Juicy, smoky brisket is somewhat of a holy grail of low and slow BBQ and for beginners it is probably one of the most attractive cooks. Getting a brisket just right can be difficult as it is such a tough cut of meat and needs to be cooked slowly to allow all the fats and connective tissues to break down and render into the meat.
This article isn’t a recipe as such but more of a guide to help you understand what a brisket is, why it needs to be cooked a certain way and some tips to keep in mind when cooking one.
A brisket comes from the lower chest of the cow. As a cow spends the majority of its life on it’s feet, this muscle does a lot of work meaning it becomes incredibly tough due to its high content of fat and connective tissues. It is made up of two muscles with slightly different characteristics called the ‘flat’ and the ‘point’. I would highly recommend you check out Aaron Franklin’s video explaining how a brisket is prepared and the differences between the two muscles.
In the UK, a brisket is traditional bought as a pot roast. The point is generally removed leaving the flat which is rolled and tied, ready to be slow cooked. This is still a great way to cook brisket but for a traditional Smoked brisket, you will need to speak to your butcher and ask for the full brisket including the point. Some butchers will remove the fat cap ( the layer of fat covering the entire brisket) but it’s best to ask for this to be left on if possible so you can trim it to yourself. In an ideal world, you would want ¼ inch of fat covering the flat of the brisket. As the point is highly marbled with fat, it isn’t so important to have a fat cap covering it.
The two muscles making up the brisket can also be separated from each other allowing you to cook them in slightly different ways. Some of the competition guys will go for this style as it gives them complete control over each muscle but for a backyard enthusiast, I think it’s easier to cook the entire brisket.
There is no hard and fast rules regarding seasoning that should be used on a brisket. It really comes down to personal preference. A traditional Texas Brisket will simply use ground black pepper and salt. This puts the flavour of the smoked meat front and center.
Any traditional BBQ rub will work well. My personal preference is to stick to a rub that has more savoury flavours (Salt, pepper, garlic, herbs) as I feel it works well with the brisket. A lot of the flavour in a brisket comes from the fat and you will work hard to render those flavours into the meat. The last thing you want to do is over power that flavour with a strong rub.
Brisket is the pinnacle of low and slow BBQ. I tend to smoke my briskets between 110 – 120C. You can afford to go a little higher with your temperature but the most important thing is consistency. If your temperature is fluctuating up and down it will have a dramatic affect on the overall cook time.
As your brisket smokes, it will start to develop the famous ‘Black Gold’ bark. I’m not going to get into the science behind it, but the bark is formed when the fat and water from the meat mixes with the rub. Add in some smoke and time and the a sticky black coating will start to form on the surface.
In many photo’s, to the untrained eye, a brisket will look burnt but trust me this isn’t the case. The bark is soft and sticky rather than hard and crispy. The initial stage of the cook is all about getting that colour onto your brisket. If you feel that the surface of your brisket is starting to dry out, you might want to think about spritzing.
Spritzing is simply spraying the meat periodically with some form of liquid to keep the surface moist. You can use apple juice, cider vinegar, beer, water or a mixture. I use a 50/50 mixture of water and cider vinegar on my briskets.
A little word of warning about spritzing is that it can slow down the cooking process if your liquid is cold. You should have your spritzing liquid at room temperature or even slightly warmed to cut down the effects. Spraying the brisket with cold watering straight from the tap, or apple juice straight from the fridge is going to slow the cooking process. Try not to spritz too often. Not only are you cooling the brisket but your smoker is open and you are losing heat. I tend to give a brisket a good spray if I feel the surface is drying out then leave it alone for at least an hour to allow the smoker and meat temperatures to recover.
Once you have the desired colour on your brisket, it’s time for the next big question!
To wrap or not to wrap?
First of all I want to say that it isn’t necessary to wrap a brisket. It’s possible to go the entire cook without wrapping but there are a few instances where it might be beneficial. Before I get into these I want to talk a little bit about what you can wrap a brisket it.
The Texas Crutch
You may have heard the term ‘The Texas Crutch’ bounding around the BBQ interwebs. This is a phrase that describes wrapping your brisket in foil. Using foil will stop the brisket taking on any more colour and will braise the brisket, helping it become tender and juicy.
The term ‘Texas Crutch’ makes this method sound like cheating but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s simply another way to cook juicy tender brisket so don’t be afraid to use it!
Butchers paper is a great alternative to foil as it is porous enough to allow some of the smoke to reach the brisket, but will keep the brisket moist helping it to tenderise. There are many different kinds of butchers paper available but try to avoid any that are finished with a wax layer.
No matter what you choose to wrap in, it’s important that you wrap the brisket as tight as possible avoiding any air gaps as this will create a steam pocket and ruin that bark you worked for.
So when would you wrap a brisket?
The main reasons for wrapping a brisket are to retain moisture, speed up the cook or to prevent the brisket from getting too dark. If you have cooked brisket in the past and found it to be a little dry, you might want to consider wrapping after the initial stage of the cook.
Wrapping a brisket will considerably speed up the cook time as the brisket will braise in its own juices so if you’re getting the death stare from your other half because dinner is running a few hours behind schedule, wrap the brisket to speed things up.
The final reason I mentioned is to stop the brisket taking on any more colour. Foil will stop the brisket from taking on any more smoke so if you have gone a little over your desired colour then it’s a great option. As I mentioned, Butchers paper will still allow the brisket to take on some smoke so the ideal time to wrap is just before you have achieved your desired colour.
There is one more important factor to consider before wrapping and that is the dreaded stall!
The stall can be quite a confusing experience when you first encounter it. I see questions about it all the time on different facebook groups but it is completely normal in large cuts of meat.
The internal temperature of your brisket will be climbing steadily for a few hours. The temperature of your smoker is holding steady then suddenly the internal meat temperature reaches 65-70C and everything comes to a stand still, sometimes for hours on end!
This, my friend, is the stall!
At this internal temperature, your brisket is starting to squeeze all the moisture to the surface as it contracts. The heat of your smoker is causing this moisture to evaporate having a cooling effect on the meat. It’s exactly the same as us sweating on a sunny day.
Some people are horrified that their brisket is evaporating moisture so their first instinct is to wrap it to keep it juicy but don’t panic. The majority of what is being evaporated is water, which really adds no flavour to your meat. When you come out the other side of the stall, your internal temperature will continue to climb and start to render the fat within the meat and that is where the real flavour is.
You will be less affected by the stall if you are cooking at higher temperatures but I can’t stress enough how drastic the stall can be. A lot of people read all about it but when it happens they still feel something else is going on. It’s completely normal for your brisket to sit at a single temperature for anything up to 6+ hours. It may even drop a degree or two. Simply keep your fire steady and crack open a beer.
When you come out the other side of the stall, the magic starts to happen!
When is it done?
The key to any tough cut of meat is pulling it off the smoker at the point where it is juicy and tender. Unfortunately this can be a very small window with a brisket but there are a few things you can watch out for to tell you when it’s ready.
First of all, let’s talk about what makes a brisket tender. We already discussed where the brisket comes from on a cow and why it works so hard. All this hard work means the brisket is made up of coarse muscle fibres that are tightly bound together. By smoking the brisket for a long time and bringing the internal temperature up slowly, you will start to break down the fats and connective tissues between those muscle fibres. If you were to cook a brisket too hot, those connective tissues would tense up making the meat tough.
It can be hard to put a time on a brisket cook as there are so many factors that can affect when it is ready. Consistency of temperature in the smoker, how often you spritzed, when you wrapped (or if you wrapped), size and quality of the brisket……. The list goes on! Only after you have smoked a few briskets will you start to get an idea of how long it will take for your preferred method.
Experience pitmasters can tell when a brisket is ready to come off by feel alone. They may use something like a fork or toothpick to push into the meat. This is to feel for tenderness and their experience tells them what it should feel like. You may have heard the expression ‘Probing like butter’ being used and this simply mean you can push a probe or toothpick into the meat with no resistance. It can be a little hard to tell what this should feel like on your first cook.
An easier way to test for doneness is by using an instant read temperature probe like the Thermapen. Most enthusiasts out there will have their own magic number they aim to hit but it is usually in the range of 90-96C. I like to take mine to around 93C so I know I’m in the right range then use the probe to feel for tenderness. If I feel it isn’t tender enough I’ll leave it on for a little longer. Depending on the quality of your brisket, you may need to take the temperature a little higher. I use internal temperatures to make sure I’m in the right area then feel for tenderness.
I would recommend you keep track of your final internal temperatures for each cook and how tender the brisket was. After you have sliced your brisket, you can do something called the ‘hang and pull test’. You should be able to hold a ¼ inch thick slice of brisket between your finger and thumb and it should hang under it’s own weight without falling apart. You can then gently pull on the other end of the slice and it will come apart with little resistance. This is a sign of a brisket that is at the right tenderness. The idea being that if it falls apart on the hang test it is too tender and if it is tough to pull apart, it isn’t tender enough.
When your brisket is cooked to tenderness and ready to come off the smoker, you aren’t quite ready to eat. Now resting meat is a topic of debate amongst most BBQ cooks and I’m not here to settle any arguments, but I feel it’s important to give your brisket a little chill out time before you slice into it.
We’ve already talked about how the stall occurs as moisture is squeezed out of the brisket and evaporates on the surface of the meat, having a cooling effect. When a brisket is removed from the smoker, it will still continue to cook slowly as it starts to cool. This process is known as ‘Carryover’. Slicing into it at this point will expose a large surface area and steam will continue to draw moisture from your slices.
I’m not a believer that this will affect tenderness as it’s the breaking down of fats and connective tissues that makes a brisket truly tender, however as the moisture evaporates from your slices, it can dry out the surface and cool them quickly.
I think keeping the brisket loosely wrapped until it has cooled enough that the carryover process has finished is more than sufficient. At this point, the brisket should be cool enough to handle with your bare hands. If you want to work with internal temperatures, I wouldn’t let it go much below 80-82C.
If you have cooked your brisket unwrapped, you may want to consider leaving the brisket to cool for a while to allow the redistribution of moisture. Evaporation will have dried the outside of your unwrapped brisket so simply holding it for a short period after smoking will allow the carryover process to finish and allow some of the moisture from the centre of the brisket to spread into the outer layers.
Covering it will something like butchers paper or a towel will stop any further evaporation and allow the brisket to cool slowly.
Almost everyone I have talked to regarding resting has their own idea’s on if you should do it or what the best way to rest meat is. I can only tell you how I do it and the reasons why. Through time, you will figure out your own theories on if it makes a difference or not.
If your first try at smoked brisket doesn’t work out, don’t be disheartened. It’s a cook that takes a long time and some experimentation to perfect. Once you nail down your preferred method, you will be well on your way to success and some damn good food.
As I mentioned above, everyone has their own way of cooking brisket. I would love to hear what has worked for you and what hasn’t in the comments below. Over time, we will hopefully build a resource of advice and tips for beginners full of different methods.