Smoked brisket is a perfect meal for the holidays, especially if you have a large gathering planned. And what could be more Texan?
It does takes a little planning, though. And a little bit of science.
I usually season my brisket 24 hours before smoking it, and then smoking can take 8 to 20+ hours depending on the size and shape of the brisket. Plus, I like to let mine rest for a couple of hours after it's done. (Come to think of it, I like to rest a couple of hours, too.)
There are all sorts of theories on the best way to smoke a brisket, but here is my formula for making a great Christmas brisket:
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Be sure to check the step-by-step pictures in the slideshow above.
Picking the brisket
This may be the most important step, and it will require a bit of detective work. Since this brisket is for the holidays, I want a whole “packer’s cut,” which typically weigh 8 to 16 pounds and come in a Cryovac plastic wrap.
First, decide on the grade. The higher the grade the better the marbling. A brisket needs to be well marbled with fat to be more tender and juicy. So you want to make sure your brisket is graded “choice” or better (“prime” and “wagyu” are the best). I normally get my brisket at Costco, which carries choice.
I try not to get a brisket over 12 pounds, the theory being that the larger the brisket the older the steer, making for tougher meat.
Also, try to pick a brisket that bends easily. The more flexible the more tender the brisket. Try seeing if you can get the two ends to touch. When I picked my last brisket at Costco, they had 8 packer briskets and two had a lot of flex to them. One, I could actually touch the ends together, so I felt like I had a winner.
There is one last thing you can check that is kind of “out there” as Texas brisket theories go. Is your brisket left-leaning or right-leaning?
What?!? OK, listen up. This theory is a little hard to follow.
Most steers rest on their left side. When a steer gets up it has to use the brisket muscles on the right side more than the left to push itself up. This extra workout on the right side makes it tougher (and not as tasty) as the brisket on the left.
So how do you tell if a brisket is left-handed? Take a packer brisket and lay it fat side down with the narrow point end facing you. If the curve on the point end curves right you have a left-handed brisket.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but both of the flexible briskets I picked out also happened to be left-handed.
So in review, the brisket I picked out was:
- Choice grade
- A little under 12 pounds
- Very flexible (could touch ends together)
Trim and season
Some cooks like to trim and season their brisket 24 hours before they smoke it, giving the seasoning and the brisket a little time to get to know each other. It is a big piece of meat. Some cooks prefer to season 5 minutes to 2 hours before smoking, reasoning that the long cook time will give the seasoning and the brisket plenty of time to get to know each other. I think both ways work, but if I have the extra time I'll go ahead and give the seasoning and the brisket the full 24 hours of quality alone time to work things out before smoking.
To trim or not to trim the fat cap? That is another question. Some cooks like to trim the fat cap, reasoning that the seasoning can’t penetrate the thicker parts of this thick layer of fat. Others like to leave it alone and trim it off after smoking, reasoning that the fat layer helps keep the brisket moist and juicy.
Actually, I like a cross between the two. I don’t trim any of the fat cap, but I cut a deep crosshatch pattern (deckle) through it, allowing some of the rub/seasoning to get to the meat while leaving the fat in place to help baste it.
To season the brisket you can use salt and pepper or your favorite beef rub. First, I rub the brisket with olive oil, and then a tablespoon of beef base (Better Than Bouillon) on each side. Then I liberally apply my rub making sure to work it into the deckle. I picked up using beef base from Adam Perry Lang's BBQ 25 cookbook. The beef base makes a great, beefy crust.
After I am done with the seasoning I wrap the brisket in plastic wrap then put it back into the refrigerator for 24 hours to season before smoking.
When to start the smoke?
This part can be a little maddening because cook times vary from brisket-to-brisket. It normally averages somewhere around an hour to 90 minutes a pound, but can be as quick as 45 minutes or as long as 2 hours a pound.
That means a 12-pound brisket could take as little as 9 hours or as long as 24. To figure out when to start smoking your brisket, you have to work backwards from when you want to serve it. For example, I wanted this holiday brisket ready to slice around 9:30 am to take to my wife's work Christmas party lunch. I also like to let my brisket rest for 2 hours before slicing. So I figured a 12 pound brisket at 1 hour a pound is 12 hours, plus 2 more for a bit of R&R.
Most smokers smoke around 220° to 250°F, which is the perfect range for low-and-slow smoking. Most cooks smoke brisket in this temperature range. Temperatures over 250°F could melt the fat and dry out the brisket, although there are some cooks that think this theory is a waste of time and cook around 325°-350°F to cut hours off the cook time.
Pellet smokers generate more smoke at temperatures in the 160°-180°F range, so I start mine there for the first 4 hours for max smoke, then raise the temperature to 250°F. If I was smoking at a constant temperature I would smoke at 225°F.
What wood to smoke with? I like a heavier smoky flavor, so I use a mesquite or hickory. If you like a milder flavor try pecan, oak or some of the fruit woods.
After your smoker has preheated, it is time to place your brisket in the smoker. If you put your brisket in cold you get more of a smoke ring, a prized reddish color ring under the surface that is formed during the first part of the smoke.
Next, decide whether you want to place the brisket in with the fat cap up or down. Placing the fat cap up allows the fat to drip down and baste the brisket in fat. Placing the fat cap down help protect the bottom of your brisket by providing a fat barrier between the meat and rack.
I place mine fat cap up, going for the baste.
Place the thick end of the brisket toward the heat source or the hotter side of your smoker (if one side runs hotter than the other).
Last thing is to insert a digital remote meat thermometer into the thickest part of the brisket from the side, allowing you to monitor the temperature of the brisket inside the house.
So in review:
- I seasoned my brisket 24 hours before smoking.
- I pre-heated my smoker.
- I put my brisket in cold, fat side up with the thick end facing the hotter side of my smoker.
- Inserted a digital remote meat thermometer into the thickest part of the brisket.
Some cooks like to baste their meat while it is smoking with a small mop or spray bottle to add moisture and flavor. I skip the mop and keep the door of my smoker closed. The fat melting from the untrimmed fat cap on top should provide plenty of basting and flavor.
Another maddening thing that happens when smoking a brisket is the plateau, or stall. This is where the temperature stops rising and stalls for 1 to 5 hours before it starts climbing again.
This happens around 150°-160°F. After an hour at the same temperature you will start to think your thermometer is broken. It is not, do not turn up the heat. Just let the stall happen and in a couple of hours the temperature will start rising again.
At the time of the stall, a lot of cooks wrap their brisket in aluminum foil hoping this will help with tenderizing and speeding up the stall. Others leave the foil off complaining that the steam ruins the crust on the outside of the brisket.
I like wrapping mine but I wait till after the stall and wrap at 180°F. This allows the crust to develop longer but still get some of the benefits from the foil wrap process.
Is it done?
A brisket is done when you can take the probe from the thermometer and can slide it in and out the sides of the brisket with little resistance. This usually is somewhere between 190°-205°F. I find pulling around 205°F usually works best for a tender brisket.
Let it rest.
You need to let the brisket rest for at least 30 minutes. I like giving mine 2 hours. Leave the brisket wrapped in foil and put it in a cooler to help hold the heat (I also like wrapping some newspaper around the foil wrapped brisket as added insulation). If you don’t have a cooler, you can put it in your oven set on its lowest setting.
You can also hold the brisket in your oven for up to 4 or 5 hours on the low setting, just as long as you keep the internal temperature of the brisket above 140ºF.
Time to slice the brisket
When you are ready to slice, spread out a couple of layers of newspaper on the table or counter. This makes clean-up a lot easier. Next, I unwrap the brisket and place it fat side up on a cutting board on top of the newspaper.
Start trimming fat from the top of the brisket. The fat should come off pretty easily; I usually end up scraping the fat off with the edge of my knife.
With the fat off, you can see the direction of the meat grain.
Here is were things can go wrong if you don’t slice your brisket the right way.
Briskets need to be cut against the grain. If you don’t it will be stringy and tough. Sounds easy, but a full packer brisket is actually made up of two separate muscles with the meat grain going in different directions. One muscle is called the flat, it travels the whole length of the brisket and is... flat. The other muscle is called the point, it sets on top of the flat forming a tall point on one end of the brisket and ends a little over halfway down the length of the flat.
So if you cut against the grain on the flat you will end up cutting with the grain on the point.
Fortunately, there is a layer of fat in between the point and the flat that makes it easy to separate them. At the thick end of the brisket, start pulling the point away from the flat. Then take a knife and use the fat layer as a guide to cut them apart.
Now take the point and set it back on top of the flat, turning it so the grain is going the same direction. Now you can slice all of the brisket against the grain. Check the pictures in the slide show above to see examples of this.
Try not to slice the brisket too early. Once sliced, the brisket will start to dry out.
So in review:
- Wrapped brisket in foil at 180ºF
- Pulled brisket at 205ºF
- Let brisket rest for 2 hours
- Split the point and flat and sliced against the grain
When you are finished slicing, just dump all the scraps of fat onto the newspaper, roll the paper up and throwout and you are done.
- 8 to 12 pound Brisket
- 2 tablespoons beef base
- ½ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper or your favorite rub
- Aluminum foil
- Digital meat thermometer
Rinse brisket with water and pat dry with paper towels.
Cut crosshatch pattern into fat cap. Rub all sides of the brisket down with olive oil, then rub all sides with beef base. Next coat brisket liberally with rub or salt and pepper. Wrap in plastic wrap.
Place wrapped brisket into refrigerator for 24 hours.
Pre-heat smoker to between 225º to 250ºF.
Place brisket fat side up in smoker and insert thermometer probe.
Smoke until temperature reaches 180ºF, remove brisket and wrap with foil leaving the thermometer probe in.
Place wrapped brisket back in smoker and continue smoking until the internal temperature reaches 195º to 205ºF.
Remove brisket and let it rest for 30 minutes to 2 hours before slicing.
Be sure to check the step-by-step pictures in the slideshow above the story.