All Hands on Deck for Boat Mode Brisket: A Fun and Flavorful Way to Cook Meat

How do you cook brisket? Cooking brisket can be simple and easy or complicated and stressful. Personally, I like to keep it simple. Trim it, season it, smoke it, rest it, slice it, and eat it. But there are many decisions to be made when cooking brisket. Do you prefer “hot and fast” or “low and slow?” Whole brisket (called a packer brisket, which includes the flat and the deckle) or just the flat? What combination of seasonings do you use? What smoker or grill do you use? Do you cook it fat side up or down? Do you wrap your brisket? Do you wrap with butcher paper or foil? There’s lots to consider when you just want to eat brisket.

I do not consider myself an expert at smoking brisket, but I’ve cooked a lot of them. I love to learn new techniques or tricks to improve the results of my briskets. When I first started cooking briskets, I used the hot and fast method based on the equipment I owned. Due to my current collection of grills and smokers, I go with the low and slow method. I have experimented with wrapping with butcher paper, foil, and not wrapping at all.

Currently, my go-to process is to trim the whole brisket leaving a quarter inch of fat. Season it simply with kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Smoke at 225 degrees until the brisket hits the stall (the place where the internal temperature of the meat “stalls,” or even drops), and then I gradual increase the temperature to 250 degrees to push through the stall. After the stall (usually around 165 degrees), I wrap the brisket in uncoated butcher paper. I’m looking for a final temperature of 203 degrees. Then I let the brisket rest for 45 minutes on the counter or the side table of the smoker depending on the weather, and then into a cooler for a few hours. I don’t put the brisket in the cooler right away since the carryover can cause the brisket to overcook.

Brisket with rub

Boat Mode Brisket

Steven Raichlen recently asked me if I had heard of the boat mode of cooking a brisket. I hadn’t, but knew he would ask me to test it. It might be the one method of cooking brisket that’s not in his book, The Brisket Chronicles.

The boat mode of cooking a brisket is where you make a foil “boat” to cradle the brisket while cooking. The “boat” holds the rendering fat and juices, keeps the brisket moist, and allows more time to develop the bark we all want on a brisket. It also keeps the bark from getting soft due to wrapping.

The “boat mode” was discovered by accident when Evan Leroy’s (co-owner of Austin’s LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue) assistant neglected to close up the foil while checking the temperature of a brisket. LeRoy figured the brisket was ruined, but realized the bark was crispy while the rest of the brisket was tender and juicy.

Based on my experience—the windy winter weather here in New England can make it difficult to maintain a consistent temperature—I decided to use my pellet smoker.

Most of the boat mode experiments I read about or watched online were performed with a whole brisket. Thank you to D’Artagnan for sending me a brisket flat for my experiment. After minimal trimming, I seasoned the brisket with kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Once the pellet smoker reached 200 degrees, I placed the brisket on the second rack. The reason for placing the brisket on the second rack was to keep the bottom of the flat from drying out. In the past, I have cooked flats in foil pans with bacon over the top to prevent the flat from drying out. But I wanted to see if the boat mode produced more of the crispy bark I love when eating brisket. I felt the bacon would interfere.

Brisket on the grill

I find I get more smoke when pellet smokers are at lower temperatures, so I started with 200 degrees and slowly worked up to 225 degrees. Once I hit the stall I gradually adjust from 225 to 250 trying to maximize the flat’s exposure to smoke. Once the flat made it through the stall I placed it in a foil boat. The boat is created by making a “T” with foil. One piece runs horizontally, twice as long as the brisket, and the second piece runs vertically, twice as wide as the brisket. The foil is then crumpled up around the brisket to create a “boat.” The boat holds in the rendering fat and juices to keep the brisket from drying out and allows the top to develop a crisp bark.

Boat Mode Brisket

The flat continued to cook until it reached 203 degrees. I let it rest on the counter for 45 minutes. It then rested in a cooler for three hours. Most of the experiments I watched rested the whole briskets overnight. When I cook a whole brisket or a flat, I want to eat it at the end of the day.

The Results

Based on the resistance of the knife, I knew I had achieved a crisp bark. The flat was juicy and there was the usual smoke ring. About two-thirds of the flat was covered with a layer of fat. It would have been even better if just a little more of the top fat had rendered out by the end of the cook. I wondered if increasing the temperature to push through the stall sped up the total cooking time and prevented more of the fat from rendering while cooking.

Boat Mode Brisket - Done

Brisket is best when enjoyed with family or friends. My wife and I invited our friends to help us devour the brisket. The balance of seasoning and smoke on the bark was spot-on. The bark was crispy and flavorful. The flat remained juicy and contrasted with the crispy bark perfectly. The bottom of the flat did not dry out. The end of the brisket flat without the fat cap had an intense smoke ring. I thought the boat mode would be messy and had the potential to be a disaster if all the juices and rendered fat leaked out of the “boat.” The “boat mode” was an easier clean up than when I wrap with butcher paper!

I encourage everyone to experiment and discover your favorite way to cook brisket. The “boat mode” might be my new favorite way to cook brisket since the crispy bark was next level, the flat remained juicy, and there was less mess. I’m looking forward to trying this method on a whole brisket.

Recipes for Brisket

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