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What Is Brisket?
Brisket is one of the eight main (or primal) cuts of beef. It is comprised of two pectoral muscles that start under the chuck and extend towards the place, until the fifth rib. Like the chuck and shank, brisket is composed of muscles that a steer uses frequently.
A full beef brisket comprises two overlapping muscles separated by a layer of seam fat. The leaner, more rectangular muscle is the pectoralis profundus—more commonly known as the flat—while the fattier, more bulbous muscle is the pectoralis superficialis, aka the point.
The History of Brisket in Barbeque
Although it’s now considered the defining cut of central Texas barbecue, brisket didn’t become a fixture of restaurant menus until the 1960s. According to barbecue critic and historian Daniel Vaughn, the change happened in part because the USDA formalized a series of Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications (IMPS) that enabled consumers to order precise cuts of meat from wholesalers and processing plants. Coupled with the increasing ubiquity of refrigerated delivery trucks, a barbecue restaurant could now order IMPS #120—a full boneless brisket, big, fatty, and tough to cook, but relatively inexpensive and uniquely suited to long stints in a smoker.
How to Buy Good Brisket
When choosing a brisket, look for cuts that have a good amount of fat marbling. Remember: prime grades will have the most, followed by choice and select. Give the brisket a once-over and then see how it feels in your hands. It should be firm but not completely stiff. A brisket that’s too rigid may not have a lot of marbling. A thick, hard fat cap is also an indication that the cow might have been raised on hormones, antibiotics, and industrial feeding methods to get it to slaughtering weight more quickly.
If the brisket is enclosed in Cryovac, take note of how much blood there is in the packaging—if there’s a lot, that’s a good sign that the brisket was previously frozen. Freezing is detrimental, because ice crystals can tear apart the meat fibers. The torn fibers may also make a previously frozen brisket feel mushy and saggy when you hold it in your hands.
The flat is often sold by itself in butcher shops, but for central Texas–style barbecue brisket, you’ll want a packer cut that includes both the point and flat. While the brisket will always be thicker at the point than the flat, the closer the two muscles are in size, the easier it will be to cook them at approximately the same rate.
How to Prep Brisket for Smoking
Trim the brisket to remove excess fat and enhance the shape of the meat. If this is your first time cooking brisket, learn Aaron Franklin’s technique for trimming brisket in our complete guide here.
Slather and Rub: How to Season Brisket
With beef brisket, it’s best to keep the seasoning simple and clean. Every bite should taste of smoke and the natural flavor of the beef.
For the rub, use equal parts kosher salt and 16-mesh “café grind” black pepper. In general you want to taste both in equal measure, but you can go a little heavier on salt with the fattier point and heavier on pepper with the leaner flat if you prefer. You’ll need about ½ cup of seasoning for a 12-pound brisket. For the slather, use either mustard or hot sauce; after 12 hours in a smoker, you won’t really taste it anyway.
The fattier side of the brisket is the presentation side, so apply the rub to it last. As always, use one hand to move the brisket and apply the slather, and the other to sprinkle on the rub. Starting with the fat side down, slather the meat with mustard, hot sauce, or a bit of water, getting the surface just wet enough for the rub to stick. (No need to over-slather—after 12 hours in a smoker, you won’t really taste the slather anyway.) Next, shake the rub across the brisket from side to side in an even layer until the entire side is covered. Keep an eye out for any gaps or imperfections in the surface of the meat as you go, and avoid filling deep pockets with salt and pepper. Gently pat the rub into the meat once you’ve finished.
With the meatier side still facing up, cup your free hand along one edge of the brisket. Pour the rub directly into your hand as you move along the length of the brisket, evenly pressing the rub into the side as you go. Repeat on the other side, then flip the brisket over so it’s s fat side up. Apply the slather to the fat side, then sprinkle the rub on top, patting it in at the end. Allow the brisket to rest at room temperature for 30 to 40 minutes. The meat will begin to absorb the rub and the salt will start drawing out the internal moisture during this prep time.
Aaron Franklin’s Smoked BBQ Brisket Recipe
While your beef brisket sits at room temperature, bring the smoker’s temperature to a consistent 255°F. If it runs a little lower at first, no big deal. Even though the brisket has been sitting out, the internal temperature will still be quite cold. You don’t want to shock it with sudden exposure to high heat.
Place the brisket in your smoker with the point closest to the fire source and shut the lid. Leave undisturbed for the first three hours of the cook time, maintaining a constant temperature of 255°F and clean, light smoke with a bluish hue. It’s in these early stages that the brisket’s flavor base is established, so it’s important to focus on your fire and the quality of smoke coming out of the smokestack.
After three hours, open your smoker and check in on the brisket. By this point it should have a mahogany hue and a consistent bark.
If the beef brisket looks like it’s burning, if the bark is splotchy, if it’s turning dry and crisp in places, or if the fat is already starting to render, chances are you need to cut back on the heat. Discoloration without signs of dryness or rendered fat could also be the result of dirty smoke. Pay close attention to the quality of wood you’re burning and the appearance of your smoke over the next few hours. If your cook has gotten off track a bit in the early stages there’s still time to course correct.
Before closing your smoker, spritz the dryer, vulnerable edges of the brisket to cool them off. Unless your fire has already been running too hot, raise the temperature to between 260°F and 265°F and continue cooking brisket for another three hours, checking the brisket and spritzing once per hour.
After approximately six hours, your brisket will hit a stage known as the stall. It’s a product of evaporative cooling: once the internal temperature of the brisket hits around 165°F, the muscles will start to tighten up, forcing moisture to the surface of the meat, and thus, cooling down the brisket. Beef is technically considered well done by the time it hits 165°F, but if you attempted to eat the brisket at this stage, the meat would be incredibly tough. The key to getting it tender is raising the internal temperature above 180°F, at which point tough collagen in the meat will start to break down into gelatin.
To push the brisket through the stall, begin ramping up your cooking temperature to between 280°F and 285°F, right before the stall. Don’t worry about burning the brisket — the moisture that’s rising to the surface will counteract the higher heat. Cook for approximately one hour at this temperature, then lift the brisket and check for stiffness. If it bends at the edges, that’s a good sign you’re through the stall.
Once you’re through the stall, it’s time to decide when the brisket is ready to wrap. The fattier point has more margin for error if it overcooks, so the flat should be your barometer. Lift the edge of the flat from the underside with your fingers; when it’s firm but a little floppy, it’s ready to go. Another telltale sign is the bark—if it’s starting to crack in places, that means the fat is rendering. When you’re ready to wrap, follow Aaron’s step by step instructions, found in our complete guide here.
Once you’ve wrapped the brisket in aluminum foil, return it to the smoker with the point closest to the fire. At this point the brisket won’t take on any more flavor from the smoke, so you should concentrate on temperature rather than maintaining a clean fire. If you have junkier pieces of wood chips you’ve held off on using, you can toss them in now.
Cook undisturbed for approximately three hours at 275 to 285°F, then gradually allow the temperature to taper off for another hour as your cook gets closer to the end. Bear in mind that residual heat will continue to cook the brisket even after you take it off the smoker.
Using a towel to protect your hands, pick up the brisket and carefully move your fingers up and down the length of it, checking for tenderness. It’s important to keep checking on the brisket at regular intervals at this point, roughly every 15 minutes or so. As the collagen continues to break down and the fat continues to render, the brisket will become more fork-tender soft and pliable, but if you leave it on the smoker for too long it will overcook. Better to pull it too soon than leave it on too long. If the brisket feels loose and somewhat flexible in your hands, even a bit jiggly, it’s done.
Once you’ve pulled the brisket, allow it to rest in its wrapping until it cools to an internal temperature of 140 to 150°F. That will take a little time. The outermost layers of the brisket receive heat immediately from the convection of air and smoke inside the cooker, but the innermost layers receive heat via conduction—the slow, gradual absorption of heat from the outer layers. So even though the brisket is technically no longer receiving heat, the interior of the brisket will continue to cook. This is known as carryover cooking time. How long it takes will depend a lot on the temperature of your environment and how hot your cooker was. (Think: Momentum). It’ll happen faster on a cool, breezy day than a hot, humid one. Factor in at least 30 minutes and up to an hour or two.
How to Serve Smoked Brisket
The traditional way to slice brisket in central Texas is to slice the flat and point separately so your guests can have a combination of lean and fatty meat (barbecue sauce optional). In both cases you’ll be slicing against the grain of meat, but you’ll approach each in a different way. Learn Aaron Franklin’s technique for slicing and serving brisket in our complete guide here, and his bbq sauce recipe here.
Franklin received the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2015. His popular and critically lauded restaurant, Franklin Barbecue, was awarded Texas Monthly’s coveted Best Barbecue Joint in Texas, and Bon Appetit’s Best Barbecue Joint in America.
Learn more Texas barbeque recipes and techniques in Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass.