Grass-fed versus grain-fed is one of the great (“grate?”) debates in barbecue. Conventional wisdom holds that grain-fed beef, being fattier and better marbled, makes a more luscious brisket.
Conventional wisdom has not tasted the brisket of Vance and Lindsay Williams of Farmhouse BBQ in the Asheville area of North Carolina. I first met the Williams at a Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, where they hauled their monster smoker and turned out brisket so succulent and cut-with-the-side-of-a-fork tender, it rivaled any brisket I ever tasted in Texas or Brooklyn. The Williams are firm believes in a principle that has come to govern my barbecue: what your beef eats, where it comes from, and how humanely it was raised matters more than how you smoke it.
Want to know more about the majesty of grass-fed beef brisket? Read the following blog. And by all means, sample their barbecue the next time you’re in northwestern North Carolina.
How did you get started?
Lindsay: Vance and I first met in New York, in the Hamptons, at Francis Mallman’s beachfront restaurant called Patagonia West. I worked there as a bartender and eventually moved up to Assistant GM. It was there that I was exposed to truly incredible food, and if you know anything about Francis Mallman, you’ll know that he’s resurrected the primal roots of cooking; truly primitive, “authentic” techniques—centered around fire—with a singular focus on food and the experience of preparing, caring and sharing that food.
Vance: I grew up in a restaurant family, and my first memory is being in the kitchen, riding my mom’s hip, poking around in the dry ingredients, while my folks worked all day and night. I didn’t really understand the primacy of food and eating together because my folks and I never sat down together for meals.
It wasn’t until I lived in NYC during the late 90s and early aughts (00s) that I truly experienced the magic of sitting down and breaking bread with friends. It’s then that you realize the three essential services for which we are all—as humans—grateful: Food, Shelter and a Sense of Belonging. I think it’s the true satisfaction and enjoyment of these services that drew Lindsay and I separately to the Food & Beverage Industry, and together in our vision for Farmhouse BBQ.
Describe your business?
Lindsay: From our manifesto:
Our mission is to create a gathering place, where all feel welcome to nourish, imbibe, and commune amongst friends.
To that end, we’ve set the bar high for ourselves. Everything we make is thoughtfully procured and carefully handled; guided by our mission to simply: “Feed people how we would feed our own family.”
This means that all of our meat is free-roaming and pasture-raised—“humanely raised to Temple Grandin standards”—without the use of hormones, filler-feed or antibiotics.
Our wholesome sides are lovingly crafted and made from scratch with real, locally-sourced ingredients.
Everything from our kitchen is non-GMO, MSG free and we never use corn syrup. That’s our promise to you.
Why do you use grass-fed beef?
Vance: We hauled empty propane tanks out of people’s yards and welded them at Iron Maiden Studios up in Asheville to build our 500 gallon offset-smoker. We learned from the best—whose name shall remain anonymous, but let’s just say he helped open one of the top BBQ joints in the country (hint: it’s in Texas)—and our friend shared his secrets by giving us 3 pearls of wisdom, which we’ll share with you here.
The first was, “I’ll give you the tools, but you’ll want to make it into your own.” And from the beginning, we started Farmhouse BBQ with the intention of bringing back authenticity, bringing back the roots of traditional and nutritional eating, preparing food the way your great-grandparents would have had it: pasture-raised farm animals; backyard, seasonal crops; real fats; real oil; unprocessed ingredients; a live fire with native harvested wood. After going through the process of trimming conventionally-raised, grain-fed briskets—seeing the pale color of the fat, the pallid quality of the meat, the amount of trimmed waste—we became even more steadfast in our practice: that we use not only Grass-Fed Beef, but more essentially, “Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished” Beef.
Lindsay: I was a freelance writer for Mother Earth News and in my studies from beekeeping to traditional western herbalism, Vance and I both discovered the benefits conferred to the overall quality of our smoked briskets when they came not only from healthy, happy cows, but from cows that were fed and raised in pastures that absorb all the nutrients that can only be created from the interactions of the sun, earth, and rain.
Animals nourished on grass yield beneficial nutrients that come only from photosynthesis: Vitamin D and high in Omega-3s, both of which are difficult to come by. You truly are what you eat, and if you start from a good place, if you begin with something healthy and top-notch, you don’t have to do much to let it speak and shine for itself. That’s something that Francis Mallman taught me with the food that he created.
What are the challenges of barbecuing grass-fed brisket?
Vance: The second nugget of wisdom came when we asked our BBQ whisperer what the secret was that made their brisket so legendary? He said, “We just treat it with a lot of love.” Every step is important, there are no shortcuts. That’s why brisket is regarded as the “king of BBQ.” You can fake pulled pork in a commercial kitchen, finish ribs in a home oven, but you can’t get the wonderful bark and depth of flavor without the requisite commitment of time and a true wood fire. Especially with Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished Whole Beef Briskets, the range of forgiveness is even more critical.
For starters, there is less fat cap when you start trimming the brisket. And let no one skip this step, for trimming is as much of an art as steering a fire. Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished Briskets are typically twice as expensive as conventional briskets, but there is less fat to trim, so we gain a little there. But that phrase, “Treat it with a lot of love” extends from the moment we cut open the vacuum seal. All that extra time spent to raise these magnificent animals, and their sacrifice to yield this special cut of meat we’re sharing with you reminds me— each and every time when I handle each brisket—to treat it with love.
When you trim and smoke as many briskets as we have—as all of our colleagues, peers, and competitors have—you inevitably see a lot of variations and pardon my language but a lot of f*ups that come out of the USDA processing plants and cutlines. Whereas someone in a competition may feel like tossing the ugly ones to the side, we’re always thoughtful in our trimming towards how to maximize the potential of each individual brisket. These animals gave their lives for each and every bite, no matter how misshapen or odd, so we waste not and want not.
We extend this thoughtfulness to the placement of each individual brisket in our smoker as well, cataloging location for optimal temps (hot spots for the big guys and cool spots for the smaller ones), to even out cook times and to maximize the flavor of each individual brisket, misshapen and prime. The secret to great brisket conventional and grass-fed is to “Treat it with love.”
What are some lessons you’ve learned over the years about cooking briskets that would help home cooks make brisket as well as you do?
Vance: The third truism we learned along the way comes from something we hear every time we’re carving brisket for the line. BBQ enthusiasts and newcomers alike always ask, “What temperature do you smoke at?” as if there is some magical number that will solve your Sunday afternoon. We always tell them, “You aim for whatever temperature your smoker is happy at.”
Working with a live fire is like steering a tanker. An adjustment here will change temps along the way there, but there’s an equilibrium your smoker will naturally be happy at. Know your equipment, learn your rig’s personality. It’s no fun battling your smoker for 14-16 hours in search of some ideal temp you read about online. It’s going to wear you out, you’re going to snooze, and you’re not going to be able to keep the firebox lit and the temps consistent.
Instead of worrying about temp, adjust your times. If you know what you’re looking for—bark, color, and the “break” (see below)—then as the old saying goes, “It’s done when it’s done.” There is no set time or temp, just the desired result.
When we first started doing test smokes—and inviting friends and family over for blind tastes—we thought we knocked it out of the park. We were feeling confident and ready to take it to the next level—from 2-3 briskets to 18 at a time. But the third and last bit of parting advice was key, “It’s going to take you 30 cooks to really know what you’re doing.”
We thought we had figured it out, but indeed, with the procession of the seasons, trials during bad weather (rain, snow, wind—wind is your enemy!), variations in the oak (the amount it’s been seasoned, size of the split), time of the day when we start affecting the finish, etc.—it really did take us 30 or more cooks to really know what we were doing.
Every part of this process is organic. It’s a live fire, a live process. It did take us over 30 smokes to learn our rig, learn the ropes, figure out when things were ready for the wrap and the pull. That’s why you eliminate as many variables as possible—so you can stop worrying about temp and time—and focus on the few crucial steps at hand. So for those out there who battle over the weekend for that perfect brisket: try hard, try often, and keep on trying.
Lindsay: It’s tempting to get obsessed with temping your brisket and other ways of measuring when it’s perfectly smoked and ready to come off, but that can lead you away from your intuition. Those “30 cooks” were what it took to for us to get a feel for the “break.” (When you hold a brisket with your fingers, across the narrow middle, and it’s just starting to flop, it’s ready.) It’s what we were taught when we first started—and 2 Thermapens later plus numerous spreadsheets with internal temp graphs—we came back full circle to the “break” as the best indicator of when your brisket is done.
Here’s our word of advice to you: The instant-read thermometer is invaluable for triangulating when things are ready—like getting a second opinion—but like we mentioned before where you stop worrying about smoker temps and allow time to yield its results, the instant-read can only tell you so much. 202-203F can vary if you’re not dead center or if you have a funny brisket, but when it comes to knowing when your brisket is ready, you can always trust the “break.”
About Lindsay Williamson and Vance Lin
Founder & Pitmaster @ Farmhouse BBQ
Lindsay has worked in the Food & Beverage industry since 2001; most notably, working with Chef Francis Mallmann in 2003-2005 at his Westhampton “Argentine-inspired” restaurant Patagonia West in Westhampton, New York. There she learned the secret to making excellent dishes by simply honoring well-sourced, farm-fresh ingredients. Lindsay went on to serve as Mallman’s Assistant General Manager at Patagonia West which led to extended tours of Argentina & Uruguay to experience its storied culture of amazing food (beef) and wine. It was during Lindsay’s stint at Patagonia West that she met Vance who was freelancing for Francis Mallman on sound design. Lindsay moved to North Carolina in 2006 to assist Vance with opening a family-owned restaurant Lotus Bar & Eatery as its Food & Beverage Director. Together, they started Farmhouse BBQ in 2014.
As well as an Herbalist, freelance writer for Mother Earth News & a Visiting Lecturer at Haywood Community College, Lindsay’s interests and studies include Beekeeping, Fermentation, Gardening & Foraging.
Founder & Pitmaster @ Farmhouse BBQ
Vance Lin grew up in restaurants his entire life (family-owned business); but before diving headlong into the food industry, he worked as Managing Editor at Graphis from 1999-2002 after graduating from Vassar College with a degree in English Literature. Freelancing as a Sound Designer on the side (1st DJ to open an Art Show at the uptown Guggenheim NY), Vance first experienced food as art while freelancing for Francis Mallman at his Hampton’s restaurant Patagonia West. It was there that he met Lindsay, and reconnected with her later when embarking on a new family-owned restaurant Lotus Bar & Eatery in North Carolina. With Farmhouse BBQ, Lindsay and Vance joined forces, bringing together her Texas history with whole beef brisket and Vance’s culture in native North Carolina pork. Together, inspired by the way our great-great grandparents would have eaten, Farmhouse BBQ exclusively sources Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished Beef; Pasture-Raised, Heritage-Breed Pork; and Seasonal, Scratch-Made, Non-GMO sides.
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