Friday, July 22, 2011

Smoked Beef Brisket - A Treatise


1 Full Brisket, 14 lbs or more
1 jar Gold Buckle Brisket Marinade
1/2 Cup Paprika
1/2 Cup Granulated Garlic
1/3 Cup Chili Powder
1/2 Cup Cheap Yellow Mustard (Optional)

Note:  This is a long post and I wax rather poetic about my brisket process throughout.  It's a good read, though, and I explain my reasons for doing what I do.  But if you're just here for the 'meat' of my technique, you can click the link below to skip to a summary of my process:

Jump to Summary

Barbeque means different things to different people around the country. In Memphis, Tennessee, it’s dry rubbed pork ribs; in the Carolinas, its pulled pork. Kansas City purports to do a hodge-podge of styles. But in Texas, beef is king, and nothing says Texas barbeque like smoked brisket.

When I was growing up, my family owned some land in east Texas. It was ten acres of mostly pine-covered woods with a ramshackle little collection of buildings at one end. We called it simply ‘The Place.’ All of the buildings were built circa the late 1800s, with the most useful being perhaps an old wooden smokehouse with a stone smoking hearth inside.

               My sisters, in front of the well, in front of the smokehouse, 1960s

I remember many fond days by my father’s side at the Place, a Dr Pepper in my hand, a beer in his, as we fired up that smoker and he slow cooked various delectable cuts of meat, including brisket. The scent of burning hickory still brings me back to those wonderful days, and the wonderful taste of that brisket.

My dad departed this world before I had the chance to learn all of his secrets for smoking brisket, so I have had to rediscover most of them on my own. But it is not a task I have taken lightly. Perhaps more than any other dish here on An Eatin’ Man, brisket is the one that I have most labored over. When done right, it is succulent, juicy and the most out of this world cut of meat you have ever tasted, but when done wrong it is average at best, inedible at worst.

I’ll say one more thing before I move on to my brisket methods. If you have only ever had brisket from a commercial or chain barbecue restaurant, then you haven’t really had brisket. It’s just not commercially viable to cook brisket properly in a restaurant environment and make a profit. Mom and Pop, or ‘hole in the wall’ places do a better job, but they still can’t compete with the backyard chefs and competition cooks that really know what they are doing. Smoking a brisket is an art, and like any art, it takes patience and time to do right.

First, lets talk about the brisket itself. It’s good to know what you are dealing with, if you are going to master this cut of meat. The brisket comes from the chest of a cow, and it made up of two muscles, the superficial and deep pectorals. When you receive a full brisket from your butcher, you will see that one end is flat and squared off, while the other end is somewhat fat and rounded. The flat end is called, coincidentally enough, the ‘flat,’ while the fat, rounded end, which is a separate muscle, is called the ‘point.’ (it’s also sometimes referred to as the ‘deckle’ end). Note: Sometimes you will find just the flat portion in grocery stores sold as ‘brisket.’ For the process I’m going to describe, I recommend against cooking just the flat. You need the extra fat that the point end provides to keep the brisket moist during the long, slow cooking process that we’ll soon cover.

So, why the long, slow cooking process? It is because brisket is, in its uncooked state, inherently tough. This muscle does a lot of work supporting the cow when it's just standing around in the field all day, so it has a lot of fibrous, connective tissue running through the meat. If you were to cook the brisket like a steak, you would end up with a tough piece of shoe leather on your hands. Slow cooking at very low temperatures breaks down that tough connective tissue, which is called collagen, literally turning it into a very flavorful liquid that makes your brisket moist, juicy and delicious. (Collagen isn’t fat, it’s a protein).

Over the years, and in various regions of the world. there have been different ways of dealing with this tough cut of meat. One method is simply grinding it up to make hamburger or sausage. In Jewish cuisine it has been braised slowly with water to make a pot roast like dish. Brisket can also be pickled in a salty/brine solution to make corn beef, and this can in turn be spice rubbed and smoked to make pastrami. Then there is the method for which we are gathered here today, the method that developed over the last hundred and fifty years here in Texas: Slow smoking in a barbecue pit.

Now before I begin outlining my personal methods to achieve what I consider brisket perfection, I must state that some of the things I will suggest are considered controversial among some pit masters and competition cooks. Why, do you ask? Well, basically, there is a mystique to smoking brisket, and a competitive spirit, and many believe that the best brisket is achieved with nothing more than the subtle dance of meat and smoke in the barbecue pit, and anything else you add or do to the cooking process is somehow ‘cheating.’ I admire these stalwarts, and I will admit I’ve tasted some very good brisket cooked unadorned in this method, but I’ve also tasted some dried out, over-smoked shoe leather produced from such a method as well, and with the price of brisket these days, it’s not worth the risk. I say, cheat away, because all that matters in the end is how good your brisket tastes, and none of your dinner guests are going to care whether you used foil or not, or which spices or marinade you used, unless, that is, they want to get your recipe.

So what follows is my recipe, which I’ve developed over the years, for what I consider the best damned brisket I’ve ever tasted. It’s a multi day process, so make sure you plan ahead. But each step is simple, and not that time consuming. Brisket is a lot about patience, and waiting. Luckily, mankind invented beer to help alleviate the waiting time. Drinking a beer or two during your brisket prep is definitely a must.

So to begin, get your hands on your brisket, or briskets. If you have a large enough smoker, then you can smoke several at one time, which is nice if you’re having a party. Brisket is the ultimate party food. I’ve done up to three briskets at a time in my Bradley smoker, but for the purposes of this demonstration, I’ll do just one brisket, and I’ll use a Webber charcoal grill to do my smoking, just to show you that you don’t need a fancy, big-assed smoker to do brisket properly. As long as you keep the temperature low and slow, you’ll be all right.

First, select your brisket. Grocery stores often put briskets on sale around Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor day. I usually buy several at these times and keep them on hand in my chest freezer. When you buy a brisket, select one that is at least 14-15 pounds, or larger, and make sure it still has the fat cap on one side. This is important to the cooking process.

Cut the brisket out of its plastic wrapping and place it, fat side down, in a foil pan. Here comes controversial step one. I use a store-bought marinade on my brisket, and I don’t just pour it on the brisket, I use a meat injector, to get the marinade deep into the brisket.

The marinade I use is made by Allegro, and called ‘Gold Buckle.’ It is top notch and has a wonderful flavor.

Note:  The above is an old pic--the bottle now looks like this:

They added Fajita to the name, but it's still the same stuff.

I have tried just about every other marinade on the market, and made some homemade ones, and nothing beats this one. Its only available seasonally in the grocery store, so I buy up all I can in the spring and summer months, so I’ll have some for fall and winter. If you don’t live in an area where it’s sold, you can mail order it from the Allegro website.

So, I inject about two thirds of the marinade into the brisket, then pour the rest over it.

At this point I used to go straight to my spice rub addition, but I've started a new step recently, so I thought I'd add it here.  I'm now adding a thin brushing of what we in the trade call C.Y.M., or Cheap Yeller Mustard.

Yep, just that plain old stuff in the yellow plastic bottle.  I started doing this to my pork butts a while back and I really liked the way it increased the tangy flavor in the bark.  So now I'm doing it to my brisket as well.  It adds flavor (not a mustard flavor, as you'd expect, but just a hint of tangy in the finished brisket) and it also helps the spice rub stick.

I then add the spice rub to the surface of the meat which consists of paprika, granulated garlic, and chili powder.

I sprinkle it on the meat, but I don’t actually rub it in.

The fully-spiced brisket:

Once this is done, its time to let the meat sit for 12 to 24 hours. If I plan to serve the brisket on a Saturday, then I will do this step on a Thursday afternoon. (Or sometimes Wednesday...more on this later) I then cover the brisket pan with plastic wrap, and then with foil, and put it away in the fridge to marinate.

The next day, I fire up the smoker around 11 a.m. In this case I’m using a standard Webber kettle grill, but I’m keeping the temperature low by closing the bottom vents almost all the way. First, I start enough charcoal to fill one of the indirect cooking trays about two-thirds full. Then I get my wood--

--I prefer Hickory, but pecan and oak are also nice, and any of the fruit hardwoods will work.  I then place about four chunks of the hickory wood that I’ve had soaking in water for several hours on top of the coals, and they begin to smoke right away. Edit:  I don't soak my wood anymore.  It does nothing.  Wood doesn't really absorb water that much--that's why the build boats out of it as they say--so now I just throw dry chunks right on the charcoal and close the smoker.  The wood smolders and generates smoke just fine, no differently than if I'd soaked it.  What keeps it smoldering and not flaring up is the fact that we are regulating a low amount of oxygen to the fire via the vents.  

About the only wood I wouldn't use (at the risk of offending some of my fellow Texans) us mesquite wood,  I find mesquite quite a bit too acrid for my tastes, so I use the the hickory.  But mesquite is quite popular in parts of Texas, particularly the western half.  In the east, I'd say hickory is king.

I now place the brisket, fat side up, fat side down, on the rack, (see note 1 at the end of this post for my views on fat side up versus down) offset from the coals so that it does not sit right above them, and place the cover on the grill. I turn the cover so that the smoke vent is opposite the side with the coals, and just over the brisket, so the smoke will flow over the brisket. I leave the top vent open wide, so the smoke keeps flowing, but I close the bottom vent so that it is only about one quarter open. This keeps the heat on my grill at just around 200 degrees, which is just about where you want it.

A little lower is okay, but not any hotter. I have known people that will tell you that you can cook brisket a little faster by going to 250, or even 300 degrees or higher. Well, they’re wrong. Brisket needs to be cooked low and slow for a looooong time.

Here the brisket has smoked for around two hours.  This is a good time to add more charcoal and wood.  I'll do it again after five to six hours.  (See Note 2 at the end of this post for my revised views on smoking times)  Avoid the temptation to take the cover off of your grill to look at the brisket.  (lookin' ain't cookin')  This will drop your temperature and release valuable smoke that otherwise would go toward cooking and flavoring your brisket.  Do it only when you need to add charcoal and wood. 
After four hours, your brisket will have absorbed all the smoke it needs, and should be about 130F internal temperature. This is when I do controversial step number two. I either wrap the brisket in foil (known in BBQ circles as the ‘Texas crutch’) and continue cooking it in the smoker, or better still, I put it back in the foil pan (fat side up this time), cover it with foil, and move it to my oven. I set the oven at 170 degrees, and then, depending on the size of the brisket, I let it cook for another 12 to 18 hours, low and slow.

Wow, that’s a long time, you say. You’re right, it is. But this is what it takes to fully convert the collagen in both the flat and the point. The good thing is, since the brisket is sitting in a pan of its own juice, it won’t dry out, and keeping it at 170 is a perfect ‘holding’ temperature once the brisket is done. If you use a meat thermometer, you will find that your brisket actually rises to 200 degrees at this temperature, and it stays there. This is because an oven set to 170 doesn’t actually hold that temperature perfectly. It heats up to around 200, then drops to 150, and then repeats. This is just the way ovens work.

Here is the brisket after four hours of smoking.  At this point, it has had plenty of smoke, but still has lots more cooking to be done.  I put it in the pan, (fat side up this time--this is very important) so that as it releases it juice, the juice won't be lost, but instead the meat will steep in it.  I then cover the pan with foil, and cook in a 170 degree oven for 12-18 more hours, depending on the size of the brisket.  If your not sure how long to go, just aim for 18 hours and you'll be fine.  At these low temperatures, your brisket won't overcook, it will just get done, and then basically hold indefinitely.  As I mentioned before, you could wrap the brisket in foil and leave it on the smoker, but this would necessitate tending the fire all night.  The oven is easier, you can put the brisket in in the evening, and let it go all night while you sleep. 

Note how much juice is released in a large, 16 pound brisket:

Be careful taking that foil pan out of the oven, particularly if there's a lot of juice.  To be on the safe side, you might want to kill the oven and let the brisket cool for 30 minutes to an hour before you move it.  The liquid will be close to 200F when your done, hot enough to scald, and those foil pans are a bit flimsy.

Anyway, when your brisket is done, you can serve immediately, or you can refrigerate and reheat it the next day. I’ve actually had people tell me brisket tastes better after it has been refrigerated for a day. My own personal jury is still out on this, but it definitely never tastes worse doing it this way, so if you’re having a big party, and have other things to cook, this is a great method. You just reheat it for 30 minutes or so at around 180F, then serve.

Slice 'er open and look at the juicy, succulent meat inside.  The dark spots are where the marinade has permeated the meat. 
So, how to serve this wonderful brisket that you’ve smoked? Well, the traditional method is to slice the flat, and chop the point. This is what BBQ places do, and its why there are always two kinds of brisket. The flat just slices up nicely, while the point, which even after 18 hours of cooking will still have a lot of fat, is more conducive to chopping up and serving.

Slice the flat against the grain to make slices perfect for serving. 

Another method that I like to do is to serve brisket tacos. To do this I have some soft corn tortillas on hand, and I pull the brisket, instead of slicing or chopping. To pull the brisket, slice the flat into one to one and a half inch sections, then pull them apart. The point will be a little more difficult, as it has this gelatinous sponge of fat spread through it. I usually just cut it against the grain into chunks, then grasp it by the burnt ends and pull the meat out–you’ll find it will slip right out of the fat.

Pulling the point.  Yes, there is a lot of fat still to work through, but the effort is worth it.  The point has some of the most tasty meat of the whole brisket. 
I then mix the point meat together with the flat meat and serve in the tortillas with some cheese and grilled onions.

So, that’s my method, and while not without controversy, I’ve used it over the years to produce pretty consistent results.

Anyway, I hope you’ll give this brisket recipe a try, and let me know what you think.

Until next time,

Smoke 'em if you got 'em,


*Note 1:  Fat side up or fat side down.  This is one of the many controversies in brisket circles.  When I started smoking briskets, I was told that fat side up was the way to go, because as the brisket cooked, the fat slowly melted and soaked down into the meat, keeping it moist.  Now, after learning a bit more about the physiology of brisket meat, I don’t think this is the case. One, you’ll notice that after thoroughly cooking your brisket, most of the fat cap is still intact, so it’s not really going anywhere, into the meat or otherwise.  Two, I now believe that most of the juicy moistness of a brisket comes from the collagen breaking down, not from melted fat wicking into the brisket. 

I’ve recently switched to fat side down.  I now believe this is better for two reasons.  One, the fat layer keeps some of the collagen, as it melts, from dripping out of the brisket.  Two, it provides a protective layer between the brisket meat and the fire, preventing the precious meat from scorching if the fire flares up.  I’ve now cooked several briskets fat side down, and they’ve come out great. 

*Note 2:  Duration of smoking.  With my hybrid method of smoker/oven brisket cooking, or unwrapped/foil wrapped (if you go that way), it is critical to get the brisket wrapped or placed in a pan and in the oven before it reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is because 160F is that magic temperature that the collagen starts to break down.  If you take your brisket to 180F or higher while it is naked in the smoker, you run the risk of having some or all of the meat, particularly the flat, drying out on you.  I recently made a brisket that I smoked during the heat of summer, and it was a windy day, and this caused my smoker temperature to rise up into the 250-300 range.  The result, my brisket rose in temperature and completely juiced out before I got it in a pan and in the oven.  The result was edible, but just barely.  It was dry and quite lacking in flavor.  (I was glad I hadn’t made this one for a party, as I’ve garnered something of a good ‘brisket’ reputation over the years, and this one would have done me in)

So, with this in mind, I’ve revised my smoking times a bit.  After several experiments, I now believe that four hours is all the time the brisket needs in the smoke.  Smoke, I’ve learned, and thus smoke flavor, doesn’t really penetrate deeply into the meat.  Some people see the lovely pink smoke ring that forms around the edge of the meat and believe this is evidence of the smoke penetrating at least that far into the meat.  But the smoke ring, while desirable, is actually a chemical reaction that occurs during the smoking process.  According to author Derrick Riches, “The smoke ring is caused by nitric acid building up in the surface of meat, absorbed from the surface. This nitric acid is formed when nitrogen dioxide from wood combustion in smoke mixes with water in the meat. Basically it is a chemical reaction between the smoke and the meat.” 

So, the wonderful flavor of smoke on your brisket is just that, it resides on the surface of the meat, and after about four hours, you’ve got plenty of smoke flavor.  Keep in mind that it is possible to over smoke a brisket, however, particularly if you are using a strong wood like mesquite.  I’ve tasted some briskets that have stayed in the smoke for twelve hours or more, and they tasted like charcoal. 

So, if you’ve used my methods before, let it be known that I am now a fat side down guy, and I only go four hours or so in a 200F smoker, then I wrap the brisket in foil or transfer it to a pan and the oven.  With this shortened smoker time, the brisket usually only gets up to about 130F internal temperature while in the smoker, so all of the collagen is still intact, to be broken down into moist, juicy flavor goodness in the oven.

Quick Summary of An Eat'n Man's Brisket Process


1 Full Brisket, 14 lbs or more
1 jar Gold Buckle Brisket Marinade
1/2 Cup Paprika
1/2 Cup Granulated Garlic
1/3 Cup Chili Powder
1/2 Cup Mustard (optional)

1. Remove Brisket from Plastic Wrap, place fat side down in tray
2. Inject Gold Buckle Marinade throughout Brisket with Meat Injector
3a. Optional--rub brisket with mustard (note this is a new step that I added recently, gives bark a tangier taste)
3b. Coat Brisket with Paprika, Granulated Garlic and Chili Powder
4. Let sit covered in Fridge for 12-24 hours
5. Smoke fat side down for 4 hours at 200˚F.
6. Place Brisket in Foil Tray, fat side up this time, and cover tray with foil
7. Roast in oven at 170˚F for 12 to 18 hours (longer for bigger briskets)
8. At this point, Brisket is done, and can be served immediately, or held in Fridge for a day
9. To serve, slice the flat against the grain and serve as Sliced Brisket
10. Chop the point coarsely to serve as Chopped Beef or, pull apart the whole thing for Brisket Tacos