On the brisket beat with Steven Raichlen

World-renowned food writer and Chappy’s grillmaster in residence says his new book is an “autobiography seen through brisket.”


Who would have guessed Chappaquddick was the brisket epicenter of the world?

Famed grillmaster, popular writer, brisket aficionado, and part-time Chappy resident Steven Raichlen is the author of “The Brisket Chronicles,” a step-by-step guide to braising, smoking, and curing the perfect brisket.

Raichlen says the best way to describe his book is as an autobiography seen through brisket. He begins with the science of brisket, and follows it throughout the world, before giving a history on what he calls “the world’s most epic cut of meat.” Numerous recipes fill the book’s later pages.

“It just seemed like a great way to take meat lovers around the world using this one kind of meat as a magic carpet,” Raichlen said in a recent interview with The Times.

Raichlen splits his time between Miami, Fla., and the Vineyard. He’s known for hosting the popular television shows “Project Fire,” “Project Smoke,” “Primal Grill,” and “Barbecue University.” His extensive writing career spans the globe and several major publications.

“Brisket is having its moment,” he said. “People are doing really amazing brisket all over the country, and indeed all over the world … you can get great brisket anywhere.”

There’s barbecued brisket in Texas, pastrami and corned beef in New York City, vaca frita in Cuba, sulungtang in Korea, red-cooked brisket in China, and stracotto and bollito misto in Italy.

Despite this moment of brisket, Raichlen says it’s still an intimidating cut for many people. 

“It’s probably the largest piece of meat most people will buy. It represents a half-day commitment in terms of cooking it. There’s just something about brisket that’s bigger than life … it’s central to culinary happiness in so many food cultures.”

Brisket is a dense piece of meat that comes from two steer chest muscles. One is the flat, and the other is the point. Due to its well-exercised, load-bearing use, brisket makes for a poor grilling candidate. Instead, brisket should be cooked “low and slow,” according to Raichlen’s book. It’s packed with flavor, but if not cooked correctly, it can be tough.

For a great barbecue brisket you need four ingredients: brisket, salt, pepper, and woodsmoke. Finer points to cooking the meat are the wrap, the rest, the smoke rate, the stall.

There are two types of rubs Raichlen recommends. The black-and-white rub is made up of cracked black peppercorns and salt. The newspaper rub is black (pepper), white (salt), and “read” all over (red pepper flakes).

It was an almost insurmountable task to choose a single brisket from the book, but one of Raichlen’s favorites was a rare and expensive A5 Wagyu beef brisket from Japan that he cooked on his “Barbecue University” television show. The cut cost close to $1,200. A5 is the highest grade for meat in Japan, and Wagyu are bred for their marbled meat. 

Beyond brisket, Raichlen loves to cook T bone steaks “caveman style,” which means laying it directly on the embers, but that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to other cuts of meat. “I never met a cut of meat I didn’t like,” Raichlen said.

Raichlen shares memories of his earliest briskets during holiday dinners, corned beef he ate as a teenager, pastrami he learned how to smoke in college while working at a delicatessen, French and German briskets he ate while abroad on a Watson Foundation fellowship, and meat he ate in Vietnam while writing for National Geographic’s Traveler magazine. “Almost every decade of my life there’s been a brisket that has figured prominently in my life,” he said.

Meat-lovers can take their love of brisket to the next level with Raichlen’s book, which includes more than 60 recipes. Picking his favorite recipe out of the book was a bit of a challenge, but Raichlen suggests the Korean-style quick-cook brisket — a brisket that is actually grilled. First the brisket is frozen solid, then it is cut into paper-thin slices. The thin strips are then cooked over a high heat on a hibachi grill for 29 seconds per side. 

He’s been coming to the Vineyard since his days as a restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. Each year, the magazine would do a roundup of restaurants on the Cape and Islands.

Some of Raichlen’s favorite brisket on the Island comes from Sea Smoke Barbecue in Oak Bluffs, brisket scones at State Road restaurant in West Tisbury, and of course all the briskets Raichlen smokes himself at his home on Chappaquiddick.

Fans of Rachlen’s food writing and recipes might also have some fun with his soon-to-be published novel, “The Hermit of Chappaquiddick.” The book strays away from his legendary recipes, but finds Claire, a New York book editor who is recovering from a serious illness, house-sitting on the tiny island. There, Claire meets the Hermit. Cooking, passion, and mystery ensue.

“The Brisket Chronicles” is available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven for $19.95. For more information, visit stevenraichlen.com.