You can Smoke Great Brisket! – Best Practices and Tips!

You can smoke great brisket!

Is brisket too difficult to attempt? Like a lot of you, I've had brisket a number of times...and been disappointed on most of those. Dry, rubbery, poor taste...all too frequent experiences when ordering brisket. I go to a BBQ joint, look over the menu and take a chance on brisket ("...looks like they know what they're doing honey.") only to be disappointed again. Just know that yes, you can smoke great brisket!

One of the worst was when my wife and I were driving from Michigan to Florida (her parents live in Florida and we usually drive rather than fly). We stopped at a Bible Belt BBQ joint with 4.5 stars on Yelp and expected great things. We arrived shortly after they opened and the owner was at the counter (WOOT! It's the owner...he's here, he'll guide us).

After pleasantries, I asked, "what's your best meat available...just out of the smoker...you know, I'm a home smoker and BBQ fan, give me your best recommendation!"

"The brisket just came out of the smoker and it's excellent", he replied. Perfect! High Yelp score, owner at the counter, brisket fresh out of the smoker...I couldn't lose.

Now, I do not normally order brisket...and for the following reasons:

  1. Because it is not my favorite meat.
  2. Because I am most often disappointed in what I get.
  3. Read #2 again
  4. Which probably leads to #1 again.

Let's take a chance...

So, brisket it is. To be honest I do not remember what else we ordered, but immediately upon seeing the plate I was...well...suspicious. The brisket looked gray.  I mean gray from top to bottom, side to side. Not like great bark, nice smoke ring with reddish-tan in the middle...fully gray.

I took my first bite and it was all of the things I said brisket often is...in one bite. Rubbery, dry, and poor tasting. My wife tried it and had the same reaction. We didn't eat it, although some of his other stuff ranged from OK to good.

Sidenote...how the heck did this 28-year old kid get 4.5 stars on Yelp?? Family money? A group of friends/family/business associates who love him and can't bring themselves to burst his bubble? Reminds me of the shock of watching an American Idol contestant being told by Simon Cowell they suck, and them responding, "But, my family told me I can sing!"

But I digress.

What is brisket?

The brisket muscles include the superficial and deep pectorals. As cattle do not have collar bones, these muscles support about 60% of the body weight of standing or moving cattle. As it is one of the most used muscles by the animal and requires a significant amount of connective tissue it is a very tough cut of meat. And the reason low & slow BBQ is a perfect method to cook and serve this cut.

Many countries have dishes that use the brisket and make what is an otherwise tough and difficult cut into something wonderful (all do some type of low & slow type process to tenderize the cut):

  • Jewish pastrami
  • British braised or stewed beef
  • Korean jang joram
  • Italian bollito misto
  • Indian naharido
  • Vietnamese pho
  • Brisket has a long history in the United States. It is the meat of choice for slow smoking barbecue in Texas, and is often considered the "National Dish of Texas".

Brisket the right way

I am not a brisket expert and I've only smoked a few, but what I've produced was way better than most I've had at any BBQ joint or restaurant - and here's the thing...you can do it too!! The brisket I made received rave reviews from friends, family, and critical brisket lovers - some of whom live in the brisket epicenter of the south and get brisket all the time. I even had a friend's mom request brisket for her funeral wake after I served it to her brisket-loving family at her 100th birthday party...which I did later that year after she died just shy of 101!!

Making great brisket is not difficult and you can make great brisket your first time. The keys? Follow tried and true BBQ methods, use proper equipment, purchase a reasonably good cut of brisket, use good seasoning and you will be a Brisket BBQ Hero.

Creating a great brisket the first time!

  • Select a brisket - the following options are available at many butcher shops and meat counters:
    • Reasonably good brisket - you don't need a Waygu brisket at $10-$20 a pound...or more. Just get a brisket from your local butcher or grocery store meat counter. Remember, the low & slow method is foundational to BBQ and making tough cuts of meat delicious.
    • Whole or Packer brisket - "Packer" is the name given to the whole brisket before it's divided into the two subprimal cuts; the flat and the point. When you buy a whole packer brisket, you are getting an untrimmed cut of meat that most likely needs some trimming. Even if you decide to leave the fat cap intact, you may still need to trim away some rough edges.
    • Flat or Point - The flat is a leaner muscle, usually less moist and less tender than the fattier point, the tenderest section of the brisket. It contains more fat and marbling than the flat, making it juicier when cooked. Some meat markets sell a packer, flat and/or point, your choice.
  • Size of the brisket - larger briskets typically have more fat and more waste.
    • When it comes to packer brisket, smaller options will run somewhere in the 6-12 lb range. Large packer briskets can run in the high teen/low 20 pound offerings (my first was around 16 lbs.).
    • When choosing just the flat or point, you may find 2 to 4 pound options, but 4 to 8 pound is more common.
    • As with pork butt, you will lose a considerable amount of weight during the smoke. Up to 40% or more of the brisket weight will "disappear" due to evaporation and fat loss. If brisket is your only serving meat, allocate approximately 1/4 pound per person, depending on how many sides, age of guests, etc. (example: a 16 lb. raw brisket will yield approximately 10 lbs. of cooked brisket serving approximately 40 people).
  • Cook time
    • The larger the brisket, the longer the smoke. The overall weight, the diameter in the center of the cut and density make a difference - a large, dense mass may have a significant stall (explained below) during the smoke.
    • Small briskets may not yield the quality experience you are looking for, especially if you choose a "flat". The more marbling of fat, the juicer the end result.
    • Smoking 2 small briskets should be a shorter smoke time than one large brisket.
    • Temperature is critical. Low and slow is the only way. I've been to the NBBQA (National Barbeque Association) Annual Trade Show in Texas, the heart of brisket-land and heard people argue "low & slow" vs. "hot & fast". I've heard some "experts" saying you can smoke BBQ fast at a high temperature and get the same result. Sorry, there is no hot and fast, no shortcut to great brisket...at least not in quality BBQ.
      • And what is the appropriate low & slow smoking temperature? From what I have seen in the industry and from many experts, a range of between 190º and 225º is typical. I shoot for 225º (works best in Black Betty), but I've been to BBQ joints (especially whole hog joints or places that feed coals under meat racks) that go as low as 190º
    • Back to the stall...sometimes there's a stall, sometimes not. If my wife directs me to a specific serving time (guests arrive at 5, we will be eating around 6) I allocate extra time for the possibility of a long stall. When you are not expecting a long stall and it happens, all of your best laid plans go up in smoke. "Hey honey, your brisket will be ready to serve at 6, right?" ARGHHH$^(#^%&!!
      • Why or how does a stall occur? The most likely culprit for the stall is evaporative cooling  - the brisket hits a tipping point based on the energy it takes to evaporate moisture vs. raising the temperature of the mass. To put it simply, your brisket is sweating. After about three hours of cooking, the rising temperature of your smoker evaporates much of the moisture in the meat. The evaporative cooling balances out the heat being produced by your smoker’s fuel, causing the temperature of the meat to plateau, usually at around 150º. The temperature of the meat will then refuse to climb again until enough moisture has evaporated that evaporative cooling cannot offset your smoker’s heat.
  • "Coolering" or holding time
    • After your brisket has been smoked, wrapped and temperature brought to 203º (target temperature) the brisket will greatly benefit from resting a while. I have a few coolers that I use only to hold meat and I place wrapped brisket (or pork butt) in them, covering them with a towel. The coolers keep the heat in, just as they were designed to keep ice frozen.
    • As long as the meat is keep out of the temperature danger zone, you can cooler it for a long time. The longest I've gone is about 5 hours with pork butt and the meat was AMAZING! (and still HOT). Resting the meat continues to tenderize the meat without adding any more heat to it or causing moisture loss. I recommend at least 1 hour, if not 2, in a cooler.
  • Serving time
    • I use a prime rib knife, as it is razor sharp and long, which helps with clean, even cutting of the brisket. Sharp enough to get through the bark and cut the strands of muscle and long enough to use long, broad strokes to cut, leaving a beautiful appearance in the finished product.
    • You can choose how thick or thin you want slices to be. I personally recommend about 1/4" thick, maybe just a bit thinner. One time we had brisket sliders at a restaurant and they sliced the brisket about 1/2" thick. The result was fabulous.
    • Serve immediately after slicing, keep warm and covered.
    • Of course, The Sauce is served separate.

Directions: (this example is based on an approximate 10 lb. brisket.)

1. Unwrap your brisket the day prior to smoking and take a look at your brisket. There's a large layer of fat (called the fat cap) across the top of your brisket. Flip it over and you’ll see mostly exposed meat with some silver skin and another large knob of fat. The long, thin, rectangular side of the brisket is your flat. The knobby, muscly, angular end of the brisket is your point. Now that you are oriented to the meat, it’s time to get to business.

2. You'll want to trim it prior to smoking for a couple of reasons: allow for adequate smoke penetration, eliminate excess fat and make the piece of meat uniform for smoking.

3. Get out your largest cutting board and long, sharp trimming knife. If you like you can search YouTube for a detailed trimming video, but the basic principles of brisket trimming are as follows:

  • Trim the fat cap to approximately 1/4" thick of fat (use your best estimation).
  • Remove some/most of the fat between the flat and point (this fat can be thick, hard and large).
  • Trim off any chunks of fat that you don't want.
  • Remove any silver skin that remained from the butcher.
  • Make the brisket smooth and uniform. Trim any thin, scraggly or angular edges to the meat. You want uniform. If you don't remove it now, you will discard it after smoking, as it will overcook or burn.
  • You will probably remove somewhere between half-a-pound to a pound or more of fat and meat from a 10 lb. brisket to achieve a ready to season and smoke brisket.

4. Dry brine the brisket sprinkling 1/2 tsp kosher salt per pound of meat over the entire brisket. Cover and refrigerate until smoking time.

5. An hour prior to smoking, remove the brisket from the refrigerator and coat liberally with Jack's Blend SPG or your desired rub (you really can't overseason it - the rub will become part of the the bark and only the salt penetrates the meat).

6. Load/fire up your smoker and get temp to around 225°. Place your brisket(s) on the grate, stick thermometer in the center of the meat where it is the thickest.

7. Smoke the brisket maintaining your smoker temp as accurately as possible. When feeding the fire and/or opening the lid of the smoker your temp will most likely dip.

8. Spritz the brisket with apple juice every 30-60 minutes (do this until you wrap the brisket). The sugars in the apple juice will help the exterior of the brisket brown and create a great bark.

9. Continue smoking the brisket until the internal temperature reaches 165°.

10. Remove the brisket from the smoker and wrap it with butcher paper (see diagram below) making sure the paper is tight around the meat. The goal is to have no space between the meat and the paper, as much as is possible.

11. Place the brisket back in the smoker and replace the temperature probe in the meat, again aiming for the thickest part of the meat.

12. At this point maintain 225° as before (you may raise the temperature higher if needed to speed up the process, but it does run counter to low-and-slow and the benefit of a longer time at a lower temp).

13. Once the brisket has reached 203°, remove it from the smoker and "cooler" it. By that I mean place it in a foam or plastic cooler, the kind you normally put ice and pop in (I have a couple that I use only for meat), place a folded up towel on top of it and close the lid. Let the brisket rest for an hour or two before slicing.

14. Remove the brisket from the cooler, unwrap, slice and eat ASAP!! Oh, and in case you want to know what you will be lookin at, cutting and eating, here it is (turn up the volume on your computer to catch the sounds).

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