How-to BBQ: The ultimate guide to BBQ brisket

How-to BBQ: The ultimate guide to BBQ brisket

Brisket is one of the most iconic BBQ cooks you can do. For those on the circuit, brisket is the Mt Everest of cooks - traditionally one of the longest cooks in terms of time, and with the different muscles, one of the trickiest. Just like Everest, brisket has claimed more than a few casualties when it comes to attempted cooks. And I can tell you, there are few things more disappointing then spending your hard earned cash as well as giving up large amounts of your time to have a disappointing centre piece of your meal.

Thankfully, with time and practice, anyone can get to the point of cooking great brisket and wowing all their dinner guests. And whilst nothing can replace time and experience, we can utilise science to improve our chances and understanding of what exactly is going on during the cook.

I have resisted writing about brisket for a while now, in part because I generally find brisket recipes to be somewhat disappointing. After all, for a traditional low-and-slow brisket cook, aside from details on how to trim the meat, it really is just applying the rub and then cooking low and slow until its done, anywhere from 8 to 15 hours! Whilst it is re-assuring to read that it is this vague for everyone, I’m not sure how much more helpful it is to have a one line recipe. But there is a lot to be said about it (and lots of people have covered lots of this ground in lots of great videos and articles), so I wanted to tackle some of that now.

As with most recipes here, this is what I’d like to think of as a universal ultimate guide to cooking Brisket. The techniques and approaches we cover here can be applied whether cooking your brisket in a bullet smoker, like a Weber Smokey Mountain, a Kamado such as Kamado Joe, Big Green Egg, a pellet grill such as a Traeger or even your regular indoor oven. All of those devices cook with the same basic principle (heat convection currents and indirect heat), so really whatever you are using, this guide will work for you! My most recent (at time of writing) brisket cook was hot-and-fast on my kamado and it came out just great!

1. The muscles: Flat vs point

The brisket comes from the chest area of the cow (if you can imagine a cow’s chest!), and is actually made up of two different muscles. The muscles are usually referred to as the flat and the point. Of the brisket, the flat makes up most of the meat, quantity wise, but is a lot leaner than the point. The point on the other hand contains more fat and connective tissue.

The flat, as you might have guessed, is a large flat muscle. It is the part of the brisket that is used when you buy a rolled brisket for a pot-roast from a supermarket (being flat makes it an easy candidate for being rolled). It is also used to make corned beef, and is often sliced up in BBQ joints.

If you are cooking a full packer brisket it will have both muscles, and its important to remember the differences between the cuts, as when we check for doneness, you should make sure you check the flat is nice and soft. If you are ordering something smaller, then a point will be more forgiving for a first time BBQ brisket.

Commonly, the flat will be served as nice, neat rectangular slices, whilst the point is commonly used for burnt-ends.

This article will get into some details about the make up of the muscles and the role connective tissue plays in cooking brisket - to get a further understanding then read my article about the science of meat here

2. Cooking to temperature vs Cooking to feel

On almost all recipes here, and across the BBQ-ing internet, you will invariably hear people talking about the importance of thermometers and instant read temperature probes (for both meat and grill). For basically all meat cooks, you will need a thermometer: cooking a medium rare steak? you want an internal temperature probe to make sure you don’t overshoot the temp. Cooking low and slow? You are going to need a thermometer to make sure you don’t undershoot the internal temp! However you are cooking meat, you are going to want to make sure its at the right temperature.

However, when you start reading about briskets, more than any other BBQ cook, the approach changes and you will hear people talk a lot more about feel rather than just going on temperature alone. It’s possible to have a chewy, not fully cooked brisket at an internal temperature of 96C/205F but at the same time possible to have a perfectly cooked brisket at 93C/200F - so how is that possible? What is it about brisket that flips everything on its head?

To be honest, it’s not really just brisket that suffers this - it’s just that with brisket it’s a lot more common. Pork shoulder, beef short ribs, you will want to test they are ready by feel as well, but most of the time by the time they hit 93C/200F internal temp its more likely they will be done.

To understand all this, we need to understand what is actually happening inside the meat during cooking.

2.1 What happens to meat when it’s cooked?

There are a few key transformation moments that we are interested in when it comes to cooking meat - the first two relate to cooking leaner/quicker pieces of meat, like a steak, or chicken breast and then another couple that kick in later in the tougher cuts in low-and-slow cooking.

  1. 60C/140F - 76C/170F - Myoglobin, the protein that makes meat red starts to change colour. This is why as you cook a steak, a rare steak will be bright red and a well done steak brown (and a medium steak somewhere in between). This change is a scale - at 176C/170F myoglobin is brown, at 60C/140F it becomes a duller red colour. However, for all intents and purpose this is a simple application of heat to the protein, and can be considered instant (e.g. time is not a factor). For example, if you cook two steak to 60C/140F throughout and take one off the heat as soon as it hits that temp, and hold the other one for an hour (at that same temperature), the two will have the same colour - the steak cooked for longer won’t continue to change colour, we can think of this just in terms of a result of temperature.

  2. 60C/140F - 76C/170F - Throughout that same temperature range, connective tissues also start to contract, which effectively pushes liquid (water) out of the meat. This is why a well done steak will not be as juicy as a medium or rare steak. As the temperature increases through this range, the contraction continues and more liquid is expelled. Again, this reaction can mostly be considered as a product just of temperature - with the same experiment as above, a steak cooked to 60C/140F and held for another hour will not experience increased connective tissue contraction, or increased liquid loss, over time. Sous vide cooking wouldn’t work as well if it did - sous vide holds steaks(or any foods) at the exact target temperature for longer than a traditionally cooked pan would, and they still come out just the same colour, and just as juicy as a pan cooked steak (more or less, sous vide does have some other things going on, but thats another topic too!)

  3. 56C/130F - 60C/140F - At this temperature, the fat in the meat starts to render, which adds moisture to the meat and transforms the fat into something much more edible. This is process is a factor of both temperature and time. That is, you can achieve the same level of fat rendering at either end of this temperature range, just at the lower temps the process will take longer. Meat cooked at 56C/130F will take longer to reach the same level of fat rendering as meat cooked at 60C/140F (NOTE: this point is to illustrate the difference vs the first two processes above, and that time is a factor. Below 60C/140F is considered the danger-zone for food safety)

  4. 65C/150F - 82C/180F - Connective tissue breaks down and converts into gelatin. We should note here though, that this is not the exact range. Actually connective tissues converts to gelatin at much lower temperatures, but this is another process which is a combination of temperature + time, and the lower temperatures simply go through this process much slower. Sous vide cooking can be used on low-and-slow, tough cuts of meat at 56C/130F, but that involves cooking for several days at that temperature. For this discussion in the context of regular BBQ smoking/cooking, we will consider this the key range for connective tissue break down.

There are some other things going beside these, most obviously, we haven’t talked about bacteria and food safety here, but thats for another topic and doesn’t impact our brisket so we’ll skip that for now.

As you will have probably realised, the first two transformations mentioned above do not play a big role in low-and-slow cooking, and specifically brisket cooking. We will take the brisket (and short ribs, pork shoulder, chuck etc) way past those temperatures, and given they are (for the sake of this discussion) simply a product of temperature, these do not need much consideration. The brisket will pass those two temperature ranges so we can assume that regardless of cook time, both those will have happened.

The latter two are the more interesting transformations, as these are both products of temperature AND time, these processes are the ones that bring the variable of time into play and are what impacts how long we have to cook brisket for. The most significant, from a time point of view, is the transformation of connective tissue into gelatin.

2.2 How connective tissue affects cooking brisket

Brisket is one of the most connective tissue rich cuts of meat you will find, and this is the main contributing factor to the length of cooking time. Connective tissue is what makes meat tough and chewy, when we cook cuts like brisket low-and-slow we rely on this transformation from connective tissue into gelatin so the meat is no longer tough and chewy, and the further benefit that gelatin is a lusciously silky-smooth liquid that lubricates the meat and makes it so juicy and moist.

Whilst the first two transformations above happen almost instantly, the transformation of connective tissue into gelatin takes hours. In the book The science of good cooking they carry out an experiment cooking ox-tail at 160C/325F and in that experiment they observe that it takes roughly three hours for full gelatin conversion. This doesn’t necessarily translate to exact timings, as there are many factors at play here: 1) they chop the ox-tail into roughly 1/2 inch pieces, far smaller than a brisket so the time taken for heat to pass through the meat is far shorter 2) thats three hour total cooking time, from a cold start with the ox-tail 3) they braise the ox-tail, and braising is a far more efficient energy-transfer than convection cooking in an oven or BBQ - but the general take away point stands that the transformation, even with high temperature and high-energy cooking such as braising, takes several hours.

So here we are, we have a cut of meat in brisket that is incredibly rich in connective tissue, and we know that for our brisket to be perfectly cooked, we need to transform all that connective tissue into gelatin - a process that takes an undeterminable length of time to complete. This is exactly the challenge of brisket, and the exact reason people cook brisket to feel rather than simply temperature.

2.3 Should I care about internal temperature at all then?

Yes, of course temperature is still a useful tool, and probably the best indicator as to what is going on throughout the cook. However, there isn’t a fixed target temperature that you can use as a golden rule as to when your brisket is done.

So why do so many people say 93C/200F - 96C/205F as target temperatures? I suspect these figures came from years of BBQ experience. By the time an average brisket has been on your average smoker running in the range of 110C/225F - 135C/275F, when it hits that target internal temperature range, it has probably been on there the requisite amount of time for the connective tissue to convert to gelatin. In other words, its not that we need to aim for those temperatures, but rather, those are usual temperatures that a brisket will reach in the time it takes to cook. It’s correlation, not causation (Correlation vs Causation)

2.4 How to tell when a brisket is done

To re-cap, we will definitely use the internal temperature as a guideline - unless you are cooking incredibly low temperatures, its unlikely that the brisket will be cooked before an internal temperature of 93C/200F. With this in mind, we can monitor internal temperatures to help manage expectations for cooking time.

Once we are in the target temperature range, we can probe the brisket to check how it feels. The phrase a lot of people use is probing like butter - when you insert an instant read thermometer probe or skewer, it should easily slide through the meat as though you are probing butter - if you hit spots of resistance here or there then its not ready yet and you should keep going.

Once its probing nicely, you can take it out the grill (or oven) and rest it!

3. Resting the brisket

Once we have cooked our brisket and it’s probing perfectly, its time for it to take a rest.

If your cook has run long, as they often do with brisket, it will be really tempting to skip this, but for the best brisket you really do need to do this step.

There are a few benefits of resting:

  1. First off, it lets the proteins in the meat relax a little. Remember above we talked about meat contracting with the heat, whilst that isn’t reversible, meat will relax a little as it cools.

  2. Next up, the rest will also allow some of the juices to thicken. If you think of what happens with leftovers as they chill in the fridge - fat will often solidify completely. By leaving the meat to rest a little, it allows that process to start happening, thickening up the juices in the meat. The reason this is beneficial is when you cut open the brisket you won’t get all the moisture rushing out, and the meat will hold on to more of it for cutting and serving.

  3. Finally, it also allows carry over cooking - away from the heat source of the BBQ or oven, the heat energy already stored up in the meat will continue to gently cook itself as the heat dissipates throughout. This very gentle carry over cooking will continue to allow the connective tissue to convert to gelatin and continue to benefit the end result.

3.1 How to rest a brisket

The simplest way is a method called a faux cambro - the technique requires a cool box, but other than that is really simple:

  1. Once you have taken the brisket off the heat, if you have already wrapped the meat (a.k.a using the Texas crutch) then vent it a little bit for a few minutes to reduce the heat, then re-wrap in foil or butchers paper
  2. Wrap the wrapped brisket in a couple towels
  3. Put the wrapped brisket into a cool box and close - it should easily hold temperature in there for several hours if needed (NOTE: If you plan to rest for several hours, you should monitor the temperature to make sure the brisket doesn’t drop below 60C/140F into the danger zone)

There are of course alternative methods, you could hold it just wrapped in towels on the side for a short time, or even in a low temp oven (but you risk drying it out if this is done too long).

3.2 The key to BBQ restaurant’s brisket

If you follow internet forums or sites dedicated to BBQing you will undoubtedly already know that there is much discussion on the secret to perfect brisket, and how folks like Aaron Franklin (one of the most revered pitmasters & restaurateurs in the BBQ scene, specifically known for his brisket) manage to reliably product perfect brisket on a daily basis for their restaurant. There are undoubtedly several little tricks or techniques that each pitmaster uses to add their special touch, but I think the biggest advantage that BBQ restaurants have is maximising the rest time.

Because restaurants have to cook so many briskets, and can’t risk brisket cooks running late and causing issues come opening time, they often cook way in advance, and then hold them at temperature until serving time. Aaron Franklin has said he cooks overnight and holds them for hours (4 hours +) until the restaurant opens. This hold serves the purpose of ensuring that they have their briskets cooked and warm and all ready as soon as opening time arrives - but it has the second advantage of an enforced, long rest.

And let’s be honest - this kind of resting isn’t really the same as resting your brisket on the side. Most commonly, they will rest them in a holding oven from a manufacturer like Alto-Shaam. These ovens are not like usual convection ovens and are optimised for holding food at a temperature, and the restaurants will likely hold the brisket at about 65C/150F for 2 - 4 hours or more. This isn’t really resting, its cooking, just at a very low-and-slow temperature.

If you want the best brisket, then don’t skip the rest!

4. British brisket

4.1 Buying British brisket

Whilst it’s not as widely bought as in the States, its still pretty easy to pick up good, whole packer briskets here in the UK. If you have a good butcher then it should be simple as going in and asking them and they should either have it or be able to get it. Most butchers, if they aren’t already setup to target the BBQ market, might only list rolled brisket, which is the more popular way to buy the cut in the UK. But if you have a chat to them they should be able to get a whole brisket or just the point end easily enough (they have the flat end rolled already).

Rolled brisket is the flat of a brisket and rolled and tied, normally bought for people planning a Sunday pot-roast or braising with vegetables. It’s perfectly possible to un-roll one of these and BBQ it, but to get started you’d probably be better off trying to get hold of a point end.

If you can’t find a decent local butcher to get you a brisket, there are quite a few great online butchers that can deliver across the UK, such as Sherwood food, Turner & George, John Davidsons to name a couple!

4.2 How is British brisket different?

It is possible to buy American brisket here in the UK, or Australian brisket which is often corn fed like the States, but most brisket you find in the UK will be grass fed.

British brisket is slightly different from the brisket in the States. In the US brisket is corn fed, where as British cows are generally grass fed. The difference goes beyond simply what they are eating, and also reflects in the animal’s rearing. Good quality British cows are more likely to spend more of their lives out in fields and pastures, eating grass, where as the corn fed cattle in the states have less freedom to roam fields, often moving to smaller lots when they move to the corn based feeding at a younger age. The combination of diet and rearing lead to a couple implications for the meat.

  1. Grass fed, British cattle, generally have lower levels of fat - This is likely a result of the more active rearing (for good quality, British cattle) and the lower fat grass diet (corn/grain based diets are optimised to speed up the growth of the animal so it can be slaughtered and sold sooner, which is more cost effective for the farmers). Reduced intra-muscular fat can mean less flavour (flavour comes from fat!) and potentially less juicy meat (as the fat renders it adds moisture to the meat). With a cut like brisket, we need to be aware of any differences that might reduce the moisture levels of our food.

  2. People argue that grass fed animals have more flavourful fat (you will often see the fat on grass fed animals are slightly yellow, which is down to their diet) - Some might argue that flavour improvement balances out against the potential drop in flavour from reduced fat levels mentioned in 1) above, but thats a more subjective discussion!

  3. Grass fed cattle, have increased levels of connective tissue - this is likely due to the more active rearing approach, meaning their muscles have to work harder, leading to an increased development of connective tissue.

So British brisket has less fat and more connective tissue - whilst neither of these factors are easily measurable, in any way that can be useful to us, it’s worth noting these differences and the implications of the previous sections.

5. How to prep a brisket for smoking

There isn’t too much when it comes to prepping a brisket.

  1. Trim the fat - you are looking to trim the fat cap that is on the top of the meat so there is about 1/4 inch of fat left on the top. It can be quite rough and doesn’t need to be a precise, even coverage. Make sure if there are any larger lumps of fat on the top or side that they get trimmed off, as no-one is going to want to eat a big lump of fat.

  2. Apply your rub - between the beef and smoke, there isn’t really much need for a lot else. A lot of people (including Aaron Franklin) swear by salt and pepper, but feel free to use your favourite rubs. It’s worth noting that one these longer cooks you don’t want a rub with too high a sugar content as it will be more likely to burn. Good Rubs have a rub called Texas AF which is a simple salt-pepper rub that works really well with beef.

Once trimmed and rub applied you are ready to cook!

6. How to smoke a brisket: low-and-slow

As mentioned right at the start, I dislike brisket cook recipes because it really is a case of cook it until its done! However, once the brisket is prepped, here are the steps you should be looking at to cook your brisket in a standard low and slow fashion:

  1. Setup your smoker/grill for indirect cooking at 110C/225F and add a couple of chunks of wood. The beef has a very bold flavour so can take a strong smoke flavour - stronger woods like hickory work well.

  2. Add the brisket to the grill with an internal temperature probe inserted to the thickest part of the meat.

  3. After the first hour spray the brisket with some water and allow to continue cooking. Repeat this at the two hour mark and then every thirty minutes until it reaches an internal temperature of around 71C/160F - at this point we will be expecting to hit the stall - if you notice the temperatures start to stall earlier than this, take it off earlier

  4. At 71C/160F, or when the temperature starts to stall if earlier, take the brisket off the grill and wrap in either foil or butchers paper, and return to the grill, continuing to monitor the internal temperature.

  5. Cook the wrapped brisket until its internal temperature reaches 93C/200F, once it does, probe the meat in a couple of places (making sure to check the flat), if there is any resistance then put it back on the grill and check again in 30 minutes.

  6. Once the brisket is comfortably probing like butter, remove from the grill and rest (ideally wrapped in towels in a cool box) for at least one hour - longer if possible, but make sure to continue to monitor internal temperature to make sure its not dropping into the danger zone of less than 60C/140F.

  7. After resting, slice and serve!

7. How to smoke a brisket: hot-and-fast

A growing trend in the BBQ scene, including on the competitive circuit, is cooking briskets hot and fast. This involves a much shorter cook time (around 5 - 6 hours) but cooking at a higher temperature in the region of 160C/320F (I have written about hot-and-fast BBQ and science behind that previously)

The prep is exactly the same, and cooking is essentially 2-3 hours at 160C/320F, then wrapping and finishing up back on the grill at the same temp for another 2-3 hours until its done (the usual checks for temperature and feel apply exactly the same).

Hot-and-fast brisket will go against a lot of purist BBQ ideas, but if you can get good brisket in less than 6 hours, it’s hard to argue against it! I cooked a British brisket point hot-and-fast following Smokin’ Elk’s video below this weekend and it came out beautifully, it might be less forgiving with the flat end of a brisket, but would happily cook a point the same way again.

Here is a video of Smokin’ Elk cooking brisket hot-and-fast:

Photo by Luis Santoyo on Unsplash