To put it into the simplest possible terms: Smoking beef brisket is nothing like making pulled pork. Making pulled pork is a perfect first project for the amateur slow-and-low outdoor chef; it’s incredibly forgiving, can be cooked at almost any speed and at any temperature, and it will turn out well. Not so with beef brisket. This, in a word, ain’t that. It’s a little more temperamental. Cook it too fast, or at too high a heat, and your only reward will be a huge chunk of meat more suited for re-shingling the house, than for feeding your family. When prepared well, though, there aren’t many items in the barbecue world that can compare: thin strips of tender beef that pull apart into a latticework when you try to tear it, the fat completely liquefied, with a thick, heavily seasoned bark on the outside the belies the delicate texture and rich flavor of the smoke-ringed interior. Hardcore pit masters can spend an entire career learning to get it just right. For those of you without that kind of time, here’s what we’ve learned so far.
Most guides for preparing a smoked brisket will tell you that you need something called a “Packer’s Cut,” which is a huge 12-16 pound slab, made up of both the “flat” and “point” parts of the brisket. The two pieces are divided by a thick layer of fat called a “fat cap,” with the texture of the flat a little firmer than the looser, almost chopped texture of the point. In my opinion, there are three downsides to using a “packer’s cut.”
The first is the time consideration. At an hour to an hour and a half per pound, smoking a 16 pound piece of meat requires a 24 hour time commitment that I find difficult to make. The second issue is that of waste; you lose about half the total weight of a whole brisket to the smoking process, and to trimming the meat, which means you are paying for meat that you won’t get to eat. The biggest problem for me, though, is that of availability. Most supermarkets don’t have “packer’s cuts” ready to go, and require a special order from a butcher. However, almost every decent meat department will have a brisket flat ready for purchase, and these can be smoked easily and with little waste.
When choosing your flat, look for a brisket that has a thick layer of white fat. This will make the brisket self-basting, and you won’t have to noodle with it too much once you get it in the smoker. Look for beef stamped “USDA CHOICE” or higher, if available, as it will have a little bit more fat marbling than “Select” -graded cuts. Also, look for flat cuts that are as evenly thick as possible. While all flats taper off to one side in thickness, avoid cuts that are very thin on one side. Brisket flats with a large fat cap intact can weight anywhere from 4-6 pounds.
There’s very little to do to a brisket flat in order to prepare it for the smoker. Take it out of its packaging, and trim any super thick fatty areas. The theory here is that your rub won’t ever manage to penetrate through the fat into the meat, anyway. You only need about 1/8 – 1/4 inch of fat for the brisket flat to stay moist, so trim any thicker areas of fat to that thickness. I also like to score the fat cap with a crosshatch, being careful not to let the knife penetrate into the meat itself.
The seasoning is entirely up to you. Salt and pepper work just fine, as do more elaborate rubs (our recipe follows). If you do use a rub, be generous; a brisket flat can absorb a good 3/4 cup of seasoning rub. Rub the meat all over with a ton of the seasoning the night before you’re going to cook it, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and throw it in the fridge to do its thing overnight.
About an hour before you are ready to start cooking, soak a bowl full of chunks of hickory in water. You want big chunks of hickory wood, not those little flavoring chips, and soaking them will keep them burning longer.
It’s also a good time to take your brisket out of the fridge, and remove it from the plastic wrap. Before loading it into the smoker, you want the meat to come up to nearly room temperature. This promotes the formation of a flavorful bark.
Twenty minutes before you’re ready to go, get your smoker going and brought up to 225 degrees. Five minutes before you’re ready to go, add a few chunks of your soaked hickory to the wood pan, and get it smoking. Line the drip tray of the smoker with foil, and fill it half full with apple cider. Load the brisket flat as far away from the flame as possible, fat-side-up so that the liquefying fat bastes the meat as it cooks.
On Tenderness and Doneness:
How does tough brisket become fork tender? It’s a question of turning the cut’s abundant connective tissue from collagen into gelatin, and the best way to do this is through slow cooking at a gentle, low temperature. Unlike smaller steaks which are considered “done” at 135 degrees, a brisket has to reach 190 degrees in order to be tender. That’s when a brisket is done. This isn’t something you can gauge by appearance or by touch; you’ll need to insert a meat thermometer through the side of the flat (not through the top) and when your brisket reaches 190 degrees, it’s time to pull it out of the smoker. Check the temperature of the smoker every hour or so, spraying the brisket with apple cider to keep the meat moist. When estimating time for a brisket flat, figure on about an hour per pound of meat.
After your brisket flat comes out of the smoker, it’s important to let it rest. Wrap it loosely in foil and let it sit for at least a half an hour before you try to slice it and serve it. If you like, you can scrape any remaining fat from the top of the flat, though I like it, and leave it on. Slice the brisket across the grain. The thickness depends on how tender the brisket turned out. Tougher briskets should be cut to about 1/8th of an inch, but brisket that’s falling apart can be sliced at a thickness of up to 1/2 an inch. Serve sliced with barbecue sauce on the side, or piled high onto a bun with sour pickles into a sandwich.
Smoked Beef Brisket with Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce
- 4 pound beef brisket flat, fat trimmed
- 1 1⁄2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 1⁄2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons mustard powder
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1⁄2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 quart apple cider
- 2 handfuls of hickory wood chunks
- 1 cup Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows)
The day before you are ready to cook: Remove brisket from store packaging, and trim fat to between 1/8 and 1/4 of an inch. Using a knife, cut thin slits in a crosshatch pattern on the fat, taking care not to cut through into the meat.
Combine all seasonings in a bowl, and toss a few times to combine. Rub generously all over the brisket, top and bottom. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove brisket from the fridge and unwrap, allowing the meat to come to room temperature before cooking, about one hour. While the brisket comes up to temperature, soak your hickory chunks in a bowl of water, and light the smoker. Bring the smoker to 225 degrees, and add soaked hickory. Line the drip pan with foil, and fill tray halfway with about a cup of the apple cider.
Load brisket fat side up into top rack of smoker, as far away from your heat source as possible.
Smoke for about four hours, checking the temperature of the smoker and basting the brisket with a spray bottle full of apple cider about every hour. After three hours, begin checking the internal temperature of the brisket about every 10 minutes, by inserting the probe of an instant-read meat thermometer through the side of the brisket flat. When the temperature reads 190 degrees, the brisket is done.
Remove from the smoker, wrap loosely in foil, and let rest at least a half an hour before slicing against the grain into 1/8 – 1/4 inch thick slices. Serve with barbecue sauce on the side.
Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce
Adapted from a recipe in Saveur
- 3 dried ancho chiles
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cups diced onion
- 7 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup ketchup
- 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 1/2 tablespoon dry mustard
- 2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Soak the anchos in very hot water for 15 minutes or until soft. Remove stems. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat, and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for 3 minutes, add the ketchup and anchos, and sauté for 4 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients and simmer gently for 40 minutes, stirring frequently. Transfer to a blender or food processor and purée, thinning with water as desired. Serve immediately.