Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pit Talk: How to smoke a great backyard brisket

Without a doubt, one of the hardest things to cook perfectly is brisket.

Despite all the articles, books and videos out there telling you how to do it, there is no magic to the process.

You need tremendous patience and you need to know the specific characteristics of your pit. That takes practice and experience. The more you cook, the better you'll be.

The approach may sound simple and straightforward, but getting there is not.

Here are my 10 essential steps to smoking a backyard brisket on an offset, log-burning pit. Some of the techniques may work for other types of smokers, such as a Weber Smokey Mountain, but not all.

1. Start with a good piece of meat. Find a source that sells Choice or Choice Black Angus, not Select.

2. Trim the fat to 1/4 inch, plus/minus, so it will render down along with the rub and get into the meat.

3. Pick your favorite commercial rubs and spices. There's a million of them out there. Some people apply the rub several hours before cook time. Some grind their spices in a coffee grinder for better consistency. Some even add a finishing rub -- midway through or near the end of cooking -- to enhance flavor.

4. Fire your pit. It's best to build a small fire that breathes well by placing the logs crossing one another. Cooking temperature will depend somewhat on your pit and personal preference. Many cook at 225-250 degrees, which is a good range for basic, low-and-slow backyard barbecue. At that temperature, a 12-pound brisket could take 15 hours, plus/minus. Others cook hotter and faster if their pits are designed to not burn the meat from radiant heat. Keep the fire from smoldering by maintaining a small burning flame. A smoldering fire produces creosote which ruins the natural flavors of the meat and rub.

5. Place the meat on the cooking grate in the sweet spot of the pit -- where the temperature is most even -- away from the firebox and radiant heat.

6. Keep the pit as steady as you can at the target cooking temp. Here we assume somewhere in the range of 225 degrees to 250 degrees. AND do not open the cook doors for the first 4-5 hours PERIOD.

7. At the 4-5 hour mark, check the brisket and evaluate the color and bark and determine if it looks like it's had enough smoke. Wrap the brisket in foil when you think it's color and bark are where you want it. Dark mahogany-reddish brown with some black works for me. Return wrapped brisket to the sweet spot on the pit.

8. Knowing when the brisket is done is a very crucial step. BE PATIENT! Do not try to cook a brisket based only on time. You can roughly estimate when a brisket will be done by allowing 45 minutes to 75 minutes per pound  when cooking at 250 degrees and wrapping in foil after 4-5 hours. But ambient temperature, wind, humidity and composition of the meat tissue all are factors in how fast, or slow, a brisket cooks.

To really nail the finish, use some or all of the following tests:

--Use a good handheld temp probe like a Thermapen. Briskets "usually" become butter tender at 198-202 degrees, plus/minus. But not always. They might get tender at a lower temp, say 185, or a higher temp, 210, depending on the composition of the meat.

-- Don't rely on temp alone. Use the probe to test resistance in the meat, too. If the probe slips in and out of the flat,  or lean, end of the brisket and the thick, fatty end, or point, without any resistance, that's what you're looking for: Butter tender.

--Using heat resistant gloves, develop your sense of touch for when a brisket feels like it's done. When it's still in foil, press it with a finger. There should be some give. Lift the wrapped brisket off the grate. If it's still stiff, it's not done. It should be very floppy.

--Once you think it's done, use your eyes to make sure. Partially unwrap the brisket. It should have a floppy consistency like jello when it's still hot. After the brisket cools it will lose this jello consistency.

9. When the brisket is butter tender, you're still not done. Unwrap it and place it back on the pit at a lower temp, say 175-200, and let it rest for an hour or two. Some people skip this step and rest the brisket in an ice chest for a couple of hours wrapped in towels. Just don't let the meat continue cooking and steaming itself or it will dry out and lose flavor. Letting the brisket rest in the pit unwrapped at a lower temp will help firm up the bark and prevent the meat from drying out.

10. After resting in the pit, pull the brisket off and let it rest tented in foil for another hour or so. This allows the meat to cool and the juices to stabilize. You could pour a cup or so of the au jus on the meat at this point which will soak back into the meat. Now you're ready to carve and eat.

Follow the steps above and you should, with some practice, wind up with damn good brisket. Enjoy.

Photos and story by Marshall Cooper


  1. Great article, Marshall. You have given me a couple of things to try as I am one who is trying to perfect BBQ on a selection of Weber Smoky Mountains. The big thing about the WSM is, while I can maintain temperatures anywhere from 225 – 275 degrees (or higher), the fire is directly under the meat. I have cooked with water in the water pan and with the water pan empty with good results.

    I use Kingsford Charcoal because that is what I have always used. I know how it burns and when to start thinking about the need to add more coals. Others use lump charcoal. I have nothing against lump, it just that I have no experience with it. I also use chunks of Hickory, Oak, or Pecan and sometimes combined with a chunk of Apple or Cherry wood. The last brisket I cooked I used a nice piece of Pecan wood that I friend had cleared off his property and the brisket was fantastic.

    I put the brisket on the top grate fat side up for the first four hours. At the four hour mark I turn the brisket fat side down mainly to help prevent the bottom from burning due to the fire being directly under the meat. At this point I insert a probe thermometer and look for a temperature of 165 prior to wrapping. I keep monitoring the thermometer until I get a temperature somewhere (generally) between 195 and 200 degrees. At that point I open the foil and cook the brisket a little longer in order for the bark to firm up. After the bark has had a chance to firm up I wrap the whole thing up in a moving blanket and put it in a cooler. After one hour I separate the point from the flat. The flat gets wrapped back up and put back in the cooler. The point gets made in to burnt ends if I can keep peoples fingers out of it long enough.

    As you mentioned, cooking a brisket takes patience and allowing enough time for the meat to be done. I don’t like to leave the cooked brisket wrapped up more than a couple of hours although it can be held longer.

    For some time now I have been taking detailed notes of each cook and I transcribe those notes to an Excel spreadsheet. These notes include, but are not limited to, the size of the brisket, which WSM I am using, the temperature of the cooker at various times, the temperature of the meat at various times, the outside temperature, and the weather condition. I have a pretty comprehensive history of the briskets I have cooked and the techniques that seem to work that those that didn’t work. From this history I have a pretty good idea of how long certain sizes of brisket will take to cook during various time of the year using various cooking strategies. It has proved to be quite helpful.

    What all this has done is turn me into a brisket snob. I haven't found a BBQ restaurant in the fair city of Gainesville, FL that can produce moist, tender brisket. Most often it is dry and, on occasion, it is mush. It’s not cost effective for them to man a cooker for 15 – 20 hours to produce a good piece of meat. They would rather “set it and forget it.”

    My friends seem to like my brisket; however, by the time they get around to complementing me about my “Q” they have generally had a drink or twelve and use phrases like “man, this is really good sh*t!” This leads me to wonder if the 15 – 20 hours I spent cooking the brisket was worth it ;)

    1. Dude...try the lump!!!

  2. Swanny Q! Nice report on using the WSM. . .I've got the small Smokey Mountain that I use for ribs. Great machine. Using a rack that stacks the rib racks on their sides, what really amazes me is that I don't have to touch them during the entire 5-6 hour cook (at 225 degrees, ribs brined beforehand). The racks on the outside get done a little earlier, but just pull em off, foil 'em and keep 'em warm...

  3. Gary, I too have had great result with ribs using a couple of techniques Mr. Cooper was kind enough to share. I use the rib racks and recently began stacking an additional two 18.5 top grill grates upside down (the handles are pointing down)on each other for a total of three cooking grates allowing me to lay three to six St. Louis racks bone side down for the six hour cook.

    Love the site here. On my bucket list is a tour of Texas BBQ joints. My original plan had me out near Lockhart. Now it seem I may have to work Austin in to the mix.

    1. Yes, don't miss Austin...And, nice stacking trick with the grill grates to increase capacity.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I've tried this blog several times and if you go by each step you'll have damn good brisket. The key is (Very floppy) you don't need no damn meat thermometer. Patience!

  5. So im a newbie here. Doing my first ever brisket to surprise my hubby ;) Do I not flip it at all in the smoking phase? Bc it said dont open the doors for any reason. Thanks guys!! Wish me luck!

    1. Flip once You get the color you want on both sides. Remember to wrap in foil, and add some beef broth Inside the foil.

  6. Im a newbie here. I am making my first brisket ever as a surprise for my hubby. This post is sooooo helpful! I just was wondering, I dont flip it at all in the smoking phase? I read not to open the doors for any reason during this time, so im guessing no? Thanks guys!

  7. That's correct Bonnie, always leave the brisket fat side up & cook low & slow. Good luck!

  8. Oh great! Thank you so much!! Im excited about this! Lol! Its a half of a huge brisket. So its only like 5 lb. Still 4 hrs or so before wrapping? I have my temp at a pretty steady 240.

  9. The rule of thumb is usually 1 hour per pound, but you might want to go 3 hours unwrapped, then wrap for three hours. It's a lot easier to undercook a brisket than to overcook one.....

  10. ** The techniques above work on an offset stick burner and I have not tried them on other pit types. Yes you can flip the brisket after 2-6 hours and obtain a complete smoke ring. Spritz with water every 45-60 minutes and the smoke ring will grow and get fat. Learn to cook by feel and looks, not time. Cook hot & fast (300-375f) using Prime or Wagyu briskets if it works for your pit ...Marshall Cooper

  11. Low and slow. You CAN speed up a brisket after it's been properly smoked(roughly 4-5 hours), but starting at 300-375 means that you're not from Texas ;) We know a thing or two about brisket here. I'd say get your smoke and you can keep it fat side up in an aluminum drip pan(thus removing the need for injections or beef broth or any of that nonsense) and cover it. At this point, you can then add a little heat and you will still retain the proper moisture. Take off at 195-205 roughly and you're good to go. I finished a 10lb brisket in about 8 hours using this method and the knife fell through the meat like it was hot butter.

  12. Great Blog Post!!

    I like your informative info and their technique for smoke meat. I aspect all crazy family try to cook food or enjoy with delicious food.

    Thanks for sharing..

    Smoking Meat Made Easy