I feel like an egg on a griddle. I'm from Texas, but this— this is hot. The thermometer on our kettle reads 225. In the midday sun, the rooftop terrace stones are probably 250. If a giant pair of tongs spread us spatchcock-style across the roof, I'm certain dark brown grill marks would sear into our stomachs.
Thin blue smoke sneaks up from the kettle and drifts out onto the 12th-story breeze. We've been waiting for this meal for nearly seven hours, and we're only halfway there — but brisket is a food of time and faith. The shimmering shadow of heat from the cooker obscures the towers of the Williamsburg Bridge rising in the distance. Behind me, Megan cowers in the shade of a patio umbrella. She's wearing her apron like a cape to protect her bare arms from the sun.
I check my phone. It's noon.
Megan: I have a confession. I was born in Kansas and moved to Texas when I was 6. But the indoctrination to full-fledged Texan took basically no time at all — “y’all” was an integral part of my vocabulary by second grade.
Two years ago, I moved to New York City and said goodbye to everyone and everything I loved. Buh-bye, chips and queso. So long, sweet tea. And the hardest breakup of all: farewell, BBQ. So when James asked me to smoke a brisket, I was more than willing to help. That said, I wasn't sure how helpful I'd actually be. Other than physically growing up in the vicinity of barbecues, I have no real experience. I’ve never used a charcoal grill; I've only consumed what comes off of one. Also, the idea of sitting outside for 15 hours makes my ginger skin fry. But all doubts aside, I decided to put on my big-girl britches and give it a shot. I mean, how hard could it be? (Spoiler: It’s a little bit hard.)
James: I grew up in the Texas Hill Country — the barbecue capital of the free world. Barbecue was always a part of my life, and brisket was the king of the barbecue chessboard: It’s a noble but fragile ruler, and the game ain’t over until the brisket is done.
Over the years, I’ve visited the Holy Grail barbecue outfits in Texas: Franklin’s, The Salt Lick, Cooper’s, Rudy’s, and Lockhart. I have personally eaten two pounds of brisket and gotten the meat sweats. It’s a pseudo-religious Texas holiday I observe.
New York has plenty of barbecue available. It’s in vogue right now. Foodies love craft stuff, and brisket is a craft dish. But NYC barbecue is expensive. The restaurants are small and crowded. And sometimes the brisket is thoroughly “meh.”
And that’s why it was time to take matters into our own four hands. Megan has a lot of enthusiasm and no experience — just like me! I smoked a brisket once before, but my involvement was minimal (a friend did all the heavy lifting, and I drank beer). It was time for me to step into the spotlight and do the damn thing. Come on!
Smoke a brisket worthy of our Texas heritage. Eat it. Prosper?
IT AIN'T THAT EASY!
We have a few obstacles. Well, three main ones:
- Smoker: We need one.
- Brisket: We need to find a butcher that sells one.
- Location: We live in apartments. Without backyards. Or balconies. Or grills. This is the biggie.
We found a rooftop terrace with plenty of room to grill. This is a perfect solution for a number of reasons. First off, backyards are scarce in New York, but rooftops are plentiful. By and large, New York residents use their rooftops for all the stuff Americans do in the backyard. Things like sunbathing, garden parties, reading in hammocks, watching sunsets, gardening, working out, yoga, having embarrassing phone conversations away from prying ears, and, yes, especially grilling.
Secondly, New York City law makes it difficult to grill. Propane gas grills are basically forbidden everywhere, and charcoal grills cannot be lit within 10 feet of a building or on a rooftop. However, you can use a charcoal grill on a legal terrace (meaning a roof that's been expressly designed for human use) so long as you have a source of water standing by. Our rooftop was a legal terrace with a hose. It couldn't have been more perfect.
But first, we somehow needed to haul our smoker up there.
We are going to smoke our brisket on a Weber Original Kettle. Why?
This grill is an American institution.
Most people don’t own a dedicated smoker. If I had a yard, it’s likely I would own a Weber Kettle. It’s less likely I’d own a dedicated 50-gal steel smoker (though that would make an excellent gift, hint hint).
A dedicated smoker is big and heavy, and it won’t be easy to physically get it onto our rooftop. I think we can lug a Kettle up there.
For those who believe you can't smoke brisket on a Weber Kettle: You are wrong. You can. A quick Google search proves many backyard barbecuers have produced great brisket in a Weber Kettle, so we know it’s possible...but brisket is a touchy mistress. Will Mother Meat be on our side?
Smoking a brisket isn’t like whipping up a batch of cookies or making a sandwich. This is an emotional — dare I say spiritual — experience. I want to cover all the bases to ensure our brisket flavors are top-notch. We need a spirit guide. A meat maven. A grill guru. So I contacted Jess Pryles, a BBQ expert from Austin, Texas, and self-described "Hardcore Carnivore."
I called and explained the challenge (a brisket, on a Weber Kettle, on a rooftop). Jess basically said “LOL GOOD LUCK!” She was clear this was not going to be easy. But it was possible. And that’s great because we love the challenge.
On the brisket: Buy a “packer cut” whole brisket. These are generally 10 pounds, which is maybe too big for your Weber. But if you go too smaller, you’ll likely get the “flat” section of the brisket, which is the less juicy part. Prepare to take extra precautions to make sure you’re not drying your meat out.
On the Kettle: Get ready! You’re in for eight to nine hours of cook time no matter what tricks you have up your sleeve! Resist the temptation to throw more coals in and speed it up — remember, it’s LOW and slow. Definitely use a water pan in the kettle to keep humidity and moisture in the chamber — your lean brisket will thank you!
On the cook: You’re likely going to hit what we call “the stall,” where the brisket stalls at a low temperature and won’t rise. At this point, you can take steps that will get you thrown out of the great state of Texas, but the reality is many backyard cooks use this trick: the foil wrap, also known as the “Texas Crutch.” Wrapping in foil will keep all the condensation with the meat, effectively steaming it. You’ll lose some crisp on your bark, so plan to finish it naked for the last hour to firm it back up.
On the temp: Hope you have enough beers on that rooftop! You need to smoke it until it reaches an internal temperature of 200–210 degrees. The saying in BBQ goes: It’ll be ready when it’s ready! Many pitmasters tell you that when you think your brisket is done, leave it for another hour. After smelling those amazing wafting smoky scents all day, you may be tempted to pull it off early — but don’t!
We ordered all the supplies and built our grill in the office. Our first major setback was a lost screw. After minutes of frantic searching, we found the pesky runaway. Done!
We ordered a car (XL size) to transport our grill to the rooftop terrace downtown because — guess what — we live in New York, and we don’t own cars! Anyone who’s spent time in New York will understand how the simplest things become mammoth feats of strategy and coordination. This was just another hurdle.
The driver was very nice to us and seemed interested in our quest. We stopped along the way to grab a brisket from a butcher — 8.3 pounds strong! We had everything assembled.
We unloaded and transported our grill to the rooftop terrace. First, we packed it onto an elevator and then carried it up a stairwell to reach the roof. The 26” Weber cleared the door frames with less than an inch on either side. That’s not a lot of room for fingers. Never have we been more envious of a ground-level backyard.
Every pitmaster has a different alchemy of spices that gives their brisket the “best” flavor. Some prefer the “dalmatian rub” of salt and pepper, and some involve secret ingredients (apple juice, beer, mustard, cumin, coffee grounds?).
We decided to adopt an “everything but the kitchen sink” flavor philosophy. We rubbed our brisket in a ~not-so-secret~ combination of Weber Smoky Mesquite and Weber Roasted Garlic & Herb seasoning and let it marinade for 12 hours to ensure all those flavors penetrated the meat.
'Tis the season to season.
Our beautiful brisket weighed eight pounds, which meant we were going to need to cook this bad boy for roughly 12 hours. We set a call time for 4 a.m. the next morning. (Oh boy, the things we do for love. And food. And love of food. OK, mostly just food.)
What follows are the time-stamped notes James took on his phone during the cook interspersed with Megan's commentary (in italics).
3:21 a.m.: I am in a cab going to work. People are leaving bars and getting drunk food, and I’m waking up for my day. This is terrible. Traffic is great though.
4:05 a.m.: It’s early, but I’m energetic. I’m a morning person, and that applies even at 4 a.m. apparently.
Megan: James isn't kidding about the energy. Electronic music is blasting, and he's dancing around the grill wearing a headlamp. It's a lot.
4:30 a.m.: Grill is good to go. Coals are heating up.
5:15 a.m.: The brisket is on! We're following all the rules Jess gave us. Water pan, bigger brisket, and plenty of time to smoke 'er to perfection. Low and slow, baby!
5:30 a.m.: I’m afraid. We might make a mistake now that ruins our product 12 hours later. I don't want to think of failure. We've done everything perfectly by the book and our expert's advice. It should be fine.
7:18 a.m.: LOL Megan is napping already. We agreed we'd take turns on the kettle so we could grab some sleep, but I didn't mean now.
Megan: WE WOKE UP AT 3 A.M. Notice I used my grilling apron as a makeshift blanket. Innovator.
8:00 a.m.: The grill is staying on temp. The brisket is heating up. Everything is working!
9:00 a.m.: I have been awake for six hours. When is lunch? Or breakfast...
9:30 a.m.: First visual check on brisket. It looks good. It looks very good.
10:00 a.m.: It is HOT. I am sweating. This roof has no shade. I am sweating like a pig dog. As the brisket smokes, my own fat is rendering on my body. I hope the brisket will be as moist as I am currently.
Megan: Quick reminder that I am a redhead. So while James might be sweating, I am burning. The apron is now being used as a shield from the sun.
11:00 a.m.: Brisket temp rising per schedule!
12:03 p.m.: Salad for lunch. Irony noted.
12:24 p.m.: We are approaching stall territory. We’re discussing how to handle. Do we crutch?
Megan: It's at this point I started throwing out the word "crutch" casually to seem like a brisket expert (briskexpert? no?) without actually knowing what it meant. Like at all. Still not sure.
1:00 p.m.: After some debate, we've decided to employ the Texas Crutch once we hit our next temp level. Megan was enthusiastic about this.
1:30 p.m.: We're getting pretty bored tbh. I'm ready to eat this thing. It's only 1:30, but we've been at this for eight hours. Crazy.
1:50 p.m.: Megan is napping again. This girl loves her sleep.
Megan: I WAS RESTING MY EYES!
2:00 p.m.: We're putting on foil. Hope this speeds things up!
2:32 p.m.: Went downstairs and found Megan napping on couch! She was supposed to be getting water.
3:00 p.m.: We tested the temp. It’s the same from 1 p.m. WTF? Are we stalling? Is this not working? Dinner is in 2.5 hours. Ahhhh!!!
3:40 p.m.: We’re drinking a beer. I can’t even enjoy this. I’m too nervous.
Megan: SPEAK FOR YOURSELF! WE'RE DRINKING A BEER! I CAN ENJOY THIS I'M SO HAPPY!
3:49 p.m.: Megan is sleeping again. I'm learning a lot about Megan's personality. While I hover over the grill like a mother bird guarding her eggs, Megan trusts the process. She sleeps innocently. There is wisdom to this. "If you're looking, it ain't cooking." Megan takes this philosophy to the next level. She doesn't just not look at the grill; she looks at absolutely nothing. She closes her eyes. She’s Zen AF. She is the BBQ Buddha. I could learn from her.
4:04 p.m.: The internal temp is rising! WOOO!!!
5:00 p.m.: We hit our temp! We’re taking it off the grill. We’re doing it. It’s happening. HOPE IT'S GOOD.
Megan: I'm so hungry, y'all. I prepped my stomach this day the same way people approach Thanksgiving, and the hanger was starting to rear its ugly head. I never thought the rising internal temp of meat would bring me joy, but here we are, folks.
5:05 p.m.: Time to let 'er rest. Honestly, it looks so delicious. It's going to taste even better in an hour. We've struck black gold! This is a miracle of nature. This is like when your Pokémon evolves. Ahhh!! I'm friggin stoked.
James: I'm going to judge a book by its cover and say this brisket is great. My eyes are highly pleased. We have some real bark on this baby, not to mention pools of fat dripping off beef mountain. We also have a small red smoke ring. I went down a rabbit hole trying to learn how to make these. Has something to do with myoglobin. I’m going to count this as a big win.
And the flavor? It’s good. Moist, tender, with a bark crackle. Our “kitchen sink” rub is complex. Suffice to say the bark has spark. Thank you Weber Seasoning!
Megan: Taking the brisket off the grill is surprisingly scary. Thankfully for us, the payoff is two thumbs way up. Maybe that's why grilling is so great — focusing all your energy on 8.3 pounds of meat for an entire day makes it taste so much better. It's science.
I ate the first few slices off the butcher paper with my bare hands before I decided to act like a human and make myself a sandwich. For context, I love sauces. It's kinda my thing. And since it's generally frowned upon to eat sauce by itself, solid food is the tool that allows me to have spoonfuls of it without judgment. Now don't get me wrong, the brisket we smoked was super delicious, but the Weber BBQ sauce definitely took the flavors up a notch. Perfectly seasoned brisket + Sweet & Thick BBQ sauce + intense hunger = most delicious sandwich of all time ever.
Megan: Today was serious work, y'all. That said, I have a much better understanding of how this whole grilling thing works. I might even be able to help at my next barbecue instead of just sneakily picking at sides before the main course. This was also quality bonding time. All it took was a little Southern cookin' for two Texas transplants to slow down and smell the brisket. If I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat...but maybe with a later start time — 4 a.m. doesn't look good on me.
James: I can guarantee I will do this again, and soon. I just need to find another roof… Our brisket was good, but it wasn't legendary. Secretly, I hoped to smoke something so delicious that I was hailed as a brisket savant. But I suppose if making world-class brisket were easy, the Hill Country greats wouldn’t be worshipped like they are. Consider it a challenge for next time. And anyway, we managed to do this on a rooftop in New York. The fact that we successfully smoked 8.3 pounds of home is enough for me.
And the best part? Leftovers.