingredients are for Texas brisket, a slightly spicy cut with sugars that caramelize into a smoky bark. Austin recited from memory:
½ cup Hungarian paprika
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
2 tablespoons sea salt
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon ground celery seed
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups apple juice
4 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup apple juice
1 ½ cups Heinz ketchup
1 cup unused marinade
Half bottle of beer
4 tablespoons unused rub
2 tablespoons orange juice
4 garlic cloves, minced
Rub: Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly, setting aside 4 tablespoons for sauce. Rub mixture on meat only, not fat. Refrigerate in plastic storage bag for 12 hours.
Marinade: In bowl, combine brown sugar, honey and bourbon. Stir until dissolved. Add apple juice, melted butter and molasses. Stir again and set aside one cup for sauce. Add marinade to bag with rubbed meat and refrigerate another 12 hours. Discard after use.
Finishing/table sauce: In saucepan over low heat, add all ingredients except garlic. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool. Put liquid in blender with garlic and blend to desired consistency. As finishing sauce, coat meat thoroughly in final 30 minutes of smoking.
When it comes to barbecue, Brad Austin is more than an enthusiast – he’s a chef, judge, saucier, connoisseur, author, encyclopedia and philosopher. He’s also one of the boldest advocates for a style of cooking he calls “wholly American” and, interestingly, has roots in the poorest kitchens, like lobster before it became a modern-day delicacy.
On the competition circuit and at neighborhood cookouts, Austin is known as “BBQ Brad.” He earned the name after 30 years of smoking everything – brisket, pork, even vegetables for his vegetarian wife – but his specialty remains the sauceless, succulent ribs perfected in his home state of Tennessee. Over the past few decades, he moved across the country for his day job as a nurse, picking up different styles and recipes before settling in the Vail Valley.
“Barbecue is all about patience, what I like to call ‘low and slow,’” says Austin, who has a seemingly endless cache of phrases to describe his passion. “People don’t realize when it’s done you just put 24 hours into a meal. But when it’s finished, you can taste the time.”
Austin planned on barbecuing a smorgasbord of meats at Crazy Mountain Brewery in Edwards the Saturday before the Fourth of July but, like many plans this holiday, had to nix the cookout due to fire danger. If BBQ Brad himself can forgo his smoker for safety, weekend pit masters shouldn’t chance patio flare-ups. A gas grill is a relatively safe alternative, and with Austin’s tips, it can make barbecue nearly on par with a barrel smoker.
Austin shared his indomitable knowledge with SneakPEAK, including inventive step-by-step instructions for near-perfect brisket without expensive equipment. The smoking process is long, but with good company and good beer, it’s worth the effort.
1. “The 16 names of barbecue” (meat)
Choosing the right cut of meat is where barbecue begins. Austin buys his cuts two days beforehand for prep time, but never freezes the meat until after smoking. For brisket, choose a cut with very little marbling and a thick layer of fat on the bottom. Like ribs and pork shoulder, brisket is considered a “lesser” cut, which makes it relatively cheap. Two to three pounds of brisket can feed four people for roughly $15.
2. “The good wood” (wood chips)
When smoking on a gas grill, whole logs won’t work. Instead, Austin recommends wood chips wrapped in heavy foil packets about the size of a book. Basic chips like applewood, maple and mesquite can be bought in bulk at Home Depot and Walmart, and Austin experiments with everything from grape to persimmon. To produce smoke without burning, soak the chips for two hours in water with a dash of bourbon or red wine, then drain and wrap in foil. If you don’t use the packets within a few days, store them in the freezer. Each one lasts about 20 minutes, so make 36 for 12 hours of smoking.
3. “My Stanley toolbox” (rubs and sauces)
Austin keeps a toolbox packed with dozens of custom rubs, and believes making your own blend is vital to barbecue. The key is experimentation: Like wood, different spices and flavors bring out the intricacies of the meat. Find what you like and record it in a notebook – Austin knows the pain of forgetting a good recipe after one too many beers. (See the sidebar for an all-inclusive brisket recipe.)
4. “Lean, mean and clean” (the grill)
Backyard chefs often claim an unclean grill lends more flavor to meat, but Austin likens the theory to never washing pots and pans. A dirty grill can also flare up, and when smoking, burning the meat will ruin hours of work. The day before barbecuing, clean the grate, burners and grease pan thoroughly, and be sure you have a fresh propane tank. If your grill has openings, cover them with foil to trap smoke and heat.
5. “Rib surgeon” (prep work)
In a nod to his medical background, Austin lays out all his gear before smoking, much like a surgeon. His spread includes a thermometer, fuel, wood-chip packets, sauces, utensils and an extinguisher for flare-ups. Outside of competition, he prefers to prep his meat a day beforehand and refrigerate it overnight.
6. “Low and slow” (the smoking)
Now the real work begins. Early in the morning, start a single burner and warm the grill to just less than 225 F – anything more than that and the meat will dry out. Place a punctured wood packet directly on an unlit burner, and put a tin pan of water on the bottom grate for moisture. With a tough cut like brisket, indirect heat is ideal, and keeping the grill saturated with smoke is key. When the packet begins producing a thick, gray smoke, place the meat on an upper grate (or the bottom grate on foil) with the fat facing down, which Austin prefers over letting the fat render through the cut.
During the day, replace the water pan and wood packets as needed, leaving enough time for new packets to start smoking. Mop the meat with apple juice every hour to seal in flavors. Watch the temperature carefully and smoke until the cut is tender inside with a dark bark outside, about 10 to 12 hours.
If you don’t have enough fuel, Austin suggests removing the meat after a few hours and finishing it in a crockpot or preheated oven with water and apple juice. In the last 30 minutes, glaze with a finishing sauce and place under a low broiler to caramelize the outside.