Slow-cooking tough cuts of meat for hours on end in a smoker -- in other words, traditional barbecue -- is one of the finest ways to prepare them. When it's done well, the end result is lush, tender and richly flavored by the smoke and spices. The barbecued meat can be enjoyed on its own, by the forkful or in a sandwich. Pulled pork sandwiches are widely available outside their traditional Southern home, but chopped-beef sandwiches, the brisket equivalent, are less common.
Pork shoulders are fairly forgiving in the smoker, because they're relatively fatty. Brisket is much more exacting, because the thick slab of muscle has little internal fat and can be dry if it's not cooked properly. Even in the case of perfect brisket, the edges or "burnt ends" are oven dry, though rich in flavor. Chopping the brisket coarsely and mixing it with sauce works in either case. A good sauce complements the flavors of the burnt ends, and can salvage an overcooked or dry brisket. The ratio of sauce to beef is largely one of personal taste, but the mixture should be at least as thick as a sloppy Joe if it's going to stay on the bun.
Upgrading the bread in any traditional blue-collar favorite is often tempting to food lovers, but in this case it's a misplaced impulse. As tasty as your favorite ciabatta or artisanal multigrain bread might be, its crustiness and deep flavors make it inappropriate for a chopped-beef sandwich. The beef and sauce make a squishy, slippery filling that would escape from a crusty roll at every bite, with predictably dire consequences for your clothing. Furthermore, the sandwich should focus more on your beef and its sauce than the bread. Your best choice for this type of sandwich is a simple hamburger bun or similarly soft dinner roll, which yield gently to your teeth and won't compete with the beef.
The bun and the beef provide the backbone of a chopped-beef sandwich, with your choice of toppings and sides providing the finishing touch. Rings of sliced onion, sliced jalapenos and flat slabs of sliced dill pickle are the canonical accompaniments, but -- unless you're feeding homesick Texans -- feel free to improvise. Replace the jalapeno slices with mild green chilies if you're heat-averse, or upgrade to habaneros if your tastes run in the opposite direction. Fresh coleslaw is more traditional on pulled pork, but it's also tasty with chopped beef. Serve it on top of the beef, or as a side. Warm, German-style potato salad is another suitable accompaniment, a traditional nod to Texas' German heritage.
If you don't have ready access to either a brisket joint or a smoker of your own, you'll need to be creative. For example, you might rub a piece of brisket with a smoky spice blend and gently simmer it for hours in your slow-cooker. Chopped and sauced, it's a fine substitute for the real thing. Alternatively, use beef you've already got on hand. A leftover piece of roast beef or pot roast, reheated in a suitable sauce, makes a version of the sandwich that's quick enough for any weeknight. It's also frugal, stretching a relatively small piece of meat into several satisfying portions.