Monday, August 9, 2010

Cooking Brisket to Perfection! How to smoke a brisket

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OK, I left off making sure you got certain items in your possession before we could cook the brisket the following morning. Well, you aren't off the hook yet! We still have some final preparations before going to bed if you want to be all that you can be! Get a large bowl, or put a stopper in your kitchen sink to prevent water from draining. Fill the large bowl or sink with water. Take several handfuls of mesquite chips, or a lesser amount of mesquite chunks(maybe 2 handfuls tops), and plop them in the water to soak overnight. Why? Well, for two reasons. The first is because mesquite burns very hotly, which will cause the temperatures in your grill to go up too high. The second is because you will not get a good amount of smoke if the wood is dry. Just stop asking questions, and soak the wood already! Trust me, I wouldn't steer you wrong! 


For those of you without a smoker, don't despair!  I am going to teach you how to take a normal charcoal grill and turn it into a great smoker!  Probably not quite as good as a smoker designed specifically for smoking, but a very good one nonetheless!  Before I teach you how to do that, I need to give you a little background on how we are going to be cooking the brisket, and how it differs from normal grilling you would do with a steak, a hamburger, or a piece of chicken. 

Direct vs. Indirect Heat

When most people think of grilling or barbecuing, they think of cooking hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks and chicken on the grill.  They are correct, but only partially.  hen you cook this way, you want high temperatures for short durations of time.  The meat is cooked relatively quickly and at high temperatures(350 degrees F or higher, usually 400-500 F) with direct heat.  What is direct heat, you might ask?  Well direct heat is putting the source of the heat, in this case the charcoals, directly under the food and using this heat to cook the food.  This is called grilling.

Indirect heat, is what we are going to be using.  Yes, we are using charcoal just like when we cook with direct heat, but we are going to let the air do the cooking, not the charcoal.  Our grill will become more like a convection oven than a true grill, as the heat source is not cooking the food directly, but rather heating up the surrounding air, which is doing the actual cooking. This is why it is termed indirect heat.With indirect heat, the goal is "low and slow".  Too high, and the meat becomes dried out, and too low, and the meat never cooks or you are eating dinner after its dark out at 11pm, and everyone is gone after you had to order pizza to feed them.

Indirect heat is also called "low and slow" cooking.  Temperatures are much lower than normal grilling, usually in the 225 - 275 degree F range, and the meat is cooked for a much longer time.  How long you ask?  Well, that all depends on many variables.  What variables? Well, how constant the temperature is, how good you are at keeping it within that range, how many pounds of meat you are cooking, etc.  A rule of thumb with brisket is that it takes an 1 hour and 15 minutes per pound, although many times, it really has been about an hour per pound, but the hour and 15 minute rule of thumb is good because then you will give yourself enough time. 

Now I am going to teach you how to set up your normal charcoal grill to use indirect heat.  The only thing you need to make absolutely sure your grill has is a cover.  Without a cover, you are going to be losing heat, smoke, humidity and going through lots of charcoal.  It is just not practical to do so.  If you need to get a grill with a lid,  would recommend the Weber grill pictured down below:

However, if you are stubborn, and demand a smoker, then here is a Weber smoker, which is one of the best and most respected names in barbecue:

Grill Setup Instructions

It's probably around 6:30AM as you are waking up with the alarm going off, and as soon as you do, take the brisket out of the refrigerator and let it warm up a little bit before cooking.  Cold meats take longer to cook than room temperature ones, but just make sure you are not going to be leaving it out for a period of hours, when it can develop food borne pathogens like bacteria that can cause problems.

Take one of the aluminum pans and place it in he bottom of the grill on the right hand side.  Bring out some water and fill the pan(easier than carrying a full pan of water and spilling half of it!).  This will help keep the brisket moist and tender. Take the other aluminum pan, and put it directly in the center of the grilling surface.  This will catch the delicious juices coming from the brisket that you can use to add to the brisket sauce or to baste it in its juices.  Next, get your charcoal chimney and put about 20 coals in it.  Stuff the bottom with two pieces of newspaper, set it on the grill or the ground(concrete, not grass, as it WILL burn), and light it. 

After about 15-20 minutes, the coals in the coals in the chimney will be ashed over and you can dump it into the grill and start cooking.  In the meantime, if you have mesquite chips, get out some aluminum foil, take a handful of wood chips from your sink or bowl, and place it on the foil.  Cover the chips completely by folding over the foil, and poke holes in the top of the foil with a fork or knife.  This will allow the smoke to escape and will prevent a messy cleanup.  You can create more foil pouches if you want while you are waiting for the coals to be ready.

Take your thermometer out and your cork.  Run the metal probe through the middle of the cork lengthwise. Set aside temporarily until we have everything else ready.

Check the coals.  If they are ready(grey and ashed over for the most part), dump them into the LEFT side of the grill only!  Remember, indirect heat.  We are going to make a nice layer of coals to spread out the heat.  Make sure the coals stretch from front to back.  Reposition them if you need to.  Take your foil pouch of mesquite wood and toss it onto the coals.  Within about 30 seconds or less, you should begin seeing and smelling the smoke coming out of the pouches.  Take the brisket and put it directly in the middle of the grill, in between the coals and the water pan, and directly above the drip pan. Take your corked thermometer, and place it directly next to the brisket, but making sure it is not touching the brisket.  Now, CLOSE THE GRILL. If you have a bottom vent, make sure it is fully open for now.  If there is no bottom vent, like the grill I have, pull out the ash catcher under the grill to allow some air to get in.

Check the temperature on the thermometer. It should slowly rise and hopefully stop in the 225-250 degree F range.  Brisket needs to be cooked at a lower temperature than pork does, as it is more unforgiving and will dry out quicker than a pork butt.  If the temperature stays steady between those two readings, then you my friend have earned a few hours of free time!  With the lid closed, the temperature should stay pretty stable for a few hours, if not longer.  Your free time isn't free yet, however!  Now its time to make the barbecue mop and finishing sauce!


I am sure you are wondering what a mop is. No, it is not something you use to clean the floor, at least not in this context.  A mop is a sauce you use to brush or mop onto the brisket while it is cooking to enhance flavor and keep it moist.  I recommend you have a good silicon brush as it holds lots of sauce and is easy to clean.
A good basting brush is listed below if you are confused as to where to get one, or if you want a very good one instead of a cheaper one:

Now, onto the actual making of the mop.  I am going to list the ingredients, and you may need to run to the local supermarket. That's OK. It will give you something to do instead of constantly disrupting the brisket smoking by repeatedly opening the grill to check on it.  I know, you can't help it.  I did the same thing as a newbie to brisket smoking.  This i why I am going to be sending you on a shopping mission.  To save you from yourself. 


1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 tablespoon of butter *
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 cup Yuengling Lager (or any other lager). Get some for yourself too!
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons steak sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Hot sauce to taste (start with 2 teaspoons of Tabasco sauce for mild heat)
2 cups beef, veal, or chicken stock(get bullion and make your own)
* Authentic recipe calls for rendered beef fat from the fatback of a brisket or bacon fat. However butter or margarine work just fine.


1) Put  the paprika, black pepper, chili powder, and cumin in a small bowl and mix well.

2) In a one quart saucepan, melt the butter or bacon fat and slowly cook the onion over medium heat until translucent.

3) Add the garlic, bell pepper, and the spice mix you made in step (1). Stir, and cook for two minutes to extract the flavors.

4) Add the stock and the rest of the ingredients. Stir until well blended. Simmer on medium for 15 minutes. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a month or so.  Yields approximately 5 cups of sauce.

Take a small bowl, and pour about a cup of sauce into it.  This will be your mopping sauce you will use for the brisket.  We separated it from the main sauce to prevent any cross contamination from dipping the brush in and out of the sauce and brushing the still uncooked brisket.  Right about now, you should be about 2 to 3 hours into your brisket adventure.  Time to go out take a look at the grill.


Hopefully the temperature is still in the 225-250 degree F range as you check the thermometer(it should be as long as you didn't turn into "I gotta open the lid to check it out" guy).  If it is too cool, immediately toss some coals into your charcoal chimney and light it.  Put about 10-15 coals in, and wait about 10-15 minutes to ensure they are ashed over and not still burning.  If you need to add more coals, wait to mop your brisket until you add the coals in.  This way you only have to open the lid once instead of twice.  When you open the lid, do it quickly.  The longer it stays open, the more heat, humidity and smoke is being lost, which means the longer it will take to cook your brisket.

To add the coals, grab your tongs and grab the far side of the grill on the right and pull it out enough for you dump the coals in.  Obviously do not pull it out to far or you will dump your brisket on the ground.  If you need to, add another foil pouch or more mesquite chunks to the coals as well to ensure there is still a good supply of smoke. Its important to get all the smoke that you want the brisket to have within the first 4 or 5 hours, as it will not absorb anymore smoke after that time. 

Now its time to mop your brisket.  Dip your silicon brush into the brisket and get a good portion of sauce on it.  Brush the brisket, making sure it is well coated with sauce, but not dripping wet, either. When you are finished, close the grill back up and check the thermometer.  Again, you want it to be right in the 225-250 degree F range. If it gets too hot, get a spray bottle of water and spray the coals until it gets the temperature down to 250 F.

Keep the sauce and brush near the grill and cover it with aluminum foil to keep any unwanted flying creatures out.  Last thing you want is to have someone take a bite into the brisket and bite into a fly instead.  I like to mop the brisket once every hour and a half to two hours.  This way keeps it moist without having to open the lid too often.  Make sure you watch the temperature and get ready to add charcoal anytime you see the grill losing heat and dipping below 230 degrees F.  The idea is to have the charcoal ready to add before the temperature gets under 225 F, not once its sitting at 215 F. 


A key component of cooking brisket is proper temperature maintenance.  Unfortunately for many people, it is also one of the hardest to master, but it really isn't that difficult.  So then why is it so hard?  Because us guys have a natural tendency to want to check things out and to make sure everything is going OK.  Its sort of an ingrained behavior.  We are problem solvers.  We have to make sure everything is OK, or else we have to start solving problems and fixing things.  I know its hard, but don't be that guy.  Don't be that guy that opens up his grill every 15 minutes to check on the brisket and causes it to take an extra 3 hours to cook.  Just don't do it.  I mean it. 

If you are reading this and getting ready to open the grill, other than to mop the brisket every 90-120 minutes, STOP!  The brisket is cooking perfectly fine without you opening it.  In fact, it is cooking perfectly fine BECAUSE you aren't opening it.  I cannot state this enough. Opening the grill too often is a major cause of headaches among people who smoke brisket.  Take your hand off the lid and step away slowly.

By now, the brisket should be approaching 4 to 5 hours.  This is around the point where the meat will not absorb much smoke, so do not throw anymore foil pouches or mesquite chunks onto the coals.  Doing so will have no beneficial effects on the meat, and it may cause the meat to become oversmoked, which gives a somewhat bitter, nasty taste to the brisket. 

Some places will tell you to take out the brisket, wrap it in foil and finish cooking it in a normal oven.  I won't do that, not because that probably isn't a way of getting an acceptable brisket, but because I like cooking it on a charcoal grill too much. Ovens are great if you are in the dead of winter and you don't feel like freezing outside while cooking brisket.  In the summer, the grill is it.

Get ready to mop the brisket again as needed around every 90-120 minutes.  Again, make sure not to overly saturate the meat with sauce, but get a nice layer on the top and sides.  No need to flip the brisket over, it is cooking on all sides equally because of the air doing the cooking, not the coals.

Depending on the size of the brisket, yours might almost be done at this point.  However, with a full brisket of about 10 lbs or more, you still have a few hours to go.


A little trick that most of the competitive barbecue teams use is something known as the "Texas Crutch".  Basically this entails wrapping the brisket in double foil, adding some sauce or liquid to the foil(more beer works well), and then completely covering the brisket with the foil, sealing it up.  Do this about an hour before the brisket is finished cooking, or roughly when the temperature reaches 185 degrees F(takes about an hour for the temp to go up 10 degrees).  This creates more moisture and humidity, giving the brisket even more tenderness than normal.  Leave it on the grill for about an hour like this, and you will get an awesome result, I promise you!  Once the internal temperature reaches 195 degrees F, the brisket is ready to be taken off the grill.

However, you are not done yet.  Take the brisket still wrapped in foil and put it in a cooler or in an unheated oven.  We do this to let the brisket rest and to help the rendering process where all the connective tissues and fat basically melt, which creates the tenderness we are after.  You will want to leave it resting for at least an hour.  Once the hour is up, take the brisket out of the oven and get ready for the grand finale!


Get a large tray out and put it on a flat surface.  Place the brisket still wrapped in foil on top of it.  Before you go cutting it, I am going to give you a quick primer on brisket cutting.  Brisket has a "grain" to it.  The grain is the direction the meat is going and you always want to cut with the grain, not against it, which would lead to the meat not cutting properly.  You can quickly look at the meat and determine which way the grain is going.  Again, always cut with the grain.

Unwrap the brisket and get ready to cut it.  Make sure you have a deep tray! The first slice you make into the brisket is going to unleash an avalanche of juices that you would never have believed could come from a piece of cooked meat.  It will literally "gush" out and if the tray isn't deep enough it will gush all over you and the floor.  Just giving you fair warning. Cut the meat quickly, making sure to go with the grain, not against it. 

Brisket will dry out quickly if left in the open.  Slice an amount of meat that you need, and quickly cover the rest in juice and foil.  You can then serve the brisket on  sandwich bun, either in its sliced form, or as many do, chop it up into chopped brisket, and serve it that way.  Pile it up on the sandwich, drizzle some of the mop sauce you made previously that should still be sitting on the stove, and serve it. 

Goes great with creamy coleslaw, baked beans, or red beans and rice.  I will explore the recipes and instructions for making these sides in another blog at a later date.  Sit back, relax and enjoy watching the expressions on your friends faces as they take their first bite into their sandwich.  You may want to have your camera handy as a picture really is worth a thousand words!

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