Thursday, August 15, 2013

Smoked Brisket; Texas Style

NOTE:  This entry is long.  I'll try to make it entertaining so you'll read it, but brisket is complicated so it deserves time.  Give it a read, give it a try, your efforts will be well rewarded!

I hear the question all the time, "If brisket is only $1.39/lb at the store, why do they want $15 for a quarter pound brisket sandwich at the BBQ restaurant??"  The answer is, "Time."  Brisket is a tough, fatty, chewy, downright "difficult" hunk of meat to deal with.  To turn it into a tender, flavorful, "beefy," delicious BBQ delicacy takes time.  Figure on at least two hours per pound of time, actually, once you count the time to prep, rest, cook, and slice it.  My rule of thumb?  If you want Smoked Brisket for dinner on Friday night, you better have one thawed out and ready to prep when you're done with dinner on Thursday.

First, you need to buy a brisket to put on your smoker.  Typically, you will find three different cuts or preparations for brisket when you go to the store:
  1. Whole, Untrimmed Brisket.  A whole brisket is tough to find in your average grocery store.  Ask the meat cutter and he should be able to tell you where to find one.  Locally, I find them at Super-Walmart (go figure), Sam's Club, and a few other places.  A whole brisket is composed of a flat piece they call "The Flat," a rather fatty piece they call "The Point" and a lovely topper called "The Fat Cap."  The best "Smoked BBQ Beef Brisket" starts with this; the whole cut, all 14-22lbs of it.
  2. The Flat.  If you're looking at a piece of meat labeled "Brisket" and it weighs in at 3-5lbs, you're looking at the flat portion of a whole brisket.  This popular cut of beef is trimmed from a whole brisket and it's a great deal leaner than the rest.  Being smaller, it's easier to deal with and it doesn't bleed all over your counter when you take it out of the package.  People typically boil or crock or brine this poor hunk of meat and that makes me sad.
  3. Corned Beef.  If you take the flat and pickle it in a salty brine, then boil it for a few hours, you get corned beef.  Corned beef has it's place in the world, but if you see this in the store, and you're thinking about smoking it, you'll wind up with PastramiPastrami is good, but it's a completely different process, since you're dealing with all of that salt and brine.  If you're dying for a Reuben sandwich, or if it's St. Patty's day, buy it.  Otherwise, leave it alone.
So, here's my 16lb whole brisket, still in the cryovac pack.  Looks frightening, doesn't it?  All lumpy and bloody and fatty... trust me, it's going to be delicious!  First step, CLEAN YOUR SINK!  Then slide the meat out of the package into the sink and rinse it with cold water.  Pat it dry with paper towels.  Place it onto a cutting board.  If your cutting board is too small, simply line your counter with plastic wrap and place a clean tea-towel down and put the brisket on top of the towel.  The goal is to have it resting on a surface that is anchored.  You don't want it sliding around while you trim it or you'll cut your fingers and you already have enough blood in your sink from the brisket, so be careful.

Now, flip it over so that the fat cap is on top.  You should have no trouble at all discerning which side is the fat side.  The fat side is white, and full of pure saturated beef fat.  Pick up a sharp filet knife and start trimming it.  Now, let's make no illusions about something.  You are not a butcher.  You have not spent thousands of hours cutting beef.  Don't think for one second that you are going to have this thing trimmed in record time.  Your goal should be to trim all but 1/4 inch of the fat off of this cap.  Your goal is not to have it done in 5 minutes or less.  Take your time, don't cut yourself, and work in small batches if you need to.  don't worry if you cut too deeply into the meat to expose some red muscle, it's ok.  There's plenty of fat in the brisket to go around.  When you're done, you should have a good chunk of fat to toss out, or to portion out and to feed to your dogs.  It's actually very good for the (in small doses).

Ready to rub?  You'll need at least one Cup (8oz) of dry rub.  I like equal portions of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika, onion powder, and fresh chili powder.  Whichever rub you choose, make sure it has a good brown sugar base to it because the sugar will melt down and help form a good "bark" or crust on the finished brisket.  Lay your brisket onto a bed of plastic wrap and liberally rub the stuff onto both sides of the brisket and into all the nooks and crannies.

Now, fold the plastic wrap up and around the meat.  Take a new roll of plastic wrap out the box and throw the box away!  The only thing the box is good for is cutting your fingers on that ridiculous serrated knife they put there to "help" you.  Use the roll to tightly wrap a layer around the brisket.  I like to stick a small note on the "fat cap" side that says "FAT" to help me remember which side should go UP when it hits the smoker.

Now, do your best impression of a spider who is wrapping her web around a new fly... tightly wrap plastic around and around and around your brisket until its encased in a plastic cocoon.  The brisket needs to rest for awhile and so some magic.  In the mean time, you don't want it leaking all over your refrigerator or counter, and you don't want to introduce any new bacteria to the puzzle so wrap it well.  You can put it back into the fridge if you want, but you'll need to be room temperature when you start the cook, so......'ll need to do some math (sorry)!  Say you have a 16lb brisket and you want to serve it at 7pm.  You need to figure on about an hour per pound at 225 for the internal temperature to reach 190 degrees.  Why 190?  I know, I know, 190 sounds "burnt" if you're a Medium Rare steak eater but here's the deal, there is a ton of fat to render, as well as a bunch of connective tissue and collagen to melt down.  This will help make the meat tender and not all tough/chewy.  Therefore, you'll need to get your 16lb brisket onto the smoker at 3am on the day you wish to eat it (sorry).  Furthermore, it will need to be room temperature at that time so, you need to allow at least 4 to 6 hours for it to rest on the counter (and out of the fridge).  Therefore, I usually rub/prep my briskets just before bedtime, and I leave it out on the counter for the night.  You can prep ahead of time, but be sure to pull it out of the fridge about 6 hours before you cook it.  Therefore, my rule of thumb (again) is to start your prep 24 hours ahead of the time you wish to eat.

3am to start the smoker??  You're starting to realize why BBQ restaurants price this stuff higher than gold now, aren't you?

Time to build your fire.  You can't cook a brisket in the oven.  Well, I suppose you could, but it would suck.  The whole point of "Smoked Brisket" is to add smoke, right?  I like Mesquite, but I was raised in TX.  Oak works, so does Hickory.  I mix lump charcoal and heavy chunks of wood to create a good fire, then I adjust the air dampers to get the heat right at 225 (plus or minus 10 degrees).  Keep an eye on the thermometer and only lift the lid to check the fire when your dampers are wide open and the temp drops below 200.  I used to check my temp every couple of hours but I finally bought a fancy thermometer with a "low temp" alarm, so now something beeps at me when I need to add fuel to the fire and that's a good thing.

Spin your brisket so that the fat side is up (you should be able to see your sticky "FAT" note through the plastic wrap.  Take a small knife and slit open the plastic so that you can slide the meat out.  During the rest on the counter, some magic happened when the rub met the meat so, be prepared.  It will ooze an awesome spicy gooey liquid "melt" created from the marriage of the rub to the surface of the meat.  Your hands will get dirty!  Now, my offset smoker tends to be hotter on the left than the right so I aim the bigger end of the brisket toward the firebox (and I typically add a layer of foil underneath for a bit more protection from any direct heat that leaks in).  Your smoker may vary.  Don't use foil if you don't have a hot spot, etc.  Insert your temperature probe into the leanest part of the flat, and set the alarm for 185 degrees.  Say goodbye to the precious thing and close the lid.  You will not open the lid again until she's done.

It is important to know that throughout the day, your friends and neighbors will drop by to inquire what that "wonderful smell" is.  It is equally important for you to be near your smoker, with your feet up and a beer in your hand, ready to say, "Oh, just something I'm cookin' up for the evening meal.  It ain't no big thing."

You'll be surprised at how much fat you'll render out of your brisket at the end of the cook.  If you've kept the heat constant, you should see a slow and steady drip of liquid fat (that your dogs will not wait to get into, by the way) into your grease bucket.  This is a good thing, the fat kept the meat lubricated and juicy.  I throw my rendered fat into the backyard fire-pit, it will continue to stoke the "BBQ Restaurant smell" throughout your neighborhood for at least another 1/2 hour.

When it's finally time to lift the lid (Your brisket's internal temperature is 185 degrees), you'll see a huge, dark, lump of meat and it might scare you a little.  Do not worry, it's what's inside that counts!  Take the brisket off (poking as few holes in it as possible, to preserve the juices), and move it to a cutting board, and cover it with foil to let it rest for at LEAST 45 minutes.  Don't worry about it getting cold, there's enough heat in there to last a long time.  During this rest, the brisket should come up to 190 degrees.

Finally... it's time for the slicing!!  Start at the smaller end of the flat and be sure to slice against the grain.  You should see a nice smoke penetration ring of pink on the outside of your slices, and you should be able to pick up a slice, and simply "tug" it apart with your fingers.  Personally, I don't believe it needs any sauce but I wouldn't be offended if you served some on the side for folks.  Serve it plain or with rolls for people to make sandwiches with.  Slice the cap off of the top, and chop into smaller bits to make "chopped beef" sandwiches or to add to your pot of beans.

A 16lb brisket should serve about 20 people.  I'm usually lucky if it feeds 12 or 13.

This article is long, I get it.  Trust me, the more briskets you do, the less complicated they will be and the more you will think, "I can't believe people pay $15.99/lb for this at Country Bob's BBQ!?!"  If you have any questions about my process, please leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer! 


  1. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.

    Easy smoked Brisket Recipe

  2. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I liked this blog very much.


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  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Great article, thanks for the help!


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