Smoking a Brisket
I’ve only been smoking meat since about 2006 – but I’ve lived a lifetime of enjoying brisket. The earliest brisket I recall having was my Dad’s – probably when I was five or six years old. Been all over Texas and much of the country and not sure I’ve ever had better than what he made.
The first few times I used a smoker it was at my brother’s house to make our annual Thanksgiving Turducken (a tradition that continues to this day). While those first couple wouldn’t win any awards for smoking prowess, they were at least edible.
In 2008 my in-laws were nice enough to get my first smoker (A Char Griller Smoking Outlaw), which I still use today. I’ve moved up to a mobile rig for BBQ competitions, but I don’t use it for much else so the backyard smoker gets used most often. I also built a homemade smoker at my lake shack but it’s not portable so I only use it there.
After eight or ten tries at figuring out my approach to brisket, I got to the point where I pretty much have it dialed in. When I first started I was all over the place. On a scale of one to ten, sometimes I’d get and eight, sometimes a six. Now that I’ve finally got a consistent approach to the prep and cook, I feel like I can get a nine, or at least close to it, almost every time. Of course, tastes vary and so not everyone would necessarily agree with my assessment.
A lot of people ask me how I approach my brisket, so I figured I’d lay it out here. Although I’ve gotten a ton of great feedback on my brisket, my method might not be what you prefer. For the last five years or so, I’ve only changed one thing about the way I prepare and cook my meat (more or that later).
There are lots of great books on BBQ out there (perhaps my favorite is Aaron Franklin’s Meat Smoking Manifesto) and although I’ve read many of them, most of my approach and technique came from what my dad taught me and what I observed him do. When I first started smoking brisket, I googled a few things about temperature and such to make sure I didn’t kill anyone, but that’s about it. The rest has been trial and error.
Selecting the Meat
Lots has been written about selecting the right cut of meat. I’d sure love to spend five bucks a pound on free range prime like Franklin’s, but I wouldn’t even know where to get it. The truth is, almost every single brisket I’ve cooked has been from HEB. I get the packer style, not too big and not too small. Twelve to fourteen pounds is what I shoot for. I try to get a nice floppy brisket – one that if you hold it in the middle will bend quite a bit. If the meat is too stiff it likely has too much fat. However, in a pinch I’ve used very fatty briskets that have turned out ok (meaning it was all they had at the HEB).
I’d suggest getting meat that has never been frozen – and keeping it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to prep it.
The packer style briskets I select tend to have a reasonable amount of fat on the point (the point is the lumpy fat end of the brisket that tends to be taller than the rest of the brisket). This fat is what helps make the “juicy” part of the brisket, as it renders and tenderizes the meat during cooking.
I prefer there to be less fat on the flat (the, well, flat part of the brisket).
Generally, one side of the brisket has the “fat cap” – packer style briskets tend to have an entire side that is mostly covered in a layer of fat.
Trimming the Meat
I don’t trim. There, I said it. The pros all seem to trim. I prefer to cut that fat off after the cook. The upside to trimming I see is getting bark on the meat and not just on the fat. The downside to trimming is removing the fat the helps tenderize the meat during the cook. After reading Franklin’s book, I am thinking about trying a few cooks with trimmed meat. If it turns out great, I’ll be back to update this section of this post.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use some kind of rub on their brisket. A very common approach is just salt and pepper.
The rub I use is derived from my Dad’s original recipe. I’ve modified it a bit for my own personal taste. It’s a simple recipe, and I’ll share it here.
1/2 cup chili powder (I tend to use McCormick Dark)
1/4 cup salt
1 tablespoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 table spoon garlic powder
I mix it all up, and rub it on the meat. Pretty simple. I tend to do this no less than twelve hours before the cook, and preferably 24. However, at competitions and such you can’t prep your meat that far in advance so I make do.
Once the rub is on, I leave it unwrapped in the fridge until about 3 hours before the cook, at which point I remove it from the cold to bring it to room temperature.
My Dad’s recipe had a bit more salt in it, but I found that if the rub wasn’t perfectly mixed you could occasionally get salt “hot spots” on the meat. Lessening the salt content eliminated this problem.
What to Burn
A much debated topic amongst all the cooks out there. When it comes to fuel, my preference is Pecan or Hickory. Both of which are sometimes hard to get depending upon the season, so a lot of times I just use oak. Oak is what Franklin uses, so hey, it can’t be bad.
I try to use nicely seasoned, but not old and brittle, pieces.
I generally get my fire started with a torch of some kind. With my backyard smoker I just use a simple BernzOmatic from Lowes. When I am using my trailer, I use a weed burner attached to a big propane tank.
In both cases, I fully open the smoker to get maximum airflow going until the fire is nice and hot.
Once the fire is breathing nicely, I close the pit down, trying to use the amount of wood to control the temperature more than using dampers on the firebox or the stack. I find this technique (controlling the fuel rather than restricting the airflow) prevents “bad smoke” from leeching into the meat. This is another controversial topic I am sure – but I agree with Franklin in that the wood and fire need to be free to do what they do, and not artificially restricted just to control the temperature.
In all honesty, on my backyard smoker and my smoker at my lake shack, I commonly use only a small amount of wood during the first couple of hours then use charcoal. It’s important to use a chimney starter with charcoal if you’re going this route, and never use lighter fluid. But I prefer to smoke with wood.
The Cook – Phase One
Many cooks recommend a specific amount of time at a specific temperature to get the best out of your brisket. While I understand the math, I use the size of the brisket only as a general guideline and prefer the science of meat temperature to figure out when my meat is done.
When cooking a single brisket, I do a few things consistently.
- I use a water pan. I place the water pan nearest to the fire, the lower the better. I start off with an iron skillet full of Shiner Bock most days. But water works, too.
- I place the brisket in the cooker unwrapped, fat cap up.
- I orient the brisket as far from the fire as possible with the point towards the fire and the flat away.
In my experience, the temperature you cook your meat (within reason) matters very little so long as a) it’s hot enough to break down the fat; b) you cook it long enough to break down the fat; and c) you don’t cook it so hot that you dry the sucker out.
I’d say my “ideal” temperature is 275 because it gives me wiggle room – I can afford for the brisket to get hotter for short periods of time, or cool down a bit in the short term, without being overly freaked out by temperature variations. That said, if I have 16 hours to cook I’m happy to lean into a 225 degree smoke and drink a beer or two.
When I cook at 275, I usually give it 30 minutes per pound (ish) before I check the meat temperature. This will typically get me close to the stall within 6-7 hours, at which point we move into phase two of the cook.
I don’t mop, but I used to. I find that mopping can weaken the bark. I am tempted to spritz with a sprayer, but have yet to try. If I go that route, I’ll probably use water and Worcestershire sauce and mop during the stall before I wrap (see below).
The Cook – Phase Two – The Stall
If you don’t know what the stall is, here’s a great article explaining it. There are many books on the subject as well. Basically, the stall is when evaporative cooling prevents the meat from achieving a higher internal temperature, thus “stalling” the cook. If you continue to increase the temperature in hopes of beating the stall, it’s likely you’ll dry our your brisket.
Which is where the Texas Crutch – wrapping your brisket in foil to complete your cook – comes in. Some people use butcher paper, but I’ve never tried it. I use foil.
Once my brisket hits the stall, which is usually somewhere in the 170 degree range, I take it off, double wrap it tightly in foil, and put it right back where it was. I let it go another hour, then I start checking it every hour or so.
My ideal temperature (measured via the flat, right in the center) is 205 before I take it off the cooker. I’ve taken briskets off as early as 190 degrees, but I really like to get to 200 at a minimum.
The Cook – Phase Three – Rest
Once the foil-wrapped brisket is off the smoker, I put it in a regular cooler and close it up. Ideally, it will sit in there a minimum of 90 minutes but depending upon the outside temperature can go as long as four hours or more. Although I know some folks check the temperature of the meat in the cooler as far as deciding when to take it out, I don’t do that. I just take it out when we’re ready to eat. Giving it at least 90 minutes lets the brisket soak up all the juice and really helps keep it moist.
Slicing the Meat
Serving your brisket is pretty straightforward, as long as you know to cut against the grain of the meat. If you cut with the grain, you’ll likely end up with chopped beef instead of nice, thick slices of brisket.
By the way, if you cut across the grain and your brisket falls apart, you’ve likely overcooked it. If it’s kinda chewy or rubbery, you likely haven’t cooked it enough.
Slicing correctly generally means across the flat, then turning the brisket, trimming the fat cap, and cutting at a 90 degree angle to the way you cut the flat on the now-trimmed point. Only cut as much as you need.
My Latest Strategy
So here’s a wrinkle to my more recent cooks. Due to time constraints for some events, I’ve started cooking the day before an event with very pleasing results. The main deviation from my core strategy is that once my brisket has been in the cooler for four hours or so, I take it out and put it in the refrigerator overnight. I then take it out the next morning, heat it in the oven or whatever is available at about 200, then serve when ready. It stays in the crutch the whole time. The goal is to get the meat to about 165 or so at least before serving, but not cooking it any further.
I’ve done this with the last five or six briskets and they’ve all turned out great.
photos © Joe Devine