Brisket is the King of Smoked Meats – but only when you do it right.
Brisket is one of the toughest pieces of meat to smoke well.
It is not only tough to get right, but the cut itself is from one of the toughest parts of the cow. If not done right you might only have an undercooked, over-smoked, disappointing piece of meat to show for all of your efforts.
Penultimate; that is just a fancy way to say the best, and brisket is certainly all that. You know we love us some ribs and pork shoulder, but dang, a properly cooked brisket is bliss in every bite. While it is not the easiest task to master, we will give you the best guidance we can muster to learn the art of smoking beef brisket.
Like so much of what we do in barbecue, the brisket is a tough nasty cut of meat that comes the breast area between the shoulder and the shank of a steer. That makes it a muscle that gets used with every step the critter takes. As a result you get a lot of connective tissues, durable meat fibers and, in this case, a significant fat cap. All of this works to your advantage if you approach it correctly. These are the elements that yearn for low and slow cooking, break all that down, let the collagens and fat carry flavor throughout the cut of meat and get it tenderized in the process.
There is a lot to geek out about when it comes to just selecting the ‘proper’ piece of brisket. With that comes a lot of varying opinion. An intact brisket is often referred to as a ‘packer’ cut. Obvious reasons, it is packed whole and your local butcher or market will often cut it down into segments.
If you slap a whole brisket down on the cutting board, fat side up, you will see it slopes upward. The high end is called the point and it comes with a large amount of the fat content. The butcher will usually remove that high point, giving you a broader flat piece of meat appropriately called a flat cut. This is fine, as long as you maintain some fat layer across the meat to help insulate and, to an extent, moisten the meat.
Flat or Whole Cut?
This is the big question, and there really is no right answer. You can get an exceptional meal for a lot of folks out of either option. Some people don’t like the heavy fat cap, the nice gelatinous layer the cap morphs into during cooking, and the fatty bands down the center. The point section also has a grain that runs at an oblique angle to the flat. That means you need to watch while carving if you keep it intact. During slicing you can find the angel that crosses the grain of both sections. Or you can cut off the point after cooking and slice it separately, or make it into burnt ends and pieces.
If you get a flat cut it will often come trimmed. A whole brisket will not. With both pieces you want to try and leave a minimum layer of ¼” of fat across the entire cut of meat. On a packer cut there will also be a thick ribbon of fat between the point and flat, that starts raw at about ½” thick and will cook down slightly from there.
Some people don’t want that in their brisket when they serve it, many do not care.
Preparing the Brisket
Cooking brisket is somewhat of a journey. It will start a day or two in advance of when you want to serve your meal, especially if you are cooking a whole brisket. Science says only salt will actually penetrate meat. Other seasonings stay on the surface, and we will come back to that.
Using the science, 24 hours before you begin your cooking process you will want to dry brine your trimmed brisket. That is a way of saying salt it and let it sit. Using one teaspoon of kosher salt for every two pounds of meat, spread it in an even layer across the entire brisket. In addition to spreading flavor, salt will help in moisture retention and tenderization. We like to use a tight wrap in plastic film while the meat is refrigerated during the dry brining process.
Six hours before your go time, unwrap the meat and rub generously with the seasoning mix of your choice (see the recipes below for some options).
Meathead's Brisket Rub
- 3 Tablespoon Coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 Tablespoon Granulated white sugar
- 1 Tablespoon Onion powder
- 2 Tablespoons Mustard powder
- 2 Tablespoons Garlic powder
- 2 Tablespoons Chili or ancho powder
- 1 Tablespoon Chipotle or cayenne powder
Kevi's Buckin' Beef Rub
- 1/2 Cupchili powder
- 1 Tablespoon Garlic powder
- 1 Tablespoon Black pepper
- 1 Tablespoon Cayenne pepper
Southwestern Wet Rub
- 3 Tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 Tablespoons Cayenne
- 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 3 Cloves garlic crushed
- 1 Tablespoon Paprika
- 1 Tablespoon Tabasco
- 1 Tablespoon Onion powder
- 1 Tablespoon Black pepper
- 1 Teaspoon Cumin
A major goal of properly cooking your brisket is to develop bark. We can’t decide if bark is named for the thick sturdy texture that develops on the exterior of the brisket, or the deep almost black color that is created. Regardless, a good bark is a sign of well executed smoking. Since brisket is relatively flat in shape, your diners can easily get a bite of the well-seasoned flavorful bark with every bite they enjoy, even though we know the seasonings do not penetrate deeply.
Smoking the Brisket
Time is on your side
The only way to cook either cut of brisket is over time. You can cheat and speed it up with the use of higher temperatures, but that can open another host of potential issues. For the actual cooking process, start at 225-250°F. No higher. Mastering that, and the patience that will come with that, is an important step to becoming proficient and comfortable cooking brisket. Pick up one of our top winning thermometers.
Reaching and maintaining temperature is obviously dependent on the device you use for smoking. We cannot emphasize enough how important temperature control is to successful brisket cooking. The most important aspect actually. At 250°F it is very likely that you will spend 1 hour per pound cooking your brisket. At right around 15 pounds for an average trimmed packers brisket, you are in it for the long haul. As a result, wood chips become problematic because of their quick burn speed, chunks will definitely serve you better. Regardless, work with your device to set and hold an accurate temperature.
Hitting the target
Weirdly, there is still conversation over the ideal temperature for cooked brisket. The range is usually shown as 195-205°F internal temperature. You need to only know one thing. 203°F. This is the mystic number that many competitive pimasters swear is where the magic happens. They’re right. Do we sound biased? Absolutely. But hitting this target temperature will convince you it is the right thing to do.
More time management, The Stall
Moving further down the road to brisket nirvana you will undoubtedly encounter the stall. Not as scary as in your car on a dark country road, this stall can be a real head scratcher for those new to the smoking world. What happens is when the brisket hits about 150°F, the moisture which it has been putting out all along reaches a temporary tipping point. The moisture is on the outside of the brisket, the heat from the smoker causes it to evaporate, like sweat on our bodies, the evaporation cools down the meat. Heat, sweat, evaporate, cool, repeat. Oftentimes for a period of a couple hours before the temperature will get over 160°F. Waiting and working through the stall, this is the tipping point for the cooking process to continue. Patience grasshopper, this too will pass if you just wait.
Or, you can use what is colloquially referred to as the “Texas Crutch”. In order to speed through the stall, you take the whole brisket and wrap it in foil or untreated pink butcher paper. Why? Wrapping the meat keeps the moisture inside, stopping the direct evaporation process from cooling down the meat. The tradeoff is that we are trying to create a nice bark exterior, and enclosing the meat, containing the moist vapors, will soften that crust to an extent. If you choose to do this plan on a high heat sear of about 7-10 minutes per side at the end of your cook to dry the bark somewhat.
Resting the Brisket
Nearly…but not quite. Brisket thrives on time and patience. Once you reach 203°F the end of your journey is in sight. But more patience is needed. Now is the time to take it off the heat, wrap up your beautifully cooked brisket in foil or paper and put it an insulated unit to rest. What we would use to keep our beverages cold will, in this case, keep the brisket warm, your standard cooler. If you need to hold it for more than 1 hour, preheat your ‘cooler’ with hot tap water for 15-30 minutes. Do this and you can let the brisket sit for up to four hours, and it will actually get tenderer. You can also capture some really tasty meat jus from this step in the process.
The competition chefs will often tell you that 140 degrees is the ideal temperature at which to slice your brisket for juiciness and great texture with the flavors all melded together. Our experience shows this to be good advice. Try to incorporate at least an hour of hold time for all of these reasons.
Slicing a Brisket
You’d think the controversies would be about over. But there are choices at this step, still points of discussion in the meat geek world. We mentioned that there are differing directions of the grain running through brisket between the flat and the tip. There is also a thick band of fat between the two pieces. If you have cooked the whole brisket, now is not a bad time to separate the two sections. Slip a knife into that fat ribbon and you can easily lift the point section right off the flat section.
If you choose to leave it intact for slicing, you can turn the brisket slightly so that you are cutting across both grains at a slight angle. This will yield slices that show the fat band running between them. Some will enjoy this look, a few people may be put off by it. In moderation, enjoying the fatty portions of the meat with the muscle is part of the eating experience in our view. So you need to know your crowd and match with what you think they will most enjoy.
Using a long bladed slicer, preferably with a Granton edge, will help you get those ideal slices. The target is typically between an eighth and a quarter of an inch thick. Across the grain and thinly sliced is the best way to enjoy brisket and get the most tender eating experience.
This one is purely and solely personal preference. Our view is that a properly cooked brisket does not need any sauce. We highly recommend you try some naked so that you can appreciate the fruits of your labors. That being said, if you will enjoy it more, then sauce to your hearts content. You’ve earned it.
Speaking of labor, cooking brisket is indeed a labor of love. We have found that our fellow diners recognize and appreciate that. Just a single brisket can be a journey. And cooking the first one will definitely be an initial step along a path that you can relish travelling for years to come.