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