Brrrr-isket! How to Cook Brisket in Frigid Temperatures

Cold Weather Brisket

December’s icy weather broke a lot of hearts—and records.   Let’s hope that’s the last of polar vortexes for this year, but if not, let me introduce you to my nephew, Dave Forsberg.   Engineer by day, Dave is an avid barbecuer and he recently wrote to ask if I had any tips for cooking a brisket in sub-zero weather.   Living in Miami, that’s not something I’ve had much experience with.   (Down here, we break out our down jacketss when it’s 50!)   But Dave seems to have figured out the challenge superbly on his own.   

So here’s how you cook a brisket when it’s -19 degrees F!

Steven Raichlen

How to Cook Brisket in Cold Weather

The winter holiday season was approaching and we’d made plans to have friends over for brisket and latkes.  I’ve done a half dozen briskets on the grill in the past, admittedly, with varying degrees of success.  (The meat always tasted good but the tenderness and juiciness still left some room for growth.) 

I had some ideas I wanted to try so figured we’d go similar to previous briskets but with some tweaks.  (Totally unrelated to this story, but worth mentioning, latkes on the grill is the way to go.  It keeps the oil splatters and smoke outside!)  I don’t have a fancy pellet smoker (Traeger or otherwise) or any sort of actual smoker.  I have a classic Weber kettle grill.  (I did modify it to add a thermometer as my base model grill did not come that way…an upgrade that is definitely worth it!)  As such, my plan to “smoke” this brisket was really just grilling it as low as possible without putting out the fire!  (In my experience, I can only consistently keep the grill at about 325° – well above 225 to 250°F smoking temps.  Anything lower and the fire snuffs out.)  We had a 7 pound  brisket flat,  so I planned to start cooking it eight hours before dinner.

The crux on this day was a forecast for -19°F low all the way up to a balmy -4°F high!  (For the record, winters in the Denver area aren’t usually this cold.)  I did some Googling, and the expectation to use more fuel was about the only real advice I found for such extreme weather grilling.

-15 Degrees! Brisket

I’m an engineer, so I’m going to take a brief semi-nerdy aside here…  There is a law of thermodynamics that says that the energy within a system is constant.  Applied to grilling, the potential (stored) energy within the fuel (lump hardwood charcoal, in this case) is released (combustion) which is absorbed by the brisket (cooking) with the remainder being dissipated (radiant and convective) to the environment.  Since it was sooooo cold, significantly more energy would be dissipated, thus requiring more fuel to maintain the grills internal temperature.  My biggest concern was that the fire would need to be so hot that I’d end up “hot grilling” the brisket.  Without giving too much away, I did notice that I kept the vents significantly more open but, otherwise, all proceeded roughly as per usual.

Okay, now to the big day…  I went out to shovel the driveway/walkway about 8 am and it was probably -15°F.  I then went to light the grill.  I did struggle to get the chimney going… I assumed because the newspaper might be damp.  It could just as well have been THAT cold.  (My lighter wouldn’t work so probably the latter.)  Once I got the fire going, I went inside to warm up.  I’d rubbed the meat the night before so I pulled it out of the refrigerator to warm to room temperature.  With the chimney full of hot coals, I set up the kettle for indirect heat.  (Fresh charcoal intermixed with the hot coals and spread around 3 sides with a large drip pan in the middle.)  I used a considerable amount of charcoal, both for the long cooking time and the cold.  Once the grill had stabilized (just right about 10 am) I put the meat on grate fat side down.

Cold Weather Brisket

I know there is huge debate on the orientation of the meat, i.e., fat side up vs. down.  Before anyone objects, let me explain my approach: In previous briskets, I’d tried to go the traditional “set it and forget it” smoker method but found that the grill was just too warm and the meat dried out.  To keep the meat moist, I started basting the brisket every 30 minutes with its drippings and beer.  This approach did several things: First and foremost, it provided the needed moisture.  It also recirculated the seasonings from the rub.  (I even tossed a couple cloves of garlic and some onion into the drip pan!)  The liquid-loaded drip pan also served to help regulate the temperature of the grill.  (If the grill got too hot, the liquid would boil away, thus removing some of the excess energy.)  And finally, it gave me a chance to check/adjust the coals.  (Tip: dry wood chips added to an open but nearly stalled fire help to quickly revive it!)  As a result of this methodology and my concern about too hot of a fire, I opted for a fat down meat orientation.  (A quick warning: Be aware of the salt content of your rub as this method recycles it which can lead to a very salty piece of meat!)

Brisket on the Grill - How to Cook Brisket in Cold Temperatures

The End Result

After about seven hours on the grill, the meat had an internal temperature of about 180&degF.  As I needed the grill for the latkes, I tightly wrapped the brisket with foil and transferred it to a hot oven to finish.  I then spread the remaining charcoal and coals in an even layer, added a cast iron pan full of oil, and worked the potatoes.  (Side note on the latkes: I transferred the slightly undercooked latkes to my gas grill as they came out of the oil.  This worked extremely well to keep them “fresh” and warm while making the rest.)  After about an hour, the brisket registered 205°F, so it was transferred to a cutting board to rest.  As I was still outside, my father-in-law then did an amazing job thinly slicing the brisket against the grain.  My wife also used the grease separator on the liquid in the drip pan to get some very smoking “au jus.”  I brought it in with the hot latkes and then it was time to eat!

Finished Brisket

The brisket was tender and extremely flavorful.  (The “au jus” added delicious smoky goodness to the latkes!)  I’m going to chalk this up as a success!

Brisket Done - How to Cook a Brisket in Cold Weather

As just an amateur experimental griller, I have some ideas for the next brisket!  (I think I’ll try the “Texas Crutch” next time!)  Happy grilling!

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