Good barbecue brisket is just about my all-time favorite food.1 The problem is, it’s hard to find unless you live in Central Texas or Kansas City. Quality brisket is elusive because it’s time consuming to make and hard to do well. It’s regarded as the most difficult of the traditional BBQ styles to master because of the tough, relatively lean cut of connective tissue laden meat, which has a propensity to dry out while cooking. Good brisket requires optimizing a trade-off between cook time and moisture loss. It needs to be cooked long enough to tenderize the tough tissue, render the fat, and release flavor, but not so long as moisture evaporates leaving the brisket dry and tough. Balancing these variables is what makes brisket difficult.

I’ve endeavored learning how to barbecue brisket out of necessity. I live far from Texas and Kansas City, so the only way I could enjoy brisket was to learn how to make it myself through trial and error. This post is my brisket manifesto.

Barbecue brisket is not for the impatient. All told, it’s a 15 hour endeavor. The best way to ensure a good cook is to offload as much of the prep work to the previous day so that the following day of cooking is shorter. The 3 main things to take care of ahead of time are wood, brisket, and libations.

The defacto wood for brisket is oak and it’s what I prefer to smoke with. Brisket takes a long time to cook and the mild flavors of oak imbues a wonderful phenolic flavor to brisket without over-powering it. Hardwoods like hickory or pecan are too strong and drown out the more delicate flavors of the beef. I split around an eighth cord of seasoned oak the day before barbecuing, which is plenty of wood for a cook.2

The second item to procure is the brisket. The best option in my view is USDA Choice full packer brisket. It’s the best compromise between quality and economy. Choice has sufficient marbling without being too expensive. Full packer brisket is desirable because it contains two muscles, sometimes called the “flat” and the “point”. The fatter point helps to keep the leaner flat moist by shielding it from the most intense heat during the cook. Packer brisket is also cheaper because it’s untrimmed, which has the added advantage of giving the pitmaster more control over how much fat to leave on the meat for cooking.3

Packer brisket needs some preparation before it’s ready to cook. It has a lean side and a fatty side and both need to be trimmed. On the lean side, all that needs to be done is to remove the thin layer of connective tissue called silver skin using a good boning knife. On the fatty side, some of the fat usually needs to be trimmed away. The amount of fat to remove takes some experience and largely depends on the temperature and duration of the cook. The higher the temperature and the longer the cook the less fat should be removed. The idea is to leave just enough fat so that it will render off the meat when the brisket is finished cooking. This leaves the meat moist and protected during the cook, but as the fat renders off, the smoke can penetrate the exposed meat. I like to leave about 1/4” of fat on the fatty side of my brisket. The final step in preparation is to apply a liberal rub of 1:1 kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper over the whole brisket.

The libation of choice for barbecue is beer. Brisket is traditionally paired with brown ales or porters to bring out the rich umami flavors of the beef, but there are a wide range of suitable beer selections to choose from. My favorite pairing is an excellent porter called Everett from Hill Farmstead Brewery. I also like Indian Pale Ales, which stand up well to the strong flavors of the fat and smoke—Heady Topper and Sip of Sunshine are two of my favorites.

With the wood, brisket, and beer ready to go, the final thing I do the night before my cook is round-up all the fire starting equipment needed for the next day. I typically start my barbecue early, so I try to get my fire started as soon as possible in the morning. I use a blend of charcoal and wood in my cooks because the charcoal helps keep a consistent temperature while the wood provides the flavor. The only way to start charcoal is with a firestarter, a chimney, and a good pair of welding gloves.

I give myself 14 hours of cook time, plus an additional hour of prep time from the time I want to eat. Barbecue can’t be rushed. Brisket is done when it’s done, so 15 hours provides enough time to ensure it will be fully cooked in time to eat. My barbecue usually finishes around the 13 hour mark, so I pull the brisket off the heat when it’s done and transfer it to a cooler to rest until it’s time to eat. Once finished, a brisket can rest for 4 hours in a cooler without any issue. This is the only way to make sure brisket is done in time for serving.

The choice of smoker style is a personal preference. There are lots of different models ranging from barrel drums to Kamodos. Good barbecue can come from a \$50 or a \$5000 smoker. The key to quality brisket is mostly about temperature stability and moisture control. I use a variety of different smokers, but I usually like to do brisket on an inexpensive offset model like the venerable Char-Broil Smoker.4 Offset smokers are large enough to handle a good sized brisket and also economical.

I position my brisket in an offset fat side up with the point facing the fire box to protect the lean side from direct heat. I use a water bath along side the brisket as a humidifier and heat sink to help buffer the smoker temperature and keep the brisket moist. Finally, before closing the lid, I position a dual probe wireless thermometer for monitoring the temperature of the smoker and the internal temperature of the brisket.

The dual thermometer is essential as it allows constant monitoring of the meat without the need to open the smoker. The wireless feature is also nice as it allows you some freedom to do other things away from the smoker, while still keeping a vigil watch on the temperature. One of the worst things to do when barbecuing is to repeatedly open and close the smoker, which allows heat, moisture, and smoke to escape. I watch the thermometer and feed the fire to maintain a temperature of 260°F for about 6 hours until the temperature of the brisket hits about 155°F.

While the brisket is smoking, I make a barbecue sauce. Sauces play a secondary role with brisket, so I don’t do anything too complex. Some traditionally places don’t even serve a sauce. For this reason, I serve a simple sauce with my brisket that I learned from Aaron Franklin. It’s easy to make and tastes great.

Around the 6 hour mark, when the internal temperature of the meat starts to stall, I crutch my brisket by wrapping it in butcher paper. The Texas Crutch as it’s commonly called is a technique used to prevent brisket from drying out and helps it cook though to completion. Wrapping with butcher paper allows the brisket to breath enough to allow the crispy bark on the outside to stay crunchy, while trapping enough moisture to braise the meat and raise its internal temperature to the desired endpoint. I keep my brisket wrapped until the internal temperature hits about 200°F on the probe, then I check it again using a pen thermometer. This ensures I’ve hit my endpoint temperature before I transfer it off the heat and into a cooler to rest and finish cooking.

The final step to serving good brisket is to slice it. Since the grain of the flat and the point run in different directions, I like to separate the point away from the flat and chop each section individually against the grain at an offset of about 45 degrees. The standard thickness for traditional brisket is the width of a pencil. Most pitmasters like to slice both the flat and the point and then further chop the point into smaller pieces to server along with the flat. A good plating has a nice variety of both flat and point.

1. Barbecue and grilling are not interchangeable terms. The distinction is the difference between the temperature and duration of the cook. Grilling typically involves high heat and fast cook times over direct flames. Barbecue is done low and slow, usually with indirect heat and smoke.

2. Chopping is for cutting wood fibers perpendicular to the grain, while splitting is for breaking apart wood fibers parallel to the grain. Axes are for chopping wood, mauls are for splitting it.

3. I look for roundish briskets that aren’t too thin or long. Thin briskets cook too fast and can overcook before they’ve had a chance to become tender. Thick briskets cook more uniformly and take longer to cook, which allows the smoke more time to penetrate the meat. 12–13 pound packers are the ideal size. Larger briskets tend to come from older animals and can be overly tough.

4. Kamodo-style smokers are especially nice in colder climates. The ceramic is excellent at retaining temperature and moisture even in winter. However, they’re expensive, crack easily, and are relatively small in size.