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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 as if they may have to take out a small loan, but often, you also get what you pay for where brisket is concerned.
If you purchase a low quality brisket, there's only so much you can do to make it turn out wonderful. Part of how it turns out has little 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 will have a fat cap on one side that is usually about ½ inch thick or more. If you can find a large one that has a thinner fat cap, then theoretically you are getting more meat for your money.
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.
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 in the subject than I am. White or cream-colored fat means the cows were fed corn and other cereals, and it 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 cling to 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.
Once the brisket is finished smoking, you will want to slice it across the grain to make it a more tender bite. Remembering which way the grain runs once the rub has created a bark can be an issue if you don't plan ahead.
This is where a 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.
You can still smoke the notch and then throw it into beans, soups, etc.
Some folks like to keep it really simple and just use salt and pepper, but 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 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.
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 to help the rub adhere better.
I like option two 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.
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.
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.
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 no 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 monitor the pit temperature.
They also have a gateway that connects this thermometer to your wi-fi system. This, together with an app on your smart phone, allows you to monitor the dual probes even when you are not home. I love going to the store to get supplies 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, since those use wood for fuel and will be creating smoke by default whenever it is in use.
This 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 oven at 225°F (107°C) once you are done applying smoke. Be sure to place it in a large foil pan to protect against any leakage issues.
Something happens when briskets hit about 160°F. The temperature just stops going up for a few hours and 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 its thing. I can't say that foil/paper makes a brisket taste better, as I have not experienced this, but it does reduce 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 at least 200°F (93°C).
When a brisket is done, the meat will not resist a semi-sharp object being pushed into 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 feel like a knife going into hot butter with 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.
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 two 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 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 the cubes back into the smoker for about 2-3 hours, stirring them 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 (135°C), and then place the pan with the brisket into the oven.
Total reheat time will be 45-60 minutes most likely but this depends greatly on how cold the brisket is, how much brisket is in the pan, and 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 or you can check with a thermometer.
With it being in the pan with brisket juices, it will steam and maintain most of its 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.