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Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Great Brisket Experiment

Local Pig is an artisanal butcher shop or, if you prefer, charcuterie. My Dealer has been raving about it, and when they provided bacon for BLTs at the Great Tomato Tasting, I learned that it's owned by a guy I know from homebrewing circles.

I'm not new to the idea here. Factory farming sucks. Nothing is perfect, but being inhumane to animals, exploitative of people and producing an inferior product is a pretty bad combination.

And no, I'm not interested in vegetarianism.

I remember the first time I found out I liked ham. I was almost thirty years old, and up until then I thought that ham was a meat I could only eat when the option was to be flat-out rude to my host.

We visited my first wife's birthmother on her farm in Nebraska, and were served ham for dinner. The artist then known as Frau Lobster tried to cover for me by saying something like, 'Mashed potatoes, your favorite!' so I could eat a minimal amount of ham and fill up on sides.

I had just met these people, and I figured I could choke down anything to be a good guest. I took a bite of that ham and had a religious conversion.

It was one of the best things I'd ever eaten, and I think I had thirds, possibly being a bad guest by reason of gluttony.

The ham wasn't from the store, it was from their farm. It had run around and eaten table scraps and I think they'd even named it. Then one day they took him to the butcher and had him slaughtered, carved up into pieces, and in the case of the ham and bacon, smoked with a dry rub. No brine was injected into the meat the way you get with a 'ham and water product' ham.

So Local Pig promised to have the same basic idea, but available in the East Bottoms

I rode my bike there from work, and I had a little trouble finding it. If you go down the Chestnut bridge/trafficway/hill, to the bottom where the Finish Line diner is, turn left and then an immediate left again. Go past Knuckleheads, across the tracks, and the charcuterie is right there on the corner.

In 20/20 hindsight, I should have bought some sausages and headcheese. They have cases of them, all sorts of varieties, and I suspect it is where this type of operation, specializing in humanely raised, local animals, really shines. But it's been too long since I fired up the smoker, and they had dry aged beef on offer, too.

I got a brisket flat, and honestly, the fat cap was so thick I almost balked and went with something else. Eight bucks a pound, literally twice the price of a 'choice' grade from Bichelmeyers, where I normally get braising cuts for my Weber Smokey Mountain.

I wondered, is that four bucks per pound I save the price of cruelty, antibiotics and hormones? Will I be able to taste the difference?

I got some grass matured ground beef while I was there, too. And after I'd loaded my bike with twelve pounds of high-dollar meat, I got to thinking, Wait, how'd they get a fat cap like that on a grass matured brisket?

I went back in and inquired, and yep, their beef is finished on corn except for that grass fed ground beef. The guy said they tried a couple of grass matured animals for roasts and steaks but they were 'so awful.'

By which I think he meant gamey the way bison can be. I've had corn fed bison that was indistinguishable from beef, so I'm pretty sure it's the diet rather than the precise species and breed that really matters. Maybe if I want meat like that I should finally figure out a borrowed rifle and a deer tag this fall.

The grass fed ground produced really good burger, maybe on the dry side because of how lean they are and the fact that my youngest daughter had a seizure at the perfect time to keep me from pulling them off the grill medium-rare.

For the brisket I decided to do a test. I got a brisket flat from Bichelmeyer and rubbed both it and Local Pig's with my patent-pending rub (brown sugar with a wide variety of spices, red and black peper, cumin, cinnamon, ground cloves, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, turmeric, nutmeg and whatnot) and put them both in the smoker.

I swapped their positions about eight hours in. The temperature in the smoker never got above 250ºF, never below 220ºF, and the meat was in there for sixteen hours.

The Bichelmeyer brisket appeared more marbled, had almost no fat cap, and was eight pounds. The Local Pig was just shy of ten pounds, and had a fat cap so thick, like I say, I almost didn't buy it.

The Bichelmeyer dried out pretty good, though using the 90 minutes per pound formula, I should have gotten up in the middle of the night to pull it. I didn't do that.

The Local Pig tasted fantastic but was almost too juicy/greasy. I resolved these two problems by chopping both briskets together and mixing them up. The result was just about perfect as far as the fat/lean thing goes and the flavor was fantastic.

I'll try Local Pig again for some other cuts and/or those sausage type things. The brisket part I'm still struggling with: it seems like too much of a price difference to justify, but maybe I'm being too much of an American. If you really assume a four ounce serving of meat is a 'serving' the stuff is only two bucks a serving. Maybe I need to dial down my actual serving size to that four ounce level rather than look for excuses to buy $4/pound brisket that has likely been factory farmed.

A note on the photography, by the way: I was really tired when I woke up to pull the meat from the smoker, and still half asleep when I shot these pictures after my wife and house guests had tucked into a breakfast of smoked meat. I know the Local Pig was cut with the grain instead of across it; I can tell my depth of field was insanely shallow/narrow; and I know that on top of that my shots inside the charcuterie had the white balance set all wrong.

So will I be back to Local Pig? Bichelmeyer? I think yes to both.

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