How to Make Smoked Brisket

How to Make Smoked Beef Brisket

To put it into the simplest possible terms: Smoking beef brisket is nothing like making pulled pork. Making pulled pork is a perfect first project for the amateur slow-and-low outdoor chef; it’s incredibly forgiving, can be cooked at almost any speed and at any temperature, and it will turn out well. Not so with beef brisket. This, in a word, ain’t that. It’s a little more temperamental. Cook it too fast, or at too high a heat, and your only reward will be a huge chunk of meat more suited for re-shingling the house, than for feeding your family. When prepared well, though, there aren’t many items in the barbecue world that can compare: thin strips of tender beef that pull apart into a latticework when you try to tear it, the fat completely liquefied, with a thick, heavily seasoned bark on the outside the belies the delicate texture and rich flavor of the smoke-ringed interior. Hardcore pit masters can spend an entire career learning to get it just right. For those of you without that kind of time, here’s what we’ve learned so far.

How to Make Smoked BrisketThe Cut:

Most guides for preparing a smoked brisket will tell you that you need something called a “Packer’s Cut,” which is a huge 12-16 pound slab, made up of both the “flat” and “point” parts of the brisket. The two pieces are divided by a thick layer of fat called a “fat cap,” with the texture of the flat a little firmer than the looser, almost chopped texture of the point. In my opinion, there are three downsides to using a “packer’s cut.”

The first is the time consideration. At an hour to an hour and a half per pound, smoking a 16 pound piece of meat requires a 24 hour time commitment that I find difficult to make. The second issue is that of waste; you lose about half the total weight of a whole brisket to the smoking process, and to trimming the meat, which means you are paying for meat that you won’t get to eat. The biggest problem for me, though, is that of availability. Most supermarkets don’t have “packer’s cuts” ready to go, and require a special order from a butcher. However, almost every decent meat department will have a brisket flat ready for purchase, and these can be smoked easily and with little waste.

When choosing your flat, look for a brisket that has a thick layer of white fat. This will make the brisket self-basting, and you won’t have to noodle with it too much once you get it in the smoker. Look for beef stamped “USDA CHOICE” or higher, if available, as it will have a little bit more fat marbling than “Select” -graded cuts. Also, look for flat cuts that are as evenly thick as possible. While all flats taper off to one side in thickness, avoid cuts that are very thin on one side. Brisket flats with a large fat cap intact can weight anywhere from 4-6 pounds.

The Prep:

There’s very little to do to a brisket flat in order to prepare it for the smoker. Take it out of its packaging, and trim any super thick fatty areas. The theory here is that your rub won’t ever manage to penetrate through the fat into the meat, anyway. You only need about 1/8 – 1/4 inch of fat for the brisket flat to stay moist, so trim any thicker areas of fat to that thickness. I also like to score the fat cap with a crosshatch, being careful not to let the knife penetrate into the meat itself.

The seasoning is entirely up to you. Salt and pepper work just fine, as do more elaborate rubs (our recipe follows). If you do use a rub, be generous; a brisket flat can absorb a good 3/4 cup of seasoning rub. Rub the meat all over with a ton of the seasoning the night before you’re going to cook it, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and throw it in the fridge to do its thing overnight.

How to Make Smoked BrisketThe Smoker:

About an hour before you are ready to start cooking, soak a bowl full of chunks of hickory in water. You want big chunks of hickory wood, not those little flavoring chips, and soaking them will keep them burning longer.

It’s also a good time to take your brisket out of the fridge, and remove it from the plastic wrap. Before loading it into the smoker, you want the meat to come up to nearly room temperature. This promotes the formation of a flavorful bark.

Twenty minutes before you’re ready to go, get your smoker going and brought up to 225 degrees. Five minutes before you’re ready to go, add a few chunks of your soaked hickory to the wood pan, and get it smoking. Line the drip tray of the smoker with foil, and fill it half full with apple cider. Load the brisket flat as far away from the flame as possible, fat-side-up so that the liquefying fat bastes the meat as it cooks.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

On Tenderness and Doneness:

How does tough brisket become fork tender? It’s a question of turning the cut’s abundant connective tissue from collagen into gelatin, and the best way to do this is through slow cooking at a gentle, low temperature. Unlike smaller steaks which are considered “done” at 135 degrees, a brisket has to reach 190 degrees in order to be tender. That’s when a brisket is done. This isn’t something you can gauge by appearance or by touch; you’ll need to insert a meat thermometer through the side of the flat (not through the top) and when your brisket reaches 190 degrees, it’s time to pull it out of the smoker. Check the temperature of the smoker every hour or so, spraying the brisket with apple cider to keep the meat moist. When estimating time for a brisket flat, figure on about an hour per pound of meat.

Serving:

After your brisket flat comes out of the smoker, it’s important to let it rest. Wrap it loosely in foil and let it sit for at least a half an hour before you try to slice it and serve it. If you like, you can scrape any remaining fat from the top of the flat, though I like it, and leave it on. Slice the brisket across the grain. The thickness depends on how tender the brisket turned out. Tougher briskets should be cut to about 1/8th of an inch, but brisket that’s falling apart can be sliced at a thickness of up to 1/2 an inch. Serve sliced with barbecue sauce on the side, or piled high onto a bun with sour pickles into a sandwich.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

Smoked Beef Brisket with Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 4 pound beef brisket flat, fat trimmed
  • 1 1⁄2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 1⁄2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons mustard powder
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 quart apple cider
  • 2 handfuls of hickory wood chunks
  • 1 cup Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows)

Method:

The day before you are ready to cook: Remove brisket from store packaging, and trim fat to between 1/8 and 1/4 of an inch. Using a knife, cut thin slits in a crosshatch pattern on the fat, taking care not to cut through into the meat.

Combine all seasonings in a bowl, and toss a few times to combine. Rub generously all over the brisket, top and bottom. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

The next day, remove brisket from the fridge and unwrap, allowing the meat to come to room temperature before cooking, about one hour. While the brisket comes up to temperature, soak your hickory chunks in a bowl of water, and light the smoker. Bring the smoker to 225 degrees, and add soaked hickory. Line the drip pan with foil, and fill tray halfway with about a cup of the apple cider.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

Load brisket fat side up into top rack of smoker, as far away from your heat source as possible.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

Smoke for about four hours, checking the temperature of the smoker and basting the brisket with a spray bottle full of apple cider about every hour. After three hours, begin checking the internal temperature of the brisket about every 10 minutes, by inserting the probe of an instant-read meat thermometer through the side of the brisket flat. When the temperature reads 190 degrees, the brisket is done.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

Remove from the smoker, wrap loosely in foil, and let rest at least a half an hour before slicing against the grain into 1/8 – 1/4 inch thick slices. Serve with barbecue sauce on the side.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce
Adapted from a recipe in Saveur

Ingredients:

  • 3 dried ancho chiles
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups diced onion
  • 7 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Method:

Soak the anchos in very hot water for 15 minutes or until soft. Remove stems. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat, and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for 3 minutes, add the ketchup and anchos, and sauté for 4 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients and simmer gently for 40 minutes, stirring frequently. Transfer to a blender or food processor and purée, thinning with water as desired. Serve immediately.

How to Make Smoked Brisket

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Comments

  1. Dave says

    You’re wrong on SO many levels I don’t know where to begin. A packer cut IS the way to go. It keeps everything moist, and allows one to make ‘burnt ends’ after.

    Filling up the drip tray with apple cider? Sounds like you are actually steaming the brisket, not slow-smoking it.

    It is not recommended to soak wood chunks. The best smoke is the one you can’t see. Soaking the chunks only increases creosote and ash flecks on your brisket.

    If you have to sauce your brisket, you’ve done something wrong.

    On a visual appearance scale, I’d give your brisket a 2.

    • Malcolm Bedell says

      Thanks for the feedback, Dave. I’m by no means an expert on smoking brisket, but I do take issue with a couple of your suggestions.

      First, yes, as outlined, there are a lot of people in favor of packer cuts. I am not. I enumerated my reasons. If you love packer cuts, by all means, cook packer cuts. If you want burnt ends, you need a packer cut. I don’t always want to place a special order with my butcher or have 24 hours to spend on a smoke, so for me, a flat cut does just fine.

      The apple cider in the drip tray doesn’t steam the meat (we’re not cooking at that high a heat), and it may be an optional step, but I like to keep the inside of the smoker moist.

      Soaking the wood chunks prolongs their life, and if your smoker is venting properly (that is, spewing smoke out the chimney, displaying proper airflow), you shouldn’t have any concerns with creosote or ash flecks (neither of which, incidentally, were issues in the cook I outline here).

      You don’t have to sauce your brisket. I like barbecue sauce. So does a lot of the world. If you don’t like barbecue sauce, I suggest not using it on your brisket. The recipe for Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce that we republish here is killer though, and you should totally try it. It’s also why I suggest serving it on the side. With barbecue, there are as many opinions about the “right” way to do things as there are techniques, and most people don’t seem shy about presenting them. These opinions make for lively debate. When those opinions are presented constructively, helpfully, and as opinion rather than as stone-chiseled fact, I rate those comments an “8″ on my own personal “not a wang” scale.

      As for appearance, like I said, I’m still learning. I haven’t spent my whole life smoking meat, nor do I claim to. It’s a learning process, and I hope that my instructions will help start people down the road to their own personal smoked meat nirvana, as well as invite improvements on technique from more experienced readers. I stand by the fact that the procedure outlined above will produce a product superior to most of the brisket I have had in local BBQ restaurants.

      • Simi Smoker says

        Thanks for taking the time to post your knowledge on Brisket smoking. Im a newbie at this and trying my second brisket today. I’ll either have some happy superbowl fans or some hungry buddies telling me, “well maybe next year lets do pizza”.

  2. says

    Smoking always seems to perk up everyone’s ears. I know I for one, was excited to see this post today on facebook and couldn’t wait to read it when I got home.

    In reply to the post – your brisket looks like a 10 to me.

    Perhaps it is a regional thing, but finding a packer cut in my neck of the woods is hard to come by, very very pricey and also requires special order from local butchers several days in advance. To top it off, unless I am throwing one my major parties, I really have no need for that much beef. It’s just two of us in my house, so one good flat cut can feed us for a few days. I am not a fan of wasting food at all, so anything larger then that just doesn’t make sense for us. If you are experimenting with flavors, sauces, and rubs, a flat cut makes more sense on the wallet too. Until you have mastered the championship winning rub, I see no reasong to need a larger cut.

    I love the use of the apple cider. I have used water and a mop, but I think the apple cider would really go a long way.

    I also believe saucing is a regional thing. Some people love it and can’t imagine barbecue without it (no matter how melt in your mouth tender the meat it) and other’s think its like burning the bible. Personally, I love trying new barbecue sauces out – and this one does indeed sound killer.

    Smoking and grilling always seem to bring out the best and worst in people. The best in that you get great passionate responses about the food, and the wrong in that my way or no way mentality I see with a lot of serious smokers. As far as I’m concerned, if the meat is tender and taste good – job well done. Smoking is an art – but an art that anyone can learn with practice and a little Googling. Everyone’s smoker is different and the techniques vary widely from forum to forum. One thing I can guarantee is that no one smoked the perfect cut of meat the first day they got their smoker. The time, temp, and flavors they finally use to create that perfect masterpiece was something they learned through trial and error. I’m not a fan of anyone telling someone there way is wrong just because it wasn’t how they would do it – especially if they haven’t had a bite to back up their comment. But like I said, best and worst.

  3. Dave says

    Fair enough Malcolm – I do (kind of) agree with your point of packer cut briskets. Ironically, the only place close to Auburn Maine (where I live) where I can find these on a semi-regular basis is Wal-Mart. Even BJ’s wholesale doesn’t carry the packer cut. I think Sam’s Club does, but there isn’t one nearby.

    I will disagree on soaking the wood. It is generally accepted that meat doesn’t accept any more smoke once it reaches a temp of 145 degrees or so. Thus, it’s not necessary to attempt to prolong the burn of the wood by soaking it. In fact, the moisture is more likely to cause some ‘funk’ in the flavor by concentrating on the surface of the meat, and not inside it.

    If you’re cooking over 212 degrees – the apple cider IS steaming the meat. But it kind of depends upon your smoker.

    I have an electric Cookshack smoker… an excellent rig in my opinion. Little basting is involved.

    Sorry if I wrote my review a bit offensively. I guess I’m stubborn in my BBQ views! I am going to make your sauce sometime.

  4. Frank Gadberry says

    Just found your page looking for info about chorizo and stumbled on the smoked brisket article. I love your site and only have something for you to try if you care or have chance to. I don’t know if hickory grows in Maine or not but if you ever have a chance to get some green hickory give it a try. I live in Oklahoma and both hickory and pecan are everywhere and the hickory benefits from thinning in thickets and native pecan trees are also plentiful. A mixture of both woods is ideal. I used to cut a three or four inch hickory the day before I was cooking. I am book marking your site for future reference, thanks for all the hard work.

    Frank

  5. Tradervic says

    Dave, don’t worry about being offensive. You believe what you believe, but other people believe what they believe, too. Old guy & professional point of view: it’s a personality thing. If you so chose, you would arouse much less passion, in yourself and others, if you decided that is just the way it is with you and others, and that there is no need to challenge them unless it is a REALLY important issue! Happy eating!

  6. Comet says

    Never thought I would live in a part of the workd where the ONLY “briskets” come in a vac bag with a lil pack of “Corned beef seasonings”–but for the past 30+ years I have done just that. Don’t ask. Where I grew up in NJ a brisket WAS whats for dinner–just NOT smoked! IT was Jewish Soul Food and made with Liptons Onion Soup Mix slathered on top; sprinkled with water and coated in a house siding’s worth of aluminum foil. And cooked for hours. And then some more hours! That said-=-it makes its very own yummy gravy and is best served with Kasha–another Jewish thing. And it is GOOD.

    FFWD to now and I have learned that there are OTHER ways to cook it. And not with fake liquid “smoke” either! You cannot however find a brisket for love nor money. Yes SOME Walmarts carry it but they are–not exactly. I dunno if they are “injected” or what but they just don’t cook right. And local “Butchers” will order it–but at a very premium price. You would think that now I live in Cow Country they would have some place to ya know BUY this stuff but the few private meat vendors are also extremely spendy and some are–not so good.

    So we are very happy that there are now a few good Q places here in the Frozen North. Will have to do until either we decide to go to NJ and INVEST in a brisket lug it home and make a smoker! Or as is the plan–move South! LOL!!!!!

  7. Michele T says

    I LOVE this Recipe !!!!! Especially the BBQ sauce. I followed your recipe but used 5 Chipotle Chiles in Abodo. Sooooo yummy. Creamy, sweet and hot. Thank you for taking the time to put this out here were people can find new recipes to try. I have made brisket before with success from a recipe off food network. Did not like the rub. can’t wait to smoke my new brisket tomorrow. Thanx again for your time.

  8. Amy says

    I have to say this is the BEST bbq sauce ever!!! I did make a few tweaks for my taste… but overall, it’s amazing! It’s our “go-to” sauce for pork, chicken, beef…anything! I usually double the recipe to make sure we always have an extra jar in the pantry!

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Harry Hagelund says

    The entire recipe and process sounds great! I have relatives up and a brisket in the freezer. I have to admit, after reading the responses I am a little nervous. I have had KILLER smoked brisket up here in Alaska and some that I could barely eat. Pretty sure he used liquid smoke in the rub or brine. I will be smoking mine very soon and will attempt to duplicate your recipe. Thanks!

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