*BBQ is an arbitrary science at best! Due to a myriad of uncontrollable factors it can never be done the exact same way more than once. When it comes to beef brisket there are a few simple guidelines that will ensure that it comes out right each and every-time you try. While there’s no one right way there are a lot of wrong ways to smoke brisket. Ultimately your own personal preference should be the determining factor as to the level of success you attain. With this detailed guide I hope to share with you a few things to avoid as well as a few tips and tricks that will get you the crown whether it’s in your backyard or on the competition circuit.
Beef brisket is often regarded as one of the most difficult cuts of meat to master due to the complexity in the process. Do note that the process does not have to be adhered to 100% of the time but if you want the best chances at an excellent beef brisket then you’ll want to follow a certain set of rules and guidelines to get you through the entire process. That process starts well before you even purchase the chunk of meat.
The four major components that go into every slow smoked beef brisket are meat, fire, time and temperature. Obviously you have to have a nice slab of brisket in order to get the party started. You’ll then need to procure a good amount of quality wood and carve out about a days worth of time to get the brisket done. Over the course of the day you’ll need to pay special attention to not only the temperature of the pit but also the internal temperature of the brisket.
Before starting a huge fire the first thing you’ll need to execute is choosing the picture perfect whole packer beef brisket. When choosing the perfect brisket there are a few characteristics to be on the lookout for. First, you’ll want to find a brisket with the most and best looking marbling. Marbling is the grains of fat that run perpendicular to the grains of muscle fibers.
Aaron Franklin, a renowned brisket expert has an interesting theory regarding left versus right side briskets. Typically cattle lye on their left side which means that when they stand up they use their right leg to push down to lift their massive bodies. In theory this causes the right side to develop more muscle fibers making the right side brisket a tougher and less desirable cut of meat.
To determine whether the brisket is the left or right side turn the brisket fat cap down and position the point towards your body. The brisket will curve to the right on a left handed brisket. After a few of these evaluations it will become almost second nature to pick out the best looking left side brisket. Don’t worry about the folks giving you funny looks as you dig through a heaping pile of beef briskets in the super market. If only they knew what you now know!
If the brisket is super stiff it may have loads of hard fat on the fat cap which prevents from bending and ultimately you’ll be paying for a lot of useless fat that you’ll end up trimming. If the brisket easily folds over your hand then the muscles are pliable as opposed to stiff. Most national grocery stores will sell just the flat end of a brisket which will typically yield the better looking sliced pieces of meat most folks enjoy the most. However, you will always want to steer clear of flat only brisket as most of the fat is contained in the point and fat is your friend when doing low and slow cooks.
Knowing just a little bit about the steer’s diet and living conditions prior to butcher will always go a long way in gaining a leg up in the process. The best way to gather this information is by paying attention to and knowing some basic information about how US beef is graded. While there are a few other grades of beef we’ll focus on those readily available in the states.
The most basic grade of beef is select. This of select as the generic, bottom shelf variety of all things beef related. A few unfavorable characteristics of select beef are its lack of tenderness, a lack of juiciness and an overall lack of flavor all due to a lack of marbling.
Select beef brisket is similar to Unicorns as I’ve never seen one in real life. If you ever manage to find one you’ll want to steer clear of select beef brisket at all costs due to the aforementioned characteristics. When it comes to beef brisket marbling is your best friend so there’s really not much discussion to be had on select brisket.
Choice grade beef is what you’ll find readily available at most supermarkets. While there is nothing wrong with using choice just go into with the mindset that its only going to be a temporary relationship. Due to the less than ideal level of marbling you can sometimes dry out a choice brisket if you’re not extra careful with it.
If you’re just getting started with smoking brisket and you don’t have a ton of confidence in the outcome then you will have no issue finding a good sized choice brisket that won’t cost you a second mortgage. Choice briskets can be easily found for well under $3 per pound. The price point may vary depending on your location but nonetheless don’t expect to pay an arm and a leg for choice. Better yet, don’t overpay for choice.
Based on my personal experiences prime and up is about the only way to go once you’ve made good progress in your brisket journey. Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle making it the ideal choice for slow smoked beef brisket. Marbling in prime beef brisket is usually pretty abundant.
When shopping around for prime beef brisket just make sure to do your homework. I’ve found that restaurant supply stores often have prime briskets cheaper than what you can get choice briskets for in large retail stores. The only drawback to this approach is you may have to have a business of some sort to shop at the restaurant supply outlets.
If and when you’re lucky enough to find Angus beef brisket you go for it. Typically it won’t be so overpriced that you can’t justify the extra expense and the resulting flavor and tenderness will make the additional cost more than worth it. Less than 2% of all beef produced in the United States meets the stringent criteria required to be labeled Angus making it a rather sought after delicacy.
Black Angus is even more flavorful than normal Angus beef and in turn is even more difficult to find in stores. For the most part you will probably be doing yourself a favor by ordering any Angus or Black Angus beef from a highly reputable source online.
Most purist will argue that trimming your brisket is not a necessary step in the process. The truth is, they’re are absolutely right about that! Trimming is totally optional, but if you do feel the need to trim there are a few advantages when it comes to even cooking as well as overall presentation. Personally, I’m a big believer in the fact that food must look great in order to taste great.
The style and size of the cooker that you’re using will be a major determining factor as to whether or not you trim all of the time or just some of the time. In my own personal case I have a couple of different smokers. When I’m using my five foot rig I have zero issues with fit. On the other hand when I’m using my large Big Green Egg I sometimes run into space issues. This is where trimming comes in handy.
More often than not I find that a 13 pound whole packer is about all that I can fit onto the Big Green Egg at one time. Depending on how long the whole brisket is sometimes I have to trim an inch or two off lengthwise. I also trim off any and all hard fat deposits. The hard fat deposits are almost impossible to render down to its best to do away with them.
Regardless of how you feel about trimming the rest of the brisket the hard fat certainly needs to be done away with as it will block good smoke getting to great parts of your brisket. This large deposit of hard fat is usually found on the outer edge of the point. This fat deposit is usually around three inches thick and can span up to six inches in length.
Once you’ve managed to cut away the largest portion of this hard fat you’ll be able to see exactly where the muscles between the flat and point begin to change directions. Some folks even separate the point from the flat while leaving the brisket connected. This is especially beneficial if you know you’re going to be doing burnt ends.
After a nice even trimming I like to coat the entire brisket with a generous helping of extra virgin olive oil. I realize that many people prefer mustard for their bonding agent but for a couple of reasons I’ve grown very fond of the results I get when using EVOO. For starters I find EVOO to work wonders when it comes to tenderizing the meat throughout the entire cooking process.
When it comes to dry rub our friends down in Texas swear by a simple combination of high quality cracked black pepper and kosher salt, and to be completely honest, they’re absolutely right. Yet, there’s just something about mixing 80 percent of the dry ingredients you have on your spice rack for the most awesome and over the top rub!
Over the years I’ve worked on several variations of dry rubs especially ones that work particularly well on beef brisket. I’ve consistently found some of the best results when rubbing my whole briskets with a simple mix of EVOO, kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper and granulated garlic powder. I’ve recently spruced up my brisket rub to include ground celery, cocoa powder and ground Kona coffee, along a few other super special ingredients.
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Regardless of the type of rub you use on a brisket make sure that you use one with a fairly heavy salt content. When it comes to low and slow smoked meats salt does wonders in enhancing flavors in a number of ways. Salt helps to draw the moisture out of the meat which in turn allows for greater smoke penetration.
I’ve come to the conclusion that a Kona coffee and Cocoa Powder based dry rub compliments the beef brisket better than any other flavor profile. Add those two ingredients with high quality cracked black pepper and kosher salt and you’re in business with one of the best rubs on the market. My best word of advice is to try a few different rub combinations to see exactly what it is you like, and don’t be afraid to experiment!
Smoking the perfect brisket starts with sourcing near perfect wood. Aside from the right type of tree, the perfect pieces of wood are going to be well seasoned hardwood. I’m not from Texas but I must admit that when it comes to beef brisket folks in the Lone Star State set the standard. For that reason I personally trust in the effectiveness of oak wood, whether it be red or white.
Due to availability sometimes you just have to work with what you have. I can attest that I’ve never had a bad brisket after using a wood such as hickory or pecan. Don’t worry If all your region has to offers is any variety of fruitwood. While you may not be able to achieve the same depth in smokiness as you’d get with oak or hickory you will still get a superb finished product as long as its done low and slow.
Building and maintaining a properly functioning fire is maybe the most critical component of the perfectly smoked beef brisket. Too much smoke and you risk a bitter and dry slab of meat. Too little heat and you risk missing dinner time. Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the perfect combination. The ideal temperature you’ll want to stay around is 225 degrees fahrenheit. A few degrees up is no problem but be sure to keep it under 250 degrees fahrenheit if you want the fat to render properly!
Any number of methods will get you on your way to the perfect fire. I personally prefer the charcoal chimney method. Get a load of coals going and place some wood on top. There’s really not too much science involved in my approach. Allow the fire to build using plenty of oxygen while you get some of the other mission critical components in place. This way your wood will have time to fully combust.
How you manage your fire for the ten plus hours it takes to smoke a brisket will depend mostly on your preference for smoke flavor. There are a few methods to either heighten or tone down the amount of smoke flavor you impart on your brisket.
Ideally you’ll be looking for a light thin blue to clear stream of smoke. The thick, white puffy smoke you get at the front end of the fire is the absolute worst thing for our brisket. Thick white smoke occurs when your fire does not have the adequate amount of space it needs to burn cleanly.
For a good deal of smoke flavor just add a piece or two of wood each hour. This will give your brisket plenty of smoke as it’ll take several minutes for the wood to fully combust giving you several burst of heavy smoke. For a lighter smoke, start your fire outside of your smoker and add red hot coals as they come available from the breakdown of the fire.
Two hours into the smoke I like to begin giving my brisket some additional moisture by way of 100% apple juice. This is done to offset some of the natural drying out that occurs over the course of several hours. Spritzing also helps tremendously with coloring as the sugars in the apple juice caramelizes the exterior.
Start with at-least a 30 ounce food grade spray bottle. These can be found at just about any grocery store. Once you purchase your spray bottle make sure to label it appropriately as household cleaners won’t make for good flavor enhancers. Also be sure to clean the spray bottle thoroughly with soap and warm water before your first use.
Start with 100% apple juice and from there play around with some additional ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, rum, bourbon, Worcestershire sauce and or lemon juice. I currently use a simple mixture of apple cider vinegar and regular apple juice. I’ve found that a liberal spritizing with this combination about once every hour makes for some of the most moist and tender brisket I’ve had the pleasure of eating.
No conversation about beef brisket is complete without the mention of the dreaded stall. If you’ve smoked a brisket or two prior to conducting some in depth research then you’ve likely already fallen victim to one of the most annoying caveats of smoked meat.
The stall can either be a fairly long or an extremely long period of time where the internal temperature of your brisket stays relatively stagnant. All too often folks make it through the first several hours of smoking with a steadily rising temperature thinking that everything is going great. A couple of hours later after having probed their brisket three or four times they find that nothing has changed.
I’m lucky to say that this has never happened to me but I’ve heard of scenarios where the stall has lasted up to six hours for others. Thanks to an old competition technique known as the Texas crutch we can all but completely avoid the stall by simply wrapping the brisket in butcher paper. While there isn’t an exact point in time that you should perform the wrap I personally prefer to make it happen between hours 8 and 10.
In my early BBQ days I would wrap all of my briskets in heavy duty aluminum foil. About two years ago I stopped using aluminum foil due to some of the potential health risks associated with its use in higher heat situations. Aside from just the health risks, aluminum foil tends to trap way too much heat and moisture inside the brisket. Instead of maintaining a good deal of bark on the outer edges of your brisket you’ll end up with a soggy mush for brisket, almost like it was steamed.
Using a high quality butcher paper will help mitigate a number of the drawbacks presented when using aluminum foil. For starters, it does lock in heat and moisture, just not too much. By not locking in all of the moisture butcher paper allows you to maintain great bark and it also allows for subtle amount of smoke flavor to continue to permeate into the brisket.
By now you’ve reached the home stretch and its at this point you’ll want to really focus on patience and persistence. Using a thermometer begin to probe your brisket more frequently as the temperature continues to rise to make sure that it doesn’t go past 200 degrees fahrenheit mark. Once it reaches 200 degrees fahrenheit you’ll want to promptly remove it from the smoker and let it rest for a considerable amount of time. Lastly you’ll need to make sure that you have the proper tools in place to slice the brisket and make for the most beautiful conversation piece that your guests have ever seen.
In all honesty, my brisket process involves very little temperature probing prior to the ten hour mark. Overtime I’ve come to realize that overcooking a brisket is something that you actually have to try to do. Without solely relying on a thermometer I can take full advantage of a few of my senses in order to have a better idea of where the brisket is. By this point you should be able to smell the fat rendering from within the smoker. Using your sense of touch to feel the pliability of your brisket can also indicate doneness. If you can touch the brisket and leave a bit of an imprint in the meat then its likely done.
While it may seem like a rudimentary step allowing the brisket to rest for at least one hour may very well be the most important step in the process. As soon as the brisket reaches 200 degrees fahrenheit promptly remove it from the smoker wrap it in an old towel and place it in a cooler for at least one hour. While one hour is the minimum suggested rest period your brisket will remain piping hot even if you leave it in a higher end cooler for up to six hours. This process allows the hot juices to finish cooking the brisket all the way through. Without the proper amount of rest time you’ll risk losing much of the juices that you worked several hours to achieve.
After you’ve smoked a few beef briskets you’ll come to have a real appreciation for the intricacy involved in slicing the meat. The key to perfect beef brisket has much to do with cooking technique but all of that can go out of the window if the slices aren’t perfected. Do yourself a favor and invest in a good slicing knife. You’ll be surprised in the level of quality you can get for under $50. The best slicing knives are in the range of 10 to 14 inches will prove to be one of the most worthy BBQ investments that you’ll ever make.
The preferred method for brisket slicing is across the grain. In reality, as long as your brisket is cooked to 200 degrees fahrenheit in won’t matter how you cut it. It will come out tender and tasty. There are a few advantages to changing the orientation in which you cut the flat as opposed to the point. Slicing the point into cubes is the first step to making coveted burnt ends. Otherwise you can shred the point and enjoy it in a number of other BBQ favorites.
There are countless ways to enjoy your beef brisket once all of the hard work is done and over with. My personal preference is BBQ Tacos. I also have a pretty big affinity for sliders as well traditional beef brisket sandwiches. Some folks prefer adding several more toppings and making a mound of cheesy and smokey brisket nachos. Whatever your desire is just make sure to enjoy the wonderful fruits of your labor!