If you held a gun to my head and delivered the ultimatum to me in the guise of a question of, “If you could only cook one food in the realm of barbecue for the rest of your life, what would it be?”, the subjective answer of mine is brisket.
The first time I ever tasted a smoked beef brisket cooked by someone at their home, and not at a restaurant, was in 2016. It was sitting in a foil pan, and it was chopped brisket, almost shredded. It sat in a mix of beef broth and juices from the meat itself. It was served for breakfast with biscuits. I ate mine on one of those said biscuits with a little bit of mayonnaise. Unconventional, but it was delicious. At that point in 2016, I had little to no knowledge about barbecue. If you have read my past posts, you will know that before 2016 my idea of barbecue was, well, barbecue sauce. I cannot emphasize how ignorant I was.
When I received my first smoker in December 2016, which was a used vertical Brinkmann Trailmaster stick burner smoker, I had brisket on my brain in terms of ideas of what I wanted to try smoking in the future, and so I hopped on Google and devoured all the information I could on how to smoke a brisket.
In that research, I learned that ‘chopped’ brisket was a variation of cooking it to the point of it being overcooked by traditional barbecue standards. I discovered that it was supposed to be sliced, and for the brisket to be considered true smoked beef brisket, that it would have to ‘pass the bend test’ as the slices would have to ‘fold’ over your finger when you hold it up, and furthermore, it would need to pass the ‘pull test’ where you take a slice of brisket and slightly pull it apart as it breaks into two pieces while still maintaining its sliced form, proving tenderness.
Nonetheless, I did not smoke my first brisket until September 2017, and by that time I had been using my 22.5” Weber Smokey Mountain cooker since June of that year. A whole packer, which is what one calls a full brisket featuring its two parts – the point and the flat – in the barbecue world, was on my radar, but I was cautious. Before I continue, I want to mention that the point is the ‘fatty’ part of the brisket, often used to make burnt ends, and the flat is the learner part of the brisket.
I was daunted. When I was researching how to properly smoke a brisket, I discovered that it was allegedly the toughest food to properly cook in the barbecue world, and it served as some sort of litmus test for all true pitmasers.
With that said, when I smoked my first brisket, it was a four or five pound flat from Sam’s Club. On that day in September 2017, I was smoking a host of items in my WSM, from a head of cabbage with butter and Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning (so good, by the way!) to potatoes and a pork butt for a family dinner.
Somehow, I managed to cook it just right, and my family loved it.
My confidence skyrocketed, and just a few weeks later in October 2017, I bought a 12-lb. whole packer brisket from Wal-Mart. This time, instead of starting early in the morning like I did with the first brisket flat, I wanted to cook this one overnight. I started it at around 9 p.m. in my WSM with a mix of Kingsford charcoal briquettes, hickory and applewood.
When I woke up at 8 a.m. the following day, my WSM was still running at around 220-225 degrees, and the brisket was reading 180 degrees on my meat thermometer. Here is where I made a mistake: I wrapped it in foil and placed it back into the WSM. Now, the foiling of the brisket was not the mistake, but what I subsequently chose to do surely was. After another two hours in the pit, the brisket had not reached the internal temp of 200-202 like I was hoping for, so I removed it and placed it in my oven on 375 degrees. Yes, I really did that, and now I’m cringing.
Placing the brisket at that temperature in the oven wouldn’t have been the downfall if I had left it in there for a short amount of time, but it was in the oven for over an hour and a half, and when I removed it, I immediately opened the foil and sliced it up. Guess what? It was stringy. I made pulled brisket. I was so upset. After doing so well with the brisket flat, with this whole packer I failed. Now, was it still delicious? Absolutely. It was smokey, rich with flavor and tender, but that isn’t how I wanted to cook it. I made pulled brisket sandwiches that day, and the next day I made brisket chili with the leftovers. Not all was lost, but I learned a lesson on that day.
You can’t truly hurry barbecue. Sure, you can wrap meats in foil – the ‘Texas Crutch’ method – and speed up the cooking process, but speaking of a process, that is exactly what barbecue is. I rushed this brisket and threw it in the oven at a high temperature to hurry it along, and I overcooked it.
Nowadays, I smoke my briskets in one of my Barrel House Cookers, hot’n’fast style. I will hang them in the BHCs until they reach an internal temperature of 160-165 degrees, wrap them in foil, re-hang them in the cooker and let it roll until I hit 198-202 degrees and remove it afterwards for a lengthy (one to four hours) rest in a cooler, wrapped in a towel.
Rest Your Brisket
That is the biggest key to smoking a great brisket. Resting it. Perhaps you thought my long-windedness was going to arrive to the conclusion of, ‘not hurrying it along,’ which is also important, but notice when I was describing my failure above, I immediately opened the foil and began to cut the brisket up. When you rest a brisket, you allow the juices – that would otherwise rapidly leak on out of the meat, along with the steam from the heat, causing the meat to dry up – to thicken and release more slowly, resulting in a juicy brisket.
Furthermore, resting a brisket allows the collagen within the meat to soften and become gelatin. The fat further renders. The product itself is simply better.
I have smoked at least thirty briskets since that fateful day in October 2017, and it still haunts me. Luckily, that has never happened again.
While I do smoke 99% of my briskets in one of my Barrel House Cookers these days, last May I did complete another overnight smoked brisket in my Weber Smokey Mountain, and this time it was a success. When I smoke up the morning after I began the cook, I wrapped the brisket in foil, added some more charcoal to my WSM, and allowed it to ride for a few hours until it hit 199 degrees internally. Afterwards, it rested in a cooler for over two hours. The results were much better than they were from that day in October 2017.
The key to smoking a great brisket: be patient, allow it to ride out for the full cook and yield it the proper time it needs to rest before you slice it up.