Meat cute: A quest for brisket perfection



Lew K. Cohn is the managing editor for Highland Lakes Newspapers, comprised of The Highlander and Burnet Bulletin. He also covers Burnet County Commissioners, the city of Horseshoe Bay, political news and general features. To offer a comment, column idea, news or feature tip email





By Lew K. Cohn
Managing Editor

You may call me Ahab or Galahad, because I defied the odds and hunted down my white whale and Holy Grail. However, unlike them, I have lived to tell the tasty tale myself.

Every year, I get invited by Carrie Kinnison to be a judge at the Howdy-Roo Chili Cookoff at Johnson Park, an annual event which was held for the 48th time on Saturday, May 4.

This event, which is a regional qualifier for the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), is one of the largest chili cookoffs in the United States and qualifies the top five cooks for the annual Terlingua International Chili Championship, which this year will be held from Oct. 28-Nov. 2 at Rancho CASI de Los Chisos.

I have judged the chili contest before, but did not do so last year, so I was game to come back and lend my tastebuds to the cause once more. However, I had another objective in sight: judging brisket for the Lone Star BBQ State Championship, being held simultaneously at Johnson Park for the 25th consecutive year.

Despite having lived in Marble Falls for three years, I had never judged at the barbecue contest because I usually showed up too late to take part, much to my chagrin, for I consider myself a connoisseur of smoked brisket and have been known to be skillful with a smoker and a slow cooker.

I know how bark is formed (the Maillard reaction between amino acid and a reducing sugar creates browning and produces that wonderful flavorful crust). I know a fat cap is best trimmed to about a quarter to an eighth inch and I'm not afraid to sprinkle words like flat (the leaner end of the brisket) and deckle (the point where the flat attaches to the rib cage) into a conversation.

Give me a chance to eat high-quality barbecue brisket for free and you have just described something akin to heaven. So I arrived earlier than I usually do, found a place to park and walked to the chili judging tent to sign in and ask where I needed to be to do the same for barbecue, which was down the hill at the amphitheatre.

My colleague Connie Swinney, who was taking photos for The Highlander, said she has never seen me move as gracefully and effortlessly as I did, bounding like a gazelle through the benches and up the stairs to the stage, where four tables of five chairs each were set up.

To my horror, every seat was taken! Brisket judging was just about to start and it looked like I had missed my opportunity. O woeful day! O woeful day!

I watched forlornly as competitors began turning in their Styrofoam boxes containing their entries. How could I have come so far, just to come up so short? Could fate really be so cruel as to tempt me and take away my just reward?

And that's when I realized Table A (the one closest to me) was not judging brisket, but was still judging pork ribs because it was the FINAL table. I asked one of the officials if the brisket final table judges had been selected yet and was told they had not.

After a complete and thorough investigation (two questions) revealed I was (A) not involved in the barbecue cookoff as a competitor nor (B) related to anyone in the contest, I was told to grab a seat as soon as the ribs judging finished. Fortune favors the bold!

When the ribs judges finished and got up, I grabbed the chair at the end of the table while four others quickly found seats as well. I made it! I was going to be one of the five judges of the final brisket table for the silver edition of the Lone Star State Championship!

We had 22 entries which made the final table and we were asked to rate brisket on a scale of 1-10, based upon several criteria, including overall appearance, texture and taste. A score of 7 or higher was considered to be a good score and I was interested to see how many briskets would score a coveted perfect 10.

What surprised me was the number of the briskets that made the final 22 were not what I would call “championship worthy.” We had some 3s and 4s and 5s mixed in with several 7s and 8s. Promoting a 4 to the finals is the food judging equivalent of waiting until the end of the night at a bar and picking up the last cowgirl or cowboy standing to take home. It made me wonder if some of the preliminary judges must have had “beer goggles” for mouths.

I was not alone in my judgement. All of the judges voiced concern about some of the entries being subpar and we were all waiting for one brisket to meet or exceed our expectations — one brisket smoke ring to rule them all.

That's when box 18 came to the table. It appeared from the start to be a higher quality of meat — I had heard some cooks use Japanese Wagyu beef (which is similar to Kobe beef) for their competition brisket.

This must have been one, because the slice I ate was perfect, with a beautiful crimson smoke ring and the right amount of crusty bark. The mouthfeel and taste was exquisite. I had found the one! A perfect 10! And I know my fellow judges felt the same way as at least two others told me they also rated it a perfect score.

By the time I was done, I had eaten 22 half-slices of brisket — the equivalent of 11 slices total. As a group, we went back up the hill to the chili tent and proceeded to judge 10 chilis that had made the third round of competition. I didn't find any perfect 10s there, but the quality level was very consistently high.

With a full belly and full heart, I slogged my way back to my car and went home, not caring that I would eventually pay for my imprudence with a bout of the meat sweats.

I came. I saw. I ate. And I conquered.

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