As promised, here is the post on smoking a Texas-style brisket on your backyard grill. If I leave any questions unanswered (or if anything is unclear), please use the comments section.
Cooking a brisket on the backyard grill requires dedication. It requires a fairly constant, but low, temperature, and it requires a lot of time. “Low and Slow” – this phrase will become your mantra. If you are not prepared to spend the better part of a day monitoring your grill, then this is not the project for you. Please note that monitoring the grill does not require that you abstain from all other activity. In fact, polishing off several beers is the ideal activity to pair with barbequing a brisket.
Note that I assume the reader has a basic familiarity with his or her backyard grill, how to clean it, how to start a fire, how to regulate its cooking temperature with the vents, etc.
Also note that I have included two recipes – one for the dry rub and the other for barbeque sauce – at the end of the post.
UPDATE: Before you get discouraged by the length of this post or the length of time needed to smoke a brisket, please note that I have included a section on how to speed up the cooking process (so that it takes only about 7 hours, not 18). To find it, just scroll down until you see the green header entitled “So you don’t have 18 hours to spare? That’s okay.”
The lowdown on brisket
Brisket is cut from the breast section of a side of beef. There is one brisket per side of beef. A whole brisket can range in size from about 8 to 16 pounds. The briskets in the 10 pound range are the best size for preparing at home.
The brisket is made up of two sections: the flat and the point. The flat is the larger section. It is wide, flat (duh) and can be served sliced on a sandwich or sliced and piled high on the plate. The point section overlaps the flat. It is fattier and contains a great deal of connective tissue. It tends not to slice as well as the flat. The point is usually served chopped. Oh, and the point section is pointy (but I bet you already knew that).
Brisket is a tough cut of meat and it has to be cooked past well done in order to be edible. Brisket needs to reach an internal temperature of at least 180 degrees F and somewhere closer to 210 degrees is best. Otherwise, it is a chewy inedible abomination. That sounds crazy but it’s true. The reason is that the brisket is full of tough connective tissue (collagen). You must cook the meat at a high enough temperature so that the collagen which runs throughout the muscle converts to gelatin. Collagen begins to convert to gelatin at around 130 degrees but this conversion is much more rapid at around 180-200 degrees. “Low and slow” cooking – 225-250 degrees for several hours – is the ideal method to facilitate this conversion.
Preparing the meat
When purchasing a brisket, look for one in the 8-12 pound range. Anything larger will likely be too large to manage in a standard backyard grill. When you get the brisket home, rinse it with cool water, pat it dry with paper towels, and trim the large section of fat over the point. Do not trim it completely off – you need to leave some fat to keep the meat moist through the long cooking process. Just trim the fat to an even 1/8 to 1/4 inch layer. Next, apply a small amount of extra virgin olive oil to your hands and then rub the dry rub (see recipe, below) into the meat.* Really massage the rub into the meat (“rub” – get it?). Once you have a good coat of dry rub on the meat, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and place it on a baking sheet in the refrigerator. Let it sit for at least 2 hours, preferably 24 hours (or up to 2 days).
*There are some “purists” who use only salt and pepper as a rub. If you want to be a snob about it, then go right ahead. But it is not heresy to use a dry rub on brisket – not like adding beans to chili.
Preparing the grill
When you purchase the brisket make sure you pick up some wood chunks to add smoke to your fire and flavor to the meat. Mesquite is the preferred wood. If you cannot find mesquite chunks I suppose you can use hickory. Honestly, though, find some mesquite. Hell, even the Wal-Mart carries mesquite chunks.
Before firing up the grill, you must attend to several other items. First, the wood chunks need to be thoroughly soaked in water (otherwise they will burn). Put several handfuls of wood chunks in a bucket and cover them in water for at least an hour. I usually do this step first and then remove the brisket from the refrigerator. The wood chunks soak while the brisket comes up to room temperature. In the meantime, fill your cooler, grab your lawn chair and find a comfortable place to sit and watch the grill.
You also need to assemble the rest of your cooking tools. For charcoal grills, this includes a chimney starter, charcoal (I like to use the all natural wood charcoal, but remember that it burns hotter than charcoal briquettes), meat thermometer (bonus points if your grill is also equipped with a thermometer), and heat resistant gloves (welder’s gloves are nice for this purpose). For gas grills, obviously you can omit the charcoal and chimney starter. Let me say that while a gas grill will work for barbequing a brisket, it is not the ideal tool for such a purpose. However, if gas is what you have, then use it. Just consult your grill instructions on smoking wood chips and adjust accordingly.
Once your equipment is assembled, fill the chimney starter about 1/2 to 3/4 with coals and start your fire. Do not use lighter fluid. Not now, not ever. Once the coals are ready, dump the chimney and arrange the coals in a pile on one side of the grill. Place the cooking grate in place, clean it, and cover the grill for about five minutes. Meanwhile, drain about a handful of the wood chunks, unwrap the brisket, and bring it outside. Uncover the grill and (wearing your gloves) lift the cooking grate so that you can place the wood chunks near the coals. Return the grate to its position and then place the brisket (fat layer facing up) on the side of the grill opposite of the coals. Close the grill and make sure that the vent is above the meat. This will help draw the smoke from the wood through the meat.
Smoking a brisket: An all day affair
Now for the hard part. If you have a thermometer that measures the internal temperature of the grill, adjust your vents to maintain a cooking temperature of around 225-250 degrees (the top vent will probably be about halfway closed). If you do not have a thermometer, you can guesstimate the temperature of the grill by holding your hand 2-3 inches over the cooking grate above the coals and counting how many seconds it takes for the heat to force you to move your hand. Something in the 8-9 second range is a rough approximation for the right temperature. Really, though, a thermometer is of great value in this endeavor. The key now is to maintain this temperature. This involves keeping the lid closed! Don’t open the grill any more than is absolutely necessary or you will create a lot of problems. Of course, you will need to add coals to the fire occasionally,** but only open the lid for this purpose until the brisket is done. Well, you can open the lid to turn the meat, at the half way point in the cooking process, and at then once again at the three-quarter mark. The brisket needs to cook approximately 1 1/2 hours per pound (the number of beers per pound of brisket can vary enormously from one cook to another). This can vary depending on weather conditions, how many times you opened the grill, and, of course, the thickness and shape of the meat. A 10 pound brisket will take around 15 hours to cook. A 12 pounder will take about 18 hours. As I said, this takes dedication.
**Use the chimney starter to keep a small supply of coals ready to add to the fire. Place the chimney on a sturdy heat resistant surface (a large metal bucket turned upside down works well – don’t use the driveway though because the fire will leave its mark on the concrete), fill it again about 1/2 full and light it. Remember though that the chimney is still hot from the original coals, so use those gloves. Be sparing, but every hour to two hours you may need to add additional coals to maintain a steady 225-250 degrees in the grill. You can add some additional wood chunks when you add the coals, but be sure that the wood chunks are well soaked with water.
When a meat thermometer gives you a temperature reading of 185-205 degrees from the flat end, you are done. The brisket should have a dark thick crust. It will perhaps look burned. Do not be alarmed.
Using your gloves, remove the brisket to a baking sheet or cutting board, loosely tent it with aluminum foil, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. During this time, the temperature will climb another 5 or so degrees and the juices will redistribute throughout the meat. Do not omit this step.
Serving the brisket: And now, I will incise
Once the meat has rested, separate the point end from the flat end by cutting through the fat layer that separates the two sections (it will be obvious). The grains of the two sections run in opposite directions and so they must be sliced separately. Slice the flat end on a diagonal in 1/4 to 1/2 inch think slices, pile it high, and serve. The point end does not slice quite as nicely as the flat, so if presentation is important, your best bet is to chop the point end for sandwiches. I slice it all. If the point slices fall apart no one will really complain.
Side dishes can include just about anything. I favor potato salad, cole slaw, pinto beans, and cobbler (recipes for another day). And, of course, barbeque sauce (recipe below). Again, purists may berate you for serving a sauce with your brisket – it masks the flavor you worked so hard to achieve with the smoking process, etc. – but if you like barbeque sauce then just ignore them.
So you don’t have 18 hours to spare? That’s okay.
Purists can ignore this paragraph, but if you don’t happen to have 18 hours to devote to cooking one piece of meat, then you can start it on the grill and finish it in the oven. Proceed as described above, but after three hours of smoking on the grill, remove the brisket from the grill and place on a large work surface. Use 2 3-foot pieces of aluminum foil (fold them together on a seam to make one large 4-foot x 3-foot piece) to wrap the brisket. Make sure it is sealed, then place it in a roasting pan or other suitable implement and cook at 300 degrees for about 3 more hours. Three hours on the grill gives the meat plenty of opportunity to pick up the smoke flavor and develop a crisp outer crust. Three hours in the oven gives you plenty of time to prepare the fixin’s – potato salad, beans, cole slaw, cocktails, etc.
There are many advantages to this method, primarily that the meat cooks faster. Another advantage is that you do not have to monitor the brisket once it goes into the oven. A final advantage is that you can reserve the collected juice from the aluminum packet and add some of it to the barbeque sauce (defat the drippings first, though). Just be careful when you open the foil packet. The escaping steam and juices can cause burns.
Final thoughts on backyard brisket
I don’t use a marinade, but many people do use Dr. Pepper, or beer, or lime juice mixed with the rub to form a paste. They use this to coat the meat before placing it in the refrigerator. The acid from the soda or lime juice can help break down some of the connective tissue. My dad does this, many other people do as well. I don’t do it, but you certainly are welcome to try it. Ditto on mops or marinades brushed on during the cooking process. Basting just doesn’t add enough flavor or moisture for me to worry about it. The wood smoke adds the flavor, the fat keeps the meat tender, and I avoid a lot of fire maintenance issues by leaving the lid closed. Baste if you like, but don’t use a sugar or tomato-based sauce or you will end up with a charred, tasteless crust of burned sauce on the outside of the meat.
Are we done yet?
So there you have it. Fitz-Hume’s take on Texas-style barbeque brisket prepared on the backyard grill. It is a labor-intensive process to be sure, but a labor of love that pays off at the end of the day.
I have included below the recipes for the dry rub and barbeque sauce that I use. I don’t claim that these are authentic but I guarantee they are delicious. However, feel free to substitute your own.
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Texas Dry Rub
Use on ribs and brisket. This rub recipe is from Weber. Incidentally, so is my grill (and so is the grill of my dreams).
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons of granulated garlic (NOT garlic powder)
2 teaspoons of granulated onion
1 teaspoon of ground cumin (toast the whole cumin seeds and then grind them yourself for best results)
Combine all the ingredients. Store in an airtight container.
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I do not claim that this is the definitive barbeque sauce. Nor do I claim that it is strictly speaking an authentic Texas-style barbeque sauce. However, it is the sauce that I serve with barbequed brisket, ribs, chicken, you name it. I don’t remember where I obtained this recipe but I have used it for a long time and with great success.
10 cloves of roasted garlic (chop the pointy end off of a garlic bulb, and roast the bulb at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes)
2 cups of ketchup (don’t use Heinz or the terrorists will win)
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 medium-sized yellow onion, chopped
1 cup of water*
1/2 cup of melted butter
1/2 cup of worchestire sauce
1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup of brown sugar
3 tablespoons of chili powder
2 teaspoons of instant coffee grounds (trust me on this)
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne
1/2 teaspoon of ground red pepper
1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt
Combine all the ingredients in a sauce pan. Slowly bring the sauce to a boil (medium heat). Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Let the sauce cool. Process until smooth (you may need to do this in batches if you have a small processor). Reheat to serve.
*If you are preparing a brisket and you finish the brisket in the oven, the water in this recipe can be supplemented (or replaced) with up to 1 cup of the drippings from the meat (be sure to defat the drippings first).
Whew! This turned out to be one long post. If you have the patience to read this whole post, you have the patience to cook a brisket. Good luck!