Brisket is pretty much the biggest gamble in barbecue. When it's good, it can be simply spectacular—but when it's bad, it can be a spectacular disaster. "Brisket is the hardest barbecue to perfect. But when it's cooked right, it just melts in your mouth," says Ray Lampe, author of Dr. BBQ's Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook. The beef is a cut from the lower chest of a cow, and it's a very tough muscle with little fat. It even has a grain that runs in different directions, which makes it even harder to deal with. "But the genesis of barbecue is that they took inferior cuts of meat and learned to cook them properly," explains Lampe. Which is why, with the right TLC (and anywhere from 8-20 hours in the smoker), it can be beefy bliss.
Most common in Texas and Kansas City (due largely to an abundance of cows), brisket has a unique taste that often surprises first-timers who are expecting a steak or roast beef flavor or consistency. The perfect specimen should be nice and crusty on the outside (almost black), with a lovely pink smoke ring on the inside. It should start to come apart when you tug on it—no knife needed at this table. And sauce is optional (and actually avoided in many parts of brisket-loving Texas). "Sauce is like a wine—it should be on the side as a complement, but if you need sauce to carry the meat, it's probably not done well," points out David Gelin, author of BBQ Joints: Stories and Secret Recipes from the Barbecue Belt.