10 Tips for cooking the best brisket

How to select, season, smoke, and slice Texas’ signature meat

photo by Bradley Robinson (@chudsbbq)
  1. Trim it into a nice shape. From some purveyors, briskets can come small, large, scalped, mounded in fat, different, weird, and everything in between. The trick is to get them all into a consistent shape to be cooked in one group on the same pit and to have a consistent slice on the carving block. Many common mistakes in brisket cooks come from trimming alone. If fat is left on certain places, some of the best slices can be ruined, and all that time, work, and wood will have been wasted. Trimming a brisket is a distinct skill that takes practice, but will eventually become a robotic task you can even do with your eyes closed.
  2. Season it simply. We use our LeRoy and Lewis Dalmatian Rub which is just a 2:1 ratio of 16 Mesh Ground Black Pepper from Souther Style Spices to Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. The granules are similar in size and stick to the brisket well, helping us create our signature bark. We don’t use any binders or anything on our meat except salt, pepper, and smoke.
  3. Maintain an even heat. We cook our briskets at 275–300F for about 8 hours before wrapping and about 4–5 hours after wrapping. We cook on a retired 500 gallon propane tank converted to an offset wood burning smoker. Smaller offset cookers can cook a little bit lower with similar time results because of the smaller cook chamber. Larger pits can hum along at 300+ with no ill effects on the meat inside. The best way to maintain an even heat (and a hot enough fire to cook our briskets) is by keeping a lot of oxygen flowing to our fire. When building our fire, breaking it down to coals, re-stacking the flaming logs, and adding more fresh logs, we’re always looking to maintain a lot of air space between the logs for oxygen to flow and the natural draw of the smoker to work through.
  4. Look for color changing. During the cooking process, a brisket will change its color and shape as it takes on smoke, renders fat, and looses water weight. First it will turn a light then darker mahogany color, then brown, then dark brown, then almost black.
  5. Wrap it at the right time. Once it turns almost black the brisket will start to sweat and sparkle as fat renders from the top and cascades down the craggy bark. Once this happens and the brisket reaches an internal temp of 165–175F in the the center of the flat, it’s time to wrap the brisket in tried and true L&L Foil Boat Method.
  6. Wrap it in a foil boat. Make a horizontally extended foil cross with two perpendicular pieces of aluminum foil. The horizontal one about two feet and the vertical one about eighteen inches. Place the brisket horizontally on top of the cross and crimp the foil outward along the edges of the brisket until it has formed a nice, tight to the body, foil boat. This allows the top fat cap of the brisket to get crisped during the higher heat of the finish while the lean stays moist in its own residual juices. The boat also allows us to move briskets around easier as the outward crimps create semi-insulated handles for our briskets.
  7. Pull it off when it’s tender. All briskets cook a little differently. Some finish to tenderness at a perfect 203, some read that internally but still feel tight to the touch. Some others may feel tender to the touch and finish at 200. The point is that we (and the person who eats your brisket) judge tenderness based on feel (mouth-feel in the eater’s case). A tough brisket takes extra effort to chew through and manipulate in the mouth. A tender brisket slice will yield to gentle pressure and not just fall completely apart. That’s what we’re looking for in a final brisket. Another benefit of the foil boat is that it allows us to check the tenderness of our briskets better than through multiple layers of paper. We can feel with our fingers the exact tenderness of the meat and know exactly when it’s tender enough to pull off. We’re looking for the ability to just barely separate the meat fibers of the flat with our fingers. If we can penetrate the bottom with a gentle poke, it’s ready. If not, it’s not. We also check for tenderness at the tip and each side of the brisket before pulling it off the pit to confirm proper tenderness.
  8. Give it a long rest. The most repeated question we get about barbecue (not just brisket) is a version of this: “Explain the long rest.” We have to understand that first we can only keep meat for service in the danger zone (40–140F) for four hours. Second, is that a long rest will redistribute all of the juices and fat within the meat and make the brisket hold onto that moisture instead of it escaping into the air as steam and onto the cutting board as drippings. To reconcile these two facts, we want to rest it long but we have to rest it above 140 to keep it safe to eat. This is done at barbecue restaurants in cabinet warmers or proofers or even the pit itself. It can be done at home in a low oven or a cooler, just as long as it doesn’t go below 140 for more than 4 hours. If my home oven only went to 200 at its lowest setting, I would play around with the temperature at which I pulled the brisket off the smoker. A less done (not quite tender) brisket rested at 200 will end up at the same tenderness as a slightly more “finished” and fully tender brisket rested at 150+. Generally, the higher the rest temp, the lower the pull temp and vice versa. Use your own equipment and figure out what works best. The main rule we go by when resting a brisket is that once it is cool enough to hold indefinitely on the bottom with a single layer of disposable glove, it is cool enough to cut. If a brisket is too hot to hold, it’s too hot to cut.
  9. Don’t mess it up on the carving block. The last thing we want to do after all the work and investment of cooking a brisket is to cut it wrong and ruin the eating experience. We slice our briskets first in half horizontally to separate the point from the flat. Then we slice the flat parallel to the first cut in about 1/4" thick slices. When slicing, we use a 12" serrated bread knife and the cutting stroke is similar to cutting a loaf of bread. Use long strokes and very little downward pressure to get through the crust, then a couple quick strokes to get through the meat with slightly more pressure, and finally, drag the tip of the knife on the board to make sure all the strands of meat are fully cut. We slice the point perpendicular to our first cut in 1/3" slices, just a little thicker than the lean slices. We like to shingle them on a Two Meat Plate or a big barbecue tray garnished with sides, sauce, pickles, and bread.

Chef/Pitmaster from Austin, Texas

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