Brisket Boot Camp
My wife, from time to time, starts a sentence with “I’ve been working on something.” This is usually a good thing. In the past this has meant a trip to Maine to become a lobster fisherman for a day or driving a NASCAR at 165 miles an hour around the Texas Motor Speedway. But this time it was something totally different. Cheryl went on, “I’ve arranged to have a Brisket Boot Camp at our house.” Now I’ve been told I can do some pretty good ribs and my pork butt is a family reunion favorite but brisket has always eluded me. So this was going to be fun, educational and tasty!
Little did I know that the ‘Boot Camp’ would be headed up by arguably one of the best competitive barbecue chefs Oklahoma has ever produced. Mike Hays.
Mike started his career in competitive barbecue while sampling the offers at the Harwelden Art of Barbecue event in 2004. Christy, Mike’s wife said “Your barbecue is better than this.” That’s all the guy needed and within a week he had a Kingfisher Kooker and in two weeks he was on the road. The road would take him traveling to competitions in 38 states over the next 10 years. His success would garner him sponsors like Royal Oak Charcoal, a national software company, and Jim Beam Distilleries to name a few. He would win or place in over 50 championships including winning back to back Grand Championships at the Jim Beam Classic in 2013 and 2014. This is the guy that would be teaching the Boot Camp. I quickly got my guest list of ‘want-to-be’ pit-masters together and we had a party … I mean Boot Camp.
There is a reason I call it a ‘Boot Camp’. Smoking a brisket is not a 30 minute affair. By the time your brisket is ready to serve you have learned beef anatomy, been taught knife skills and lost a lot of sleep.
The Mike Hays Brisket ‘Boot Camp’ started at 6:00 p.m. Saturday with Mike holding court over two 18 lb USDA prime packer briskets. As Mike broke down the brisket into the “point” and the “flat”, we quickly learned how to select the perfect brisket for competition showing us the proper meat to fat ratio to look for. The “point” is smoked to become the burnt ends and the flat, in 16 hours, would become the best brisket I have ever eaten in my life.
The rub is next in the process. This is the stuff the bark is made from. It’s a combination of salt, pepper, sugar and herbs that adds flavor enhancing the finished product. Mike uses a combination of two rubs. One off the shelf called Smokin’ Guns Hot Rub, the other a concoction of his own secret ingredients. Mike applied it liberally to the meat and then let it sit to allow the rub to work its magic. If you were in competition you would be moving on to ribs, pork butt and chicken prep but for us it was time to learn about fire management.
In competition you can have the best technique, rubs, and meats but if you don’t get the fire right … forget about it! Here are a few things to remember about your fire. First you don’t have to see smoke to be getting smoke. It makes no difference if you are using charcoal, logs, pellets or gas; you don’t want your meat tasting like it came out of a house fire. In-direct heat is best. Mike likes an off-set smoker with the fire box to the side. But the number one thing is don’t get in a rush. Low and slow is best. Cook at about 225ºF – 250ºF. You can grill a brisket in four hours but you are not going to cut it with a fork like you will if you go low and slow.
Once the smoker gets up to temperature the meat goes on and the cherry wood starts to work its magic. This is the part where you need some helpers to take turns with fire duty over-night. I made the mistake of recruiting my good friend and my twin brother to help with this task. I didn’t realize they had been enjoying the party aspect of the boot camp a little too much. No worries. For the most part all I was doing was refueling the fire and spritzing the brisket with a little no-salt beef broth from time to time.
The moment of truth came at 7:00 a.m. Sunday when Mike returned to check the progress. He checks the meat by hand without probes so not to poke holes in the meat to let the juice out. He liked what he saw so the briskets got yanked, put into foil with some consommé and back on the grill to finish cooking.
At about 11:30 a.m. the meat was removed from the foil to reveal some of the most gorgeous smoked meat you have ever set your eyes on. But you don’t cut it yet. You let it rest for what seems to be forever, but turns out to be about 30 minutes. Mike slices each piece like he is preparing a presentation plate for the American Royal. He likes to sauce it with a drizzle of two parts Blues Hog Original sauce, two parts Head Country Original and one part defatted brisket juice.
How was the brisket?
Let me answer it this way. We finished with about 20 lbs of brisket and burnt ends. There were 19 boot campers and there were no leftovers! The meat was fork tender and juice-worthy of a “Jack” Grand Champion.
Mike may not be competing any more but he hasn’t lost the touch.
Questions & Answers with Mike Hays
TL: What is the one event that is most memorable?
Mike: I’ve been fortunate enough to cook all over the country so it’s hard to pin down an event that is most memorable, but I would have to say that winning my first Grand Championship in Bixby would be at the top of the list, and a very close second would be winning back to back Grand Championships at the Jim Beam Classic in 2013 and 2014.
TL: What is your favorite meat to smoke?
Mike: My favorite meat to smoke has always been, and will probably always be pork spare ribs. It’s kind of where I started, and continues to be my favorite.
TL: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to the home enthusiast or novice?
Mike: The best piece of advice I can give to the home enthusiast or novice is to just be patient and don’t focus on your mistakes. There’s tons of information online these days to learn from, but the best way to learn is to get out there and just do it. Whether you’re grilling or smoking, just stick with it, even when you’re not successful at first. Learn all you can about techniques, visit local BBQ contests and talk with competitors, and then take that knowledge out to your patio and put it to use. And keep at it if you don’t have a successful cook, because the first time you nail that rack of ribs, or that turkey, or whatever it may be, you’ll forget about all the previous disappointments.
TL: You’ve received a lot of honors and awards throughout the country and locally. Which ones are you most proud of?
Mike: I been very fortunate as a competitor to have won several contests over the years. My first Grand Championship was at the Bixby contest in 2006, my 1 year anniversary of competing. I’ve cooked the American Royal Invitational in Kansas City numerous times and have been lucky enough to be drawn to cook the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational 3 times. My proudest accomplishments have come toward the end of my competition career. I was elected by my peers to the Board of Directors of the Kansas City BBQ Society in 2015 and currently serve as the organizations President. In 2016, I was inducted into the Jim Beam BBQ Hall of Fame, and I’m also very humbled and proud to have been inducted into the Oklahoma BBQ Hall of Fame in February of this year. To have your accomplishments and contributions recognized by your peers after 10 years of competing in BBQ contests all over the country is the greatest reward one could ask for.