BBQ Brisket is the national food of the Republic of Texas and a whole smoked brisket is a great excuse for a party.
A whole barbecue beef "packer's cut" brisket is a huge hunk of cow that comes off the smoker pit deep ebony, almost black, looking more like a meteorite than a meal. But it is not burnt, and beneath the crust is the most tender, juicy, meat, with a husky beefy flavor. IF you cook it right. And that's a BIG IF. Like a Clint Eastwood cowboy, brisket is unforgiving. If you are cutting a smaller portion of a brisket, it can be even more difficult. But I will try to answer all your questions.
If you are starting out with smoking meats, cook a Pork Butt. Cook brisket wrong and it is like a wrangler's leather chaps. And that is a huge disappointment after 12 hours or so on the smoker. To help you get brisket right, I have written this book-length article/recipe/technique so that you understand all the concepts. Don't let it scare you. Brisket mastery is possible, even on a gas grill.
Briskets are the pectoral muscles from the chest of the steer between the forelegs. There are two per animal, and because cattle have no collarbones these boneless muscles have a load to bear, so there isn't much fat marbling within the muscle and there's a lot of springy connective tissue in and around the muscle fibers. That's why they are so tough. Much of the world's brisket is made into corned beef, pastrami, or pot roast, but it is also a fine cut for barbecue, and it is required in Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) cooking contests (about 500 across the nation).
There are two distinct muscles in a packer: A long flat rectangular lean muscle that sometimes comes to a point that is called the flat (pectoralis profundus), and a narrower, thicker, fattier, oval shaped muscle called the point (pectoralis superficialis). Got it? The flat is pointy and the point is oval. Go figure.
When you buy a whole packer, it usually weighs 8 to 16 pounds and comes vacuum packed in an airtight plastic bag. There is a cap of fat on one side that can be up to 1" thick, and it is trimmed pretty close to fat free on the other side. There is a thick layer of fat that separates the point from the flat. This is a whole 12-pound packer brisket as it arrived from the packer. The cutting board is 20" x 14 ". The fat cap is 1/4" to 1/2" thick. The flat is A and the point rests on top of the right side of the flat in the oval B. As you can see, the packer trimmed it quickly and left some meat bare. Not the end of the world. Larger briskets usually come from older steers and tend to be tougher.
Most packages will show the "Packing Date". After a steer is slaughtered it is broken down and packed, usually within 24 hours, although if it was slaughtered late on Friday, it might not be packed til Monday. The best briskets are wet aged 28 to 45 days in the vacuum bag. Enzymes within muscles tenderize meat as it ages, so competitors often wet age their meat in the vacuum bag in the fridge in their basement. Click here for more about aging beef
There are two briskets per animal, and two distinct muscles in a whole packer brisket: A long flat rectangular lean muscle that sometimes comes to a point that is called the flat (pectoralis profundus), and a narrower, thicker, fattier, oval shaped muscle called the point (pectoralis superficialis). Got it? The flat is pointy and the point is oval. Go figure.
Larger briskets usually come from older steers and tend to be tougher. Most packers will show the "Packing Date". After a steer is slaughtered it is broken down and packed, usually within 24 hours, although if it was slaughtered late on Friday, it might not be packed til Monday. The best briskets are wet aged 28 to 45 days in the vacuum bag. Enzymes within muscles tenderize meat as it ages, so competitors often wet age their meat in the vacuum bag in the fridge in their basement. Click here for more about aging beef
When you buy a whole "packer's cut" brisket, it usually weighs 8 to 16 pounds and comes vacuum packed in an airtight plastic bag. There is a cap of fat on one side that can be up to 1" thick, and it is trimmed pretty close to fat free on the other side. There is a thick layer of fat that separates the point from the flat. This is a whole 12-pound packer brisket as it arrived from the packer. The cutting board is 20" x 14 ". The fat cap is 1/4" to 1/2" thick. The flat is A and the point rests on top of the right side of the flat in the oval B. As you can see, the packer trimmed it quickly and left some meat bare. Not the end of the world.
Your butcher probably offers three cuts of brisket, a whole "packer" brisket, a "flat" (sometimes called "first cut"), and a "point" (sometimes called "second cut" or the "deckle"). Below you will learn
- How to cook a whole packer brisket (immediately below)
- Click here for how to cook a small hunk of brisket 5 pounds or less
- Click here for how to cook burnt ends
- Click here for how to cook a packer for competition
- Click here for how to Sous-Vide-Que a brisket
Smoked Beef Brisket Recipe
In this recipe I have chosen a path that has yielded excellent results for thousands of readers. Some hot shots may dispute my choices, but if you start here, you can then riff on the controversies and options discussed below the recipes. If your effort yields meat that is a bit dry or tough, try again. Sometimes it's the steer, not the recipe or the cook! Cattle are not widgets.
Video: How to cook a packer brisket
Here is a short video overview of the concepts followed by the recipe, followed by a lot of info that you should know.
Makes. 12 servings if you are cooking a whole packer of about 12 pounds which yields about 6 pounds of meat.
Calculate about 1 pound of meat or more per person. There will be significant loss, up to 20% from fat trimming and up to 30% from shrinkage. You'll end up with about half a pound per person.
Preparation time. 10 minutes to apply the salt and rub. If you can let the salt soak in for an hour or two, that would be nice. 12 to 24 hours is nicer.
Cooking time. allow 12 to 18 hours if wrapped at 150°F, 16 to 20 hours if nekkid.
Remember it is not the weight of a piece of meat that determines cooking time, it is thickness, and the orneriness of the particular steer whose flesh you are honoring. There are too many variables to be precise. Once you have done the same cut on the same cooker several times, you'll be able to better predict. But you have an out. When the meat is cooked, the meat needs to be held in foil, wrapped it in a towel, and stuck in a faux cambro (a plastic cooler), for 1 to 4 hours. I discuss the concept of holding below.
1/2 teaspoon of Morton’s kosher salt per pound of meat after trimming
1/2 cup Big Bad Beef Rub
1 whole packer brisket about 12 pounds, untrimmed, USDA Choice grade or higher
1 ounce of beef broth per pound of raw meat for injecting
1/4 cup of beef broth for the Texas Crutch
2 cups of wood
Sauce optional. 2 cups of Texas Barbecue Mop-Sauce (you can make this days in advance) for a packer.
About the brisket. I cannot stress this enough: When shopping for brisket, go for the highest grade you can find, and hand pick the slab with the most fat striation visible. Pay no attention to the fat cap. You will trim most of this away. But marbling is important. Go for USAD Choice, USDA Prime, or Certified Angus Beef. If it is not labeled, chances are it is USDA Select. Avoid it. Brisket is the classic example of "garbage in garbage out". Please don't write to me and say you can't figure out why your brisket was tough if you did not buy USDA Choice or better.
Beware. Corned Beef is brisket that has been corned, which is to say it has been preserved with salt and flavorings. It is not suitable for this recipe! To make Texas brisket you need raw beef. Click here for a recipe for making your own corned beef, click here for making corned beef hash, click here for corned beef and cabbage, click here for an amazing recipe for smoking corned beef to make pastrami, and click here for making Rockin' Reuben pastrami sandwiches.
1) Trim off most of the fat cap but leave about 1/4". Until you get the hang of it you might cut off some of the meat while trimming. No harm, no foul. Some cooks attempt to remove some of the fat layer between the flat and the point by slicing them apart from both sides, but not slicing all the way through so they remain attached. On the meaty side, slice off any silverskin, a tough thin membrane. Set some fat aside for making burnt ends, described below. I freeze some of the fat, save it, and grind it if I think my burgers need more fat. I render some of it over low heat in a pan and freeze that too. I use it to paint my steaks just before searing.
Optional. You can remove the point at this stage, especially if you want to make burnt ends. Purists cry heresy, but do this and you have a flat that is pretty uniform in thickness and it will cook more evenly, you can apply rub to all sides, and you will get an all-around smoke ring. You can cook the two muscles side by side. The flat will be thinner and finish sooner, but you need time to convert it to those luscious hunks of beef candy called burnt ends. Separating also speeds cooking.
2) Pump. I almost always inject briskets with beef broth. This meat takes so long to cook the extra moisture is needed to keep it from dehydrating, and the salt helps the meat hold on to moisture and enhances flavor. Use broth only. No need to add spices juices or other flavorings. All we want here is moisture. We don't want the fluid to mask the flavor of the meat. If you have a hypodermic for injecting meat, now's the time to use it. Pump in about 1 ounce of beef broth per pound of raw meat by inserting the needle parallel to the grain in several locations about 1" apart and back it out as you press the plunger. Do it in the sink and be careful so you don't get squirted in the eye.
3) Salt and rub. If you can, salt the meat about 12 to 24 hours in advance so it can work its way in. Notice the direction of the grain of the flat and remember this so you can carve it perpendicular to the grain. The grain will be hard to find under the bark when it is done, so some people mark it with a slice in the surface or cut off a slice to show them the way to cut later. Sprinkle the Big Bad Beef Rub liberally on all exposed meat and rub it in. Keep the meat chilled until just before you cook. Chilled meat attracts more smoke. I strongly recommend you use a digital remote thermometer, and insert the probe with the tip centered in the part of the meat furthest from the heat.
4) Preheat. Fire up your somoker or if you are using a grill, set it up for indirect cooking. Click here to see how to set up a gas grill. Here's how to set up a charcoal grill, and here's how to set up a bullet smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain. Get the temp stabilized at about 235°F. We want to cook at about 225°F, but the temp will drop a bit once you open the lid and load in the cold meat.
5) Cook. Put the meat on the cooker. On a smoker with a water pan, put the meat right above the water. Place the oven temp probe on the grate next to the meat. Add about 4 ounces of wood right after the meat goes on. When the smoke stops, add 4 ounces more for the first 2 hours, usually about every 30 minutes. Keep an eye on the water in the pan. Don't let it dry out. After 3 hours, turn the meat over if the color is different from top to bottom. Otherwise leave it alone. No need to mop, baste, or spritz. It just lowers the temp of the meat and softens the bark.
6) Texas Crutch. The meat temp will move steadily upward to the stall, somewhere around 150 to 170°F. Once in the stall, it will seem to take forever to rise. The stall can last 5 hours and the temp may not rise more than 5°F! When the meat hits the stall and temp stops rising, take it off and wrap it tightly in a double layer of heavy-duty foil. We have learned that the more airspace around the meat the more juice leaks out of the meat. Crimp it tight and put the wrapped meat back on the smoker or move it to an indoor oven at 225°F. This step, called the Texas Crutch, slightly braises and steams the meat, but most importantly, it prevents surface evaporation which cools the meat and causes the stall. If you wrap the meat at 150°F it will power right through the stall and cut your cooking time significantly.
7) Hold. When the temp hits 195°F, start poking it. Poke it with a thermometer probe. It should slide in and out with little resistance if it is done. Pick it up and jiggle it. Poke it with a finger. If it goes wubba wubba, if it wiggles a bit like jelly, it is done. This usually happens somewhere between 195 and 205°F, usually at around 203°F. Now get your plastic beer cooler, line it with a towel, blanket, or crumpled newspaper, and put the meat, still in foil, into the cooler on top of the lining. Leave the thermometer probe in. If the foil is leaking fluids put the meat in a large pan first. Close the lid and let the hot meat sit in the cooler for 1 to 4 hours until you are ready to eat. If you can, wait til it drops to 150°F to slice. If you have a tight cooler it should hold the meat well above 140°F for hours. Click here for our cooler reviews.
Burnt ends are amazingly flavorful bite-size crispy cubes. Originally they were simply edges and ends that were overcooked and trimmed off and munched by the kitchen staff. If there were any leftover, they were given away for free. Then, in 1970, in his marvelous book American Fried, Calvin Trillin wrote the following about Arthur Bryant's restaurant in Kansas City "The main course at Bryant's, as far as I'm concerned, is something that is given away for free -- the burned edges of the brisket. The counterman just pushes them over to the side as he slices the beef, and anyone who wants them helps himself. I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I'm in some awful overpriced restaurant in some strange town -- all of my restaurant-finding techniques having failed, so that I'm left to choke down something that costs seven dollars and tastes like a medium-rare sponge -- a blank look comes over my face: I have just realized that at that very moment someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges free."
Here's my technique, strictly illegal in competitions, but very welcome in my family. In a frying pan, render about 1/4 pound of the beef fat that you trimmed from the brisket. Or cheat and use bacon fat or duck fat. You can do this over hot coals. Cut the point into 1/2" to 3/4" cubes. Set aside any pieces that are too fatty or just eat them. Put the cubes in the pan and gently fry the cubes until they are crunchy on the outside. Drain the fat and add about 1/4 cup of your favorite BBQ sauce and 1/4 cup of the drippings from the foil used for the Texas Crutch. Put the pan back on the cooker in a hot spot and close the lid. Stir them every 5 minutes or so. Let the cubes absorb most of the liquid and start to sizzle, but don't let them burn. When they're done, keep them warm in the faux cambro with the flat.
9) Slicing brisket
Don't slice until the last possible minute. Brisket dries out very very quickly once it is cut. If you wish, you can firm up the crust a bit by unwrapping the meat and putting it over a hot grill or under a broiler for a few minutes on each side. Watch it closely so it doesn't burn. When your guests are ready, heat up your Texas Barbecue Mop-Sauce or the jus in the foil and bring it to the table. Important: Turn the meat fat side up so the juices will run onto the meat as you slice.
Slicing is a bit of a challenge because there are two muscles and the grain flows in different directions. In this photo you can see the grain in the meat. The point muscle sits on top of the flat muscle. The point is thin on one end (A) and thick on the other (B). The thickness of the slab varies significantly, from 1" at the left and right edge, to 4" or more at the crown of the point.
Here are three methods for carving. (a) the easy method, (b) the Sorkin method, and (c) the competition method.
(a) The easy method of slicing
Lop off about 1" from the thick end and about 2" from the tip of the flat, the thin end. Both these are likely overcooked and dry. Chop them and smother them in sauce for chopped brisket. Then find the fat layer between the point and flat and slide your blade between the two muscles separating them. Trim off all most of the excess fat. Find the grain of the flat and cut across the grain and offer your guests "lean" and "fatty". Most will chose the lean which will leave the better, fattier, point cut for you.
(b) The Sorkin method of slicing
I learned this method from Barry Sorkin of Chicago's Smoque BBQ. He makes my favorite brisket in the world. In the photos below, Sorkin demonstrates how he slices brisket.
Start by separating the drier thin part of the flat and set it aside for chopping, not slicing.
Then slice the thick center part of the flat across the grain until you encounter the point muscle on top of the flat. In the photo above he is within one or two slices from hitting the point. These are the slices that most competitors use because they produce a visually pleasing presentation of nearly identical slices.
He then goes into the layer of fat between the point and flat at the thick butt end and removes much of the fat. It can be 1/2" thick or more in there and that makes the slices inedible.
The remaining hunk has both muscles, the point sitting on top of the flat, with the grain going in different directions. He slices this hunk in half.
The right section is a butt end with one cut edge. The left section, from the middle of the brisket, has two cut edges.
Slice the center section as shown, from the outer edge in.
Slice the remaining butt end of the point in the same direction as you cut the flat, continuing to cut parallel to the cut end.
Sorkin then fans the slices on a bun. Notice the line separating flat and point.
Thin parts of the flat are chopped and some of the fat from between the point and flat is mixed in for moisture. The results are crunchy, heavily seasoned, and juicy. They can also be splashed with sauce, and served on a bun.
(c) The competition method
Some competitors prefer this method of slicing: Run a knife between the flat and the point and separate the two muscles. Trim off excess fat. Slice them separately across the grain about 1/4" thick. The meat should hold together, not fall apart or crumble. It should pull apart with a gentle tug. If the first slice falls apart, cut thicker slices. Here is a picture of the brisket entry by KCBS President emeritus Candy Weaver. Nice even slices of flat with the smoke ring on top surrounded by chunks of burnt ends.
If the meat is perfectly cooked it should be moist and juicy. You can serve it simply sliced on a plate or as a sandwich made with Texas Toast. If you wish, drizzle some Texas Barbecue Mop-Sauce mixed with some of the drippings from the crutch on top of the meat (taste this carefully because the drippings can be salty.
"Anytime you got nothing to do - and lots of time to do it - come on up."Mae West
Cooking a Hunk O' Flat (HOF) or Hunk O' Point (HOP)
A whole packer brisket is a lot of meat! Many grocers cut up the whole brisket into smaller more manageable sizes. I often see cuts from the flat or point running anywhere from three to six pounds. I call them a HOF, for Hunk O' Flat, or HOP for Hunk 'O Point. HOF is sometimes labeled "brisket first cut" and HOP is sometimes labeled "brisket second cut".
HOFs seem to be more common than HOPs. If the meat case has both, chose the HOP. It has more marbling in the muscle and will be more tender, flavorful, and juicy. If you see only flats, ask the butcher if you can order points. HOFs are usually tough and it is hard to make them tender. But don't ask your butcher for a HOF, that's just a term you and I use.
My grocer usually has a number of HOFs in the three to four pound range, perfect for serving a small family. If you are cooking a three to four pound HOF, there is much less waste and shrinkage, so buy 1/2 pound or more for each person.
The HOF is practically pure muscle and has little marbling which is what makes meat tender and juicy. Most people who buy it are making pot roast by simmering it for hours in liquid. But you want the Texas taste, right? If you must do a HOF, then try really really hard to get Certified Angus, USDA Choice, USDA Prime, or even Wagyu beef. They have better marbling. Choose a thick HOF, look for marbling and uniform thickness so one edge won't dry out. If the meat is not on a plastic tray and you can flex it, select one that is floppy. The technique for cooking a small hunk is pretty much the same as cooking a packer.
Nothin' but controversy
As with anything barbecue, there is controversy surrounding brisket. Pitmasters disagree on several major scores:
Meat grade? Beef is graded based on the age of the animal and the amount of fat marbling. Click here for more about beef grades. The more marbling, the better because fat makes the meat more tender, flavorful, and juicy. The most common grades, from lowest to highest are: USDA Select, USDA Choice, USDA Prime, and Wagyu. Choice or Prime are my favorite grades. Wagyu is well marbled and will be more juicy, so if you can find it, and if you can afford it, go for it. Most of the top competition teams are now using prime or Wagyu. But it is very expensive. But grade alone will not guarantee the meat will be tender. Brisket is just an ornery piece of meat and if you want it tender, you've got to work. Tasty is easy. Tender is not.
Trim? Let's get this straight, the thick fat cap does not penetrate the meat when it melts. I discuss this myth here. Some cooks like to leave the entire fat cap on the meat as insulation, trimming what remains before serving. This helps moderate the heat during cooking. Others trim most of it off before cooking, leaving a layer of 1/8" to 1/4", reasoning that spices and seasoning on the fat cap will never penetrate it and then it is wasted when you trim off the fat at the table. Some even remove much of the fat layer between the two muscles. I trim the cap to 1/4" or less. It helps seal in moisture and, after it shrinks to about 1/8" during cooking, most people will not trim it off. Also, while slicing, some of the melted fat will run down across the meat making it shiny and juicy.
Rub? Before it is cooked, many of the best Texas barbecue joints simply use "Dalmatian rub": Liberal amounts of Morton's kosher salt and coarsely cracked black pepper. For them, stylin' is to add some cayenne and garlic powder to the rub. Some leave it on the meat overnight in the fridge, but others just season the meat and toss it on the pit. Leaving it on overnight is a good technique because the salt will start to penetrate. The other spices won't but you want that NaCl flavor amplifier down in there where it can also help the proteins retain moisture. On the competition circuit many cooks use a complex secret concoction of herbs and spices that give a little spark to the bark, the flavorful crust that forms after all that cooking. I salt it the night before with 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat, thicker on the point than the flat. Then I apply my Big Bad Beef Rub while the smoker is heating up, about an hour before cooking. This approach is discussed in my article on the Science of Rubs.
Slather? You can put a rub right on bare meat, or you can help it stick by moistening the meat with a little water, or you can put down a slather of mustard or ketchup, or you can use cooking oil. I usually use water.
My experience that slathers make little or no difference in the final outcome. Mustard is water, vinegar, and maybe white wine (all mostly water) with mustard powder mixed in. The amount of mustard powder is so small that by the time the water steams off and drips away, the mustard powder remaining is miniscule. If you want a mustard flavor, you will do much better by simply sprinkling it on the meat. I usually use water beacuse the components of the rub dissolve better in water than oil. Far more important is what is in the rub than under the rub. So use whatever you want for a slather.
Pump? Many competition cooks like to inject brisket with an internal marinade by using large hypodermics and other gimcracks. These "pumps" add moisture, break down tough fibers, and add flavor. Many of the champs have been injecting the meat with a product called Fab B Light or Butcher BBQ Brisket Marinade, both moisturizers, tenderizers, and flavor enhancers. Fab B contains hydrolyzed soy protein, vegetable oil, sodium phosphates, monosodium glutamate, autolyzed yeast extract, xanthan gum, disodium inosinate, and guanylate. Butcher contains hydrolyzed vegetable protein (hydrolyzed soy and corn protein and salt, with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil [cottonseed, soybean] added), monosodium glutamate, sodium phosphate, and xanthan gum. Some traditionalists think this is way too Barry Bonds and are repulsed by the idea. The results speak for themselves. They are winning. A lot. If you choose to inject and don't want all the chemicals, don't use anything very flavorful, just plain beef broth. In most recipes I specify low sodium broth, but actually the saltier version is better in this case. It is like brining and the salt helps retain moisture as well as enhances flavor. Insert the needle parallel to the grain so it doesn't leave tracks in the finished meat. Click here for more on injecting and injectors.
Fat cap up or down, on or off? The argument is as old as Texas. I asked my beef consultant, Dr. Antonio Mata, a meat scientist and a former Consulting Technical Coordinator to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, if fat will melt and penetrate the muscle fibers. His reply was simple and unequivocal. "No way." I asked him to elaborate. "The fibers are packed too close for large fat molecules to squeeze in. Since about 75% of the muscle is made of water, and oil and water don't mix, it is just going to melt and run off." Click here for more on the subject of fat caps.
This melting is called rendering. We know that rendered fat can run over bare muscle, basting it, but little will go to the underside of the meat. Most of it will just run down the sides and drip off. So the only basting is on the sides.
- We know that all the fat does not render during cooking.
- We know that rub applied to a thick fat cap will not contact the meat because the fat is a barrier. If the fat cap is very thin some might get through.
- We know that warm fat with spice rub is yummy.
- We know that the fat can inhibit moisture loss from evaporation and since the stall is caused by evaporation, a fat cap can slow the onset of the stall and help you speed through it.
- We know that bark will not form on fat because bark is mostly dried surface meat.
- We know that when cooking with heat directly below, as with a Weber Smokey Mountain or Kamado, the fat can absorb heat and protect meat from drying out.
- We know that diet conscious diners will trim thick layers of fat if the meat is served on a plate and not on a sandwich. That means the rub will be removed. They may leave a thin layer on.
- We know that when cooking two meats, one above the other, the fat can drip down and baste the meat below. We know that beans that sit below melting fat are magical.
- We know that a small fat cap will run down over the meat as it is cut adding flavor.
So what's the right thing to do? I say, trim most of the fat but leave a thin layer, less than 1/4", so that diners will not remove it and the rub, and I put it between the heat and the meat, often with beans underneath. Sometimes I even flip the meat midway through the cook just so nobody can win the argument.
Separate the two muscles? The point end is more heavily marbled than the flat and it can be twice as thick as the other end, so by the time it is properly cooked the thin end is dry. Some cooks remove the point layer by working a knife through the fat layer that runs between the flat and point. They cook both muscles side by side rather than one on top of the other. Since the flat is a pretty even thickness, it cooks more evenly with only a little bit on the ends overcooking. The overcooked parts can be chopped and mixed with sauce for chopped brisket sandwiches, fajitas, mixed with beans, etc. By cooking the flat separately you get beautiful symmetrical sandwich slices with a smoke ring all around.
Separating the muscles doubles the surface area and creates more bark. It can also speed up cooking, knocking about 1/3 of the time off the time for cooking a whole packer. If you separate the muscles and remove most of the fat, on a 13 pound packer you can expect about 5 pounds of flat, 4 pounds of point, and four pounds of trim.
Cooking temp? Many competitors swear that low and slow, around 225°F for 18 to 20 hours for a whole packer, is necessary to make the meat tender and juicy. Legendary "Barbecue King", Walter Jetton, Lyndon Johnson's caterer, advocated cooking brisket at 275°F and up. John Fullilove of Smitty's Market confesses that he cranks the heat over 300°F and knocks out his briskets in as little as 8 hours. I have seen competitors take home big prize checks with brisket cooked at 350°F. The bottom line is that cooking temp seems to be less important than other factors. But because it is hard to make brisket tender, I advocate for low and slow until you have mastered the techniques and are certain that your meat source and method is superior. I cook at 225°F.
Mop? A lot of cooks like to keep their meat wet by mopping it with a baste. They say the mop replaces moisture that evaporates. Others say mops cool the meat and slow the cooking. The AmazingRibs.com science advisor, Prof. Greg Blonder has proven that wet meat holds more smoke, so mopping or spritzing with water, beef broth, or apple juice will yield a smokier brisket. But it also cools the meat and slows cooking, allowing more time for melting connective tissues. Mopping with flavored liquids has no significant impact on taste. There just aren't enough taste molecules in apple juice or beer to change the taste. Not like a sprinkle of a spice. Click here to read my article on basting.
Crutch? The Texas Crutch is a technique for speeding the cooking and moisturizing the meat. The concept is that you smoke for a few hours, and when the meat hits about 150°F, wrap it tightly in heavy-duty foil or untreated butcher paper (never plastic wrap) and let it braise and steam in its own juices in the crutch in the cooker. Some folks wrap at 150°F, others when the stall kicks in, others when the color looks right to them.
If you don't wrap, when the meat hits about 150°F moisture rises to the surface and cools the meat by evaporation, like sweat on an athlete. The meat then sits there stuck at 150 to 160°F for up to 5 hours. This stall is a maddening point in the process when the meat seems like it is stuck. The temp just doesn't rise for hours at a time. This is freaky and a lot of novices panic when it happens. Many people think the stall is cased by melting fat or collagen. It is not. Click here to learn more about the stall.
The down side of wrapping is that the foil softens the crusty bark. You can overcome that by placing the meat over high heat for about 10 minutes per side just before slicing. I think wrapping in foil and holding in a faux cambro is essential for tender juicy brisket. More on this below.
You do not need to do this. If you don't you'll end up with a firmer crust, but you risk slightly drier and tougher meat. Brisket is the only meat I crutch. In competitions, all the teams crutch their brisket as well as pork shoulder and ribs. I think the impact of wrapping is major on brisket, minor on the other meats.
Purists say wrapping is not traditional. Spare me. Cooking with charcoal in a steel tube is not traditional either. You want tradition? Go dig a pit.
The next controversy over the crutch is whether you should wrap in butcher paper or foil. Brisket master Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin uses untreated pink butcher paper like this. Click here to order some from Amazon if you want to try it.
In this video he and John Markus, a top competitor. playwrite, and producer of the original Barbecue Pitmasters TV show cook three briskets side by side: No wrap, foil, and butcher paper. The differences were subtle.
My experience is that without wrapping you get the best bark, more smoke, and most intense flavors. Wrapping in foil makes a moister meat with a hint of pot roast, and a soft bark, but it can cut 2 hours off the cooking time. Wrapping in paper custs about an hour off cooking time, lets some moisture escape but traps most of the rendered fat, and tastes very much like the foil wrapped version. Bottom line, the differences are very subtle. And fears of destroying the bark are overblown. If you have a good bark when you wrap, most of it will survive.
When is it done? Steaks from along the back of the animal are done at 130 to 135°F, at which they are most tender and juicy. But that muscle is more tender and juicy because it doesn't have to work hard. The brisket, the pectorals, get a lot more work and have a lot more tough connective tissue that needs to be softened, so you just can't take it off at the same temps as steaks. For more on this dichotomy, read my article on meat science.
Old time pitmasters say brisket is done when it is done. They say you really can't tell by temperature. Each brisket is different. They can tell when it is ready by feel. Some talk about a gelatinous bounce it has when they poke it because the connective tissues have melted. They call it the "wabba wabba" point. Others stick a fork in the side of the flat and twist. If it turns easily, it is ready. Yes, that's where the expression "stick a fork in it" came from. "Fast Eddy" Maurin says he waits until it is "as soft as buttah."
The rest of us have to rely on temperature, and despite their bravado, the top pitmasters on the competition circuit all use digital thermometers to help them. A lot will depend on the quality of the meat, how moist the air is in the cooker, if you injected, and how long you crutched. I've heard skilled cooks tell me every number from 195 to 205°F. A lot of top competitors swear by 203°F, and I have noticed that something magic does seem to happen at around this number. At this temp, the thermometer probe glides in effortlessly, like buttah (once it gets through the bark). If it never gets tender, pull it off before goes above 205°F.
Holding? Then it comes off the cooker and it gets wrapped in foil and sits in a faux cambro, an insulated box like a beer cooler, for 1 to 4 hours. Holding helps tenderize by allowing some carryover cooking which helps melt tough connective tissue. The foil also captures natural jus for use in a sauce, and holding the meat allows the surface parts that have dried out during cooking to absorb some of the juices. This is not the same as resting a steak or other meats, which I do not recommend. Holding is also a great fudge factor that lets you take the meat off when it is ready and hold it until the guests are ready.
Slicing? Controversy also reigns over slicing. The target temp used by many pitmasters is about 140°F before they slice! Brisket is easier to chew if you cut it perpendicular to the grain. Cut with the grain and it can be stringy and chewy. The problem is that there are two muscles, the flat and the point, and the grains run in different directions. Most folks slice from the thicker, point end into about 1/8" to 1/4" thick slices. Some folks run a knife through the fat layer between the point and flat and separate them and slice each separately. Some folks cut off the flat where the point meats it and then they rotate it so the cut is on the side and they slice through the point and flat from the side. See the sidebar for photos of how Barry Sorkin of Smoque BBQ in Chicago slices his incredible succulent brisket. That's the way I do it.
Sauce? To some people, it's not barbecue unless it has a sweet red sauce on it. Not to Texans. "In Texas we celebrate great brisket by not messing with it," says Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue critic for Texas Monthly. "If it's done right then you slice it pencil thick and slap it on a piece of butcher paper. It's naked, quivering and vulnerable, so it has to stand on its own." In some places a thin decidedly not-sweet, tomato-y gravy-like jus is tolerated.
Competition brisket. One of these days we'll do a whole article about how the top teams cook brisket. They go to extremes to make it look pretty and make the one bite the judges take extraordinary. For a glimpse, click here to download from iTunes Greg Rempe's BBQ Central podcast on the subject with a panel of three top competition cooks.
Cooking more than one. I frequently get asked how to handle cooking two briskets (or more) or a shoulder and a brisket, or a shoulder, brisket, ribs, and a muskrat. The answer is here, in my article on Cooking More Than One Large Hunk 'O Meat
If you have leftovers that you will not be able to scarf down in a few days, mix the leftovers with a bit of barbecue sauce or the jus from the Texas Crutch if it is not too salty, and freeze everything in zipper bags or vacuum bags. The sauce prevents freezer burn. Pop one in the microwave and you've got a great emergency meal for two.
Brisket the following day is best reheated in the microwave a small amount at a time. But it will be a bit drier and tougher than the first day, so bring back some life with a splash of water, apple juice, Texas Crutch jus, or barbecue sauce. The best method is in the microwave, second best is to heat it slowly in a pot with the lid on.
Here's are some other ideas for leftover brisket:
- Cottage Pie (like Shepherd's Pie but with beef instead of lamb). Probably the best thing I've ever done with leftover brisket is a variation on Cottage Pie. This classic Irish peasant casserole was a hearty meal for farmers, often served midday. There are hundreds of variations on the theme, but it is essentially meat and potatoes in two layers. Here's the core concept: Brown veggies and cubes of beef in a deep pan or casserole. Whup up some mashed potatoes, and pile them on top. Put them in the oven and bake. So here's what I did: On Sunday I did brisket and garlic mashed. I browned carrots, celery, onion, and frozen peas, and then tossed in cubes of leftover brisket, some of the jus that was in the foil when I did my Texas Crutch (not too much, it's strong stuff), and some beef stock leftover from the last time I did a Prime Rib (beef broth will do). Topped them with about 2" of leftover garlic mashed. Painted the top with butter, sprinkled on some parmesan cheese and bread crumbs, and baked the whole shootin' match in the oven until the top was brown. OMG. Substitute lamb and you've gopt Shepherd's Pie.
- Brisket enchiladas. Slow's Bar-B-Q in Detroit is famous for their brisket enchiladas. They are made by sautéing onions, tossing in some sliced brisket and a splash of hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and their house secret sauce. They then dump it on a tortilla, top it with grated smoked gouda cheese, roll it up, grate some American cheese on top, and give it a squirt of hot sauce for good measure.
- Stir fry. Believe it or not, leftover brisket is great in a Chinese stir-fry with onions, carrots, broccoli, and a soy/sesame oil/hoisin sauce with a splash of hot sauce on a bed of rice.
- Hash. John R. Crowley in Denver says he likes to chop leftovers up in beans or fry it up in some hash.
- On scrambled eggs or salads. Bill Martin likes his leftovers chopped up in scrambled eggs and on top of a salad.
- Italian beef sandwiches. Lucy Baker says "Make Italian beef-style sandwiches with very cooked (limp) green and red bell peppers, onion, and a little Italian seasoning. Reheat the beef in broth and spoon over crusty bread before adding the beef and peppers. Yikes!"
- Quesadillas. Merrill Powers in Elmhurst, Illinois, makes quesadillas with his leftovers.
- Chili. Dave Frary makes chili with his leftovers.
- Burritos. Danny Gaulden makes burritos.
- I don't know what to call this but I want to eat it. Rodney Leist from Elfrida, Arizona, kills several different leftovers in one dish. He puts one of those single serving bags of corn chips in a bowl, adds a big scoop of leftover chopped brisket, a similar amount of leftover smoked sausage, and a similar amount of beans. On goes some leftover sauce, chopped onions, chopped jalapeños, and grated cheese. The whole thing gets heated in the microwave.
- Trade bait. Buzz Dean of in Wisconsin, says he takes his leftovers to the pub and trades it for beer!