How to Smoke a Beef Brisket [2020 Ultimate Guide]

Beef brisket, ribs and pork shoulder are the royal family big three when it comes to classic barbeque dishes. Beef Brisket is certainly the king of them all. This once disregarded tough cut of meat is now often the centerpiece of any barbeque pit bosses spread. In this article, we investigate how to produce the best “low and slow” smoked brisket. We find out how to choose your cut and how to trim it. We check out what wood to use for that delicious smoky flavor. The general method for smoking a brisket is discussed. We also include variations for different types of smokers. You can even find out how to slice the finished brisket. Some frequently asked questions are answered at the end. Read on to find out more.

The Best Cut of Brisket to Smoke

Steers do not have collar bones! Sixty per cent of the animal’s weight is supported by muscles around the breast superficial and deep pectoral muscles. These muscles have a huge amount of connective tissue. This connective tissue includes a lot of collagen. Collagen makes meat tough to eat. It can be broken down with heat and moisture. Collagen cooked at around 190°F for several hours turns into gelatin. Gelatin makes meat feel and taste juicy and tender. Smoking is an ideal way to cook this cut of meat low and slow. Adding a water bath to the smoker helps convert collagen to gelatin thorough a process called hydrolysis. For more science, check this out.

Brisket is one of the eight primal cuts of beef. It is cut from the breast and includes those tough superficial and deep pectoral muscles. The “packer cut” is the best for smoking. It includes the “flat” cut and the “point” cut. They are connected by a nice layer of fat.

This Infographic is designed by Jack Thompson from BroBBQ


For a tender smoked brisket, you should start with a tender cut of meat. Select a piece of meat that is flexible. It will have less tough connecting tissue. You can test this by trying to bend it.

It should have a layer of fat on one side. This fat should be uniform in thickness. It should have no holes or chunks missing that expose the meat. This fat protects the meat during smoking and stops it drying out. The main sections should be nicely marbled with fat. This fat will slowly render down during smoking and help to keep the meat moist.

How to trim a brisket

There is always an argument between pit bosses about whether to trim a brisket or not before smoking. We think there are definite advantages to trimming. You want to smoke a piece of meat that is uniform in thickness. You want the smoke and seasoning to penetrate and flavor the meat. Thin straggly bits left over from the butchery will burn and carbonize. Trimming before smoking gives a better-finished shape and final product.

Find your sharpest six to eight-inch knife. If you don’t have one then this one by Dexter- Russell is ideal. Turn the meat so it is meat side up and with the point towards the right. Start by trimming the sides of the flat so they are square. Trim off any loose straggly bits off the point. On the meat side of the cut, you will see a big lump of fat. It is at the bottom under the point. Cut this so it is level with the rest of the meat on the flat. Trim off any shiny thin skin.

Turn the meat over so the fat side is showing. Trim the fat so it is uniform in thickness, somewhere between ¼ and ½ inch thick is ideal. Cut off any other loose bits and you are finished and ready for smoking!

Don’t waste those trimmings. You can save them for making “Burnt Ends”, render them to make fat for glazing steaks with or mince them to add to the burger mix.

Best wood for smoking brisket

There are several different kinds of wood to use when smoking a brisket. Each type imparts a different flavor. You can’t beat oak for the straightforward basic smoke flavor. Most pit bosses like to mix it up a bit. They often combine two or more types of wood to blend the flavors. The chart below shows some of the different flavors you can choose from. The highlighted ones are particularly great with beef.

Smoking wood chart

Wood type

Flavor

uses

Alder

Subtle sweet flavor.

Pork, poultry, and light-meat game birds.

Apple

Sweet, fruity flavor.

Poultry, beef, pork, ham, game birds, lamb, and some seafood.

Cherry

Sweet mild, fruity flavor.

All meats.

Grapevine

Tart, fruity flavor.

Poultry, small game birds, lamb, pork, and sausage.

Hickory

Strong sweet bacon-flavor.

All meat cuts, great with pork and ribs.

Maple

Mild, sweet flavor.

Poultry, small game birds, vegetables, and cheeses.

Mesquite

Strong, earthy flavor.

Most red and dark meats.

Mulberry

Sweet, fruity flavor.

Poultry, fish, and pork.

Oak

Medium smoky flavor that is stronger than apple and cherry, but lighter than hickory and mesquite.

Any meat.

Olive

Light, earthy flavor.

Poultry.

Peach

Sweet, fruity flavor.

Pork, poultry, small game birds.

Pear

Light, sweet, fruity flavor.

Pork, poultry, small game birds.

Pecan

Stronger than most fruit wood, but milder than hickory and mesquite.

Any meat.

Walnut

Strong, slightly bitter flavor.

Red meats, game.

How to smoke a tender brisket

There are five steps to smoking a beef brisket. Once you have trimmed it to shape you need to:

  • season it,
  • preheat the smoker,
  • smoke it,
  • get it through the stall,
  • and then hold it.

Don’t worry about the jargon, it is easier than it sounds.

Seasoning a brisket.

Everyone who cooks briskets disagrees on this. There are many techniques to choose from. These range from simply sprinkling a little salt and pepper to injecting the meat with beef broth. We recommend you start with something simple. You can always experiment more in the future when you have the rest of the process perfected.

Properly prepared and smoked beef brisket tastes amazing. You do not need to add much seasoning to improve on the already fantastic flavor. Our seasoning is a simple mix of equal parts salt, pepper, and garlic powder. If you don’t like garlic, then you can leave it out. Just use salt and pepper. Your brisket will still taste amazing.

Chose medium to course freshly cracked black pepper, high-quality medium-grain sea salt and some garlic powder. Thoroughly mix equal parts by volume together. Liberally cover the meat with the seasoning and rub it into the meat. Season the meat for between 12 and 24 hours.

Note the way the grain of the meat runs. You will need to know this later to slice the meat correctly. You can even draw a picture of it to help you remember. This is not as daft as it sounds. Once smoked the brisket will have shrunk a lot, changed shape a little and be covered in thick brown bark. You will struggle to see which way the grain runs.

Place the meat in the refrigerator until you are ready to put it in the smoker. Cold meat attracts the smoke and helps build the bark of the brisket. You can insert the thermometer probe at this stage. Push the probe tip into the thickest part of the meat. You want it to show you the temperature of the inside of the thickest part of the brisket.

You need two thermometers or one with two probes. One measures the internal temperature of the meat. Your goal is to reach 225°F in the thickest part of the meat.  The second measures the internal oven temperature. You are not to exceed 250°F in the smoker.

Preheating the smoker.

Preheating the smoker can take an hour or more. Ignite or switch on your smoker. Your goal is to reach 235°F. The long-term goal is a stable 225°F but you will lose heat when you open the smoker and put in cold meat. Each type of smoker is a little different to set up. We discuss each type of smoker in more detail below.

When the smoker is up to 225°F you are ready to smoke. Fill the water pan. Place the oven temperature probe in the smoker on the shelf. Add around 4 ounces of your chosen wood. Now close the smoker and let it again reach temperature.

Smoking the brisket.

Once the smoker is back to 225°F you can start to smoke. Carefully place the brisket in the center of the smoker. Ensure smoke can circulate completely around all sides. Keep an eye on the water pan, the wood, the temperature, and the color of the meat. Don’t keep opening the smoker. It will just reduce the temperature. When you do open it, try to multitask, and top up the water, wood and check the meat all at the same time. Do not baste or brush any liquid on the meat. It will stop the smoke creating that delicious brown bark.

Getting through the stall.

The stall is when the meat reaches around 160°F give or take a bit. The internal temperature stops rising. Don’t worry, it is normal. The meat is sweating. Meat is around 60% water by weight. The water starts to evaporate as the temperature increases. At 160° the water is evaporating quickly. Just like us when we sweat, the evaporating water causes the meat to cool down. The heat from the smoker tries to heat the meat up. Stalemate is the result with the temperature remaining constant. Check out Newton’s Law of Cooling for the science behind the stall.

The meat will only start to increase in temperature when the evaporation rate slows down. This is when a lot of the water in the meat has evaporated. This can take several hours.

Traditionally, pit bosses just accepted the stall as a long and tedious part of the smoking process. Experience taught them that eventually, the temperature would begin to increase again. The brisket would have smoked for several hours. A nice crunchy bark would have formed.

More recently people have been helping the brisket through the stall by using “The Texas Crutch”.

The Texas Crutch

The Texas Crutch is when the brisket is removed from the smoker at the start of the stall. It is wrapped in either heavy-duty foil or butcher paper. Most people add half a cup of beer, cider, or apple juice. Wrapping the meat stops the cooling effect of evaporation. It stops the cooling effect and lets the meat continue increasing in temperature. The meat is then put back in the smoker. The thermometer probe put back in the thickest part. The meat is left wrapped until it reaches 203°F.

The advantages of the Texas crutch are a reduced cooking time and a saving on fuel and wood. It is up to you how you get through the stall. Either wrap the meat or just let it smoke for a few extra hours.

When the temperature reaches around 198°F start to probe the meat. You can use the thermometer probe. The probe should slide easily in and out of the meat. If it does, pick up the meat and give it a gentle shake. It should feel wobbly like kids’ jelly. All the collagen in the interconnecting tissues has broken down into succulent gelatin. This normally happens around 199 – 205 °F. The meat is now ready for holding.

Holding the Brisket.

Holding is when the meat is taken out of the smoker and placed in a good quality cool box. The meat continues to cook using its latent heat. You need a good quality cool box (beer cooler) big enough to hold the brisket. Line the cooler with an old towel. Place a baking tray (or disposable foil tray) on top of the towel.

Take the brisket out of the smoker. Leave it wrapped if you used the Texas Crutch method. If not, then wrap it in butcher paper. Place the meat in the tray in the cooler. Cover the meat with another towel and tightly close the lid. The cooler will allow the meat to stay hot and continue cooking for up to four hours. Push the thermometer probe back in the thick part of the meat. This extra hot holding time lets the meat become even more tender. It also lets you relax before your guests arrive. The brisket is now ready for slicing.

Before we move on to slicing, let us look at the variations associated with different types of smoker.

How to smoke a brisket in an electric smoker

Smoking beef brisket in an electric smoker is probably the easiest method possible. Fill the wood chip box with your chosen type of chips. Plug the smoker in and turn it on. Set the smoker temperature to 225°F. Set the internal meat temperature to 195°F. Put the meat in the smoker and insert the temperature probe into the thickest part of the meat. Fill the water pan. Press the start button and sit back and relax. Check the water pan, wood, temperature, and meat color every hour.

How to smoke a brisket on a charcoal grill

Smoking a brisket on a charcoal grill takes some skill. It can be done but takes practice. The key is to use “The Snake” method to load the charcoal into the grill. The snake method involves carefully positioning the charcoal briquettes in a two-layer, two briquettes wide ring inside the smoker. A gap is left at the front of the smoker. The wood for the smoke flavor is added on top of the charcoal in stages. One end of the “snake” is lit with a brulee torch. The charcoal burns slowly round the ring of briquettes and ignites the wood. It gives a long-lasting slow low heat. More briquettes can be added to the end once the snake has half burnt out. A water pan can be added to the center of the grill. This will also catch any drips from the meat.

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Set up the snake as described above. Light the end of the snake and let the grill preheat. Fill the water bowl. Put the thermometer probe on the grill where the meat is going to sit. Put the lid on the grill. Adjust the air vents on the grill so it burns low and slow.

Put the meat on the grill when the temperature reaches 225°F. Insert the internal temperature probe. Put the lid on the grill. Keep an eye on the temperature, water pan, smoke levels and meat color. You add more charcoal to the cold end of the snake as needed. Try not to open the grill too often as it will lose temperature quickly. If you are lucky, you may only need to open it once when the brisket hits the stall. You can then Texas Crutch it, add water, charcoal, and wood all in one go.

How to smoke a brisket on a pellet grill

Smoking a brisket on a pellet grill is easy! Plug the grill in and turn it on. Fill the pellet hopper with the pellet type of your choice. Ignite the grill and let it preheat to 225°F. It should take around 20 minutes. Fill up the water pan. Carefully lay the meat on the grill. Insert the internal thermometer probe. Close the grill and wait. Monitor the water level, temperatures, smoke level and meat color. Refill as required. You will have to deal with the stall and may decide to use the Texas Crutch technique. If you decide to wait out the stall with no crutch, then refill the water tray and pellets.

How to smoke a brisket on a gas grill (gas smoker / propane smoker)

You can smoke low and slow beef brisket on a gas grill. It takes some knowledge on how to set the grill up. You also need a decent pellet tube smoker accessory, a water pan and additional thermometer.

Make sure you have a good supply of gas. A spare bottle is advisable. Turn on the left-hand side gas burner. Set it to medium flame. Place a water pan underneath the grill shelf on the right-hand side of the grill. Fill the pellet tube with pellets of your choice. Place the end of the pellet tube over the left-hand lit gas burner. The heat from the burner should ignite the pellets. The pellets will continue to smolder down the length of the tube. The pellets should last several hours. Fill the water pan. Close the lid. Adjust the gas control until the temperature stabilizes at 225°F.

Place the meat on the far-right hand side of the grill. Make sure it is far away from the gas flame. Insert the thermometer probe into the meat and close the grill lid. Monitor the temperature, water, pellets, and meat color every hour. Like every other method, you will have to deal with the stall. We recommend using the Texas Crutch method when smoking on a gas grill. This will help you save gas and pellets. It will also reduce smoking time.

How to slice a brisket / How to cut a brisket

First, you need a great knife. It needs to be ultra-sharp with a long straight thin blade. It needs to have a rounded end and be at least 8 inches long. A hollow grind will help the blade slice clean through the brisket. This is important so you get the classic ¼ inch slices of brisket in one piece. The knife of choice is the Dexter-Russell 12" Scalloped Slicer. It is not mega expensive but is a great knife at a great price. It is ideal for slicing brisket.

You also need a cutting board and a towel. The cutting board should be large enough for the brisket and have a juice groove around the edge. Our favorite is the Mountain Woods Hardwood Cutting Board.

Don’t slice the brisket until you are ready to serve it. The meat will start to oxidize and dry out. Do the preparation first and get ready to slice. But leave the brisket in the cooler until serving time.

Start by putting the towel down on a solid work surface. Position the board on the towel. Carefully place the brisket on the board with the point to the left-hand side. The grain in the flat of the brisket runs in a different direction to the grain of the point. You need to make the first cut to separate these two sections of the brisket. Each section can then be sliced differently according to the grain.

Separate the point from the flat with one straight cut across the brisket.

Remember back to when you were trimming the brisket. Can you remember which way the grain was running in each part of the meat? Look at the picture you drew and double-check.

Slice the flat across the grain keeping the knife strokes slow and steady. You want the slices to be ¼ of an inch thick (the thickness of a normal pencil). A long knife with a rounded tip will let you make long strokes that cut the meat beautifully. Always slice against the grain. Make sure each slice has a layer of the bark all around it. Presentation is important, we eat with our eyes as well as our nose and mouth!

Grab hold of the point section and turn it 90° so the point is at the top. Slice the point straight down the middle. Set one half aside and turn the other back 90°. Check out the direction of the grain and slice that half across the grain. Ensure you have a nice section of bark on each piece. Again, aim for slices that are ¼ inch thick. Repeat for the other half of the point.

Lay the meat out on the board so guests have a choice between the lean flat meat and fatty point meat. Serve the meat on the board for that authentic look.

FAQs

How long does it take to smoke a brisket?

This is almost impossible to answer. There are so many variables associated with smoking a brisket. The main thing to think about is how you are going to deal with the stall. If you just smoke through the stall, you could be smoking for over 18 hours. If you use the Texas Crutch, you might save 4 or more hours of this time. Other aspects include how often you open the smoker and let all the heat out. The type of smoker, variations in temperature, wind direction and even the shape of the meat all change the smoking time.

The best approach is to start the smoke early. You can always hot hold the brisket in the smoker for several hours if it finishes early. If time is crucial, then use the Texas Crutch to reduce cooking time.

In general, allow between 12 and 18 hours if you are using the Texas Crutch. Add another 6 if you are going to smoke through the stall.

How long to smoke a brisket per pound?

See the previous question and answer! It is extremely hard to give an accurate answer that is worth going by. As briskets can vary so much in weight, the most accurate answer is “anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes”. Whatever you do, start your smoking early and leave yourself plenty of time. You can always keep it hot in the cool box until you need to serve it.