You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting a Microsoft retiree–gone–consultant. Somewhat rarer is hitting one who’s also an expert in the arcane art of central Texas brisket.

Jack Timmons, a likable Dallas native who never met a g he couldn’t drop, grew up well aware that barbecue was one of the food groups—he’d just never become a connoisseur. Until he learned of a program that could really only be staged by Texas A&M’s Meat Science department: Barbecue Summer Camp.

There, over a particularly intense weekend last June, Timmons soaked up the expertise of food historians and food science folks and food critics and “old-fashioned people who do things like make sorghum molasses from scratch,” savoring the distinctions among the different Texan styles of barbecue. “East Texas barbecue is all about cheaper cuts of meat and lots of sauce,” he recounts. “In south Texas, it’s the Mexican style of burying [the smoking meat] in the ground, called barbacoa. West Texas doesn’t have a lot of trees, so they’re more about charcoal than wood.” 

But it was the briskets of central Texas that seized Timmons’s palate. “Central Texas barbecue is a style that was started by German and Czech butchers in the late 1800s. There’s no sauce. The brisket is smoked over a hardwood fire, no charcoal, and the meat…it’s just the most exquisite meat, flavored by the wood. Mesquite wood is really strong and rich, perfect for brisket. Post oak is smooth and delicious. Hickory is sweeter.”

Brisket, a chest cut, has two parts—the thin, leaner “flat” and the fatty, thicker “point”—which challenges even the most seasoned chef, as the flat can overcook in the time it takes to render the fat in the point. The goal is an internal temperature of 195 to 200 degrees, with a slice that stays intact—“If a slice of brisket falls apart, it’s overcooked,” sniffs Timmons—and a ring of red, revered as the smoke ring, just inside the outer edge.

To achieve that result, Timmons seasons his brisket with kosher salt and coarse black pepper. He tends the fire in his backyard, customized offset smoker—a big black cylindrical beast where the heat source and the meat are in different chambers—like a mad scientist, monitoring the heat via a remote for his temperature gauge so that he can adjust the flame or move the meat around precisely when needed. 

If he wants to do something crazy during the 18-hour smoking marathon—like, I don’t know, go to bed—he’ll take the briskets out at 10 hours and put them in a Cambro insulated food storage unit, where they’ll only lose a few degrees overnight. And if the brisket temporarily stops cooking, as it often will at 150 internal degrees—known in the biz as “the stall”—Timmons knows from reading his Nathan Myhrvold that it’s just the meat perspiring that’s causing the pause. Depending on his time constraints he’ll wrap the meat in butcher paper or—for a faster result—foil. (“They call that the ‘Texas Crutch,’” he says.) 

Timmons came home from barbecue camp “like Moses comin’ down off the mountain!” And Seattle Brisket Experience was born: a series of brisket-eating events to celebrate central Texas barbecue. He stages these events roughly monthly with live music at various event spaces and restaurants around town (the July event will be at Chungee’s on Capitol Hill), charging diners $25 for a plate of brisket and two of the sides, like Texas black-eyed pea “caviar” or remoulade coleslaw. 

At his last event in May, none other than the “number-one barbecue reviewer on the planet,” Texas Monthly’s Daniel Vaughn, reportedly pronounced Timmons’s smoke ring “gorgeous,” his flat “as good as it gets.” Could Timmons be the guy who finally ignites a bona fide barbecue scene in Seattle? He may need a restaurant first. “It’s starting to shape up,” Timmons hints. Of course this joint can’t be situated too close to a residential area due to all that smoke. And then there’s the stress. “Every time I cook this stuff, I’m nervous,” Timmons confides. “Every brisket cooks differently. Some cook faster than others. Wind can screw it up! Brisket is the hardest thing to barbecue consistently,” he says happily. “I worry all the time about the brisket.”

 

Published: July 2013