BBQ Brisket Perfection!

I am fortunate that my competitive BBQ teams have done well across all of the meat categories, but our brisket is our most consistent and most winning product. No matter the contest or catering/family event, this brisket will make you a winner every time!

Selecting a Brisket

First of all, select the right meat. The following excerpt is from my “Meet The Meat” Article:

Beef Brisket is typically found in one of two ways: as a trimmed “flat” or whole in cry-o-vac. A whole brisket is comprised of the “flat” and the “point”, and a layer of fat separates the two. The flat is sliced to produce what you normally see as slices of brisket in a sandwich while the point is used to produce “burnt ends”. The point contains far more fat content than the flat.

Whole briskets are found at warehouse stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco but can sometimes be found at local grocery stores. Trimmed flats can be found at either warehouse stores or grocery stores, but be prepared to pay far more per pound than you would for a whole brisket, and you will not have the point for burnt ends if that is desired.

You also want to look for a “tall” end on the flat part of the brisket. You will notice that, if you laid the brisket down on a table that the meat is taller near the point and tapers down as you move toward the other end. Try to find a brisket where the end of the flat is as tall as possible – if possible, look for a flat end to be an 1″ or taller.

This matters for three reasons: first, if the meat is particularly thin on the end it will cook much faster than the rest of the flat and will overcook. Second, not only is it overcooked, but as you slice the brisket you want a nice slice that is 1″ to 2″ tall, and the shorter slices don’t show well. Finally, as you work your way slicing from the end of the flat back toward the point (more on slicing below) you will encounter a line of fat that runs laterally across the brisket and this line of fat typically gets bigger the closer you get to the point. You’ve probably seen this when you get a brisket sandwich at your favorite local BBQ joint. A little fat is fine, and that fat is indeed responsible for some good flavor. But for most of us, if that vein of fat gets too big in relation to the meat, it becomes less desirable and we note that, while the brisket is good, it was “kinda fatty.”

Trimming a Whole Brisket

If you purchased a whole brisket, you will want to separate the point from the flat. It may help to visualize this, so while you are picking out your whole brisket, take a peak at the flat only pieces to notice how they look after the butcher separated the flat from the point (remember, you can purchase the flat only, but it will cost more and you won’t have the point for burnt ends).

Lay the whole brisket on a cutting surface (I like to spread a few large sheets of aluminum foil on a counter top, using tape to secure the sheets from moving around) so that the fat side is down. Now, inspect the sides of the brisket back toward the point and try to identify a line of fat that will give you a clue as to how to separate the flat from the point. It will be about 3/4 of the way down the flat toward the point. You do NOT have to be precise here, so just start cutting with a large sharp knife, working your way across the brisket from side to side at an angle from top to bottom.  Again, this is not rocket science – you could pick a point and simply whack the big point from the flat with a single vertical cut and you would be fine. You will simply end up with a flat and a point that have a layer of fat running through the middle that will make a portion of the brisket not as easy to use (but would be great to chop up to add to BBQ beans!)

I see people spend so much time and get stressed out about separating the point from the flat – RELAX!  Have fun, and be very careful as you are wrestling a decent size of meat, but you will learn as you cut and become more familiar over time.  But you simply cannot mess this up. You can look for videos on YouTube that may be helpful, most most I have found are minimally helpful and sometimes long and a little boring.

Trimming the Flat

Now that you have the point separated from the flat, turn the flat over so that the fat side is up. Using a filet-like motion, trim the fat so that it is about 1/8 to 1/4″ thick at most. Also look for any fat that has a shiny slimy cellophane look and trim that very thin layer off. Take your time as the result will be well worth it.

We are doing this for two reasons; first, the fat will render down during cooking and actually flavor and moisten the meat. Having a layer of about 1/8 to 1/4″ has proven to be about the right amount of fat. The second reason we remove that very thin cellophane is that it does not render down like the creamier looking fat and can lead to a stringy undesirable fat after cooking.

Flip the flat over and inspect the surface, looking for a very thin shiny layer of what I call “silver skin”. Typically, it is only in patches rather than covering the entire surface of the meat. Using a filet motion again (and a sharp knife is key here), gently remove this layer, trying to take as little good meat with it in the process. Again, take your time. When complete, the entire surface should be meat only. If any little pieces of fat or other blemishes appear, remove those as well.

Trimming the Point

The point takes much less time and effort to trim. Simply remove all excess fat (more than 1/4″ at any point) and any of the nasty cellophane fat.  Since the point is used for chopped burnt ends rather than pretty looking slices of the flat, you have an opportunity after cooking to trim out any excess fat, and in fact, people typically prefer a bit more fat and moistness to their burnt ends.

Rub Your Brisket

Now that you have your flat and brisket, there’s just one more thing to do before you start the cooking process: rub your meat! You can use any commercially available rub or you may have your own recipe, but most are going to be comprised of salt, black pepper, and sugar, with other herbs and seasonings involved. The salt and pepper do their magic as they always do with beef, and the sugar will work to create a “bark” or crust on the outside of the brisket. I plan on posting my brisket rub recipe soon, as it has been a key to our winning so many ribbons and trophies over the years.

The key is to use the rub liberally and make sure you hit all edges, nooks, and crannies. And while they call it a “rub”, I usually use more of a patting motion rather than a rubbing. Make sure the look of the brisket is consistent on all sides and you will be tickled by how good it looks even before you start cooking! I typically apply even more rub on the point, making sure it gets a very serious bark.

For competition I wrap the rubbed brisket very tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate or put in a cooler overnight until ready to cook. However, I have never been convinced that it needs that time to work its magic nor that it actually penetrates the meat very far, so when cooking at home, unless I am prepping ahead of time, I pretty much go straight into the smoker after rubbing. If I need to get the smoker going, the meat will sit out and get happy for 30 minutes to an hour anyway while the smoker comes up to temperature.

Cooking the Brisket: Part One

Before we can cook anything, we need to get the smoker ready by bringing it up to about 250°. Make sure the grates are clean. For more general information, check out my article, “Start Here: Let’s BBQ!” Once the smoker is ready to go, add wood to begin the smoke. My preference for brisket is pecan and cherry. Once the wood is on, we’re ready to get the brisket on.

Place the flat fat-side up on your grate; if you are using a small cooking device such as a kettle grill, make sure you keep the brisket away from the direct heat. Place the point on the grate so as to spread it out a bit. This creates more surface area that will get crusty with a bark – a very desirable thing with burnt ends. Place temperature probes (go get two digital thermometers with cabled probes NOW if you don’t already have them!) in a meaty portion of both the flat and point.

Keep the cooker going between 225° and 250°, and keep wood on the fire generating smoke for the first 4 hours or so. After that, you can omit wood or go with a lower smoke, hot fuel wood like oak.

Watch the temperature closely when you get in the upper 150’s near 160.  When you hit 165°, pull the meat off the smoker (the flat and the point may not get there at the same time, but that’s okay, the same process will apply to each) and get ready for Part Two below.

Cooking the Brisket: Part Two

Once the brisket (either flat or point) has reached an internal temperature of 165° and you have removed it from the smoker, prepare to wrap it in aluminum foil by placing a 3 foot piece of heavy duty foil on a table, and tightly wrap the brisket in the foil. Then, turn the brisket 90° and repeat the process, wrapping again. The tighter the wrap, the better.

A note on aluminum foil: You definitely want to use heavy duty aluminum foil rather than standard grade, and if you’re looking to get into smoking on a regular basis you will save some money by picking up a big roll of it at a big-box store like Sam’s Club or Costco. Otherwise, you’ll run through grocery store rolls in short order.

Return the brisket to the smoker. Once both the point and the flat are returned to the smoker, there is no reason to induce smoke since the meat is wrapped, so unless you just need wood to keep up the temp (oak is a good wood for that purpose), you can go with pure lump charcoal for the remainder of the cook. Put thermometer probes deep into the brisket right through the foil.

Continue cooking until the internal temperature reaches EXACTLY 205°! This is a magic temperature for brisket and is not negotiable! Remove the brisket and let sit when it reaches 205° for at least 30 minutes before unwrapping.

This is the precise temperature at which the connective tissue in the brisket will begin to break down and hitting this temperature is the key to making perfectly tender brisket. If cooking stops before the connective tissue breaks down, the brisket will not be as tender as it could be and may be a bit chewy; cooking too long will completely break down the connective tissue. You may be thinking that would be okay, but it is not as the brisket will then completely “fall apart” and you will not be able to slice it. I call this “turning bbq brisket into Grandma’s pot roast”.  You want tender slices, and removing the brisket from the cooker at 205° is the secret.

Leaving the brisket sitting wrapped for at least 30 minutes does two things; first, it allows the brisket to finish cooking with what is called “residual heat” (which is why you do not want to go beyond 205° on the cooker) to reach tender perfection. The other thing that happens when allowing the brisket to sit or “rest” is the juices that have left the meat will begin to return, creating a luscious, tender and juicy result.

Slicing the Flat

Place the flat on a cutting surface and begin to slice at a 90° angle from the grain (also called “across the grain”). If you’re not familiar with the concept of meat grain, you will notice that meat has subtle lines in it. On a brisket flat, these run from the end where the point was to the other end of the flat; call it “long-ways”. But it is typically at an angle, which means you will want to look at the flat and see those grain lines so that you cut at a nice 90° angle. Why does this matter? Well, if you remember the connective tissue discussion above, these lines of meat are connected by that tissue. Cutting squarely across the lines will yield the most tender cut, whereas cutting “with the grain” will give you a slice that has no broken down connective tissue. It’s almost like science, but tastier.

Continue slicing with a large sharp knife, working from the flat end back toward where the point was. Back toward the point, you will notice an inner run of fat begin to occur, getting more so until the flat is completely sliced. If the fat is okay with you, just leave it. If it gets to be too fatty, simply run a knife along each individual slice, removing the fat to make nice slices. At some point you may end up with pieces that are more suitable for chopping and you can combine with the burnt ends.

Preparing the Burnt Ends

Burnt Ends are a very interesting food product. Some people would give up just about anything to have good burnt ends, while others consider them too fatty and possibly too charred or “burnt” tasting. Let your tastes dictate how you prepare the burnt ends using the steps below.

Place the meat on a cutting surface. Using a medium size knife, remove any excess fat, leaving a little fat as desired. Cut the point into 3 or 4 arbitrary large pieces so you can see to continue removing any excess fat. Once the pieces look good, slice the larger meaty pieces into 1/2″ slices, then cut those slices into 1/2″ cubes. For pieces that do not nicely slice into cubes, use a large knife or cleaver to chop the burnt ends into a collection of tasty meat, fat, and crusty bark – on white bread this makes a fantastic burnt end sandwich. As with any leftover small bits of meat, consider using that in BBQ beans or other dishes (mounds of chopped brisket taste great on baked potatoes!)

Serving Your Brisket

Arrange slices of brisket in layers so that they overlap, each exposing the top edge of the lower piece to see the smoke ring and bark. I don’t put any BBQ sauce on my brisket, and I find that if people “sneak a bite” before they instinctively reach for the sauce bottle, they almost always put the bottle back down.  When all of the slices are laid out, you can arrange the burnt ends either in front or along one or both sides of the slices, depending upon your serving dish. While it’s all about the taste and tenderness of the brisket, a good looking presentation just adds that last bit of “oomph” that will earn you another BBQ Rock Star medal!

Philip Allen