The first brisket I ever tasted was from a 6-time World Champion. The second brisket I ever had was my first attempt at smoking one. You can imagine there was a bit of a drop off in quality. But with practice, I’ve gotten pretty good at smoking brisket and it’s actually my strongest category at BBQ competitions. A lot of people are intimidated by this legendary cut of beef because it is big, expensive, and can be unforgiving. These tips should help get you up and smoking your first brisket faster than I did. This is not a competition style or Central Texas style brisket, rather it’s the version we do for eating at home.
Cooking brisket is more about technique than a recipe. The seasonings don’t matter as much as how you smoke the brisket. Yes, they affect the final result but not as much as the cooking does. After all…a perfectly seasoned piece of dried out leather is still a piece of dried out leather.
What to Buy when you want a Smoked Brisket
Grocery stores offer a lot of things they will call “brisket”, most of them are flats or part of a flat. What you want is a whole “packer” brisket. The whole brisket is comprised of two muscles – the point and the flat. The flat has a square-like end and the point is…”pointy”. Weights can vary depending on breed, age and other factors but I like a 12-15 pound brisket. Pick one that has even thickness from side to side on the flat end and has a flexible flat.
Cooking a brisket takes time. Even at cooking hotter temperatures (275°f to 325°f) it can still be 7-8 hour cook and up to a 4 hour hold. Add that to the 12 hour seasoning time and you have a full 24 hour process. The good news is that the hold time gives you some wiggle room. I plan to have my brisket done 4 hours before I want to serve it, so I put it on roughly 12 hours before serving.
How to Prepare Brisket for Smoking
Preparing your brisket for smoking consists of trimming, (possibly) injecting, and seasoning. I like to have all of this done about 12 hours before the brisket goes onto the grill or smoker. Once prepared, you want to keep the brisket well refrigerated because it needs to be cold when it hits the grates.
How to Prepare Your Grill For Smoking
You need to set your grill or smoker up for indirect cooking so that your brisket will not be directly over the heat source. How you do this depends on your grill. I’m using the Char-Broil Charcoal Grill 780 so I put the coals and wood on one side and the brisket on the other. With the lid closed, this will slow roast your brisket in the smoke without grilling it.
If you are using a Kettleman, I would recommend using a fuse style burn set up like this to get longer, steady cooking temperatures.
If you are lucky enough to have a Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker, it’s super easy. Just preheat the unit as normal and put the brisket diagonally on one of the grates.
Whatever you use, you don’t want a billowing thick smoke or you’ll end up with a brisket that tastes like charcoal. The smoke should be thin and very light in color.
Keep It Moist
One of the keys to a great brisket is moisture and there are several ways to enhance that. As previously noted, I start by injecting the brisket. You can get simple meat syringes at kitchen goods stores, grill dealers, or even my local grocery store offers two models.
You can add moisture to the air by putting a water pan in the cooker. The Digital Electric Smoker lines all come with a water pan. For the Kettleman you can just put a foil steam pan in the center of the fire ring. For the Charcoal Grill 780 you can put a foil steam pan on the gates directly above the coals.
You can add moisture to the meat during the cook. You can make a highly seasoned mop to dab onto the brisket every hour or so and this will also add layers of flavor. But at the very least, I like to use a squirt bottle filled with beef stock to spritz the brisket every hour or so.
Finally, you can retain moisture towards the end of the cook using the “Texas crutch” and wrapping the brisket in foil or butcher paper. Adding beef stock to the foil packet will finish the cooking by braising, a much gentler process than smoking. I typically do this when the “bark” or outer surface is very dark which is usually somewhere around an internal temperature of 160°f to 175°f.
How To Know Your Brisket Is Done
Briskets are odd when it comes to knowing when they are “done”. Using a remote probe thermometer will show you what the internal temperature is while the meat cooks but there is no exact temperature at which you pull the brisket off of the grill. After it hits an internal temperature of 200f in the thickest portion, I slide either a temperature probe or bbq skewer into the brisket to see how tender it is. When it slides in with little resistance (like butter), the brisket is ready to come off.
Smoked Brisket Recipe
- 12-15 pound whole “packer” brisket, fat cap trimmed to 1/4” or less
- 32 ounce beef stock (divided)
- 2 tablespoons beef base (aka Better Than Boullion)
- ½ cup beef rub (see How to Prepare Brisket for Seasoning)
- 1 meat syringe
- 2 sheets aluminum foil 18” x 24”
- Food safe squirt bottle or misting bottle
- Inject the brisket with one and a half cups of beef stock. Pour the stock into a separate bowl so you don’t cross contaminate the rest of the stock. Inject with the grain in spots every inch or so across the brisket.
- Slather the brisket with the beef base and then season the brisket with the beef rub on all sides. Wrap with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until ready to cook.
- Set up your grill for indirect heat at a temperature of 275°f to 325°f. Add your choice of smoke wood to the coals and wait for the smoke to become thin or even clear.
- Place your brisket on the side opposite of the coal and wood. I prefer to have the fat cap facing down. Close the lid and smoke until the brisket is done - this will be in the neighborhood of 7-10 hours but can be even longer. Don’t worry when the brisket seems to stall at 160-170°f. It will eventually get through that plateau. Reload coals and wood as needed, about every 3-4 hours with the 780.
- Put one cup of beef stock in the misting bottle and spritz the brisket about once an hour.
- Once the brisket is very dark, probably about 5-6 hours into the cook, wrap it in foil. Cup the foil as shown and pour in stock around the brisket. Seal the foil tightly and put it back onto the grill.
- When the brisket hits an internal temperature of 200°f, carefully open the foil pack and perform the skewer test (see How To Know Your Brisket is Done). If not tender yet, reseal the foil and let cook another 15 minutes and then re-test.
- When done, reseal the foil and place the brisket in a towel lined, warm cooler. Hold for at least one hour and up to 4 hours.
- Open the foil and reserve the juices. Slice the brisket and serve.
The Hold Is Gold
One of the best things you can do for the brisket is to “hold” it and let it rest for a few hours. BBQ enthusiasts often call this “FTC” for “foil towel cooler”. You get an empty cooler (some people warm it up first with a pot of boiling water and then dry it out), line it with a towel and then put the foil wrapped brisket in it. Cover it with the rest of the towel, shut the cooler lid, and let it hold for up to 4 hours. During this time the juices seem to even out and it becomes tender throughout.
How to Serve
There are multiple ways to serve a smoked brisket and I like them all. They all start with separating the point from the flat, which is as simple as running the knife through that section as shown.
Sliced – You want to use a very sharp slicing knife. Slice the flat against the grain which runs diagonally from one corner to the other. For the point, the grain runs lengthwise so slice perpendicular to that. Slice the pieces about pencil width. If your brisket is tough (uh oh) slice them thinner and if it is too tender (starting to fall apart) slice it thicker.
The slices from the flat are called “lean” and the point slices are known as “moist” or “fatty”. They will dry out fast once sliced so I keep them in a pan with the juice from the foil. Add stock to that if you need more volume.
Burnt ends – A favorite of pitmasters everywhere, burnt ends aren’t really burnt. They are the point cut into 1” cubes, seasoned with more rub, and glazed with sauce. Then they go back on the cooker for another hour or so.
Chopped – We usually chop up our leftovers because it makes them easier to save and reheat. This is also a good option when you are feeding lots of people. Chopping is also good if you accidentally overcook the brisket because you are mixing the juicier point with the drier flat for a blend. Plus you can add a little tomato based bbq sauce to the mix.
One of my favorite ways to have brisket is to make a brisket slider with a fried egg using the same rub and a drizzle of BBQ sauce. Delicious and a great way to use leftover brisket.
So respect the beef but don’t be intimidated by it. Give smoking brisket a try, I think you’ll love it.