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Beef Brisket FAQ

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Post Wed Apr 12, 2006 11:25 am
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Brisket FAQ



This brisket advice is courtesy of BBQ Board member Bob-BQN:

The intent of this FAQ is not to cover recipes, but to explore the process of how-to cook a brisket and to help familiarize you with some techniques, pitfalls, and theory involved. Don’t think of this as “The Final Word” in How-To cook brisket, but a good place to get started your first time out. Everyone’s equipment is different and folk’s preferences vary as well. So the grain-of-salt philosophy applies when reading this opinionated advice. This FAQ is quite long, hopefully it won’t take you as long to read as it does to cook a brisket. Briskets aren’t as difficult to cook as the length of the FAQ first makes it appear to be, so relax and don’t sweat it.

Before the big cook
A few things that you need to determine right out of the shoot is: what type of brisket do you want to cook, how much you’ll need and how long it will take to cook it. Keeping a log during long cooks will help you remember details for the next cookout, which can prevent you from repeating mistakes & failures, while increasing your odds of recreating successes and fine-tuning improvements.

What is a brisket?

First let’s determine the anatomy of a brisket. A brisket comes from the lower part of the beef in the “chest” region between and just behind the front legs. A couple of commonly sold cuts of brisket are “whole” also called “whole packer” which include the “flat”, “point” and “fat cap”, or you can purchase the flat only. On occasion you may be able to find points sold separately. Some folks confuse the term “deckle” with the point of a brisket but it is actually the muscle and fat that connects the brisket to the rib cage. You’ll find many references on the Internet that simply confuse the issue even further. IMPS defines the brisket cut sold to consumers as: *****All bones and cartilage shall be removed. The deckle (hard fat and intercostal meat on the inside surface) shall be removed at the natural seam exposing the lean surface of the deep pectoral muscle. The inside lean surface shall be trimmed practically free of fat. ***** Therefore when you buy a brisket at the store, most or all of the deckle has been removed and most butchers will also remove it unless requested to leave it.

Should I cook a packer or a flat?

A whole brisket will take longer to cook than just the flat. So why bother with a whole brisket? The point contains a good amount of marbled fat, which keeps it tender and moist while cooking. And the fat cap on a whole brisket is usually not trimmed off as much as a flat’s fat cap. In fact, the fat cap is totally missing from some flats, which makes them less suitable for low-n-slow cooking unless a fatty layer is added back such as a layer of bacon on top. The fat doesn’t “add” moisture to a brisket as much as it prevents moisture loss while cooking. Some BBQ competition chefs choose to cook brisket flats so they don’t have to stay up all night tending the fire. A flat can be started early in the morning and be finished by mid-afternoon.

How can I tell if it’s a good brisket?

When selecting the brisket at the store the first thing to check (beside price & weight) is the “sell by” date. Always buy the freshest meat. Then there are a few things folks check for like, a nice layer of soft, white fat. Hard, yellow fat is a sign that the brisket came from an older animal or the animal had a poor diet. Also look for fat that is marbled throughout the meat not just in one area. Another tip for selection is to flex the brisket. The meat that bends tip-to-tip easily is a better choice for tender brisket than those that bend very little. Look for a brisket that has an even thickness across the flat. Those that taper to a thin end will not cook as evenly, the thin end will overcook.

There is some controversy as to whether the left brisket or the right is more tender due to the effort it takes for an animal laying down and getting up while repeatedly using the same side to perform the majority of the lifting. Searching the Internet you’ll find some that believe this to be true while it seems the majority believe it to be lore told at a BBQ competition to get others to stop asking “What’s your secret?”

How much brisket should I cook?

How many times has this question been asked when cooking for a large crowd? The answer can vary as it depends on the type of eaters you have invited. Families with small children or elders will consume less food than college buddies watching the big game. Men tend to eat more than women and vegetarians eat less meat in general than others. So consider whom you are cooking for and adjust accordingly.

As a rule of thumb, estimate 1 pound of meat (uncooked weight) per adult guest and1/2 pound per child. Sounds like a lot of meat doesn’t it? Consider loss. When you trim fat or gristle, that’s loss that will not be eaten. Also as meat cooks it looses moisture by evaporation and fat renders & drips away, more loss. If you have a picky eater or someone watching their diet, chances are they will not eat the fat that remains no matter how good it smells. Other meats having bone, the bone must be counted as loss when figuring amounts. After it all boils down, you can figure anywhere from 40-60% product loss from the retail sale to the dinner plate, meaning, that if you bought 16 oz. of meat per person you are now serving the +/- 6 to 9 ounces, which is a recommended serving. You can save a little money by serving smaller portions but to ensure everyone gets something to eat you will need a person serving the meat that can ration it out so that you don’t run out of food before everyone is served. To be a gracious host, cook a little extra to allow for seconds or a doggie bag.

How long will brisket take to cook?

Briskets are like snowflakes! What? No two briskets are exactly the same. Chicken & turkey can be estimated very closely with a “minutes per pound” ratio at a certain temperature, but brisket varies greatly. Let’s say for simplicity’s sake you can estimate 1.5 to 2 hours a pound. A 12-pound brisket can be done in 12 hours during one cookout and the next time a brisket weighing the same could take 22 hours. Why??? There are many variables that contribute to differences; the breed of the animal, its diet, the amount of exercise the muscle had, age of the animal, etc, etc, etc. This will determine the density of the muscle tissue and the amount of fat that is marbled into it. Even the type of cooking equipment used, the chef’s experience level at keeping a constant temperature on that equipment and the weather are all factors in how long the cooking session will be. So how could anyone possibly guess?

Good briskets take time to cook but the time varies so how do you tell when it’s done? There are a few methods that cook’s use. One of the simplest ways for a novice to tell when a brisket is done is checking it with a thermometer. Most briskets that are tough and dry were simply NOT cooked long enough. That sounds contradictory to all that makes sense but you’ll find out why when we talk about the plateau stage.

Most briskets will be done around 190* to 205*, however if you buy a good “choice” grade brisket it could be tender and juicy around 180* to 185*. We’ll cover testing for doneness later, after we’ve cooked the brisket.

To roughly estimate “How Long” it will take to get a brisket to the dinner table, let’s work backwards…

Beef needs to rest after it is cooked so the juices can redistribute throughout the meat before cutting. A brisket should rest for no less than 30 minute on a counter or 2 to 4 hours in a pre-warmed ice chest. So let’s call it a 2-hour rest.

Cooking time is “ r o u g h l y “ 1 to 2 hours a pound. Let’s say most briskets weight between 12 and 15 pounds. Most cooks run their smokers between 220* and 260*, grills usually run higher temperatures than smokers but should be kept low, not to exceed 300* if at all possible (read about the plateau to see why). So let’s guess 18 hours cooking time (which WILL vary).

If cooking equipment is allowed to come up to temperature before the meat goes in, then allow time for this, plus time to get the fire going. Some prefer to put cold meat in a cold smoker under the belief that the longer the meat spends exposed to smoke while it remains cold deepens the smoke ring (more to follow). An hour needs to be tagged on to get everything going.

So for an average cook, for an average brisket, on an average day, we can guestimate about 23 hours prior to eating, it’s time to get things started. So if you’re planning brisket for dinner, start it just after dinner the day before and you won’t need to rush anything. (Disclaimer: Your mileage may (WILL) vary!)

Here's some advice on cooking multiple briskets: ... hp?t=13792

Can a brisket be aged?

It is not uncommon to age beef, especially of the steak variety. Aging intensifies the beef flavor and tenderizes the meat. But do people really age brisket? There are several folks that “wet age” brisket for as long as 3 to 4 weeks. The brisket is kept sealed in its cryovac packaging in a controlled refrigerated environment between 34* to 38*. This means that it shouldn’t be kept in a fridge that is opened several times a day. Since the meat doesn’t dry using this method there is no concentration of flavor but the brisket should be tenderer when done. A word of caution, aging meat allows bacteria to do their thing, if conditions are not controlled properly the meat will spoil and not be fit to eat.

How much fat should I trim?

There are a few different schools of thought as to trim or not. Many cooks will trim the fat down to about ¼ inch and remove any hard pockets of fat while many others choose not to trim the fat at all. Both methods render a good brisket in the end. Some folks that have trimmed nearly all the fat before cooking usually report a dry tough brisket, this is most likely a direct result of removing the fat which is a protective barrier which shields the meat from the heat and reduces vaporization of the meat’s natural juices. Although there is some debate over whether the fat cap adds moisture to the brisket, only bastes the outside, or just protects it from the heat, this is sure, it helps keep the brisket moist.

If you wish to remove the fat for a low-fat or reduced calorie meal, it may be better to trim the layer down to 1/4 inch or so before cooking and remove the rest after the brisket has finished resting. The layer of fat can be easily removed in one fell swoop by running your hand (while wearing a PVC glove or similar) across the fat cap like a squeegee to scrape it off or you can carefully trim each slice after cutting it.

What is a slather? Should I slather?

A slather is basically a thin (emphasis THIN) layer of moist substance applied to the meat before the rub to help the rub adhere to the surface of the meat. Once you rinse the meat to removed possible contaminates and pat it dry then try to apply dry rub to the meat, much of the dry rub will fall away onto the counter top (or other preparation surface) instead of staying on the meat. A slather smeared onto the meat helps the rubs stick to it therefore there is less rub wasted and more flavor in the final product. Different substances that can be used for slather are; Worcestershire sauce, mustard, mayonnaise (or salad dressing), BBQ sauce, hot sauce, etc… Don’t be too concerned about the slather “flavoring” the final product. Used sparingly most slathers cannot be detected at the dinner table, except that there is more flavor from the extra rub that stayed on the meat. A lot of folks express concern about mustard tainting their BBQ but there is no detectable flavor from it after it’s cooked, when applied thinly. Try it you’ll like the results.

When should I rub?

Some meats take on flavor quicker and easier than others. Chicken, fish, steak and other thin or small cuts of meat can be seasoned 30 minutes to an hour or less before cooking. A brisket can also be seasoned just before placing in a smoker or on the grill to cook but it will benefit from a longer marinating session. A majority would agree that applying the rub the day before is perfectly acceptable. Some retail stores pre-marinate their meat before selling. This is becoming ever more popular. Acids will break down the meat fibers and salts will draw moisture out of the meat, both will have an unwanted result on your meal if left on too long, this is why some folks, mainly do-it-yourselfers, don’t buy the pre-marinated meats. But how long is too long? On a large cut of meat like brisket it’s not recommended to rub more that a day ahead because of the salt content of most rubs. If you are using a no-salt rub then longer times shouldn’t be a problem.

During the big cook
You want to determine which way is up, avoid playing peek-a-boo, understand what’s taking so long and be able to judge when things are ready. It is strongly recommended that you use a meat thermometer, like a wired remote probe or instant-read, to monitor the brisket’s temperature while it is cooking, until you gain experience enough to judge doneness using other methods.

What is a smoke ring and where can I get one?

A smoke ring is the pinkish to red layer of coloring normally around 1/4” deep under the surface of the meat that is caused by a chemical reaction between nitrogen dioxide (nitrites and nitrates) and myoglobin in the meat. This chemical reaction ceases to take place once the meat’s temperature rises to around 140* and will not develop any further during the cooking process. This is not to be confused with meat not taking on any more smoke flavor after the 140 degree mark as the meat will continue to collect smoke as long as it is exposed to it. The smoke ring is coloration only and does not contribute to the flavor of the meat. Some believe putting a cold brisket in the smoker yields a better smoke ring because it remains exposed to smoke for a longer period while below the 140* mark.

Artificial smoke rings can be chemically produced using dry curing, pickling and tenderizing products that contain nitrates or nitrites. These products can be applied to the exterior surface of the meat or injected. Take corned beef and pastrami for example, these products are pink in color all the way through. Controlled exposure will give a smoke rink effect. Many BBQ competition cooks and judges say that they can spot one of these “fake” smoke rings a mile away stating that the color is usually a lighter, uneven and the edge where the color stops is not as well defined.

In most BBQ competitions the color, depth, appearance or lack of a smoke ring does not count towards points. Even though judges are told to disregard it for scoring, appearance is one of the categories for scoring. When a human being sees that attractive coloring of the meat and there is a close decision between two entries, which do you think would win, with or without?

So should I put the brisket in cold or room temperature?

This is a matter of personal preference. While some say placing the brisket in cold produces the coveted beautiful smoke ring, a cold brisket also drops the pit temperature. So if trying to achieve a picture perfect slice of meat is your desire then by all means give it a try. But this will use more fuel, not much more if you’re only cooking one piece of meat. When cooking dozens of whole briskets for the masses the amount of fuel may add up enough to matter, so there’s a trade off. If you let the meat warm prior to placing in the smoker always keep food safety times and temperatures in mind. The Food and Drug Administration recommends keeping meats in the danger zone no longer than 4 hours total. The danger zone is considered temperature ranging between 40*F and 140*F. Once the meat is out of cold storage the clock is ticking. This includes transportation, preparation, and time spent in the cooker rising to 140*. So if the meat is on the counter 30 minutes to an hour to warm prior to cooking, that’s time off the 4-hour time frame.

Can I still smoke a brisket if I don’t own a smoker?

The short answer is most definitely. There are great, illustrated instructions on how to set your grill, gas or charcoal, up for indirect cooking in Steven’s book, “How to Grill” in the front of the book on pages 6 through 27. When using a small grill the fire goes on one side and the food on the opposite side. But when using a larger grill, a small fire is banked to each side of the grill while the food is centered between the two mounds of coals. Grills place the fire in a closer proximity to the food than traditional dedicated smokers and the temperatures can run a little hotter and fluctuate greater. Extra attention needs to be given to fire management when smoking on a grill. Since temperatures can be higher than the standard 225* to 250* you would expect to find in a smoker and spikes can happen quickly, more frequent monitoring of conditions will help prevent disaster. Also opening the lid needs to be kept to a minimum. So whenever the lid needs to be opened you’ll want to have everything needed to replenish the fire, pre-soaked wood chips, baste-mop-spray, foil, and tools staged and ready for use to complete the task as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to prevent excessive heat loss. On a charcoal grill wood chunks or soaked wood chips can be tossed directly into the fire to provide smoke. On a gas setup you will most likely wish to avoid getting ashes all over the inside grill, as cleanup would be a little difficult. Wood chips are placed in cast iron smoker box can be positioned in or near the flames of a burner being used to heat the unit. If the wood chips are not providing enough smoke the move the box closer to the heat, likewise if the chips ignite and burn up the box should be moved away from the burner a bit. Limiting the amount of oxygen to the wood will also prevent them from catching fire. You can also make a pouch out of aluminum foil (preferable, extra heavy duty foil) and wrap the pre-soaked wood chips tightly in a double-layer as illustrated in “How to Grill” pages 17 & 18.

Should I marinate or inject?

Traditional marinades wouldn’t penetrate very deep into the thick muscle of a brisket unless it sits for several days. And there are injector solutions available for briskets. While some folks have used injections and mention an addition of flavor to the meat they also report that the meat can be discolored in the areas that were injected if the solution wasn’t evenly distributed.

What is the best cooking temperature?

The most common cooking temperature for brisket is in the neighborhood of 225* to 250* in a smoker. Some people prefer to cook at lower temperatures like 210* and others have said why waste all that time if I can cook it and 325* and finish it several hours quicker. It is a general consensus that brisket should be cooked Low-N-Slow for the best product. A brisket is a tough ornery cut of beef that needs to be cooked for a long time to break down the fibers in the muscle tissue to make it tender. If it is cooked at higher temperatures the brisket will cook faster and if it isn’t a high grade of Choice or better then there is a good chance the meat will be tough and dry when served to eat.

What type of wood goes with brisket?

This is another area of personal preference. Different woods have distinctive flavors. Brisket is commonly cooked over a mesquite fire, however for some this wood has a very strong flavor. There are even known cases of food allergies to mesquite. Other popular woods for brisket include pecan and oak. But folks use woods such as peach, apple, cherry, etc. to cook brisket with equal success. Fruit woods are can also be blended with nut woods for a mellower, sweeter version of the more traditional flavors. In the end two factors play a big reason in the selection of wood used, availability and personal taste. So try different woods and see which one suits you best.

If you are sensitive to heavier flavored woods like hickory & mesquite and the smoke taste is too strong for your liking, wrapping the brisket in foil or even a paper bag once the desired level of smoke is achieved will reduce exposure to smoke. Take care that the paper bag is not exposed to direct heat or flames.

Should I cook brisket in a foil pan?

Brisket can be cooked in a foil pan but most pit masters don’t use one. Some folks who cooked brisket in a pan have said that the bottom of the brisket reminded them more of pot roast than how a brisket should taste, while some say they can produce fantastic brisket using this method. Others express concern as to whether you could get a proper smoke ring and smoke flavor on the bottom of the meat. One thing that can be done to help is to place a wire rack in the bottom of the pan to elevate the brisket above the pool of juices to prevent it from braising while it cooks. This would also allow for a little airflow underneath yet keep the brisket in close proximity to the moisture. Another option is to put the pan below the food grate directly under the brisket to function as a drip pan.

Should I cook brisket fat side up or down?

A brisket can be cooked either fat side up or with the fat down. A couple of major factors in determining which way the fat belongs is “personal preference” or the type of equipment it is being cooked on.

Nearly as heated a debate as a Propane or Purist (charcoal, wood, lump) fire is the topic of fat up or down.

Some believe that if the fat is up it will melt and baste the meat during the cook helping to keep the exterior moist. Some have said that the fat melts into the meat making it moist and tender, however, recent explanation of the science of a brisket states that the meat is not porous enough to allow fats to soak in, instead it is the internal marbled fats and connective tissue that break down to do this.

Many barbecue competitors will tell you to cook the brisket fat side down. They have a pretty good reason for this. If it is cooked fat side up the surface of the meat comes in contact with the food grates and the bark is disturbed and even scraped off or it sticks to the grates. This is extremely undesirable when turning in your product to be judged. Cooking with the fat down allows a nice beautiful bark to form, preserving all the flavor of the smoke and spices.

Now if you want to determine the fat’s positioning according to what type of equipment you own, then place it according to where your fire is located. If the fire is located underneath the cooking area, as with a vertical smoker or a grill, then you may wish to cook with the fat side down. Just like on whales and seals in the great white North, fat is an insulating layer that can protect from extreme temperatures. With the fire below and the fat position down so that it’s between the heat and the meat, it can help protect the brisket from direct exposure to the fire’s radiating heat and from possible temperature spikes. If you have an offset smoker and the fire is to the side, positioning is totally up to you.

Should I rotate or flip the brisket during cooking?

If you have a smaller offset smoker where the pit is always hotter on the firebox end and the exhaust stack end is cooler then it is a very good idea to rotate the brisket. Rotating the brisket under these conditions will help promote more even cooking. However, since the point end (if cooking a whole brisket) is thicker and contains more marbled fat, it will need to face the fire for approximately 2/3 of the time.

Flipping is not necessary to produce great brisket but there are pit masters that swear by it. In fact one chef is known for removing his brisket from the pit, submersing it completely in marinade (as opposed to mopping or spraying) and then placing it back into the smoker on its other side. Some who do flip recommend doing so on the “halves”. Example: During a 20 hour cook; flip at 10 hours (half way into the cook), 15 hours (half the time remaining), and at the 17-1/2 to 18 hour mark.

Rotating can work better with offsets and flipping is optional depending on your opinion.

How often should the cooker be opened?

Truthfully … as little as possible! Every time the lid is opened you are adding to the time and fuel it takes to cook your food. When you open to peek, take a picture, mop or spray, flip or rotate, add fuel or smoke wood, add water (pre-heated hot water by the way), check the meat’s temperature, wrapping in foil, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, (see how many excuses there are) you let out precious heat. The smoker can take anywhere from 5 to even 20 minutes to recover its temperature after being opened, depending on door size, climate conditions and duration. So it is very important to resist the temptation to open the smoker. Some say do this or that hourly, and as mentioned above others recommend performing routine maintenance on the halves. But perhaps the best advice is, the less the better.

Does a brisket need to be mopped?

You can baste, mop, spray or even dip a brisket to keep it moist during cooking. If you do baste, mop, spray or dip, don’t do it for the first couple of hours, the reason for waiting it to allow the dry rub to dry out, set, and form a bark. Otherwise if you start off applying liquids to the surface right away you’ll end up washing all those good flavors off your meat. Science says that a moist surface will conduct heat better than a dry surface. Therefore, if you keep the exterior of a brisket wet while it’s cooking it should cook quicker. But there is a trade-off because opening the smoker slows the cooking process. Once again some recommend applying liquids hourly while other will tell you to only do it on the halves. You can still attain a moist tender brisket even without mopping if it’s cooked low-n-slow over a long period of time.

What is a plateau?

A brisket will go through a noticeable temperature plateau while cooking. This is normal and can last a long, long time. Somewhere around 160-165* the temperature can level off or even drop in the brisket because the process of melting & breaking down connective tissue, sinew, collagen, and fat begins and it consumes a lot of energy in doing so. A brisket can set there for 1 hour or even stall out for 5 to 6 hours, the time with vary from one piece of meat to the next. During the plateau phase a brisket gets tender and juicy, unlike a steak, which would only dry out and get tough. Even though brisket and steak come from the same animal they are completely different beasts and take a different mentality to cook. Be patient during this period and let the brisket take its time without trying to rush it or push it through by turning up the heat. If you don’t understand what is happening here you will go crazy thinking that your thermometer is broken or the fire isn't hot enough or whatever. Just endure and let the brisket cook like it is suppose to. If you try to rush the brisket through this process by raising the temperature then you’ll most likely end up with tough, dry meat when you serve it on the table. You want the meat to ride out the plateau and run its natural course because this is when all the good stuff is happening to it, this is when it's getting tender and juicy. A second plateau may sometimes be noticed around 180-185*, however, this one is not nearly as pronounced and won’t last as long as the first. Love your plateaus! They are the key to BBQ’ing success.

Should a brisket be wrapped in aluminum foil?

Foil is a common practice when cooking brisket, but brisket doesn’t need to be wrapped to produce a great meal. Although some are reluctant to confess to using foil it still seems that more use it than not. Sometimes jokingly referred to as the Texas Crutch (probably because brisket is a Texas thang and you wouldn’t understand), foil although used by many, it is used at different times and for differing reasons. Some will wrap a brisket in a double-layer of heavy-duty or extra heavy-duty foil at 160* just before it enters the plateau stage and let if finish cooking in the foil. Others will wait until after the brisket rides out the first plateau wave and reaches 170* to wrap it. And lastly some will wait until the brisket has completely finished cooking to wrap it in foil for a much deserved resting period. Each of these methods with or without foil have proven to yield a deliciously tender brisket. NOTE: For those using propane equipment, once the brisket is wrapped in foil there is no need to add any more smoke wood.

Can a brisket be finished in the oven?

Although “purists” would strongly object to finishing any authentic barbecued food in the oven, the answer is still, yes. For example, you run out of fuel because you may have thought there was “more than that”, or you’re too tired to stay up with the fire all night and sure disaster will strike if you fall asleep, then perhaps you have no choice. In any case, once the brisket has the desired amount of smoke flavor or is ready to wrap in foil, moving it to a preheated oven will make little or no difference in the final quality of taste or texture.

How can I tell when a brisket is done?

There are several methods for testing if a brisket is done. Some methods are best left to the experienced professionals while others are more foolproof for the novice beginner.

Some very experienced pit masters profess that they can tell if a brisket is done just by looking at it. Some cooks will take a fork, insert it into the meat, and then give it a twist. The can tell by how the fork twists if it’s done. Another way to tell if a brisket is done is by picking it up and feeling it or jiggling it. This also takes some experience to be able to tell if it has the right feel of movement.

For someone just starting out who has no basis on which to judge the doneness of a brisket there are two basic tests that anyone can use. You can poke the meat with a skewer or the probe of a thermometer while paying attention to the amount of resistance required inserting and removing device. When the meat is tender it will slide in and out like “butter” with no resistance. You will be able to tell how it should fell after one or two cooks. Another easy way to tell is by reading a thermometer. If a brisket is a good quality cut of meat it could be done as early as 180* but normally it will be closer to 190*. For an extra tender brisket some people cook it to 195* and to as high as 205*. At higher temperatures you might wind up with a brisket so tender that it will not hold together while slicing and may be more suited for chopped beef sandwiches (which are good too).

Whichever method you decide to use to check for doneness, it’s a good idea to start checking at around 180* so you don’t overshoot the mark you’re aiming for.

After the big cook
Is it done yet? When do we eat? I’M STARVED!!! There are still a few things you can do to improve the quality of you brisket.

Now that it’s done, what’s next?

The first thing NOT to do is start cutting into that savory, delicious smelling hunk of meat. Why, because it needs time to rest, to allow the juices to redistribute throughout the meat. If not allowed to rest, once you cut into it a good amount of the moisture will run out onto the cutting board and the slices will not be as juicy.

As a minimum, you should wrap or tent the brisket with foil and allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes. Even better would be to tightly wrap the brisket in foil and place it in a hotbox or pre-warmed cooler for 2 to 4 hours. This will allow the brisket to cook a little more without additional heat then rest and slowly redistribute its juices. The bark will soften some and the overall texture of the brisket will be more tender and juicy.

How do I carve a brisket?

A slice about 1/4 of an inch thick makes good for serving and is what many barbecue competitions require. It can be sliced thinner if the meat is tougher than expected or if you’re going to use it for sandwiches.

Brisket should be slice across the grain of the muscle to make it easier to cut with a fork and to chew. The grain of a brisket runs diagonally across the length of the flat and changes direction almost perpendicular in the point. Some prefer to separate the point from the flat prior to slicing so that both can be sliced cross-grain. You can easily familiarize yourself with how the grain runs by examining the meat before it’s cooked and before you slather or rub it. A trick to help you identify the direction of the grain when it’s time to carve, is to place a couple of toothpicks half way into the meat and spaced apart to indicate its orientation before slathering and rubbing. With the toothpicks in place, you’ll see which way to cut the meat come carving time. Caution: If you wrap using foil, toothpick can poke holes in the foil causing hot juices to leak.

What if the brisket finishes too early or later than I expected?

That’s the funny thing about brisket … well, maybe not so funny when you’re expecting company, each one cooks a little differently so finishing early or late is bound to happen some time.

If a brisket is taking longer to cook than you planned for and things are coming down to the wire you can “push” it. To help move things along, wrap the meat in foil with a 1/4 cup of apple juice or beef broth and turn the heat up. This will braise the meat and steam it a little too. There is a chance that it won’t be as good in the moist & tender department as shortening the cooking time reduces the time that fat, collagen, and connective tissues have to break down.

Now let’s say the brisket finished way earlier than expected, you need to keep it warm until time to serve. One way is to wrap it in foil or place in a covered pan and put it into a preheated 170* oven (or its lowest setting) and let it “hold”. It will continue to cook some but it will also cool a bit without having to worry about the meat temperature dropping into the danger zone. A side benefit will be the house will smell terrific when guests arrive! Another method for holding or transporting a hot brisket, as touched on before is to tightly wrap the brisket in foil and place it in a hotbox or pre-warmed cooler for 2 to 4 hours. To do this first line the bottom of the chest with clean newspaper. The newspaper with help increase the insulating factor of the container and also absorb juices that may leak from the foil. To add thermal mass to the picture, you can place clean, wrapped, hot bricks between layers of newspaper, which will help keep things hotter longer. Then place the brisket(s) in and fill the rest of the air space in the cooler with blankets, towels or more newspaper. Filling the dead air space will slow the amount of heat lost from the meat and keep it warmer longer. If the meat needs to be held over a long period of time, place a wired remote probe thermometer into the thick of the meat and run the lead out of the container to the base unit where you can keep an eye on it to monitor temperatures. Take care when routing not to pinch or bind the probe lead in order to prevent damaging your equipment when opening and closing the lid. Keep the lid closed until time to remove the meat.

Can I freeze brisket after it’s been cooked?

Brisket freezes well and still has good texture and flavor when thawed and reheated. The trick to good storage is to remove the air from the packaging so frost doesn’t have room to form. For short-term storage you can use something as simple as zip lock freezer bags, but if not used after a few months it may get freezer burned.

For long-term storage or more peace of mind a vacuum sealer works extremely well. The plastic on vacuum bags it thicker than standard zip lock bags and most or all of the air is removed when packaging so foods can be frozen as long as 2 years with very little loss of quality. Also the vacuum bags work well when reheating. Portion the meat into expected serving amounts for meals instead of large amounts to simplify storage, handling and reheating. If the meat is warm when vacuum sealing a lot of juices can be sucked into the machine. Allow the meat to cool in the refrigerator and the task of sealing won’t be as messy. If you would like to include a little extra juice with the brisker, a trick to keep the machine from sucking it all out is to freeze the juice in small ice cube trays and then include a couple of these ice cubes in the bag when sealing.

How should brisket be reheated?

If the brisket is whole first thaw it in a refrigerator, this may take a few days. Then place it in a 325* oven in a covered roasting pan with a little liquid in the bottom to prevent drying and warm until the meat reaches 160*.

Sliced meat runs a much greater risk of drying out while reheating. There are a number of ways to reheat it but time and time again it is said that sealed in a vacuum bag is best because it keeps the meat moist. The vacuum bag can be place in an oven, submersed in boiling water, and even microwaved while sealed. Heated air expands and under sealed conditions the expanding air builds pressure, but because the vacuuming process removes air while packaging the danger is removed with it. It is best to thaw the meat prior to reheating but because the slices (hopefully) were portioned into manageable servings they can go straight from the freezer to be reheated quickly when the need arises. You can reheat in the bag in a 300* oven for 30 minute to an hour but the bag should be on a baking sheet in case it develops a leak. The bag can also be dropped (sealed of course) into a pot of low boiling water without fear of overheating or burning the meat. Watch the bag for leaks so you don’t end up boiling the brisket if water gets into the bag. And as mentioned the bags can also be reheated in a microwave without concern of it inflating under pressure since the air was removed.

If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, thaw it first, keep it moist and keep an eye on it while reheating so it doesn’t over cook or dry out.

What else can be done with brisket?

Besides good old smoked beef brisket there are a few variations you can try. Instead of going into great detail about each, they’ll just be mentioned to make you aware and the research will be up to you.

Burnt Ends – The point of the brisket is highly marbled with fat. After the brisket is cooked the point is separated from the flat, chopped into chunks and place back into the smoker for several more hours. You can even add a little more rub for extra flavor at this point. BBQ sauce is added to the chopped beef 30 minutes to an hour prior to removing from the smoker. This makes some awesome sandwiches.

Pastrami – Usually made from the flat of a brisket that has been wet or dry cured with a product like Morton Tender Quick and spices for several days. After curing it is rinsed and soaked thoroughly to remove any remaining cure, then coated with a salt-free rub since the cure already added the sodium and smoked as usual.

Homemade Pastrami: Pics & Method

Corned Beef – This is wet cured in a similar fashion to pastrami but the flavors uniquely differ because it is seasoned with pickling spices while curing. Although traditional corned beef is braised or boiled, many have reported successfully smoking them.

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