Brisket is a tough and relatively inexpensive type of meat. It is the cut of meat used to make things like Pastrami, Corned Beef, and of course, Texas Style smoked brisket. It isn’t as simple as throwing on a grill and cooking like a steak, but with some time and effort, anyone can make amazing Texas Style brisket.
How to shop for a Brisket. Just about every supermarket and butcher shop sells a beef brisket. For Texas Style, we are looking at a full “Packer Style” untrimmed brisket, with both muscles intact. There are three grades of beef given by the USDA: Prime, Choice, and Select. You may also see beef labeled as CAB (Certified Angus Beef) which is essentially a high end choice cut. You may even fine an “American Wagyu” cut at times.
The biggest identifiable difference between all of these grades of meat is in the marbling. Marbling is what we call the small specks and streaks of fat scattered in the meat. The more heavily marbled beef is sought after and makes the meat more juicy, tender, and flavorful. Select has the lowest marbling, then choice, and Prime the highest. Consider American Wagyu a high end prime as well.
A “Packer Style” brisket means both muscles are still attached by a thick layer of deckle fat. The two different muscles of a brisket are commonly referred to as the “flat” and the “point.” The flat is where your lean slices of brisket will come from. The “point” is where the more “fatty” or “wet” slices come from. The “fat cap” side of the brisket covers the point and then extends over the flat. One tip when buying a brisket is to check the thickness of the flat towards the end of the brisket. You’ll notice some can be a bit more thin than others. Buy the thicker ones when possible, so won’t have to trim as much meat off.
Trimming The Brisket: Trimming a brisket is not as complicated as it sounds. The best tool for this is a simple boning knife which are generally inexpensive. The best tip for cutting your brisket is to do so immediately after pulling from the fridge and removing from the bag while it is still very cold. When the fat is cold, it is more firm and easier to cut with accuracy.
There are just four important elements to trimming a brisket. First, trim any weird shapes or random tissue on the sides of the brisket. I usually do this to simply smooth the sids from protruding pieces that will burn, and to round off the sides to make them aerodynamic for smoking in an offset smoker. This will also give an accurate look at how think the fat cap is all around the brisket. Second, I trim the fat cap down to make it about one quarter inch thick. This will leave a perfect amount of fat to render into the meat, keep it moist, and add flavor. Third, I flip the brisket and remove that long piece of hard deckle fat. Don’t worry about cutting too deep between the two muscles, but do cut out the hard piece that is protruding from the brisket. Finally, carefully remove the bits of silverskin from the flat.
Seasoning The Brisket: Brisket is generally moist enough not to need a binder like mustard, olive oil, etc. to hold a rub on it like ribs, pork, etc. For a simple Texas style brisket, all you need is:
- 2 oz coarse kosher salt
- 2 oz coarse ground pepper
That’s it. Coat the entire brisket moderately with the rub, and let it rest for a bit. You can do this the night before and put back in the fridge, or you can leave it out on the counter for a bit, even an hour, to warm it closer to room temperature. It will be ok.
Note: you can add a tablespoon of Garlic powder if you like. Some will also add an addition teaspoon of onion powder and chili powder. But true Texas Salt and Pepper is the best, and absolutely what you should use for your first attempt.
If you’re using a traditional offset smoker, put your rub on the “fat” side last, and that will be the side facing up during your cook.
Some Notes On Fire Management: Every brand and model of offset smoker is completely different, so it is not possible to give perfect advice here. Some pitmasters will start their cooks on a bed of red hot lump charcoal, and others will use a propane torch to ignite a stack of wood. But still, a few suggestions:
If you’re using charcoal, lump charcoal will produce less ash than briquettes. This will enable more oxygen for your fire, especially underneath.
Here is a tip to avoid that thick, smoldering, dirty smoke: Before adding wooden logs to the firebox, stick them on top of the firebox to hear them up. The hotter the log, the faster it ignites, and the cleaner the smoke will be.
For a true Texas style brisket, the most authentic wood to use is Post Oak, without a doubt. But, you may not have access to post oak, and really any type of Oak is a strong option, as is Pecan, or even Hickory. Mesquite will be too strong for such a long cook. Mild and sweet “fruit” woods like Applewood, Cherry, etc are fine, and are commonly used for Pork butt, ribs etc.
Temperature: For a “low and slow” cook you’re looking at keeping close to the 225-250 degree range, planning for roughly 1 hour or so per pound. Most smokers have a temperature gauge built in, and there are several temperature probes that you can also buy that connect to phones using bluetooth or even wifi. Many of them have probes that will monitor the temp inside the smoker, as well as special probes that track the meat. I use a waterproof digital thermometer with four probes. I use one for the interior temp at front and back of brisket, and then one for each half of the brisket: flat and point.
Spritzing: There are many opinions on spritzing the meat. I tend to spritz the entire top and sides of the brisket, using a spray bottle with a combo of half Apple cider vinegar and half apple juice. I’ve used just the cider and just the juice in the past. Water is also better than nothing. This is just a way to keep the brisket moist while it is sitting in heat for several hours.
The Stall: At some point, usually right around somewhere in the 160’s, the temp will stop rising, and possibly even go down a few degrees according to the probes in your meat. We call this “The Stall.” Don’t freak out, don’t turn up the heat, don’t do anything at all. This is just a matter of science called convective cooling. Keep going, stick to the plan, and after a few hours your temp will suddenly start rising, and do so fairly quickly towards the finish line.
Wrapping Your Brisket: There are many opinions on whether or not to wrap your brisket after a certain amount time. The point of wrapping a brisket is to help keep moisture in and help accelerate the cook time a bit. Some pitmasters use a method called “The Texas Crutch” or “Texas Cheat,” which involves wrapping up your brisket in some heavy duty aluminum foil and then finishing the cook that way. Other do not wrap at all, leaving the brisket as is in the smoke until the cook is finished. And finally, there are those who wrap in “pink” or “peach” butcher paper.
Because most of us use a small, backyard style smoker that can fit 1-2 briskets and and not a commercial sized one, temperature flareups and smoke quality are common issues. I have a small smoker and the wind and weather elements vary. I can’t always maintain a perfect fire no matter what I do, so not wrapping at all can put too much “dirty” smoke on the meat, even leaving some patches a bit hard or crunchy like there’s creosote from your chimney. So for those of us that are not professional caterers and restauranteurs, I recommend wrapping the brisket. Foil and butcher paper are great options; use what you have. Foil can make the meat a little more soggy similar to a pot roast. I prefer paper because it breathes and allows some moisture to escape.
When To Wrap: Some will wrap at a certain temp or when they believe they are in the stall. Many feel very strongly about this, but I am not one of them. I don’t use the temperature as part of my process to determine when to wrap. Instead, look at the bark and see how it feels to the touch. If it stops feeling like salt and pepper that stick to your hand and begins to be a soft coating on the meat, you’re ready to wrap. This is usually right around 6 hours or so of clean smoke.
When To Stop Cooking: There are many opinions but for me, when the internal temp reaches about 203 degrees in both the flat and the point, I pull it from the smoker. Let it rest outside of the smoker for a minimum of one hour. It is possible to let the meat rest for several hours. Do not slice it as soon as you pull it. Don’t. It will dry out quickly and wast all the time you just invested. I put them in a foil pan, still wrapped, covered with towels for an hour or two. Can leave on counter, in an unheated oven, or in an old cooler as well. When unwrapped, I’ve seen a lot of restaurants wrap their brisket tightly in plastic wrap and keep in a low heat container. Pro Tip: when unwrapping, do slowly and be careful not to accidentally scrape off the precious bark. Pro Tip #2: Don’t use “good” towels. You’ll never get the smoke smell out of them.
How To Slice A Brisket: Some will separate the flat from the point by carefully slicing through the fat section between the two. You’ll especially see this in restaurants where they sell a “lean” or “moist” brisket by the pound. At home, I don’t do that. I simply cut the flat into lean slices until I get the where I have two overlapping layers of meat, and then I change direction.
Here is how I do it. Start on the flat section, and cut against the grain. Use a good slicing knife, you might have one from Thanksgiving.. If you don’t have one can use a bread knife but not ideal.
Ideally you want 1/4 inch thick slices, though I tend to cut them thicker and nobody has ever complained. Cut long slices on the flat until you notice that you’re beginning to cut into the point as well. Now, turn the brisket 90 degrees. I tend to cut off an inch or two of the very back of the point and reserve that for the pitmaster. A lot of times you’ll see people first cut the brisket in half and then start slicing the point side from each half. That makes no sense to me. What I do is start slicing, with the grain, from right to left until the entire brisket is cut in double decker flat and point pieces connected by a layer of fat. You aren’t a restaurant, you aren’t worried about serving meat with a layer of fat in the middle, and this will prevent the meat from drying out. If anyone complains, just laugh it off and remove them from your invite list for next time!