First-time barbecue cooks often try their hand at pork ribs or chicken. And these are great places to start. But eventually, they may start looking for a challenge. If so, one of the more challenging staples when smoking and barbecuing beef is brisket, a cut of meat that even the most seasoned cooks are continuously striving to perfect.
Beef brisket is most often a boneless cut of meat from the cattle breast or lower chest of the animal. It is longer in one direction than the other — often about 18 to 20 inches long by 12 to 13 inches wide — and usually about 1-1/2 inches thick. Brisket usually weighs 9 to 13 pounds. A full brisket includes two pectoral muscles — the pectoralis profundi and the pectoralis superficialis — separated by a layer of fat. These are the large muscles the cow uses to stand and walk and are very flavorful, but also full of fat and connective tissues. In cooking terms, the two muscles are called the “flat” (pectoralis profundi) and the “point” (pectoralis superficialis).
The flat is the larger of the two muscles. Its thickness varies, tapering off to a thin edge. When selecting a brisket, choosing one in which most of the flat is roughly the same thickness throughout will help it cook more evenly. Also, better marbling will yield a tastier brisket. The point partially overlaps the flat, is more fatty, and contains more connective tissue. Both the flat and the point are covered with fat. If you lay a brisket with this “fat cap” facing upwards, the point lies on top of the flat, and frequently is covered with less fat. The fat is on the side that would face the outside of the cow, the lean side is the side that would rest against the ribs. The grain of the meat in these two muscles runs at approximately a 90-degree angle to each other.
Sometimes a layer of hard fat, called the deckle, is present between the two muscles on the nonfatty side. Some sources confuse the deckle with the point. They are not the same thing. The deckle is generally removed on more expensive cuts of brisket, but may be present in packer cuts.
There are two briskets per cow, a right-sided brisket and a left-sided brisket. Popular barbecue folklore holds that the left-sided brisket is more tender. This is based on the idea that cows lay on their right side, and thus — as the story goes — use their right legs more in standing, which makes the right side of the cow tougher. This makes for a good story, but is mostly dismissed by serious brisket enthusiasts.
Incidentally, almost all of the advice here also applies to cooking beef ribs — a similarly tough cut of beef located close to the brisket on the cow.
Making the grade
Brisket comes in various USDA grades. Prime, Choice, and Select are the only grades most barbecue enthusiasts would consider, and most grocery stores would sell, although lower grades exist. Each grade is divided into Upper, Middle, and Lower grades. Most barbecue restaurants use Select beef, the lowest of these three grades. Franklin’s Barbecue — the Austin, Texas, restaurant that tops most “best barbecue” lists in the state — uses Upper Choice. As with other cuts of beef, the better grades cost more.
Brisket may be trimmed or untrimmed and frequently comes vacuum-packed in plastic wrap.
When the going gets tough
Brisket is a tough cut of beef. If it is grilled, or otherwise cooked rapidly, it ends up tough and chewy — to the point of being inedible. That is why no matter how brisket is prepared, it is cooked for long periods of time. Probably the most popular way to cook brisket, other than barbecuing it, is to braise it in a tomato broth with onions, carrots, and celery. Most often, wine or vinegar is added to the tomato mixture. After 3 to 4 hours in the oven at 350 degrees, the dish is served when it is “fork tender.”
A barbecued brisket takes much longer to cook — up to 13 hours if smoked at around 230 degrees. Some cooks, including Aaron Franklin (of the previously mentioned Franklin’s Barbecue), recommend smoking at 275 degrees, which can shorten the time to about 10 hours. The long cooking times are required to break down the connective tissues without overcooking the meat. This also gives the fat time to render. In addition to the long cooking time required, the internal temperature must rise to at least 195 degrees for the meat to be tender. Some experts claim 203 degrees is a better target temperature.
On top of the long cook at low temperatures with a high finishing temperature, a good barbecue pitmaster must season the brisket so it develops a good “bark” and deliver the right amount of smoke to the meat. However, once you get the swing of it, your reward is moist, delicious brisket with an intense beef flavor.
Preparing the brisket
Your first step is to prepare the brisket for the smoker. Unwrap the meat and inspect both sides; there should be a fatty side and a lean side. On the fatty side, towards one end of the brisket, there should be a layer of meat (the point) lying on top of the larger hunk of meat (the flat), separated by a layer of fat. On the lean side, you may find some extremely hard fat. This is the deckle — tissue that connected the brisket muscles to the cow’s rib cage. If present, cut off as much of the deckle as you can manage.
Flip the meat fat side up again, and carefully trim the top fat down to 1/4 to 1/2 an inch. You should also trim the sides of the thinnest bits of meat. Your goal should be to have the brisket as uniform in thickness as is reasonable, without trimming away too much meat. Trimming is easier to accomplish if you do it cold. As such, do not take the brisket out of the refrigerator and let it warm up before starting your preparations.
Next, apply the spice rub. In barbecuing, a rub is a mix of dried spices, while a mix of liquids applied to meat is a slather or a mop. The simplest rub is a half and half mix of coarse salt and coarsely ground black pepper. The mix seasons the meat and also helps form the bark, the hard layer outside the tender interior meat. For a 12-pound brisket, 1/4 cup of coarse salt and 1/4 cup of coarsely ground pepper will work well. You may also add much smaller amounts of onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, or other spices, to taste. However, there is nothing wrong — and a lot right — with a simple salt and pepper rub. Shake the rub all over the brisket, on both sides, and pat it in.
To start the cook, prepare your smoker and have the temperature stabilized to between 230 and 240 degrees, or higher, depending on your target temperature. Remember that 275 is the highest temperature that will still yield good result. Ideally, you may want the smoker temperature 5 to 10 degrees higher than your cooking temperature initially, as the smoker temperature will drop slightly when the cold meat is placed inside. This is a minor consideration, however, and less desirable if your smoker holds its temperature well. Be sure to place a water pan in the smoker either before or immediately after starting your fire so it can come to temperature, too. The water pan should hold at least a gallon (about 4 liters) of water, given the length of the cook.
In an offset smoker, most barbecue cooks place the brisket fat side up. In a smoker in which the heat source is below the meat, most place the fat side down. In any type of smoker, a water pan in the cooking chamber will keep the meat from losing too much water via evaporation. In fact, one of the major goals of a brisket cook is not to dry the meat out. To achieve this, it is best to let most of the cooking period elapse without checking on the meat. Close the smoker and leave it closed unless you absolutely need to check on something. More technologically inclined barbecue cooks may place a couple of temperature probes in the meat. Most commonly, one probe is placed in the thickest part of the flat and the other in the thickest part of the point. Some probes will even send the temperature to your smartphone and graph the temperature inside the meat over time.
During the smoke, the temperature of the brisket will initially rise steadily. However, somewhere around 150 to 170 degrees, the temperature will stabilize. This is called the stall. Many inexperienced barbecue cooks will get impatient and try to raise the temperature to hurry along the cook. Don’t do this. The stall occurs because water is evaporating from the meat, cooling it. (Some people used to believe the stall was due to the connective tissues being dissolved or the fat being rendered. However, experiments strongly suggest it is simply due to evaporation. You can, for example, get a sponge — something that contains neither connective tissue nor fat — to heat up, stall, and then continue heating.) When you reach the stall, just keep the temperature constant and wait for it to end.
To fully break down and tenderize the connective tissue in brisket, the internal temperature needs to reach at least 190, with some barbecue experts suggesting 203 degrees is ideal. This is a much higher internal temperature than most barbecued or grilled meats finish off. Given the length of the cook, first-time brisket cooks may be tempted to pull the brisket off early. After all, the USDA gives the safe internal temperature for beef as 145, or 160 for ground beef. However, doing this will yield chewy brisket.
A long cook time and a high internal temperature can easily lead to dry brisket if you are not careful. There are several ways brisket cooks do both, but still end up with moist, tender meat. Perhaps the most popular method is to wrap the brisket after several hours of smoking, frequently at the beginning of the stall, and finish the cook with the brisket wrapped. This seals in any moisture from the meat and is called — derisively by some — the Texas crutch. The meat may be wrapped in either aluminum foil or butcher’s paper. And sometimes liquid — water, apple juice, or some other liquid — is poured inside the wrapping. Once the brisket is wrapped, of course, it will quit absorbing smoke. Some barbecue cooks will transfer the meat to their oven at this point.
Keeping the lid to the smoker shut is another way of preserving moisture. Don’t start checking on the meat until it has reasonable chance of being done. And even then, do so as infrequently as possible. The humidity in the smoker, aided by the presence of the water pan, will slow the evaporation of water from the brisket. Opening the smoker lets out both humidity and heat. You can also keep a spray bottle of liquid handy and spray the brisket each time you open the smoker. Do not spray so heavily that you wash any of the bark off, however.
Brisket is a tough cut of meat that you want to make tender. As such, the feel of the meat plays a role in deciding when to take it off as well as the internal temperature. If the temperature is greater than 190, wear heavy gloves and feel the brisket. You can poke at it or try to lift slightly and twist it. If it feels stiff and ungiving, it’s ready to be taken off. If not, keep cooking. Obviously, the gloves either need to be clean or use paper towels (or butcher paper) so they don’t contact the food.
Once the meat is ready, wrap it in a couple layers of butcher paper and let the meat rest. Some folks will additionally wrap it in a towel. Let it sit, undisturbed, until the internal temperature goes down a bit. (Aaron Franklin recommends 140 to 145 degrees.) This will take a couple of hours.
Brisket requires a long cook and some time to rest afterwards. And the duration of the stall is variable, within limits. As such, always give yourself at least a couple hours of leeway when planning to serve smoked brisket. If the cook wraps up as quickly as possible, just wrap the brisket in a couple layers of towels — and perhaps place it in an insulted picnic cooler — until it’s mealtime. It’s far better to serve brisket that has rested for 3 or 4 hours than brisket that was hurried out of the smoker and not allowed to rest.
Once rested, slice the brisket. To do this, lay the brisket in front of you, fat side up, so the flat is on one side and the point on the other. Begin slicing the meat on the flat end. Brisket is best sliced into half-inch-thick slices against the grain. This makes slices a little thicker than a pencil — thick enough that each slice retains some bark but thin enough that they will droop if picked up in the middle.
If the long axis of the meat is perpendicular to you, cut the flat in an “up and down” direction as opposed to right to left. Continue slicing until you reach the point where point overlaps the rest of the flat. Recall that the flat tapers at one end, so the first couple slices near the very edge may be dry. If so, just excise the dry portion and work with the meat that turned out well.
Then separate the flat, which is on the bottom, from the point, which is on top. They are separated by a layer of fat that is easy to see. If the meat is cooked properly, it shouldn’t be a problem separating them.
The point can also be sliced, against the grain as before, or it can be chopped into bits. The grain in the point runs at roughly a 90-degree angle to that in the flat, so you will need to cut left to right, or rotate the point a quarter turn.
At many barbecue restaurants, meat from the flat is served as lean brisket while meat from the point is called fatty brisket. Additionally, the driest bits of the point can be chopped up, slathered with Kansas City-style barbecue sauce and returned briefly to the smoker. This makes burnt ends, which many fans of Kansas City-style barbecue consider a delicacy.
In barbecue joints throughout Middle America, brisket is often served on butcher paper with white bread, pickles, and onions on the side. Beans, potato salad, and coleslaw are also common sides. However you serve it, if you follow the advice here, your brisket can be a moist, beefy, melt-in-your-mouth reward for a long cook.
Home meat curing is an old-timey method for food preservation that results in flavorful summer sausage, deer sticks, and any type of jerky your taste buds desire.
Chris Colby lives in Texas, where brisket is king. Nevertheless, he prefers beef ribs to brisket, and grills or barbecues something every week. He also knows that all barbecue goes great with beer. He recently wrote a book about brewing beer, Home Brew Recipe Bible.