April 11th, 2014
03:00 PM ET
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America's Test Kitchen is a real 2,500 square foot test kitchen located just outside of Boston that is home to more than three dozen full­time cooks and product testers. Our mission is simple: to develop the absolute best recipes for all of your favorite foods. To do this, we test each recipe 30, 40, sometimes as many as 70 times, until we arrive at the combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time, and equipment that yields the best, most­ foolproof recipe. America’s Test Kitchen's online cooking school is based on nearly 20 years of test kitchen work in our own facility, on the recipes created for Cook's Illustrated magazine, and on our two public television cooking shows.

Hear us out: Everyone and their grandmother makes a traditional brisket for the Seder main course, so why not shake things up a bit with our barbecued brisket? The weather is finally warm enough to grill outside without five down parkas (knock on wood), and doing so will free up your oven space for other dishes like roast carrots, salt-roasted potatoes or oven-roasted salmon (if you’re going for a surf-and-turf effect). Whether you’re in Kansas City, Texas or Jerusalem, the key to good barbecued brisket is the right balance of smoke, fat, moisture and tenderness. A low temperature for a long period of time is a given for this tough cut of meat. We’ve developed a few other strategies as well:

Keep the fat (and score it):
Most steaks and roasts are marbled with fat throughout. Not flat-cut brisket. It has a large cap of fat, but the meat itself is fairly lean and prone to dry out. For moist meat, buy a brisket with a considerable fat cap. Trim any hard or particularly thick fat off, but leave at least 1/4-inch attached. Then, score the fat in a crosshatch pattern to encourage it to render and baste the brisket as it cooks.

Go from grill to oven:
A Texas pitmaster might scoff, but for home cooks, using the oven is the key to moist, tender barbecued brisket. You need the grill for smoke - that’s non-negotiable. But to cook a brisket all the way to tenderness on a charcoal grill (our preferred grill for this recipe), you would need to keep the fire lit and at a constant temperature for more than 5 hours, carefully monitoring it and refueling with fresh charcoal at least once. It’s much easier to regulate the heat in the oven, so after grilling it for a few hours, we finish our brisket in the oven, low and slow. Don’t reverse the process. If you go from oven to grill, the smoke flavor will never permeate the meat.

Position the vents:
To keep charcoal lit, you need air flow in the grill - fire needs oxygen to burn. The bottom and lid vents provide the ventilation. The lid vent has another important function, too: It directs the path of the smoke coming off the wood chips, drawing it out of the grill. By placing the vent above the brisket, you direct the smoke right where you want it: over the meat. (This is moot on gas grills, as most don’t have lid vents.)

Give it time:
There is no hurrying a brisket. To season it deeply, we coat it with a spice rub and let it rest for at least 6 hours. The salt in the rub penetrates and seasons the meat. For large cuts like brisket, season for 24 hours if you can. Give brisket plenty of time to cook, too. The tough connective tissue, collagen, will slowly break down into gelatin; gelatin dissolves in the moisture within the meat. Remain patient, even after the brisket is cooked. As meat cooks, the muscle fibers contract, squeezing out moisture. Let it rest in its own juices - at least an hour and as long as overnight. During the rest, the brisket reabsorbs some moisture and becomes more flavorful.

Anatomy of a brisket:
Cut from the breast of the cow, a whole brisket weighs about 12 pounds. It’s a well-exercised muscle, which makes for coarse-grained, tough meat. Butchers usually break down whole briskets into two cuts: The flat (or first) cut is separated from the point (or second) cut by a thick layer of fat that runs diagonally through the fat end of the brisket. The knobby, irregularly shaped point cut is more marbled and has more overall fat. Few grocery stores carry it. Here in the test kitchen, we prefer the thinner, rectangular flat cut anyhow; it’s leaner and once cooked is easier to slice. The flat cut usually weighs about 5 pounds, although butchers occasionally break it down further into two (2- to 3-pound) roasts.

Kansas City Barbecued Brisket
(Serves 8 to 10)
barbecue brisket

*Note: To use wood chunks when using a charcoal grill, substitute two medium chunks, soaked in water for 1 hour, for the wood chip packet.

1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1 1/2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 (5- to 6-pound) beef brisket, flat cut, fat trimmed to ¼ inch
2 cups wood chips
1 (13-by-9-inch) disposable aluminum roasting pan
1 cup ketchup
1 cup water
3 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon hot sauce

1. Combine paprika, sugar, chili powder, pepper, salt, granulated garlic and onion powder in small bowl. Cut 1/2-inch crosshatch pattern through brisket fat cap, 1/4-inch deep. Rub brisket with spice mixture. Wrap brisket in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 or up to 24 hours. Just before grilling, soak wood chips in water for 15 minutes, then drain. Using large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, wrap soaked chips in foil packet and cut several vent holes in top.

2. For a charcoal grill: Open bottom vent halfway. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal­ briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of grill. Place wood chip packet on coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 5 minutes.

For a gas grill: Place wood chip packet over primary burner. Turn all burners to high, cover and heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burners.

3. Pat brisket dry with paper towels and transfer to disposable pan. Set pan with brisket on cooler side of grill and cook, covered, with lid vent positioned above brisket for 2 hours.

4. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Whisk ketchup, water, molasses and hot sauce together in bowl and pour over brisket. Cover pan tightly with foil and transfer to oven. Cook until brisket registers 195 degrees, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Turn off heat and let brisket rest in oven for 1 hour.

5. Transfer brisket to carving board. Skim fat from sauce. Slice brisket against grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Serve with sauce.

Mazel tov! You’re well on your way to being a pitmaster.

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soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. whitdo01

    This is the worst looking brisket I have ever seen. The meat should come out pink to very light brown/gray. This is even after 8-12 hours of cooking. The poor look is due to hideous technique. No person in Kansas City would cook a brisket in this manner. Dry rub and smoke are correct but smothering in sauce is a cardinal sin. Trimming all the fat cap is a guarantee for dry meat. Also you need to introduce steam the entire smoking cycle to ensure proper penetration and continued moisture. A brisket on a grill cannot be temperature controlled sufficiently. You must have a smoker or oven to properly control. Please speak with real BBQ experts from Memphis, KC or Texas to figure out how to properly cook a piece of meat

    May 6, 2014 at 12:30 pm |
    • Scrappyike

      You got that right. Sauce! Really? No offense to Americas Test Kitchen but I don't believe there is such a thing as Kansas City Barbecued Brisket. All the points made by whitdo01 are spot on

      September 2, 2014 at 8:28 am |
  2. Thinking things through

    Next time I make brisket, I'll adapt these ideas!

    Normally I slow cook it with onion for about nine hours, add more veggies and it's ready an hour later.

    April 15, 2014 at 7:59 pm |
  3. Puritan

    Barbecue is to food, what NASCAR is to sports, which is to say boorish and unsophisticated...

    April 14, 2014 at 4:37 pm |
    • Carn E. Vore

      Puritan is to conversations about tasty food as a turd is to a punch bowl.

      April 14, 2014 at 5:07 pm |
  4. David Marx

    Brisket is one of those foods where each cook thinks they alone have the best recipe and cooking technique. I know I do!

    April 14, 2014 at 7:11 am |
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