When I got the idea to do a post about smoking, I asked yeah right if it was cool with him; I didn’t want to invade his territory. Righteous guy that he is, not only did he say it was fine with him, but he invited me to take over Sunday Gravy for the week. I have large shoes to fill, but the only direction he gave was to make sure that the post included Sunday Gravy’s trademark gratuitous vulgarity.
Done and fuckin’ done, dude.
I happened to be in Costco on my birthday when I saw that they had whole briskets on offer. I figured that you’re allowed to do one dumb thing on your birthday, so I took home a tough, giant cut of meat with a rapidly approaching expiration date and set about learning to make it tender, smoky, and delicious. I’d always wanted to smoke a giant piece of meat, and knowing that this thing would need to be cooked in six days put me on the clock. I don’t have a smoker, but I do have a Weber kettle grill, and that’s what we’ll be smoking our brisket on. It’s not the easiest way, but it’s certainly doable and well worth the effort.
So, I hear you say, “What the hell IS a brisket, anyway?” Brisket is basically the pectoral muscle of a cow. It’s lean and stringy, and not very tasty unless you cook it for a long time at a low temperature. You can buy the whole brisket, or more frequently you can buy cut up parts. Full briskets, called “packer” briskets, usually range from 12-16 pounds. Mine weighed in at 13 pounds. They are called “packer” briskets because this is the typical serving size for Packers fans.1 That’s what we’ll be smoking. Each packer brisket includes two parts – the flat and the point. The flat is kind of a sheet of striated meat. This is the much leaner part of the brisket, and the part you’ll most likely get when you have sliced brisket. The point is kind of like a lump on one end of the brisket, and is much fattier, including a thick fat cap. In this photo, most of the point is on the underside of the brisket. If we flipped it over, the point would cover about 1/3 of the flat. The point is often used to make burnt ends. The flat and point are easy to distinguish because there is a thick layer of fat separating them.
The first thing you need to figure out when you’re smoking a brisket is when to start. The whole process can take anywhere from 14-18 hours, so work backwards from when you want to serve, and build in some extra time. You can always hold it after it’s done for a few hours, and you don’t want to have guests arrive when you have nothing to serve them. Most people start at 1 or 2 in the morning to serve for the next night’s dinner. I planned to start at 2am on Saturday for Saturday dinner. However, I was sick, and it was cold and rainy, so I made my first mistake and went to bed instead. I finally got started at noon the next day, as you’ll see in my timeline. But first, what equipment and ingredients will we need?
- Kettle charcoal grill
- A fuckload of salt
- Plastic wrap
- 60 charcoal briquettes (have extra just in case)
- A chimney starter
- About 5 handfuls of hickory wood chips or any other smoking wood you prefer
- Thermometers for both the meat and the grill – I used a standard digital instant read meat thermometer and a standard oven thermometer, but there are easier, fancier, pricier options
- A big disposable foil lasagna pan
- About a cup of your favorite BBQ rub
- A spray bottle filled with apple juice or water
- A metric shit-ton of tin foil
- A couple of old towels you don’t mind getting meat juice on
- A cooler that’s big enough to fit your brisket wrapped in towels (hard side or soft side both work)
- Lots and lots of beer
About 24 hours before you want to start smoking, trim the fat cap on the point side to about 1/4 inch, rub that meat all over with your fuckload of salt, and then wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and throw it in the fridge. That’s going to be the first step in seasoning and tenderizing your meat. I did it on Thursday night. Due to time constraints, we’ll move ahead to Saturday at noon and start the smoking proper!
12:00pm Before you begin, make sure to pour yourself a beer. You’re going to need it. It helps if you have your own homebrew and a Pac-Man pint glass like I do.
The first thing you’ll need to do is get your fire going. It can take quite a while to get it just right. The ideal temperature for us to smoke at is 225, but 250 is fine, and even spikes to 300 won’t kill you as long as you get it back down. Most of the work you’ll be doing is constantly checking the temperature and keeping it under control. We’ll be using the snake method of charcoal smoking. The idea is that you stack briquettes in a semicircle around the perimeter of the grill, and then drop some hot coals at one end. The briquettes slowly burn around the semicircle, providing you a steady(ish) temperature and relieving you of the need to constantly add charcoal.
I stacked my briquettes 11 wide and 4 high for a total of 44. We’ll be cooking our brisket with indirect heat, so we need to make sure that the snake isn’t so long that the coals wind up directly underneath the meat. Next, soak your wood chips for about 30 minutes, then sprinkle them over the charcoal. Meat can only take on smoke for so long, so I put more chips near the front end of the snake than at the back end.
Light 12 charcoal briquettes in the chimney starter and when they’re ashed over, drop them at the front of the snake and slightly over the top.
Fill the lasagna pan halfway with boiling water and place opposite the charcoal. The meat will sit over the pan, which will help humidify the grill and catch drippings. Finally, drop your grill grate in and place the oven thermometer. The placement of the thermometer is tricky. It needs to be right next to the meat so it accurately measures the temperature the meat is cooking at, which also means it cannot be directly over the coals. However, you don’t want the meat to knock it over, either. I used the base to crudely clip it to the grill grate so that it can hug the meat without falling over.
At this point, throw your grill lid on, open the bottom vents all the way, and the top vents halfway. Use these vents to control the temperature. The more open they are, the higher the temperature will get, and the more you close them, the lower the temperature will get. We want to get to 225 before we throw the meat on the grill.
12:30pm After a half-hour, our fire is lit. While we wait for the grill to come to 225, we’ll rub the meat. People will tell you that you need to rub the day before, but that’s bullshit. The rub is never really going to penetrate the meat anyway – it’s there for flavor on the outside and to help form a bark. Don’t be shy with the rub…slather that shit on there. On my fully rubbed meat (phrasing!) you can see the flat all along the top, then the fat layer, and under that the point.
2:45pm Yep. I’ve been waiting over two goddamn hours for this fire to get to the right temperature. Hopefully it won’t take you that long, but this is why we start early and allow extra time.2 Time to finally get your damn brisket on the grill! Some people will tell you to cook with the fat side up, some with the fat side down. It really doesn’t matter. The fat is not going to “melt into the meat” if you cook it fat side up. I decided to start with the fat side down and keep the point end, which is thicker, nearer the hot coals to cook the meat more evenly. Later, I’ll flip it when the fire works its way around the snake to the other side to keep the point end near the coals.
1:45pm Time for the first of our hourly temperature checks. Still at exactly 225, but the meat doesn’t look any different. A small moment of “Shit, why is nothing happening??1?” is possible here, but remember that this is going to take a looooong time to cook.
2:45pm The meat is gray, it’s cooking! Temp crept up to 250, so I closed both top and bottom vents a bit so they’re all half open. I’ve also started spritzing the brisket with the apple juice. Every hour or so when you check the temperature, spritz some juice on the meat to keep it moist.
3:45pm Closing the vents worked – we’re right back at 225.
4:45pm Everything is cool. I really didn’t need an entry here, but I’m a bit of a pedant.
5:45pm It’s long been apparent that my desire to not be sick and outside in the cold all night means we’re not having brisket for dinner. I decide to take advantage of the fire and throw some bacon-wrapped chicken thighs on top of the coals to soak up some hickory-smoked goodness.
6:45pm Holy shit. The chicken thighs are so goddamn delicious that I deem the entire enterprise worth it just for them.3 I’ve decided if you ever smoke a brisket, you definitely need to smoke little bits of other things along the way.
7:45pm It’s been five hours, so I take a temperature check for the first time. Most experienced BBQ cooks will tell you that there’s no set temperature for when it’s done; you have to go by feel. This is my first time though, and you don’t know what things are supposed to feel like the first time, amirite? Instead, I’m going to consider the brisket done when the internal temperature reaches 200 degrees, the most commonly accepted number. I took the temperature in the thickest part of the brisket, and also in the thinnest part so I can make sure it’s not overcooking. I get about 140 – we’re getting there! Also, I wish I had more smoked chicken.
8:45pm The internal temperature has reached 150 degrees, and that brings us to one of the great BBQ debates – to wrap or not to wrap? Without getting too deep into it (and if you’re interested you can spend hours in an internet rabbit hole on the topic), at about 150 degrees, a brisket goes into what’s called “the stall”. The temperature will plateau for up to four or five hours before starting to climb again. The stall can be avoided, however. When you get to 150 degrees, pull the brisket from the grill, tightly wrap it in a few layers of tin foil, and put it back. The meat will continue to rise in temperature and you can shave that 4 or 5 hours off the cooking time. So, I can hear you asking, why doesn’t everyone just do this? Well, there is one small practical reason, which is that wrapping the meat ruins the crisp bark of the meat by basically steaming it. But that can be remedied by throwing the brisket under the broiler before serving. Instead, I suspect that the aversion to wrapping is largely a pose copped by people who like to do things “the right way”.4 Ain’t nobody got time for that. So yeah, I wrapped. I also flipped the brisket so that the thick end is nearer the coals, which have burned around to the other side by now.
9:45pm My hourly temperature check shows that the temperature has spiked to 300 degrees. A quick look at the coals reveals that while the leading edge of the fire has made it two-thirds of the way around the snake, the coals left behind are not burning out quickly, leaving too many coals lit at once. I can’t close the vents any further without snuffing out the fire, so I dropped a little water on the older coals.
10:45pm The water worked like a charm, we’re back to 225!
11:45pm The brisket is registering 175 in the thicker parts and 190 in the thinner parts. I smell imminent victory.
12:45am We have 198 in the thick part and 204 in the thin part, and it’s time to pull it off the grill. I was expecting a much longer cook time, but here we are with a finished brisket after 10 hours. It’s worth mentioning that the snake method worked gangbusters – I didn’t have to add charcoal the entire time. I can’t recommend it more. The temperature spike surely had something to do with the relatively short cook time. However, as noted smoked meat guru Sarah Sprague5 told me, every cow is different, every grill is different, every fire is different. It’s done when it’s done. And IT’S DONE!
Now it’s time for the final stage of making the brisket. I know, I know, not two sentences ago I told you it was done. In all caps. I lied a little – you can’t eat it just yet. It IS done cooking, but now we need to enter the “holding” stage. This is when you need your towels and cooler. Line your cooler with the towels, take the foil-wrapped brisket off the grill, and plop that shit in the cooler. Wrap the towels over the top and make a snug little package. The less air that’s in the cooler, the better this will work, so don’t be afraid to jam towels in there. I used a soft side cooler that’s about the same size as the brisket wrapped in one towel, and barely got the zipper closed, which is perfect.
1:00am The brisket is snugly held in its swaddling clothes. The consensus seems to be that you should hold the meat for at least two hours, but up to five hours if it cooked faster than you expect and you need to wait for dinnertime. As long as the meat’s internal temperature doesn’t fall below 140, you’re fine. I’ll be pushing that a bit, as I’m still sick and I’d like to sleep. I’m setting my alarm for 8:00am.
2:30am Okay, I’m still awake. It’s not my fault, there were back to back episodes of Bar Rescue on. Now that these disgusting bars will safely continue to stay open for at least another few weeks, I can get some rest.
8:00am I wake up early and get to unwrap something amazing. It’s like Christmas, except I had to do it all myself. Actually, now that I’m an adult, this is exactly like Christmas.
Slice the meat across the grain so it’s not tough and stringy. This is easy to do, as the grain in brisket is very pronounced. Start at the thin end, and slice the flat. Slices of 1/4 to 1/2 inch work best. You can see the pink smoke ring around the edge, evidence that you actually smoked this thing instead of just sticking it in the oven.
8:30am I’m not letting the fact that it’s breakfast time stop me from eating my brisket. I’m just having it with eggs. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but goddamn this is delicious. The texture is almost just right. It’s tender as hell, but maybe a little more crumbly than the best briskets I’ve had in Texas.
Now that I’ve had a few slices, it’s time to deal with the rest of it. It’s up to you how to slice it up. I am removing the point and chopping that fatty meat for burnt ends, and then slicing the rest of the flat and storing for later. Burnt ends are truly the meat candy of the brisket. They’re little crispy cubes of fatty goodness, and we’re going to make them now. First, remove the point from the flat and also remove that layer of fat between them. Chop the point into about 1-inch cubes, and chop that fat super-duper fine until it’s just a pile of goo. Here you can see the point removed from the flat and chopped.
Next, take that fat goo and heat it up in a skillet on medium high until most of it renders out. Then put your cubed meat in the pan and saute it until the cubes are crispy and look burnt. If you’re using the entire point, add about 1/2 cup of your favorite BBQ sauce and 1/2 cup water. Cover and cook on low until the cubes soak up most of that liquid, then uncover and let the cubes crisp up again, and you got yourself some goddamn burnt ends! These are truly a treat, and you should keep them for yourself. I can confirm that they are even delicious at 10pm directly out of the fridge. For some reason I neglected to take pictures of making the burnt ends, but Jesus, this thing is a James Michener novel already. Most of you guys know how to read words.
Now you have most of the flat part of the brisket left. If you’re going to be able to eat it all in a few days, just slice as you go so the meat stays moist. But if you’ll have to freeze some like I did, slice the whole thing and put it in Ziploc bags with some liquid so it stays moist. I used apple juice. The best way to reheat your brisket is in the microwave, or, if like me you don’t have one, in a covered saucepan with a little liquid.
After 3,000 fucking words, I think that’s it.
From building the fire to unwrapping the foil, it took about 20 hours. But I gotta say, it was worth it. I won’t do it all the time, but I’ll definitely do it again. And now that I know the basic procedure, I’m eager to smoke other things that won’t take quite as long, like ribs or pork shoulder. I hope that if you’ve actually gotten to the end of this, you’ll give it a shot. It’s pretty cool to go into work on Monday and be like, “Oh, I smoked a brisket this weekend. What did you do?”
Thanks to yeah right for giving me the wheel this week, it’s much appreciated. And good smoking to you!
- PolitiFact has rated this claim “Mostly False”.
- Yes, I know I started about 10 hours late. Do as I say, not as I do!
- It’s entirely possible that I’m overrating the chicken thighs simply because they only took an hour to cook.
- St. Louis Cardinals fans are free to avoid wrapping and power through the stall.
- I consulted Sarah before cooking, and she was, as always, generous with advice. Thanks, Sarah!
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