“You are not actually “smoking” the brisket, in the sense that you smoke, or cure a ham. If you can see smoke coming from your pit, your gonna end up with a bitter tasting hunk of meat”.
To me, one of the greatest feelings is receiving praise and admiration from your friends and family after serving them some delicious BBQ. Even if it’s done half right, backyard BBQ can be immensely better than you can get in a restaurant and will quickly raise you to “Pit Master” status in the eyes of you loved ones!
If you’re looking for practical advice, giving you a perfect brisket, on just about any type of smoking (or grilling) device, you’ve come to the right place.
Greg Bright here with Weldables Inc. We developed our Smoven stainless steel smoker oven based around the principles that I’m about to share with you. However, we’re not here to pontificate on which type of smoker you should use. We have seen delicious briskets produced on anything from a regular gas grill to a filing cabinet. You read that right – See the video here:
Maybe you’ve been perusing the internet, reading the advice of all the best Pitmasters out there. Believe me, I hang on just about every word that these guys say. HOWEVER – you have to take the BBQ Pro’s advice with a grain of salt. Remember, the Pro’s (including famous restaurant owners like Arron Franklin) are cooking lots of volumes of meat (multiple briskets at one time), and have a ton of experience with wood selection and fire management. I’m afraid that some of their advice is not practical for the typical backyard smoker, cooking one brisket over the weekend.
I’ll be sharing my experince from over 20 years of smoking over 100 briskets on smaller backyard smokers – from one backyard smoker to another.
- 9 to 10 pound well marbled, un-trimmed brisket “packer’s cut” brisket. Prime or choice is best if you can’t find it! See note below about Meat Selection. (see update below at #10 pitfalls…for larger briskets)
- Lump Hardwood Charcoal – If it doesn’t look like real pieces of charred wood, it’s not lump charcoal. See note below about Wood Selection.
- Chimney Starter – for refueling a dying fire. NEVER USE LIQUID CHEMICAL FIRE STARTER FLUIDS! Note: Every smoker is different, ours uses a maze for the coals to burn along. You light one end and it slowly burns to the other end over 24 hours. With your smoker, you’ll need to figure out how to maximize burn time, while maintaining 225 degrees.
- Large heavy duty, disposable aluminum foil water pan (fat catcher, moisture provider and heat diffuser) *Substituting pink butcher paper works great for helping the bark to remain crisper… if you decide to wrap the brisket half way through.
- Kosher Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper – yes that is all the spice you need for brisket. Follow Arron Franklin’s advice and leave the rubs for pork and chicken!
- Wired digital read out Temperature Probes – use one to stick in the meat and one to monitor the temperate inside your smoker. Use the wired kind that you can leave in the meat the whole time and monitor things with the lid closed.
- Thick Silicone Rubber High Heat BBQ gloves – you’ll be grabbing the brisket with your hands!
- Disposable Nitril Gloves – to handle the raw meat preparation.
- Very Large Cutting board (with a way to contain the juices)
- Extra Wide heavy duty aluminum Foil
- Large butcher knife
- Fillet knife
- Ice Chest (for the resting period)
Meat Selection: We’re talking about a full, untrimmed, packer cut brisket. The point and flat are intact with a thick layer of untrimmed fat covering the whole brisket. These weigh anywhere from 8 to 15 pounds. (See note on why a 8 to 10 pounder is best). Many grocery stores carry the 2 to 6 pound hunk of meat labeled “brisket” that is most likely a trimmed flat (also called the first cut). This is not the cut you want. This is a cut for slow cookers, braising, and other moist heat cooking; if you cook it for hours and hours it will look and taste like leather!
Wood Selection: We do not recommend using natural seasoned “raw” wood. Real hardwood “lump” charcoal is EXPONENTIALLY more forgiving and will give more consistent results for the typical backyard smoker to achieve clear smoke.
Sure the pro’s use “Seasoned Raw Wood”, but they know how to tweak their fires just right to give them clear smoke. Natural raw wood also adds much time to the smoking process to get the fire “dialed in” just right. Over time you might be able to perfect the process of using raw natural wood chunks in your smoker, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Even after smoking over a 100 briskets over 20 years, I have ruined a brisket or two trying to perfect real, raw wood – I just gave up and stuck with lump charcoal (not compressed newspaper briquettes). I like the B&B brand.
*Real hardwood Lump Charcoal can be lit and ready to start smoking with clear smoke in as little as 30 to 45 minutes.
No Smoke! Clean, Clear smoke is the number one factor in smoking. Anything visible coming out of your smoke stack will ruin your brisket! White smoke makes the meat taste bitter and nasty. *For all of the above reasons, we do not add any type of wood chips or other smoke enancing products during our 11 to 15 hour cooking time, A good quality lump charcoal gives just the right hint of smoke flavor, especially over this long cook time.
Tip: Aim For Zero Reloads… Reloading fuel, even lump charcoal, creates smoke for the first 30 minutes or so when it first lights – with our Smoven you get 24 Hour burn time (less in cooler weather) = ZERO RELOADS!
Top Ten Pitfalls of Brisket Newbies
- Not giving yourself enough time. There is nothing more embarrassing than having a bunch of hangry guests waiting until 10pm to eat (it’s happened to me more than once). For planning purposes only – Plan 1.25 to 1.5 hours per pound of meat.
- Getting too much smoke flavor, making the meat bitter tasting. A little goes a long way. Eliminate or limit wood chips – shoot for clear smoke! *Remember, reloading fuel, even lump charcoal, creates smoke for the first 30 minutes when it first lights – aim for zero reloads!
- Using those store bought rub concoctions with a two year shelf life (use only Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper for brisket). Save the rubs for pork and chicken – we have a great recipe for that too!
- Using time as the only gauge for meat doneness
- Cooking without a externally monitored and wired temperature probe (If you’re lookin’ – You’re not cookin’)
- Using the wrong charcoal
- Not becoming familiar with their smoker – takes notes on every smoke, learn your smoker, find your “hot spots”.
- Not planning the purchase of the meat and the store is sold out, or only left with an expired cut of sub-prime meat. – buy it on Thursday or Friday morning for the weekend. Better, find out what day of the week your butcher gets them in.
- Not anticipating the weather – the cold will suck the heat right out of your pit, and definitely changes the smoke times, charcoal amount, and pit adjustments. We have seen ten thousand dollar pits ruined by inexperienced operators frantically adding fuel to the fire and melting the fire box!
- Buying a brisket that weighs too much. At 1.25 to 1.5 hours per pound a 15 pound brisket will keep you up all weekend smoking! *UPDATE: I have been finishing my briskets in the oven at 225 after I pull them off the smoker and wrap them. I have found that this makes zero difference in taste. But it does allow me to get good night’s sleep, especially when cooking larger briskets! This is another reason to buy your brisket early – smaller briskets can be harder to find. Please note – 1.25 to 1.5 hours per pound hours is only a guide for planning your serving time – use internal temperate to gauge doneness.* Note: Never cut a brisket in half and try to just smoke one half. There is a fatty side and a lean side and it all needs to cook together.
The Meat Preparation
- Buy a 9 to 10 pound (see update above for larger briskets) “untrimmed whole” brisket – Look for one that is well marbled “Choice” or “Prime” cut. Never buy a “trimmed” brisket. They trim almost all of the fat off!
- There will be a thick layer of fat on one whole side of the brisket. This is known as the “Fat Cap” and is the top of the brisket for reference. (we’re not talking about the fatty end of the brisket here). For our method, you will cook with this top/fat cap side facing up the entire cooking process. In some areas this layer of fat can be as much as one inch thick. While you need this fat (along with the help of gravity) to render down, moisturize and tenderize the meat while cooking, you do not need ALL of it. Therefore, trim it down to between 3/8 inch and 1/4 inch with a fillet knife.
- Rinse the brisket off.
- The night before (if you can) – put on generous amount of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper – rub it in wearing nitrile / disposable gloves. Let it sit in the fridge overnight.
- Let the brisket come to room temperature before placing it in the smoker – this is not imperative, but speeds up the cooking time, plus I think is helps work in the salt and pepper better.
The Cooking Process
- Light the smoker one hour before you plan to put the meat on – this allows the coals to burn down to the point that they are not producing any smoke – aim for 225 temperature – the whole time! Tip: Never use liquid fire starters – They make propane BBQ grill fire starters just for this purpose.
- Block and diffuse the heat source – Fill a water pan with hot water – use it to block the heat source AND add moister during the cooking process. Note: Always light your pit dry first, and then add the water pan once you are up to (or a little past) the cooking temperature that you want to cook at. If not you will be fighting an uphill battle trying to heat the pit and the water.
- Place the brisket on – FAT SIDE UP. Note – There is much debate about fat side up or down. For our method, it will always be fat side up, during the whole cooking process. Position the meat correctly in the smoker, in a zone that can maintain 225 degrees and as far away from the fire as possible, with the larger fatty “end” facing the heat source.
- Take it off the smoker when the internal meat temperature reached 175-180 or 195-200 (personal preference here). Or… see note below about wrapping. 180-ish is for slicing, 195-ish is for chopped or pulled brisket. The higher the temp you take it too, the mushier the meat will be. Remember, the temp will continue to rise once you take it off and put it in the cooler.
Fire Management: This is the only true skill required to smoking a brisket – Fire, Smoke and Heat management. Everything else is just like baking a cake, by following a recipe. Knowing your equipment is just as important as having the right equipment.
*We think we have developed the best, most forgiving smoker on the market, capable of maintaining an even 225 degrees for 24 hours – on one load of lump charcoal! But as long as you know how to manage your fire and get consistent results, you can use a filing cabinet to smoke you meat ; )
Note: You will always get a little (or a lot) of white smoke when the fire is first lit and anytime you add lump charcoal (or wood). Two things that you can do to minimize this is:
- Start your fire well in advance of adding meat. I light it an hour in advance.
- When adding more fuel (lump charcoal) always add burning coals that have already been lit and burned down a little in one of those metal chimney fire starters.
The general goal in cooking the brisket is to evenly surround the it with even heat, at a constant temperature, for the entire cooking time. In a perfect world this would be possible, but in reality, you will fight this with any smoker – especially in adverse weather conditions. The idea is to try and get as close as possible to this goal of even heat.
The main reason for this challenge is that you will have a heat source (your fire) and you will have a direction of travel that heat flows from and to. Most times heat flows up from the fire and out the smoke stack, but many times it flows up and across – as in an offset smoker.
This is where knowing your smoker / grill, comes in very handy. You have to know your hot spots (yes, even the Big green egg has hot spots). Know the direction of heat flow. Its a game of block and tackle. Diffuse that direct heat with water pans, metal baffles, fire bricks – by whatever means you have!
Tip: You must always use the fatty (wider and thicker) end of the brisket to block the heat. Always place this fatty end nearest the heat source (or hot spot) and the thinner end away from heat source. For example – On a Big Green Egg the back of the grate is a little hotter.
Clean Clean Smoke
The term “BBQ Smoker” is actually a misnomer. You really do not want any visible smoke. Achieving what the pros call “clear smoke”” is the holy grail of smoking. Yeah, a bunch of white smoke might look cool to some people. To those that know better – it looks like nasty trouble! Every smoker has it’s own unique characteristics that you will need to become familiar with. This is why you need to become familiar with your smoker. I would recommend starting small, maybe a beer butt chicken, or ribs – and practice numerous times before trying to feed a house full of guests. The number one rule to control white smoke is to control the temperature using the bottom air vents only. If you can, leave the top smoke stack as wide open as possible. As you start to close the smoke stack vent, you are just choking the fire and making it burn bitter.
Never use time as a gauge! An internal temperature of 180 to 185 yields firm juicy slices (my favorite). 190 to 200 yields mushy, stringy meat, better used for a pulled brisket sandwich.
Anticipate the Stall – Plan for the stall to start at 150 and last about 3 to 5 hours through 170. It’s a weird phenomenon that freaks most newbies out. Your brisket will all of the sudden stop gaining temperature during the stall. This is expected and perfectly fine. DO NOT TRY AND ADJUST YOU FIRE UP HIGHER TO COMPENSATE FOR THIS – JUST SIT IT OUT! THIS WILL PASS ; )
Anticipate a heat drop once meat is added – This is the reason that the pros need that shear volume of wood mass to handle lots of meat. Sure, once you add your one single brisket, you will see a heat drop on your temperature probe. Just imagine adding 20 briskets, how much heat that’s gonna suck out of the smoker.
Holding / Resting Period Before Serving
Once internal temperature is reached, the brisket comes off the cooker and it gets wrapped in foil and sits in an ice chest, for 1 to 3 hours. Holding helps tenderize by allowing some additional cooking which helps soften the connective tissue. Foil keeps heat in, while containing the juice for keeping the meat moist. Holding also allows the meat surface that has dried out during cooking to absorb some of the juices. Note: Sometimes it’s best to take it off the heat a little sooner, because it will continue to cook during the holding period.
At minimum – Let it rest for 45 to 60 minutes covered in foil. Then slice it—fat side up, against the grain—and serve.
Note: Holding is a great way to give you a buffer and hold the brisket it until the guests are ready – See our #1 pitfall : )
Tip: a large stainless steel serving (chafing pan) – Less than $10.00 from a restaurant supply house) works best for handling briskets at various stages of the process.
Tip: To ensure the brisket remains moist, do not trim away the fat cap before serving. Slice only as much brisket as needed and serve immediately. The remainder will keep well wrapped in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Tip: Slicing a brisket is easier to chew if you cut it perpendicular to the grain. Cut with the grain and it can be stringy and chewy.
One final note – What I love about brisket is that it’s a competition with myself every time. Every brisket I cook, I try to beat my last one. Even the Pros have their good days and their bad days. That’s the reason that the #1 rule at any BBQ contest is you have to prove that you did not bring a pre-cooked brisket into the competition. That’s why most competitions require them to “tag” your raw meat upon arrival.
To Wrap or Not – It’s often referred to as the Texas Crutch. Most of the pros use the crutch in competitions for all of their meats – Just saying : ) You’ll need extra wide, extra heavy duty foil for this.
The way I wrap is to let the brisket cook for at least two hours or up until about half way through unwrapped. The I use a piece of heavy duty foil (or pink butcher paper), folded in half to create two layers. The foil should be large enough to go around the entire brisket, with enough left over to crimp and seal the edges and ends tightly. Your goal is to seal it as tight as possible. Then I unwrap it one to two hours before I expect it to be done to crisp up the bark. This, along with the first sevetal hours of unwrapped cooking creates a nice bark ring (texture) around the meat.