It’s the pinnacle of Texas BBQ, the gold medal standard by which I judge any BBQ joint, smoked brisket. It is a 12+ hour labor of love that can be a maddening process, but the reward when successful is beyond compare. A flavor that is completely unique, and a tender, gigantic piece of beef that melts in your mouth, this dish takes years to master, if there is such a thing.
I see BBQ as a journey. Every piece of meat is unique and requires its own process. Different cuts, grades, weights, and shapes, each with a different method required to bring out the perfect flavor destined to flow out of each piece. Brisket, pork butts, pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken, turkey, and sausage, are all unique and I treat each cut differently (with both seasoning and cooking methods), but we are here to talk about brisket.
I start with a good piece of meat, prime or American Wagyu. The jump to Wagyu from prime isn’t really that drastic, especially with the increase in price for prime beef. A good deal for prime brisket at Costco is $5-$7 a pound, and the black grade Wagyu at the online retailer, Snake River Farms, is roughly $10 a pound. Here in Westchester County NY, you will pay a minimum of $10 a pound for prime at a local butcher, so why not get that extra marbling? After all, the more marbling there is the more juicy, tender goodness is possible.
The issue with ordering from an online supplier is that you can’t pick your cut of meat. That is a gamble. There are standards to which the butchers adhere, but sometimes it isn’t perfect. I typically receive good quality cuts from my online suppliers, but once in a while… not so much. A 15-pound brisket can cost over $100, and $150 for Wagyu, so is that gamble worth it? Part of the equation is ease of access. Having your meat delivered to your door is about as easy as it gets. Running to Costco isn’t bad, but will they have what you are looking for in stock?
What am I looking for in a good brisket? To me, the most important factors are the fat cap and the thickness (and evenness) of the flat. I once received a 22 lb Wagyu brisket for a party that had a flat that tapered down to less than 1/2 inch. It’s hard to smoke a brisket that big for 16-18 hours or more and keep a 1/2-inch section moist and tender. I’m looking for a nice thick, even flat with an even fat cap on the other side. Hopefully, there aren’t too many bald spots. Too thick is fine, I’m trimming it anyway.
Speaking of trimming, this is an important part of the process. I’m looking to trip off any excess fat that won’t render, as well as any pieces that will burn up over the long cook. With that in mind, I’m going to trip the fat cap to 1/4 inch, avoiding over-trimming so as not to create any bald spots. The fat cap protects the meat during the cook, and anything over 1/4 inch thick isn’t going to render. I then flip it over and trim off any excess fat from the other side, as well as any silver skin I can.
A brisket is two parts, the flat and the point. These two muscles are separated by a thick layer of fat that won’t totally render, but we are going to try to remove as much as we can from the outside while keeping the brisket as aerodynamic as possible. Any flaps or excess pieces sticking up will turn into crispy, burnt bits after 12+ hours, so remove them. It’s also a good idea to trim off any meat that doesn’t look sir fresh around the flat. I usually trim 2-3 pounds of fat and meat to get it to look just right. Then you are ready to season.
Salt and pepper, that’s it. Kosher salt and coarse ground (16 mesh) black pepper. Your choice of wood will do the rest of the talking. But Central Texas style is purely salt and pepper. There are other seasonings out there, and some of them are really good, but I love the smoke flavor, and putting too much other spice on it masks that flavor. So it’s a no thank you for me. Also, in Central Texas, they use post oak for the wood. That is hard to find in New York so I get a mix of red and white oak. I like to mix in a little cherry as well, it adds a little something sweet to the flavor, but just a hint. Refer to my post on wood selection for a more in-depth conversation about that. Once the brisket is seasoned evenly all over with the salt and pepper mixture, it’s time to fire up the smoker.
I have recently found that starting slower, smoking the brisket for the first few hours at 225-250 then ramping it up to 275-285 after about 3-4 hours helps the meat absorb more smoke flavor. I recently experimented with a 17-pound Wagyu brisket at 275-300 the whole time. It was good, nice, and tender, and cooked a couple hours quicker, but it was lacking the intensity of smoke flavor I like. Take your time, that’s the lesson I learned. This is a labor of love. It takes time, a lot of time, but it is well worth it in the end.
We had a few friends over recently and I wanted to smoke a brisket, the 16.5 Costco prime brisket I had in the freezer. It was a 13+ hour process, and the flavor was excellent, like dynamite, but I think it could have gone a little longer for a little more tenderness. It was still delicious though.
Seriously, that brisket was so flavorful! And the smoke ring was really vibrant and rich. Like I said earlier though, I do wish it had turned out a bit more tender. Another hour might have done it, but it’s so hard to feel the meat when it’s all wrapped up in butcher paper. The Wagyu brisket I made a couple months ago was incredibly tender and juicy, but it lacked the intense smoke flavor I like. But look at this clip. How juicy is that?!
All in all, the most important part of smoking a brisket isn’t the trimming, or seasoning, or wrapping (you can make a great brisket without wrapping at all), it’s fire management and consistent temperatures. I’m still working on this myself. Managing a fire for 12+ hours, usually overnight, is exhausting. Trying to keep it within 10 degrees (who am I kidding, within 25 degrees is hard), and keep the smoke just right the whole time is the maddening part. Every smoker is different, but smaller smokers are more prone to spikes in temperature than the big 1000-gallon smokers are. And cheaper smokers made of sheet metal are even harder than that. Consistent temperatures make a better, more tender product. But that gets difficult at 5 am after a long day at work.
It is a labor of love though. A good brisket is incredible, and when you do that yourself it feels like such an accomplishment. I love the art of smoking meat. There is so much nuance, and so much reward when it’s done right. I love most BBQ, but brisket… brisket is the gold standard. Here’s to many more smokes!