Tender Quick Brisket: Understanding the Smoke Ring Shortcut

When it comes to barbecue, there are more tried-and-true methods than you can count. Every pitmaster has their own technique, and most are constantly tweaking their routines to find out what works best. Even if you’ve never tried your hand at Tender Quick brisket, you might find the method interesting.

Tender Quick Brisket

Morton’s Tender Quick is a blend made from salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, and sodium nitrite. It’s designed as a fast-cure solution for meat products, and can help create the smoke ring effect on beef brisket. While it’s not as concentrated as some curing salts, it should still be used sparingly.

The Science Behind Smoke Rings

Often, when you carve into a perfectly smoked beef brisket, you’ll notice a pinkish hue just beneath the bark. This is known as the “smoke ring,” and it’s the result of a natural reaction between the gases from the heat source and the meat’s pigmentation.

Here’s what happens: The carbon monoxide and nitrogen from the smoke work to preserve the myoglobin, which is what gives raw beef its red color. Even as the meat cooks through, that pink layer will remain.

Many barbecue enthusiasts believe that the smoke ring is the hallmark of great barbecue. While it certainly looks impressive, the truth is that a smoke ring has virtually no effect on the flavor of the meat. That smoky taste comes about as a result of flavor compounds that saturate the meat all the way through, not just around the outer edge.

brisket bark

About The Tender Quick Method

Tender Quick is a curing salt produced by Morton, a company that’s been in business since 1848. The mixture is mostly salt, but the recipe also contains sugar, as well as trace amounts of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. Propylene glycol is also added to help prevent caking.

In their product description, Morton points out that Tender Quick is not intended for use as a meat tenderizer, despite the name. Instead, it’s meant to enhance flavor and impart a pinkish hue to the meat. That’s why some people use the mixture in their beef brisket rub: to create a faux smoke ring around the perimeter.

Does It Work?

Should you try putting Tender Quick on your next brisket? Although it won’t do any harm, we don’t think it’s a necessary step. Here’s why.

As we mentioned, the smoke ring doesn’t have any bearing on the brisket’s flavor. As long as you’ve followed the instructions, your brisket should taste superb whether it contains that pink layer or not. While salt is indeed a good flavor enhancer, you can get the same effect by using regular kosher salt.

What’s more, the “smoke ring” that comes about as a result of using Tender Quick isn’t actually a smoke ring at all. The mixture contains sodium nitrite, which is the same chemical responsible for giving pastrami its signature red color. When you add Tender Quick to the brisket rub, you’re creating a layer of cured meat.

Alternatives to Tender Quick

Should you decide to take this step anyway, know that Tender Quick isn’t the only option out there. There are plenty of curing salts on the market, and they all offer similar effects.

One alternative would be Prague powder, a favorite of beef jerky enthusiasts. While the name sounds brand-specific, this is actually a generic term for pink curing salt.

There are two forms of Prague powder available: #1 and #2. Prague powder #1 is also known as sel rose and Instacure #1, and it’s made up of sodium chloride with a smaller concentration of sodium nitrite. This is the version most commonly used for salami, pastrami, beef jerky, and sausage.

Prague powder #2 goes by the alternate moniker of “Slow Cure,” and it contains both nitrites and nitrates in addition to sodium chloride. This version was developed to dry-cure meats that need to be stored for extended periods of time (pepperoni and prosciutto are two classic examples).

You might also try experimenting with a flavor enhancer designed specifically for beef. If you go this route, steer clear of any products containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can have adverse effects if consumed in large quantities.

brisket smoke

Tender Quick Brisket Recipe

You’ll notice that the recipe for the brisket rub contains a relatively small amount of Tender Quick. Don’t be tempted to increase the quantity, as a larger amount might make your brisket taste too salty.

Ingredients

1 whole packer brisket (12 to 15 pounds)

For the Rub:

  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons Morton’s Tender Quick
  • 3 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 2 tablespoons celery salt
  • 2 tablespoons onion powder
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions

1. Set the brisket on a clean work surface with the fat side facing up. Trim the fat cap so that only about 1/4 inch remains. If necessary, remove any excess fat from around the edges.

2. Pat the brisket dry with paper towels and set it aside.

3. Combine all of the ingredients for the brisket rub in a small bowl and mix well.

4. Sprinkle the rub all over the surface of the brisket, pressing to make sure it adheres. Make sure the entire surface is coated with the spices. This will ensure flavor consistency and enhance the quality of the bark.

5. If you’ve decided to leave the spice rub on overnight, set the brisket in a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate until you’re ready to start the smoking process.

6. Set the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it’s reached the correct temperature, place the brisket on the cooking grate. It’s best to position it so that the fat side is facing the heat source, as this will keep the meat from scorching during the initial portion of the smoke.

7. Close the lid of the smoker. Let the brisket cook for 1-1/2 to 2 hours per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 195.

If you’d like, you can wrap the brisket in foil partway through the smoke. This method is known as the “Texas crutch,” and it can shave valuable time off the cooking process. It’s best to wait until the meat has achieved an internal temperature of 150 degrees before taking this step. Otherwise, the bark might not have a chance to develop properly.

8. When the brisket reaches the desired internal temp, remove it from the heat. Allow it to rest, loosely covered with foil, for 30 to 45 minutes.

9. Separate the brisket flat from the point. Carve the flat into slices and either chop or shred the point meat before serving. Alternatively, you can cut the point into neat cubes, smother the cubes with barbecue sauce, and return them to the smoker for another hour to make burnt ends.

Final Thoughts

If you want your smoked brisket to have the “wow” factor that a good smoke ring provides, there’s no harm in adding Tender Quick to your rub recipe. Just remember that this technique can’t guarantee quality results. When it comes to authentic barbecue, there are no substitutes for patience and skill.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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