Risk a brisket on the grill
May 28th, 2012
12:30 PM ET
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May 28 is National Brisket Day. Here's how to make one at home.

I've never had any complaints about my brisket. That could be because no one is especially keen to rag on the crazy-eyed lady wielding a hot pair of tongs and giving out free meat, but I'd like to think that it had at least a little bit to do with quality.

Burgers, hot dogs, steaks and chicken are cookout classics for a reason. They're crowd-pleasers and (with a little care) relatively un-screwuppable. They're a safe bet, but for maximum impact, only a giant hunk of meat will get the job done.

Consider the brisket. It's a big ol' flat, cut of beef from the chest of a cow, and it's the stuff of Texas legend. It's bone-free and takes a fairly long time to cook down under low, slow charcoal heat, but every last stomach grumble is worth it.

While many weekend grillers think this sort of project is best left to fifth-generation Texas pitmasters and smoke-soaked competition barbecue acolytes with big, schmancy smokers, a succulent brisket is achievable in your backyard grill.

Really. I promise. Here's how.

There are as many ways to tackle a brisket as there are burly dudes with open beers in their hands - and they're all probably pretty good. This method has worked for me, and I'm endlessly tweaking it, but it starts out with a brisket with a good, solid fat cap on top. In this health-conscious era, some butchers and supermarkets are trimming the fat from meat and touting that as a selling point, but in this case, it's a detriment. In times of desperation, I've patched denuded brisket tops with strips of fatty bacon, but that was far from ideal.

A full brisket is often on the order of 18 to 20 pounds, which is an awful lot of meat to address all at one time, and which will take more time and cash than you're likely willing to spend on your first attempt. Shoot for a trimmed brisket - around 5 to 7 pounds and back it up with a slew of sides if you're expecting a lot of company. Haul that home along with some beer, cider vinegar and wood chips and start your rub.

Ideally you'll have a few hours to let your brisket loll about in these spices, but the barbecue deities are not always smiling their brightest down upon us. You'll plan ahead next time, but for now, cobble this together:

Basic Brisket Rub

1/4 cup Sweet paprika (or hot or smoked if that's more to your liking)
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/4 cup Brown sugar
2 Tablespoons freshly-ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl with your fingers, working out any brown sugar lumps.

From here, you can add your own personal twists – tablespoons or teaspoons of dry mustard, coffee, celery seed, dried chiles, powdered onion, garlic salt – up to you. Coriander and cumin play beautifully with heady wood smoke like hickory or apple, but really - even if you keep it super-simple, this brisket is going to be delicious.

Rub this on every surface of the meat and then wrap it and stick it in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight), or go out and start building your fire. Unlike a burger, steak or hot dog where flame proximity is paramount, large cuts like briskets and pork shoulders fare better under sustained, low, indirect heat.

Pour half a beer into a bowl and toss in a handful of wood chips. You'll develop your own wood preferences the longer you're on the smoke train, but fruit woods like apple and cherry are a solid choice, as are mesquite and hickory. Don't fret. And don't guzzle the other half of the beer; pour that into another bowl with a cup of cider vinegar, a pinch or two of red pepper flakes and another each of salt and pepper. That will be your mop sauce.

Light a charcoal chimney (here's how), and when the coals have ashed over, layer them evenly on one side on the grill and place a drip pan on the other. Replace the grates on the side over the drip pan and go fetch your meat.

Position the brisket as far from the coals as you can, grab some wet chips and a few dry ones, carefully throw them atop the coals and close the lid of the grill. Smoke will start to billow out of the vents and it will smell like heaven.

Enjoy that for a few minutes, then check the grill's temperature. You're aiming for 225°F; if it's lower, open your vents as wide as they'll go (and add more coals if need be) and if it's too hot, ease them closed. That may seem counterintuitive, but fire needs oxygen to feed it. Otherwise - stop futzing with the grill. Temperature shifts are the enemy of excellent smoked meat, and as the pitmasters are wont to say, "If you're looking, you ain't cooking."

Your only excuses for opening the lid should be either the addition of fresh coals or mopping your meat. To achieve the latter, grab that beer and vinegar mixture, stir it up and brush it all over the meat once an hour. Use that window of opportunity to throw on some more wood chips, or rotate (not flip) the brisket half a turn once you're about three hours in, but otherwise leave that meat alone.

By the way, gas grillers are not out of the brisket game. Just keep the heat to 225°F, put the meat in a foil pan to shield it from the direct flames, and place the chips in a foil pouch or metal smoker box.

After about five hours (with the trimmed brisket; on a full one you're just getting started), the game changes a little bit. Whip out your instant-read thermometer and get a reading at the thickest part of the meat. If it's 185-190°F - congratulations; you've achieved brisket. If it's not anywhere close, keep going, but if it's nearly there, check every 20 minutes or so until it's up to temperature - and keep mopping.

Once it's sufficiently heated through and through, hoist that baby onto a cutting board and smack away all greedy fingers attempting to pick at it for the next ten minutes; it's been working hard and it needs to rest. Then grab a sharp carving knife and slice in against the grain.

Ideally, in a single slice, you'll see strata of bark (the dark outer crust), deckle (a layer of fat), a pinkish smoke ring, and moist, succulent meat. Stuff a few slices into your mouth and then feed your guests.

If it doesn't look like that, it's probably still pretty good (and again, you're giving people free meat and that is not to be underestimated). But a few troubleshooting tips:

It's gone beyond bark and got burned
Not all briskets are shaped equally, and thinner parts, or spots with less fat cook more quickly. Wrap those spots with foil or shield them from the heat with bacon if you don't mind mixing meats.

It's dried out
For right now, offer a side of sauce or pan drippings if you have them. In the future, spend some time getting to know your grill's vents and hot spots, monitor the temperature closely throughout the process and mop, mop, mop. Some grillers also keep a pan of water inside the grill to maintain a moister environment. Others inject it with a marinade, but that's always seemed a little fussy to me.

It's tough, but not burned or dry
Feed your guests some sides and keep cooking because it's just not done yet. Grills and briskets vary mightily, and while some people go by a rule of thumb - an hour to an hour and a half per pound - it might be more and it might be less. Just listen to your brisket and keep your trusty thermometer at your side.

I'm really tired of going out there and fussing with it
Aw, but that's the fun part! If you're truly having problems maintaining temperature or are just getting antsy, pull the brisket from the grill after two to three hours and finish it in a 225°F oven. Mopping and temperature taking vigilance still apply.

Got a brisket question or methodology you'd care to share? Please do so in the comments below. We'd love to hear from you and help/be yelled at as needed.

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soundoff (200 Responses)
  1. triplebbarbq@gmail.com

    Cook it closer to the 200 degree range, not 185 to 190. 185 to 190 doesn't yield a tender brisket yet.

    July 7, 2014 at 11:55 am |
    • RA

      I like low 190's...because after 15 minutes of resting, the temp will go up a few degrees

      August 30, 2014 at 12:22 pm |
  2. SixDegrees

    I've cooked a lot of briskets and pork shoulders over the years, and here's my advice: trying to coax a smoker to cooperate just isn't worth it. Throw the meat in there for a couple of hours to pick up the smoke, then finish it in the far more controllable, low-maintenance oven for the bulk of the time. You won't lose any flavor – after a couple hours, there's no wood smoke being generated – and you'll gain freedom from futzing with the coals, the overall temperature, and general nuisance that is the heart and soul of a smoker.

    May 29, 2014 at 3:10 am |
  3. Kenny Rogers


    May 28, 2014 at 10:48 pm |
  4. Kenny Rogers

    Mmmm, looks good.

    May 28, 2014 at 10:47 pm |
  5. Kenny Rogers

    Love brisket, slow cooked over mesquite. Secret is slow cooking, the right spicing, and indirect heat. A good 8 hours.

    May 28, 2014 at 10:46 pm |
  6. LJH

    Kat, your instructions aren't clear regarding the "wrap" to use before placing brisket in the fridge, or whether to "unwrap" before putting on the smoker. Can you give some clarity on that please?

    May 28, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
  7. realtalker

    Risk a brisket? Oh......there is no risk. I've been doing them for years. Give me a brisket, a pork but or some baby backs and I'll show you goog barbeque. Brisket is the only beef barbeque I make, but everytime I make it, it steals the show easy. Love it.

    May 28, 2014 at 11:51 am |
  8. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Aww man, that looks good.

    May 28, 2014 at 9:09 am |
  9. Dwayne from Texas

    I have had the best luck with Royal Oak natural charcoal, and mesquite chips. I have to reload charcoal about once every couple hours, and I sprinkle water soaked mesquite chunks on top every hour or so. But the author or right – temperature is the key. 225-250 is perfect.

    May 15, 2014 at 11:15 am |
  10. akismet-ae0f21f16118041512bc0881f1166b90

    My biggest challenge is always getting the charcol started. One thing this article doesn't mention is how often one needs to reload charcol.

    May 15, 2014 at 8:26 am |
    • realtalker

      starting the charcoal is as easy as applying lighter fluid and striking a match. Yes yes, I know, bbq enthusiasts always say don't use lighter fluid, but trust me on this. As long as you give it 20 or so minutes to burn off all of the fluid, your coals will be beautiful and orange and you won't have the slightest taste of lighter fluid in your food. The reason people have problems with it is because they don't wait long enough. They see fire and think it's time to cook. You have to let the fire die and the coals turn orange before putting anything on the grill. As for knowing when to reload. It depends on the temperature. If it gets low and adjusting the ventilation doesn't help, it's time for more coals.

      May 28, 2014 at 12:08 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Like all things related to barbecue, there are cults built up around this simple act. Personally, I like what's known as the Minion Method: lay out your charcoal, then start a handful of coals separately in a chimney starter. Sprinkle these burning coals on the unstarted bed, and continue with your cooking. Once oxygen is controlled by mostly shutting the vents, the coals will just smolder, typically for 8 – 12 hours, without further intervention.

      Of course, this is heresy in some circles – just like all acts of barbecue. You're best off ignoring such rubbish.

      May 29, 2014 at 3:13 am |
  11. Ricarda Dzama

    Wonderful facts Thanks."


    April 16, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
  12. Tony

    All I have to say is that this is a good technique for brisket love the rub. I used in a cook off competition and won me first place..against cook of veterans and this my first ever cook off...thank you

    July 17, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
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