Because beef brisket is a naturally tough piece of meat, experts are always looking for ways to tenderize it. A long, low-and-slow cooking process is essential, of course. But what about the preparation technique known as wet aging?
Let’s find out more about this term so you can decide if wet aging brisket is something you’re interested in.
Wet Aging Brisket
Wet aging is a process that allows the enzymes in the beef to break down the protein strands, thereby ensuring a tender and delicious brisket. The meat should age for 30 to 60 days following the “kill date,” so it’s vital to get the correct date from the butcher or grocery store at the time of purchase.
Why is brisket so tough to begin with? It’s not because the meat is inferior to other cuts. On the contrary, brisket is a popular choice among pitmasters, because it has enough fat and connective tissue to hold up to long hours in the smoker.
The texture of a brisket is related to its location on the steer before butchering. The cut is taken from the lower portion of the rib cage. When the cattle is still alive and moving around, these muscles get a good daily workout. This has the effect of toughening the meat.
Some barbecue enthusiasts swear that a brisket taken from the left side of the animal will be more tender than a cut from the right-hand side. That’s because the steer often rests on its left side, meaning that it uses the muscles on the opposite side to push itself up. That said, the pros are divided on whether left handed brisket is really worth the hype.
Cryovac Packaging: What It Is and Why It Matters
If you’re planning to wet age your brisket, it will need to be in its original cryovac packaging. You’ve probably seen this before, even if you didn’t know what it was called at the time.
Cryovac packaging is also called vacuum-sealed packaging because it locks the meat inside so effectively. In fact, it fits the meat almost like a layer of skin, allowing no air inside. This keeps bacteria from contaminating the surface.
When a brisket is vacuum-sealed in this manner for long periods of time, it gets even juicier than it would be if you’d cooked it right away. That’s the process known as wet aging, which is why the packaging is essential.
This type of packaging is highly effective if you plan to freeze the brisket. However, if you opt for wet aging, it can also keep the meat fresh in the refrigerator for up to two months.
About Wet Aging Brisket
As the brisket sits in the cryovac package, natural enzymes will slowly break down the protein strands in the beef. It’s a slow process, but if you’re serious about making delectable brisket that melts in your mouth, patience is key.
When the protein strands are allowed to break down, the meat will be much more tender than if you’d cooked it right away. However, the wet aging process needs to take place in a carefully controlled environment. Otherwise, you’ll run the risk of spoilage.
Of course, you can also rely on dry rubs and brisket injections to make the meat more flavorful and moist. However, no recipe can match the benefits of wet aging brisket—as long as it’s done correctly.
How To Wet Age Brisket
Checking the Date
Your first step is to choose the right cut of meat. As you know, brisket will be tough when it’s first sealed in the cryovac packaging. It will begin to tenderize as it sits in the cooler at the butcher shop, which works in your favor.
That said, the meat isn’t getting any fresher. In order to properly wet age the brisket, you’ll need to know exactly when it was packaged for sale.
Know that this date is not the same as the “sell by” date that vendors use to move their product along. When the meat is packaged after butchering, the processors will print a “kill date” on the label. This refers to the specific date on which the meat was slaughtered. That’s the information you need.
When you purchase beef by the case, the kill date should be clearly visible. This is true even if you buy the meat at a supermarket or big-box store. However, if you only plan on buying a single brisket, you’re better off visiting your local butcher shop. They should be able to provide you with the kill date so you’ll know how long to wet age the meat.
This is a critical step in the process, so don’t be tempted to rely on the sell-by date instead. If you don’t know the kill date, the meat might go bad before you have a chance to cook it, and all your hard work and patience will go to waste.
Hitting the Fridge
After bringing the brisket home, leave it in the cryovac packaging. This will prevent bacteria from forming on the meat, so it will remain fresh while the enzymes do their work.
One caveat: If you see any air inside the vacuum-sealed package, you’ll need to either freeze or cook the brisket immediately. The wet aging process won’t work unless the brisket is sealed tightly.
Place the meat on the lowest shelf in your refrigerator, in a spot where it won’t be disturbed. The meat needs to stay as cold as possible—preferably between 32 and 34 degrees Fahrenheit.
Master chefs and other professionals who are serious about wet aging will often keep a refrigerator dedicated exclusively to packed brisket. Most of us aren’t as lucky, but if you do happen to have a second refrigerator that you don’t open often, your brisket will be better off in there.
Waiting it Out
For best results, the brisket should be wet aged for 30 to 60 days. We think the meat is best when we cook it around the 45-day mark, but you can adjust this formula to suit your tastes.
Set a reminder or mark a date on your calendar so you’ll know when to check on and prepare the brisket. Remember to count the days from the kill date, not the day you brought the meat home.
To ensure freshness, always cook the brisket before you hit the 60-day mark. While it’s possible for the meat to last longer when it’s left in the packaging, there’s no way to be sure. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to potential spoilage, particularly with a large cut like brisket.
Be aware that small air bubbles will often appear in the cryovac packaging during the wet aging process. These are formed as a result of the proteins breaking down, and they’re nothing to worry about—that is, unless the packaging itself begins to inflate. If that happens, then you need to cook or freeze the brisket right away.
Opening it Up
When you’ve reached the appropriate stage in the wet aging procedure, it’s time to open the packaging and cook off the brisket.
Carefully cut open the vacuum-sealed package with a small, sharp knife. It’s best if you set the meat in a disposable aluminum roasting pan to catch all the juices. Remove the packaging and inspect the brisket. It will have a strong odor, but it should not smell rancid or “off” in any way. If it does, then it needs to be discarded.
Rinse the brisket under cold running water and pat it dry with paper towels. If you have a seasoning rub prepared, now is the time to apply it. If you’d prefer to keep things simple, season the meat with liberal amounts of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Smoking the Brisket
When you’ve gone to the trouble of wet aging a brisket, you want to give it the royal treatment every step of the way. Select a hearty wood for the smoker that will stand up to the robust flavor of the beef. Hickory is a classic choice, but you can experiment with whatever combination you prefer.
Set the smoker temperature to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and smoke the brisket for 1-1/2 to 2 hours per pound. A 10-pound whole packer brisket should take 15 to 20 hours to cook through at this temperature. It might be hard to wait, but the long slow smoke will help to preserve that tender texture that you’ve worked so hard to achieve.
About halfway through your estimated cooking time, start testing the internal temperature of the meat with an instant-read thermometer. Sometimes, the brisket will cook faster than you were expecting due to fluctuating temperatures inside the smoker.
When the meat has achieved an internal temperature of 195-205 degrees, it’s ready to be taken off the heat. The ideal temp for brisket is 210 degrees Fahrenheit, but it will continue to cook slightly once you’ve removed it from the smoker.
Wrap the cooked brisket in aluminum foil and let it rest for 30 to 60 minutes. Once the meat has cooled and the juices have redistributed, carve the flat end into slices. The knife should slide right through the meat like butter. As for the point, you can either chop or shred the meat for sandwiches, or use it to make burnt ends.
Wet aging isn’t a necessary step when it comes to smoked beef brisket. However, we think it’s the best way to ensure tender and mouthwatering results. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the process, you’ll want to start buying your brisket well in advance every time.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!