When Bradley “Chud” Robinson started his new job in the pit room of the late Freedmen’s in Austin in 2015, he couldn’t find any butcher paper. As a backyard cook, he had copied the ways of Aaron Franklin, whose brisket-wrapping videos have probably sold more butcher paper than actual butchers have. Freedmen’s pitmaster Evan LeRoy (now co-owner of LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue) told Robinson he preferred to use foil. Instead of wrapping the brisket with it, he built foil boats, which are like aluminum jackets to keep the bottoms and sides of the briskets protected and the tops exposed in the smoker. Robinson was incredulous. “The number one best barbecue joint in the world, just two miles from here, is doing a completely different process,” he argued, referring to Franklin. But then he bit into one of LeRoy’s briskets. The bark had a unique crunch, and the meat was juicy. “Having that extra layer of crunch elevates the experience,” Robinson said. Years later, he went on to create his own barbecue persona with Chuds BBQ, and he has become the biggest foil-boat evangelist on YouTube.
Whether you wrap your briskets with butcher paper, rely on a full foil wrap (a.k.a. the Texas crutch), or prefer to go without any wrapping, the foil-boat method is simple enough to explain. Tear off two pieces of heavy-duty foil from one of those extra-wide rolls. One piece should be about twice as wide as the brisket and the other twice as long. Make a T shape, with one piece laid perpendicularly across the other, and place the brisket in the center. Now scrunch up the edges of the foil close to the sides of the brisket. Roll the edges outward, so as not to create sharp points against the brisket. Tuck the foil around the edge of the brisket tightly while leaving the top—where the fat cap resides—completely open. You can subscribe to LeRoy and Lewis’s Patreon channel to see an explanatory video, or check out Robinson’s version on the Chuds BBQ YouTube channel, where he commences the process at the 4:30 mark. Just a warning, though: your foil-boat brisket probably won’t float.
LeRoy said he hadn’t seen the foil-boat method before he began using it exclusively in 2013, when it all began as an accident. His first sous chef at Freedmen’s was Diego Abreu, a friend from college. The two routinely wrapped their briskets with foil toward the end of the cook, then cranked up the heat in the smoker. They would have to partially unwrap the tops to check the briskets for doneness, and one day Abreu forgot to resecure the foil wrap over one of them. It left the top exposed while the high heat blew through the smoker. LeRoy wasn’t happy, and he scrutinized the brisket he thought was ruined when it hit the cutting block. “It turns out he just stumbled onto a thing,” LeRoy said of Abreu’s happy accident. “We discovered that it had this nice, crunchy bark, and it was tender, and kept juicy on the bottom.” It’s still how he cooks briskets every Saturday and Sunday, the only days LeRoy and Lewis offers smoked brisket.
I too love the textural variation. Wrapping briskets in butcher paper helps ensure they will remain juicy while getting to the tenderness finish line. But that tight paper wrapping also means the bark will soften. That’s what LeRoy is trying to stave off by using the foil boat. “I’m trying to dry the bark out,” he says. That could easily be done by just leaving the brisket unwrapped during the entire cooking process, but the foil boat captures the drippings and lets the brisket stay moist while sitting in its own juices.
A few months ago, I was invited to Goldee’s Barbecue, in Fort Worth, to be part of a tasting panel. Jeremy Yoder of Mad Scientist BBQ was there to document the cooking process and film the tasting in order to compare the foil-boat method to the more-common butcher-paper wrap and the Goldee’s method of wrapping the brisket in foil with beef tallow (but only for the holding period after it’s finished in the smoker). Several tasters, including Goldee’s Barbecue employees and Robinson, shared their thoughts after tasting each brisket blind. I preferred the crunch on the bark of the foil-boat brisket, and I wasn’t alone.
LeRoy wasn’t part of the tasting panel, but he has seen the video. I asked if he had any reaction to it. “It’s not surprising to me that the [brisket] the people like the most is the one with texture,” he said. I asked if he would have prepared that brisket any differently. He pleaded with people using his method to not pour the juices collected in the boat on top of the brisket before slicing. “You just ruined everything,” he said. It might sound a bit harsh, but if the goal is a crunchy bark, he has a point about not adding moisture to it. LeRoy and Lewis doesn’t spritz briskets with liquid while they cook, and there’s no water pan in the smoker to produce humidity, as many pitmasters prefer. Robinson disagreed about pouring the reserved liquid over the top. Maybe he’s just playing to the camera by getting that brisket to glisten—he also doesn’t want to lose any of the brisket flavor. LeRoy agrees on the latter, but he reserves the juice to mix in with chopped brisket for sandwiches.
If you’re still not convinced, LeRoy pointed out a few other benefits of the foil boat. The brisket is easier to move around in the smoker because the foil doesn’t get too hot. It’s easier to check the doneness of the brisket. The juice is well contained inside the boat—you won’t have butcher paper soaking up the fat and spreading it to every surface it comes in contact with. And after you’ve taken a few slices from a brisket, you can scrunch the boat up a little tighter until you need more.
Robinson has a huge audience on YouTube (about 216,000 subscribers to date), and he has seen the foil-boat gospel spread on the internet. “It’s definitely catching on,” he said, noting that it’s been almost a decade since pitmasters began adopting the butcher-paper revelations of Franklin. “I think people are ready to try a new technique,” Robinson said. He also gets feedback from people using smokers other than traditional offsets, like pellet grills and Weber Smokey Mountains that don’t get as much smoke, who prefer to leave brisket “open-faced,” as Robinson refers to it. The foil-boat method is also easier to replicate at home. Rather than purchasing a roll of butcher paper, you can use the foil that’s probably already in your kitchen. Wide-format, heavy-duty foil is preferred, but Robinson said that as long as you use multiple layers from a standard foil roll, you’ll get the same effect. He’s also tried a foil boat on pork butts with success, but he says not to bother using it with pork or beef ribs. They’re already protected on the bottom by a bone raft (if you will), and they don’t need the extra layer of foil.
LeRoy said adoption of his method isn’t as wide in the restaurant world. T&D BBQ in Weatherford was using it before it closed a few months ago. The Briscuits truck in Austin, helmed by Christopher McGhee, who learned from LeRoy, uses the foil boat, as does Barbecue Station in San Antonio. Why does LeRoy think professional adoption is slow when so many people seem to love the crunch of the foil-boat brisket? “The biggest challenge is the storage,” he said. You can’t stack foil-boat briskets in the warmer like you can paper-wrapped ones, which wouldn’t be an issue with a home cook smoking a single brisket. It’s not an issue for LeRoy and Lewis, because the most the joint cooks is a dozen briskets at a time, and LeRoy promised his hands aren’t riddled with foil cuts. He observed that the butcher-paper wrap was a big, noticeable change in Texas barbecue. The foil boat is “a smaller step forward, but I think it makes it better.” As a final explanation, he added with a laugh, “I’m not Aaron Franklin . . . yet.”