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BBQ 101: Smoked BBQ Beef Brisket

There’s nothing quite like smoked barbecue beef brisket. Here’s some cuts from the “flat” portion of the brisket.

Amongst those in the barbecue community, there is what is considered a “trinity” of barbecued meats that every pit master should be proficient at cooking. These are pork ribs, pork shoulder, and beef brisket.

Each of these barbecued meats has a region in the United States that is known for mastering it. For instance, midwestern cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and Memphis are all known for their pork ribs. The Carolinas are known for their pork shoulders. And Texas, of course, is known for its beef brisket.

Although brisket is a tough muscle that is inedible if not cooked well, smoked right it is – in my opinion – perhaps the best barbecued meat you can serve from your smoker.

Buying Beef Brisket

The brisket is a primal cut from the steer’s breast, between the beast’s front legs. Cattle do not have a collar bone, so their breast muscles are heavily used. As a result, the brisket is a tougher piece of meat that requires a slow and low cooking method to break down the collagens in the meat to produce a tender, delicious meal.

The brisket comprises of two main muscles that are separated by a layer of fat. You can look up the Latin names for these muscles on Google if you care to. For our purposes the names for these two muscles are the point (or deckle) and the flat. 

The flat is the larger of the two muscles and forms the foundation, if you will, for the brisket. It’s around two feet in length with a pretty uniform thickness of about three inches. The point is thicker than the flat but shorter, more along the lines of a typical roast shape. It sits on top of the flat at one side and typically is about half the length of the flat. In terms of fat content, the point contains more fat than the flat.

As a whole, the brisket can range anywhere from 11 to 16 pounds. You’ll find these called “packer cuts” at supermarkets and wholesale clubs. However, sometimes they can be hard to find, especially during the summer when there is higher demand for them. So the general rule is that if you want one from a supermarket, call ahead first.

Sometimes supermarkets will have a portion of the brisket in their meat case, such as the flat or point or a portion of the flat. Of course, you can order such a cut from your butcher as well. This is a great option for a small family dinner. 

I usually stick to the full brisket. Not only does everyone get to enjoy brisket slices (which are sliced from the flat) but they also get the benefit of burnt ends and shredded brisket (which are made from the fattier point). And I get the benefit of using leftover brisket for chili and other derivative dishes throughout the week. Win-win-win.

Trimming

If you get a packer cut you’ll have a bit of trimming to do. 

The top (or point) side of the brisket is covered by a thick layer of fat that needs to be trimmed down to about a quarter inch. You don’t want to remove it entirely because this fat will serve to self-baste the brisket during the long cooking time. The easiest and quickest way to trim is with a super sharp filet knife.

The bottom side of the brisket does not have as much fat. Here you’ll mostly be removing the silver skin from the muscle.

After you’ve done these two trims, turn the brisket back over to look at the top side. There is one more bit of trimming that I do and that you might want to as well.

Between the point and the flat is a large layer of fat separating the two muscles. Make a small cut between the two muscles and you’ll see how large a layer it is. If you don’t want all that fat around, you can trim in that space a bit (but don’t slice all the way through so that the point is separated from the flat). 

Salt / Dry Brine

I always salt the brisket the day before it goes into the smoker. This is important step that helps keep your brisket moist after a day in the smoker.

The technical term for this salting of the brisket is “dry brining”. The science behind “dry brining” in simple terms is that the salt is drawn into the upper layers of the meat through a process of osmosis. It then acts as a barrier between the moisture in the meat and the heat of the smoker. The result is that moisture is trapped inside the meat and a brisket that is moister than one that is salted just prior to the smoking process.

Morning Prep

Briskets take about 1 to 1.25 hours per pound to cook, depending on what temperature you keep your smoker at. So if you have a large brisket, you may need to get up pretty early in the morning in order to get it done in time for dinner. If you use a Weber grill as your smoker, check out my guide to setting it up for smoking.

At this point you should get your wood chips ready by soaking them in water. Brisket stands up well to heavy smoke flavor, so you can go with hickory or mesquite. Woods that produce a lighter smoke such as applewood or cherrywood are fine as well. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.

Why do we soak the wood chips in water? Wet wood chips burn slower, thereby providing the meat more time to be exposed the smoke. On the Weber grill smoker, I add more chips every couple of hours during the first few hours of cooking to provide the level of smoke flavor that my family enjoys on a brisket. Wood chips are another one of those things for you to experiment with until you get exactly what you are looking for.

It’s important to always keep a close eye on the temperature of your smoker. Although smokers usually come with built-in thermometers, I don’t find it very convenient to run by the smoker every 15 minutes to check on the temperature. 

That’s where remote thermometers come in handy. Good models not only allow you to view the temperature of the smoker anywhere on the property, but also to set alarm alerts for minimum and maximum temperatures so you don’t even have to lookat the display unit that often. This allows you to work in the yard or watch a ballgame without worrying about whether your meat is cooking properly. 

I’ve used a Redi Chek brand remote thermometer for years and it works great. It has prongs for both meat and grill temperatures so you can monitor both at the same time. And you can find all sorts of models on Amazon.

Injecting the brisket

After the equipment is ready and the charcoal is heating up, I put together a quick injection. Injections are great because they add more moisture to the meat before cooking. It’s just another layer of protection from the relentless heat that the brisket will be exposed to over the many hours of cooking time.

Brisket injections – just like any other thing in bbq – can be anything from simple to complex. For brisket, I like to stick to the basics. Simmer some fresh onions and garlic in a little beef broth and strain the liquid out. Or go simple and heat up the broth with a little onion and garlic powders and go from there. 

Injecting is easy with brisket since you don’t have to deal with the bones you might find in pork shoulder. Inject checkerboard style every two inches and you’ll be good to go.

Should you take the brisket out of the fridge an hour before smoking it?

Common advice seen around the web suggest that you take the brisket out of the fridge an hour before it goes in the smoker. Naturally, the more science-inclined myth busters out there have pretty much agreed that there is no real benefit to doing so. And, more importantly for us, when you are smoking meats. 

Is there a drawback to this practice? It doesn’t appear so. So, like with a lot of things involving barbecue, do what you will.

Applying the rub

After the brisket is injected, it is time to apply the dry rub. This application of flavor is essential so that a beautiful, tasty bark develops on the brisket during smoking. I use my own Buck Magnussen BBQ Rub that has a little sweet and spicy kick to it.

Smoking the brisket

The actual process of cooking the brisket in your smoker is pretty easy. The key points to remember are:

  1. Smoking takes a long time: somewhere between 1 to 1.25 hours per pound.
  2. Ensure that the cooking temperature remains steady in the 225-275-degree range.
  3. The stall is real: the brisket will get to around 160 degrees and stay there for at least a couple hours. No worries, it will break through this plateau.
  4. Remain patient. Do not take the brisket out before it reaches its optimal temperature of 195 degrees.

There are two additional points that we need to touch on.

First, you do not mop a brisket. A mop is basically a vinegar-based liquid that some believe is essential to keeping meat moist during smoking. Whether this is true or not does not matter to us because you do not mop a brisket. Mopping, if you choose to do it, is for pork.

A properly cooked brisket requires well-formed bark. Bark is essential because it adds a ridiculous amount of flavor to your brisket slices. And, perhaps even more importantly, makes for kick-ass burnt ends.

Adding liquid to the surface of the brisket impedes the formation of the bark. And that simply isn’t good.

Second, the stall is real and it might be a little stressful to see your brisket plateauing at 160 degrees when you need to get it up to the right temperature by a set dinner time. The last thing anyone needs is for the main course to show up late to the dinner party.

To avoid any issues, you can do two things. One option is start your brisket a couple hours early. If it gets up to 195 degrees a couple hours before dinner time it is not big deal. Just take it out of the smoker, wrap it in aluminum foil (if it isn’t already) and a couple bath towels, and put it in a beer cooler. It’ll stay hot for hours.

The second option is to check the internal temperature of your brisket about three hours before dinner time. If it is still firmly in the stall range of 160 degrees, then wrap it with heavy duty aluminum foil (this is called the “Texas Crutch”). Then kick up the heat in the smoker to about 300 degrees. These simple steps should get the brisket quickly out of the stall and up to the desired temperature in time for dinner – and that includes the mandatory 20-30 minutes rest time after you pull it out of the smoker.

There is a difference of opinion out there regarding using the Texas Crutch. Some pitmasters alwaysuse it, while others do not. There are two key differences in how the brisket comes out:

  1. The bark. When you use the Texas Crutch, the bark does not get as dry or crispy and the final product is a bit moister. You can alleviate the bark issue by removing the foil during the last 30-60 minutes of cook time.
  2. The smoke flavor. Covering the brisket prevents smoke from touching it. As a result, when you use the Texas Crutch during the cooking process, you’ll get a cleaner, less smoky flavor at the end.

What you choose to do comes down to your own taste preferences. Try both methods and see what you like best.