Smoked Beef Brisket 101
Dibs on the crispy ends! Our best brisket recipe is juicy and irresistible, with bursts of black pepper balanced by smoke and tangy sweetness. Dive in with our how-to guide and the trusty Yummly Smart Thermometer.
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Article and recipe by David Bonom. Photographs by Brittany Conerly
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As a city kid, I thought “barbecue” was undercooked charred burgers and chicken blackened on a hibachi. My dad, the backyard chef in our home, wasn’t exactly a grill master — but he was great at creating flare-ups. Ah, cooking in the great outdoors! It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I tasted BARBECUE, the real stuff, smoked low and slow over wood and charcoal. It was a revelation and started my passion (my wife would say obsession) with the art of “cue.”
Hot smoking food intimidates a lot of folks — but the techniques are actually fairly straightforward. Smoking does require patience, though, and the desire to learn the subtleties, like how to control the temperature, when to add more charcoal, or even what type of wood is best for brisket, ribs, chicken, or fish. Smoking takes a little practice to master: I know, because the first chicken I ever smoked was so overwhelmingly smoky we ended up ordering pizza that night.
But I am here to help you not make the mistakes I did. The over-smoked chicken, for example, was because I didn’t know I only needed a couple of wood chunks to get the right amount of smoke flavor for the short cook, not the huge pile I used. Then there was the time we foolishly planned a party around the first brisket I ever smoked. I chose a 19-pounder and had no clue that it would take 15 to 16 hours to cook, so when I tried serving it after 10 hours it was a rubbery disaster. If only I had used a thermometer and waited until the brisket was at tender perfection at 205°F.
My Hickory Smoked Brisket with Root Beer-Maple BBQ Sauce, designed especially for the Yummly Smart Thermometer, is not hard to pull off and can make a novice feel like a seasoned pro. But remember, the success is in the details. Let’s go!
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What’s the best beef brisket for smoking?
A whole packer brisket with the fat trimmed to about 1/4 inch
You don’t need a lot of ingredients for the smoked brisket recipe, but you do want to plan ahead to get the right meat.
In the grocery store meat case there is something often referred to as a “first cut” brisket or flat brisket, which is ideal for stovetop cooking, but far too small and too lean to use for smoking. For this recipe you want a packer (whole) brisket, which you can order from a butcher or which you may find at a big-box store like Costco.
A packer brisket is made up of two muscles. The thickest part is called the “point” or “deckle,” and the thinner, more uniform muscle is called the “flat” (it’s what we commonly see in the supermarket). The point is heavily marbled with fat, while the flat is leaner. Packer briskets weigh anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds, but bear in mind that after trimming and smoking, you will net about half the original weight. I like to buy a 12- to 14-pound brisket (the weight before trimming). They are more manageable than the 20-pound monsters and yield roughly 6 pounds of smoked meat. When you buy the brisket, it will have a thick layer of fat. To save yourself some prep time, ask the butcher to trim it to an even ¼-inch thickness, or do this yourself with a sharp knife. Don’t over-trim — you need that layer of fat to keep the brisket moist while it cooks.
Ingredients for smoked beef brisket rub and sauce
The flavor in this recipe really comes from the smoking process, but a few additional ingredients for the rub and sauce will set off the meat to perfection.
Kosher salt. A favorite with chefs, kosher salt has large crystals that make it easy to pinch. It also dissolves well. Kosher salt measures differently from table salt and is less salty teaspoon for teaspoon, so you don’t want to substitute the table kind.
Coarsely ground black pepper. Even though most of us cook with finely ground pepper every day, it’s not ideal for smoking. Coarse pepper stands up better to the long smoke, gives smaller spicy bursts, and adds nice textural contrast to the meat. You can either grind peppercorns yourself, or buy what’s called “butcher” or cracked black pepper.
Brown sugar. In the brisket rub, brown sugar tempers the spice of the pepper and helps balance the salt. In the brisket sauce, brown sugar adds an appealing molasses flavor that is more complex than white sugar and ties in well with the other ingredients.
Ketchup. The basis for many barbecue sauces, ketchup offers tang, sweetness, and a mellow balance of spices. Your favorite brand works just fine.
Root beer. In the South, adding soft drinks like root beer or cola to a barbecue sauce is fairly common. Root beer lends a bit of vanilla, subtle cherry, and nutmeg flavors (although root beer flavors vary greatly by brand), along with earthiness.
Maple syrup. While best known for the sweetness it adds to a stack of pancakes, maple syrup has a complex flavor profile — think vanilla, burnt caramel, and even ground coffee. It gives the brisket sauce a nice depth that sets it apart from most supermarket bottled barbecue sauces.
Cider vinegar. Acid is essential for balance in the brisket sauce and prevents the sauce from being cloyingly sweet. Apple cider vinegar adds an element of fruitiness and lends a more mellow acidity than wine vinegar.
Chili powder. Store-bought chili powder is actually a blend of ground chili peppers and spices such as cumin, oregano, garlic, and salt. It’s a mainstay of barbecue rubs and sauces.
Garlic powder. Garlic powder is a grillmaster’s best friend: It adds garlic flavor but won’t scorch the way fresh garlic would. Powdered garlic tends to be more intensely flavored than the granulated form, but both work well.
Ground cumin. This spice adds a distinctive earthy flavor and aroma and savory depth to the brisket sauce.
Equipment for making beef brisket in a smoker
The right tools will help make your smoking process smooth and successful.
Smoker. There are many types of smokers. They can be made from different materials (steel and ceramic), use different fuel (propane, natural gas, wood, charcoal, pellets, and electricity) and come in a variety of shapes and configurations (kettle, offset, bullet). This recipe covers the most common home smokers: a kamado ceramic grill/smoker such as the Big Green Egg, a water/bullet smoker such as the Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker, or a pellet smoker like Traeger. If you’re using a bullet charcoal smoker, you’ll need 2 large bags of charcoal for this recipe.
While you could technically make the recipe on a regular grill, a smoker is designed to hold the long, low, 250°-275°F cooking temperature with much less effort on your part.
Hickory wood chunks. The wood you use to smoke has an important effect on flavor. Hickory wood imparts more intense flavor than fruit woods, but is not as intense as mesquite. It is in the middle of the intensity spectrum and well suited to smoking beef and pork. Fifteen large (egg-size) chunks will burn slowly and add a slightly sweet, somewhat bacon-like flavor to the brisket recipe. If you’re using a pellet grill, smoke with hickory pellets and add additional wood chunks (7-8 total) only if you want extra flavor. Wood chips would burn too quickly for this recipe.
Long-handled tongs. Ordinary short tongs put your arm right over the grill surface, while long-handled tongs let you manipulate the meat without exposing your arm to the intense heat.
Large aluminum foil pan. Unless you are using a water smoker with a built-in water vessel (or a pellet smoker, where a water pan is optional), you will need to fill a large aluminum pan with warm water to place inside the smoker. The water helps keep the smoking environment moist, which helps to develop a nice bark, or crust, on the meat, as well as keeping it moist. It also catches dripping fat.
Heavy-duty aluminum foil. You’ll be wrapping the brisket in foil partway through smoking to keep it moist and make it cook faster. (Advanced smokers: Instead of foil, you can use uncoated pink butcher paper, which keeps the meat moist and also helps maintain the bark on the outside.)
Water spray bottle. When the brisket first goes on the smoker, you spritz it with water. The extra moisture helps the meat absorb smoke and starts the process of developing a nice bark, the dark exterior that is a signature of smoked meat.
Yummly Smart Thermometer. Over the 7-9 hours cook time that it takes to smoke a brisket to perfection, you’ll first cook the meat uncovered to 160°F. Then you’ll wrap it in foil and cook it to 200°-210°F. Using the Yummly Smart Thermometer, you can track the meat’s temp right from the app on your phone without having to open up the smoker.
Insulated cooler. I resisted using a cooler way longer than I should have. When you put the meat in the cooler after it’s finished smoking, the cooler creates a moist environment where the brisket temperature can drop slowly and allow the internal pressure of the meat to even out. After a 1 hour rest, the meat will still be very hot and at a safe internal temperature — but it will slice beautifully and will have retained much more moisture.
How to make smoked beef brisket, step by step
Insert the Yummly Smart Thermometer horizontally into the thickest part of the brisket until the metal is completely covered.
Smoking a brisket is well worth the time. I say time because the steps to do it are easy and don't require a lot of work — you just need patience to wait for that first bite of mouth-melting, beefy deliciousness.
1. Trim excess fat. If you didn’t ask the butcher to trim the fat cap on the brisket for you, cut it to an even ¼ inch to help keep the meat moist while it cooks. Also cut off any hard lumps of fat.
2. Season with dry rub. Combine salt, pepper, and brown sugar in a small bowl. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the brisket and pat it on so it sticks.
3. Let the meat stand at room temp. Be sure to leave time to let the meat stand at room temperature for about 1 hour after you season the outside. You don’t want to put cold meat on the smoker — not only will it lengthen the smoking time, it will cause the meat to cook less evenly.
4. Prepare your smoker. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to preheat the smoker to 250° to 275°F, and add 7 to 8 egg-sized hickory wood chunks. Light your smoker and wait until it comes to temp (20 to 30 minutes).
5. Insert the Yummly Smart Thermometer. Following the insertion guide on the Yummly Thermometer app, insert the thermometer horizontally into the thickest part of the brisket until the metal is completely covered.
6. Add the water pan and remaining wood chunks. Place 7 to 8 more hickory chunks on the fire and (depending on your smoker) add a large aluminum pan partially filled with warm water. Set the cooking grate in place.
7. Set the Thermometer at Manual Cook. When you see the first signs of smoke from the fire, spray the brisket all over with water, then place the brisket fat side up on the grill grate. Choose the Manual Cook setting (rather than Beef) on the Yummly Thermometer and set the temperature to 160°F, then cover the smoker.
8. Cook to 160°F, then wrap in foil. During smoking, maintain the heat at 250° to 275°F, adding more fuel and refilling the water pan if needed. After 3 to 5 hours, the brisket will reach an internal temperature of 160°F. At this point the brisket temperature could stall. (The temperature could remain at about 160°F for as long as 5 hours. This is because the meat begins to sweat, and just as with humans, sweating is a cooling process.) To avoid a stall, use a process called the Texas Crutch: Remove the brisket from the smoker, wrap it in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and cut a hole for the black cap on the Yummly Thermometer so the bluetooth signal won’t be blocked.
9. Cook to about 200°F. Return the brisket to the smoker fat side down. Using the Manual Cook setting on the Yummly Thermometer, set the temperature to 200°F. Cover the smoker and cook the meat until it’s nice and tender, 3 to 4 more hours (it may need to cook to 210°F to be completely tender).
10. Let the brisket rest. Transfer the meat, still wrapped in foil, to the insulated cooler and let it rest 1 hour for the juices to even out.
11. Make the BBQ sauce. Simmer brown sugar, ketchup, root beer, maple syrup, vinegar, chili powder, garlic powder, and cumin in a medium saucepan until slightly thickened.
12. Carve and enjoy. Unwrap your brisket and slice it across the grain (see more details below). Serve it dabbed with a little of the meat juices and pass the barbecue sauce on the side.
Wrapping the partially cooked beef brisket in foil for the Texas Crutch
What’s the temperature for smoking beef brisket?
For cooking beef brisket, your smoker should be between 250° and 275°F.
How long do you smoke beef brisket?
The total time to cook brisket in a smoker is 6 to 9 hours, depending on the size of the brisket and the temperature of the fire. There are two stages to cooking. First smoke brisket to an internal temp of 160°F, which takes 3 to 5 hours. Then wrap the meat in foil and smoke until the brisket reaches 200° to 210°F, another 3 to 4 hours.
How do you know when smoked brisket is done?
Smoked beef brisket should be cooked to 200° to 210°F. You know beef brisket is done when you press it with your fingers through the foil (protecting them with a clean towel) and the meat is so tender it feels like your fingers will pierce the meat. Tenderness is the best indicator of doneness rather than temperature, so if the brisket doesn’t feel tender enough at 200°F, set the Yummly Thermometer to 205° to 210°F and continue cooking.
How to cut smoked beef brisket
Starting on the thin (flat) side, slice the brisket across the grain ⅓ to ½ inch thick. When you reach the part of the brisket where the thin side (the flat) meets the thick side (the point), stop and transfer slices to a platter, keeping them together so they don’t dry out. (Or keep slices on the board if it’s a large one.) Rotate the point — the remaining brisket — 90 degrees so that the side you were slicing is now facing away from you. Slice the point across the grain, then transfer to the platter.
Get the recipe
Smoking a brisket is not hard, and the end result is a spectacular hunk of beef that you can serve to wow your family and friends. For me, the best part is that each time you smoke a brisket you get more skilled and can tweak it to make it your own.
Take your grilling to the next level
Whether you're a newbie at the grill or a seasoned pitmaster, we have lots more ways in these next articles to help you love cooking over fire. And keep practicing your smoking techniques with our recipe for Texas-style Salt and Pepper Pulled Pork.