Brisket is the ultimate test for any pit master. This incredible piece cut of beef has proven difficult to master for restaurants and home cooks since the dawn of man, yet a perfectly cooked brisket will reward you with the most delicious dinner you ever thought imaginable.
Barbecuing a brisket can be very intimidating for a multitude of reasons. It's a tough cut that requires very long cook times, it's a notoriously uneven cut that results in various rates of cooking, it requires a thorough trim, and there needs to be proper balance between bark and tenderness.
This Instructable is meant to turn the brisket smoking process from intimidating to enjoyable and rewarding. We will start from selecting the proper brisket and take you all the way through to the moment where you take that first heavenly slice (and inevitably fill yourself up before even plating your dinner).
For the Brisket:
- Full Packer Brisket
- Celery Seed
- (optional) Chili Powder
- (optional) Garlic Powder
- Smoker - I use a Weber Smokey Mountain 18.5, but my techniques will apply to any non-electric smoker
- Chimney Starter
- Wood Chunks - I use a combination of hickory and cherry, but find that pecan is also great
- Sharp Boning or Filet Knife
- Sharp Slicing Knife
- Butcher Paper
- Charcoal (for those using charcoal smokers)
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Step 1: The Brisket
The first step is choosing your brisket.
The short explanation for this - Buy a full packer brisket (pictured) and make sure it's USDA prime.
Now the long explanation:
You can typically find these at Costco or Sams Club, since most grocery chains I visit don't typically carry full packers. What are full packers, you say? I'm glad you asked!
A brisket is a cut from a cows lower chest. This cut is comprised of two separate muscles, the flat and the point(log these two terms away because I promise they're very important). A full packer is a brisket containing both the flat and the point.
Now for the difference between them - The flat is the flat (imagine that), lean portion, and the point is the fattier portion that sits on top of the flat. When buying a brisket, be sure to buy a full packer, since the point protects your flat from drying out during the cooking process. As an added bonus, your point tends to be well marbled and is the tastiest part of the whole thing!
Next, the grade. I've seen briskets in USDA choice or USDA Prime. The USDA rating is an indication of how well marbled your beef is, prime being the highest USDA rating, and Wagyu being the highest quality available. The more marbled your beef is, the more moist it will remain during the cooking process and the more juicy and flavorful a brisket you'll end up with. Since brisket tends to be an inexpensive cut, I stick with USDA prime.
Now that you have your brisket, you're ready for.....
Step 2: The Trim
Get yourself a sharp knife and begin by trimming up some of the fattier areas. You want your fat cap on the flat to be about a quarter of an inch. Move your way over to the point and remove some of the harder, fattier areas. These pieces of fat are very heavy and will not typically render. Moving into the flap of the point, you'll notice a piece of fat that goes all the way through to the back. This is the fat that ties the flat and point together. Dig into here and get some (but not all) of it out. Turn the brisket over and trim off the remaining large pieces of fat. Work your way to the center and trim off any silver skin. Depending on your level of OCD, you can typically go on for a long time trimming one up. As long as the larger pieces of fat are trimmed off, you will end up with a perfectly good brisket.
Happy with how your brisket looks after trimming? Great! You're ready for....
Step 3: The Rub
A Texas brisket uses a very complicated rub made through a very complicated and lengthy process. It is comprised of the following. Are you ready for this?
Salt and Pepper.
This is all it takes to make a great brisket, but I like to add a few more ingredients for a nice flavor profile:
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup pepper
1/8 cup celery seed
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp chili powder
Feel free to leave the additional ingredients out, but I find that adding the celery salt helps in the formation of a nice smoke ring, on top of adding a flavor that compliments the beef nicely!
Combine all your ingredients and place in a cup or ramekin. In a uniform fashion, apply the rub to both sides of the brisket until evenly applied and the brisket becomes opaque. Although you don't want to cake your seasoning on, this is a large cut of beef that can accept a large amount of seasoning.
Now that you're all seasoned up, you're ready for.....
Step 4: The Smoke
Time to get that meat on the smoker! That's what it's all about isn't it?
The Short Explanation - Set smoker to 250F. Smoke the brisket for about 5 hours or until bark is set and internal temperature is around 150F.
The Long Explanation -
Place 8 chunks of wood (I used 4 cherry and 4 hickory chunks) at the bottom of your smoker. Fill a chimney starter to the top with charcoal and pour over the wood chunks. Next, fill 3/4 to a full chimney charcoal starter with coals and light. The coals are ready to put in the smoker when the coals on the top begin to develop a layer of ash on top.
While you wait for your coals to light, line your water pan (if you have one) with foil and fill about a quarter of the way with water. Make a crater in the center of the unlit coals in your smoker and pour your lit coals into the center, making sure all vents are wide open. The lit coals will light your unlit coals outward as the cook progresses. Assemble your smoker, again making sure that all vents are open, insert your water pan, and place the lid on top. The smoke leaving the exhaust should be almost invisible and your should see it flowing out at a rapid rate.
Now it's time to put the meat on. Place your brisket on the grill and close the lid. Once your smoker temp hits 200F, go ahead and close two of the bottom vents and leave one wide open. Your exhaust will stay open the entire cook. You want to cook at a steady 250F.
NOTE** As you get to know your smoker, you'll start to learn where your vents need to be in order to keep at the temperature you need for an extended period of time. Don't be afraid to experiment with your vents, but be sure to keep the exhaust vent open the entire time.
(Another) NOTE** Every smoker uses an combination of an intake and exhaust. The exhaust vent should always be open throughout the entire cook to get the best convective flow possible. If you close this, the air will become stagnant, inhibiting your convective flow.
After the meat is in, don't even look at it for about 5 hours. At this point, you're going to check the brisket. You're looking for the bark to set. Lightly scratch the surface to make sure the bark doesn't peel off and look for a mahogany color. The internal temperature should be around 150F.
If you've hit this point, happy days! you're ready for.......
Step 5: The Wrap
Now that you have a nice firm bark, it's time to get your brisket perfectly tender. We accomplish this by wrapping and letting the brisket's juices steam it from the inside.
The Short Explanation - Wrap your brisket in your butcher paper and place in a 250F oven until the brisket is done. Let it rest for at least 2 hours before unwrapping and slicing.
The Long Explanation -
Set your oven to 250F. Tear two pieces of butcher paper off the roll and place one sheet horizontal and one vertical on top of one another. Place your brisket on top wrap up your brisket tightly. Stick the brisket inside the oven, and give yourself a nice sigh of relief. The hard parts are over!
Note** Since the brisket is wrapped, it's not going to accept any more smoke. Although it's acceptable to place back into the smoker after wrapping, I find it to be a waste of charcoal, and placing it in the oven is much less of a hassle when dealing with temp fluctuations.
The next step is to wait until finished. At this point you're about 4 to 5 hours away from a finished brisket, but this is just a rough estimate. Your time will vary depending on how large your brisket is. You're going to go by temperature and feel. After a couple hours, begin to probe your brisket through the butcher paper with an instant read thermometer through the flat. The brisket will be done anywhere from 200 to 210F. The thermometer probe should pierce the meat with little to no resistance. At this point your brisket is cooked and ready to rest. The biggest sin you could commit at this point, would be to slice into it. This will cause the juices to run out, dry out, and ruin all the hard work you've done. Your brisket is going to need at least 2 hours of rest to let the juices redistribute. I personally like to set my oven as low as it will go (about 160F) and leave it in there until I'm ready to slice, but you can also wrap it in a towel and leave it in a cooler. Oftentimes, if I'm trying to time it properly to serve to guests, I'll have the brisket finished 4 hours before serving, and will leave it resting until it's ready to go. This way I won't have to kill myself trying to figure out timing.
So you've brought your brisket up to temp and let it rest? Great work! You're ready for…..
Step 6: The Slice
The Short Explanation -Slice that bad boy up and eat it! Don't forget to cut against the grain.
The Long Explanation -
Unwrap your brisket and behold the fruit of your labor. You're finally going to get to look at what's been causing that amazing aroma for the last couple hours. The bark should be a beautiful black mahogany and it should be very tender to the touch. Give it a shake, and the brisket should wiggle as if almost gelatinous. Transfer to a work surface and with a sharp knife slice off a corner about as thick as a pencil, making sure you're slicing against the grain. Your test for doneness now is to let the slice rest over your finger. The slice should not fall apart, but when you pull it, it should pull apart with almost no effort. Slice up the flat until you hit the point. At this point (pun intended), flip the point 180 degrees and slice down the middle, as the grain for the flat and point run opposite directions. You can serve these up the same way, or chop them up. The ends that are more charred can be cubed and turned into burnt ends. Do what you'd like! The world is yours, Chico.
Don't be worried if you don't get this on the first go. If it's too tender slice a thicker piece. If it's too tough, slice a thinner piece. BBQ is as much about the experience as it is the result. Take notes as to which part gave you trouble and change it on the next try. Before you know it, you'll be serving up perfect briskets that put restaurants to shame every time. In the meantime, enjoy your leftovers, make yourself brisket tacos tomorrow, and a brisket cheese melt the next day. Don't forget the burnt ends, they'll change your life!
Please feel free to leave any questions in the comments below.
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