Maybe I'm the dummy but I have to admit that I've not always turned out perfect briskets (some were barely edible) and with the cost of a whole packer brisket these days, who can afford to buy something that's just going to be another mistake.
I have learned a few things about brisket over the years that I wish someone had shared with me years ago when I first started so today's your lucky day and I'm in a mood to share ;-)
Allow me to input, however, that there is absolutely no substitute for practice.
Forget everything you thought you knew about preparing and smoking brisket and let's jump right into it.
Brisket Smoking Tutorial for Dummies
This is probably the most comprehensive guide that I have written in a newsletter on a single type of meat so don't get blown away. You do not have to read all of it at once and, in fact, you might be able to digest the information better if you read it in several sessions and give yourself time to absorb the information slowly.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 16-20 hours
Smoker temperature: 240°F
Meat Finish temperature: 200°F
Recommended wood: Pecan, Hickory or Oak
I always tell folks, when purchasing meat, to buy the best thing you can afford. With current brisket prices one feels like they may have to take a out a small loan but often, you also get what you pay for where brisket are concerned. The cheaper box store briskets are often very low quality and there's only so much you can do to make it turn out wonderful. Part of how it turns out has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the cow, how it was raised, what it ate, etc.
(Or at least that's how I console myself if I have a brisket failure)
Picking out the perfect brisket starts with making sure you buy a whole packer brisket in the 12-14 lb range. This is the range that has given me the best results.
The brisket should have a fat cap on one side.. sometimes about ½ inch thick or more. If you can find a large one that has a less thick fat cap, then theoretically you are getting more meat.
Less fat weight = more meat weight.
You need the fat cap but since I usually recommend trimming it down to about ¼ inch, there's no sense in buying more than ¼ inch unless you have to.
Good red color in the meat.. off colors like brown and grey can mean the meat is not as fresh as it should be. Fat color matters as well or so I am told by folks better versed on the subject than I am. White or cream colored fat means the cows were fed corn and other cereals and is also likely that they were kept in a smaller area and not allowed to move around so much. Bad for the cow, but good for the consumer as less movement means more marbling of fat and meat that is not as tough.
I have always thought that a brisket that starts out tender will be more likely to end up tender after it is cooked. For this reason, I check the briskets for “bend” in the store before I buy them. This is sometimes hampered by the tight cryovac packaging but it helps to at least give you an idea. The briskets that are able to bend the best are considered to have the most potential for ending up tender.
Whether this is actually true or not is left to be determined by the food scientists of the world but it seems to be a consistent indicator for me so I continue to use this method faithfully.
Some folks do not trim their briskets at all– no matter what. I recommend leaving about ¼ inch of fat on the top. Any more than that just hinders the smoke and insulates it from the heat so it is best removed in my opinion.
Use a very sharp knife and don't get too meticulous with it. If it's the first time you've ever trimmed the fat cap, it might look like the cat gnawed on it and as you get better with practice, it will look more like it was done with a sharp knife in a purposeful fashion.
Sometimes there's a really thick chunk of hard fat between the point and the fat along the side. I usually try to remove a big portion of that if possible.
This is only relevant if you decide to cook the brisket with the fat cap in the UP position and I will talk about that on down the page a bit but, for now, let's assume that you are.
Years ago when I first started doing briskets, the idea was to just put mustard and rub on the top, sides and bottom and call it good but I noticed that the rub was getting carried off by the melting fat and I knew that I either needed to just skip the rub on the fat cap or find a way to help it hold on a little better.
This is when I started scoring the fat cap to give the rub a place to hang on while the fat was melting.
To score the brisket, I simply made cuts in the fat cap all the way down to the meat in a crosshatch pattern with the cuts about ¾ to 1 inch apart. It worked great and the rest is history.
I highly recommend this.
Another problem that you will encounter once the brisket is finished cooking is that you will want to cut it across the grain to make it more tender. The cutting is not the problem but remembering which way the grain runs now that there is rub crusted onto the brisket.
This is where the notch comes into play. Cut a piece of brisket from the corner that is exactly perpendicular to the grain of the flat side of the brisket. Once the brisket is done cooking, you'll know the direction to cut the slices.
Some folks like to keep it really simple and just use salt and pepper but to me, there is so much more than you can do. Brisket is a big piece of meat and it can handle a lot of flavor. Not only can it handle a lot of flavor, it begs for it!
I use my original rub recipe on brisket most of the time but that's because I like the perfect balance of sweet and spicy and I think it pairs really well with the beef. If you are a true Texan or just think like a Texan, you might prefer my Texas style rub recipe .
As most of you know, I sell my rub recipe to support the website and newsletter. I created the new Texas style rub recipe due to so many folk asking for a non-sweet rub and I decided to just include it for free when you purchase the original rub recipe.
Note: In case you are wondering, the rub recipes and sauce recipe are delivered via email and should be sent to you within minutes after you order.
I also offer it free of charge to anyone who has already purchased the original rub in the past. All you have to do is request it.
When applying rub, you have two basic options.
- Pour the seasoning onto the meat and hope it sticks. Much of it will fall off when you move the brisket.
- Use something on the brisket that is sticky that the rub can adhere to.
I like option 2 with yellow mustard as it works really well, does not taste anything like mustard after it is cooked and it's inexpensive.
Apply a good layer of mustard.. get artsy with it if you are so inclined.
Apply the rub and watch it stick like glue.
Note: I usually apply the rub on all sides however, if I am cooking fat cap DOWN, I do not go to the trouble to place rub or mustard on the bottom of the brisket. It just seems unnecessary.
I love cooking briskets on my Meadow Creek wood smoker however, that is labor intensive and requires lots of babysitting. I don't mind the process if I have nothing to do and I'm in relax mode but, if it's a busy day, I will often use a propane smoker such as the Great Outdoors Smoky Mountain or even an electric model such as the Bradley, Masterbuilt or even the electric Brinkmann (the red one). I also love to use the Weber Smoky Mountain (WSM) or the Big Green Egg for brisket. Both of these are charcoal smokers, impart great flavor and are quite easy to setup and use with minimum labor involved.
Another excellent brisket smoking machine that I've started using recently is the Camp Chef Woodwind.. a pellet smoker that not only uses real wood pellets and produces really nice smoke rings, it's easy to setup and use with minimal effort. I highly recommend the Woodwind if you are in the market for a smoker that's easy to use and allows you to cook with
Everyone has an opinion about this and I'll just give you mine. I have cooked them both ways upon many occasions and I can't tell that it makes a huge difference in tenderness, flavor or juiciness. I do it both ways and I even have a method where I flip it back and forth while it cooks.
All in all, you should try it both ways and see what works best for you.
There's always a caveat and here's one– if you are using a smoker where there is lots of radiant heat coming straight up from the bottom (think ugly drum smoker with no baffle) and onto whatever you are cooking, then fat cap down is the way to go since it will protect the brisket from the blast of heat and keep it from drying out so bad.
Use a thermometer to test the temperature of the brisket and even though there is some “feel” involved with knowing exactly when a brisket is done, this is no replacement for knowing the exact temperature in my humble opinion.
I highly recommend the thermometers made by Thermoworks as they are proven to be high quality, super durable and highly accurate. I have several of their products and I have not doubt that I'll still be using all of them 10-20 years from now.. probably longer. Buy a good one that's sure to last and you'll be much happier in the long run.
The Thermoworks Smoke is my favorite dual probe, remote digital thermometer. The probes are left in the meat the entire time it's in the smoker so you always know what the temperature is. There are (2) probes so you can monitor two pieces of meat or a piece of meat such as this brisket as well as the pit temperature.
They also have a gateway that connects this thermometer to your wi-fi system and this together with an app on your smart phone can allow you to monitor the dual probes even when you are not home. I love going to the store to get supplied and being able to see the temperature of my smoker and the meat I am cooking. That's REALLY sweet!
I won't spend a lot of time on this but I have many people ask me questions regarding how long to apply smoke and my standard answer is that I recommend you apply smoke for at least half of the estimated cook time. This does not apply to wood smokers obviously since they use wood for fuel and will be creating smoke by default whenever it is in use.
This is my minimum and does not mean that you absolutely have to stop the smoke at the halfway point. This is just what I have found and seems to be the minimum amount of smoke needed to create a good smoke ring and great flavor.
As long as you keep the smoke light, you can apply smoke to brisket for the entire time. You may find that you like only 30 minutes of smoke and that is fine too. You have to figure out some of these things by practicing your craft.
I like to use hickory, pecan or oak on briskets although I have also used cherry and even mesquite with excellent results.
In case you are wondering, it is perfectly fine to finish cooking the brisket in the home oven at 225-240°F once you are done applying smoke. Be sure to place it in a large foil pan to protect the house oven from any leakage issues.
If you have not experienced this then perhaps you've heard folks talk about it. Something happens when briskets hit about 160°F. The temperature just stops going up for a few hours and it just sort of stalls out. We know that this is a result of liquids pooling on the top of the brisket and the evaporation begins to cool the brisket preventing it from rising in temperature for a while.
You can expect this to happen and most of the time it does. A great way to prevent this and/or to at least speed up the cooking process is to wrap the brisket in foil or butcher paper at about 160°F.
I like butcher paper better than foil as it keeps the brisket crust from getting soggy. This is only an issue if you prefer the crust to be.. well, crusty and not soft.
Many folks do not wrap the brisket at all. This is fine and you just have to prepare to be patient as the brisket does it's thing. I can't say that foil or paper makes a brisket better as I have not experienced this but it does cut off some of that stall time.
This can depend on the brisket and as I mentioned above, there is some “feel” to knowing when a brisket is done but in my experience, for a super tender brisket, I recommend taking it all the way to 200°F.
When a brisket is done, the meat will not resist a semi-sharp object being pushed through it. I usually check the temperature with a Thermapen and the resistance with which the probe goes into the meat and then comes back out lets me know how close it is to being finished.
It should be like a knife in hot butter.. almost no resistance at all.
If you did not wrap the brisket while it was cooking, I highly recommend wrapping it and placing it in an insulated cooler for a couple of hours once it's finished cooking.
I usually wrap in foil or butcher paper then in a couple of old towels and place it down in a insulated picnic cooler. Sometimes I will place more towels on top to help hold in the heat and close the lid. (this is also great for traveling with the brisket as long as your are not going more than 3-4 hours away.
The meat will stay hot for 3-4 hours if you need it to. A couple of hours allows the juices to redistribute throughout the brisket so that when you cut into it, it doesn't all run out onto the cutting board.
I love brisket almost any way and this includes chopped as well as sliced. I love to serve chopped brisket if I am making sandwiches. Sliced brisket works great as an entree as well as on a sandwich.
To get ready to slice or chop the meat, I recommend separating the flat from the point. This is done by running a knife along the fat layer right in the center of the 2 parts. The thicker end (the point) contains a lot more fat and extends into the center of the flat.
I usually cut off the point from the flat, right down through it with it sitting flat on the cutting board. This allows me to see the fat in the center and I can run my knife right through it.
The point can then be cubed up, placed back into a pan with added rub and sauce for making burnt ends (I love these). Put them back into the smoker for about 2-3 hours, stirring around occasionally until they get really nice and caramelized.
The flat should be sliced about ¼ inch thick across the grain. Remember that notch we made earlier so we could tell which way the grain runs? Now you realize how good of an idea that is.
If you have to make a brisket ahead of time and you plan to eat it later, I recommend no more than a couple of days. Go ahead and slice or chop it when it's done and place it in a foil pan with foil over the top.
This way it's ready to heat up in the oven.
Catch some of the brisket juices if possible and pour that over the brisket slices and down into the pan.When it' s time to reheat it, preheat the oven to about 275°F and then place the pan with the brisket in to the oven. 45-60 minutes most likely but this depends greatly on how cold the brisket is, how much brisket is in the pan, how tightly it's packed, etc.
You'll have to lift the foil a little and reach in there to feel it when you think it's almost ready. With it being in the pan with brisket juices, it will steam and maintain most of it's moisture during the reheat. It's also a good idea to reserve some of the brisket juices aside to pour over the brisket just before serving.
Note: You can also order the formulas for my rubs and sauce and make these yourself at home. Grab those HERE and download immediately.