10 Reasons Your Barbecue Isn’t as Good as Ronnie Killen’s

Beef up your skills with brisket advice from one of Houston’s most celebrated pitmasters.

By Jeff Balke Photography by Todd Spoth May 31, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Ronnie Killen, Houston’s reigning pitmaster.

Image: Todd Spoth

Ronnie Killen could have been a world-class pastry chef. “My heart just wasn’t in it,” he told us, which is a good thing, because otherwise the barbecue world might have been deprived of one of its foremost smoked brisket experts. Multiple pits line the back of his barbecue joint in Pearland, churning out brisket after brisket at lunchtime for a line of barbecue lovers that can number 1,500 or more on a good day.  

Smoking a brisket demands supreme patience, dedication, and no small amount of skill. And while a few tips from Killen might not be enough to raise your brisket to his high level, that’s okay. Second-rate Killen’s is still better than first-rate anything else.

Why Your Barbecue Isn’t as Good as Ronnie Killen’s

1. Gear

No, you don’t need Killen’s $21,000 pit, but a good smoker is essential. Oh, and make sure the grates are nice and clean and your firebox is in good condition. 

2. Wood

Anybody who’s anybody barbecues with post oak. Killen blends his with some pecan wood for added flavor.

3. Meat

Just because you’re buying frozen supermarket brisket doesn’t mean you can’t be choosy. Turn the package over and over to see if there’s lots of liquid in it and/or the plastic has pulled away from the meat. If so, look for another, fresher option. As for looks, Killen insists that marbling is not as important as the meat’s color. Lighter pink hues mean the cow ate quality feed, which produces a better taste.

4. Prep

Never trust a skinny barbecuer or a lean brisket. That said, make sure the fat cap has been trimmed to about a quarter of an inch—your goal is something smooth and aerodynamic. Rub in a modest amount of equal parts salt and pepper and consider that baby seasoned, though Killen adds a bit of his own special rub to the mix as well.

5. Heat

Always cook the brisket fat side up with its thick end closest to the fire. And over the next several hours, monitor the smoker to make sure the temperature stays between 225 and 250 degrees. Watch your smoker’s smoke too. The wood should burn cleanly or you’ll be serving brisket with a side of smoke.

6. Time

Cooking time will vary with brisket size, but be prepared to smoke your meat for an hour per pound, and by be prepared we mean have plenty of beer on hand to drink while you wait. Running to the store mid-smoke is strictly verboten. You’ll be too busy checking the temperature (see #5). Just don’t do too much peeking—the heat needs to stay in the smoker. 

7. Finishing

The eternal question: how do you know the meat’s done? Well, for one thing, it should have a dark crust. Killen doesn’t use a thermometer, preferring to feel the brisket for doneness (e.g., the fat cap should give easily under the thumb and the flat meaty portion just below it should give slightly—much the way a steak does when cooked medium rare.) Don’t trust your fingers? Use a meat thermometer and make sure to cook the center of the brisket to 195–200 degrees.

8. Resting

Nope, you’re still not done. All brisket should rest for at least an hour after you take it off the fire. This allows the meat to reabsorb its juices—crucial if you want tender brisket. Wrap it tightly in foil and place inside an empty ice cooler or equivalent.

9. Serving

Okay, now you’re done. What does success look like? Your brisket should pull apart but not fall apart. Cutting against the grain, slice the meat into quarter-inch-thick pieces.

10. Saucing

One word: restraint. “Good brisket doesn’t need anything,” Killen says.


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