Beefy, smoky, peppery and a little bit charry, smoked beef brisket is a delicious thing. It can also be one of the most difficult BBQ dishes to perform correctly—to end up with a juicy and succulent brisket instead of a tough and chewy one. Because it requires good technique to make a good brisket, I often use the “brisket test” to judge how good a BBQ restaurant is. (Unfortunately I’ve had many bad briskets at those “famous” BBQ restaurants. Very often, I find the brisket is tough and cut too thick to disguise their problems.). My thought is that if they can’t do brisket right, there’s no point in eating the rest of their BBQ. For the most part, that’s been true.
Here’s a nice, easy recipe that shows you how to make your own succulent, juicy, beefy and peppery and smoky brisket.
It’s super easy to do. The only tough parts are to be patient (generally, a brisket will take at least 1 hour per pound of meat plus 2 hours of resting time) and to watch your meat temperatures. If you have a digital thermometer that can give you regular readings, by say piping it to your phone over Bluetooth, that makes it even easier. (Here’s what I use.)
If you don’t have a Bluetooth thermometer, you can just check the temps every hour or so with a good digital thermometer. (Here’s my favorite non-Bluetooth thermometer.)
Here’s how to do this. (The full recipe is at the end.)
Buy a well-marbled brisket from your favorite store. When I say well-marbled, I mean one that has lots of fat lines throughout. Don’t worry about how thick the “fat cap” is on the back—focus your attention on the other side, the meat side. That’s where you’ll decide if this brisket is good enough to bring home. Also, I like to get a nice “floppy” brisket. I’m not sure that makes a difference, but I figure if it starts out floppy it has a good chance of staying soft when I cook it—especially if it has lots of fat marbled throughout. I like to hold the brisket at one end and see if the other end flops down right away. I think that is a good sign.
When you buy a brisket, you should purchase what is called a “packer’s cut,” which is composed of the flat, a long flat portion of meat, covered at one end by the point, a thicker belt that crosses the top of the brisket at an angle. (The point is much fattier internally than the flat, so the point is used to make burnt ends, a tasty square nugget of beef that is cut off the point after smoking, drenched in barbecue sauce, and then put back on the smoker until caramelized.) A “packer’s cut” weighs about 13 pounds. At roughly an hour per pound plus additional time for resting, that’s a long day of smoking, so you may want to start it the night before, or very, very early in the morning.
When you get your brisket home, give it a good rinse and set it on your cutting board. I don’t do much trimming to my briskets, because I want to keep as much fat on them as I can. You can “square it off” if you like, which means to cut off any curves to make the brisket more of a rectangle. I don’t worry about that.
Take a look at the grain of the flat and point. When you are ready to serve, you will cut across the grain, so this is a good time to check and see what direction it runs. When you serve the brisket, you will want to cut directly perpendicular to those lines you now see in the meat—that way the meat will be the most tender because the grain will be “broken up” into smaller pieces. If instead you cut it along (in the same direction as) those lines, then the meat grain is not broken up and the meat will be very tough and hard to chew. So note the way the grain runs, and maybe snap a picture with your camera, because you won’t see those lines after the brisket is smoked.
Another good trick is to make a small cut in the corner of your brisket, which will guide you as to the direction you want to cut the brisket when it is done, as you can see in the below photo. That cut is perpendicular to the grain, which is pretty easy to see in the below picture.
It’s time to season your brisket. Most true Texas-style beef brisket recipes only allow for two ingredients, a 50/50 mixture of kosher salt and cracked black pepper (Aaron Franklin of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue likes pepper that is not freshly cracked. I agree—it can be way to hot. Instead, buy pre-cracked pepper and use that.). Sometimes recipes call for an addition of granulated garlic (not garlic powder or garlic salt). Here, I’m using Meat Church’s Holy Cow rub, which is a nice savory mix.
Liberally sprinkle the rub all across the top of the brisket and pat it in. You don’t have to pat it hard, just give it a “good job” kind of pat. Flip it over and give the other side, the fat side, a good sprinkling of rub too. Truly, most of that fat will melt away so you may not need to sprinkle it there, but I do. I don’t sprinkle the sides with rub. I like to look at the sides as I go to get an idea of how done the meat is. That’s a second check on the thermometer.
Now its time to smoke the brisket. I like to smoke over oak and pecan and hickory when I do red meat, and today I did oak and hickory. Hickory gives you a nice spicy smoke, and oak gives you a great rich smoke backbone. Most Texas brisket is smoked over local post oak.
Get your smoker lit and somewhere around 225 degrees. It’s ok if it gets up to 275 degrees or so, but it’s better to do a slower cook at a lower temperature. So, cool it down if you can. Set the brisket on your smoker and let it cook until it hits 162 degrees. I like to cook it fat side down, because it protects the brisket from the heat coming up from underneath, and I want the rub to form a crust on top and not slide off when I cut it–which happens if you put the fat side up. (And there’s no truth to the rumor that the fat “melts into the meat, basting it as it smokes.” That’s been debunked numerous times over.)
Once it hits 162 degrees, pull it off and take it inside. Wrap it up either in butcher paper, parchment paper, or tin foil. If you use parchment paper, you may have to use a few layers, like I do here. Before you close it up, add in one cup of beef broth. You can use the boxed or canned beef bouillon or use what I use: a tablespoon of Better Than Bouillon mixed into hot water.
Pour the beef broth down the side of the wrapping so that you don’t disturb that great bark that has been forming on the top of the brisket. I like to make a “boat” with the first layer of parchment paper, by gathering together the two ends of the paper as I do below. That gives a nice boat shape in which to carefully pour your broth.
Then I close up the paper using the remaining pieces of parchment, sealing the brisket inside. Do the same with butcher paper or foil. Return the brisket to the smoker and let it cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees. You don’t need to add any more smoke to it, just slow heat.
Once the meat reaches 200 degrees, pull it off, keep it wrapped, and place it in a cooler to rest for at least two hours. Ok. At least one hour. (Yes, that feels like the last hour before summer vacation, but you can do it.) In fact, you can hold the brisket even longer if you like (or if your guests haven’t arrived yet). The reason for “resting” the meat is so that the meat fibers relax and soak up as much of the juice, as possible. If you cut the brisket right away, all those meat juices will pour out onto your cutting board, leaving tough meat. Resting is an important step, so don’t forget it!
Once the meat has rested, it’s time to slice it. You want to slice the meat perpendicular to its grain. Think back to how the direction of the grain went and slice across those lines. (I like to take a photo to remind me of the direction the grain was pointing.) If you forget which way is which, if the brisket slices look like the below picture, you are slicing the wrong way, so turn the brisket 90 degrees and cut in that direction.
If you see brisket slices that look like the below picture, you are cutting in the correct direction. Keep on going!
If you’ve cooked the meat correctly, a ¼” thick slice when held up by its middle with the back of a knife, should drape over the back of the knife and touch itself without breaking. It should also pull apart with a gentle tug. However, sometimes things don’t go perfectly. If you end up with tough brisket, it’s time to slice it very thin, make some mashed potatoes and beef gravy and eat it that way!
If you’re lucky enough to have leftover brisket, I like to keep it in tupperware or in a ziploc with some of the juice that came out of the brisket when it was wrapped. That will help keep it tender.