Picture it, you’ve invested a lot of time and fair amount of money in that brisket that is in your smoker. You carefully watched the temperature and pulled it out when you thought it was done. You let brisket rest an hour, then cut into it only to discover it was tough as nails.
The problem is that the smoked brisket was fully cooked, but it was not done cooking. So, how do you know when a smoked brisket is done? Let’s find out.
The First Stage of Cooking
Let’s face it, a brisket is one big dumb cut of beef, and cooking brisket just takes a long time. It has a thick layer of fat and a small, strange piece of meat on top with grain going the other direction. That, by the way, is the point and it’s one of best things that can come out of a smoker. That’s where burnt ends come from, but that is for another blog.
Before discussing when a brisket is done, we need to understand the cooking process. Smoking a brisket actually involves two distinct stages of cooking. In the first stage, the brisket cooks over a pan of water and indirect heat at 225°F. I don’t like using a higher temperature because I think it is more difficult to control the process when the brisket is cooking faster. This is when the brisket picks up the smoky flavor and forms a nice crust. The best brisket is cooked over a low temperature for a long period of time. The internal temperature will climb steadily to about 165°F and then stop. The internal temperature will just sit there hovering around 165°F and not move, seemingly forever. Welcome to the stall.
The stall is the mysterious point in the life of a brisket where the cooking temperature stops climbing until some moisture in the brisket burns off. Remember separating two or more mixed liquids in chemistry class? You would heat the liquid over a Bunsen burner and the temperature would rise and then stall at the boiling point of one of the liquids. Then, it would rise until the boiling point of the next liquid was reached. A brisket is kind of like that. The brisket will form moisture on the crust that cools the brisket as it evaporates. The evaporation keeps the internal temperature from rising. In fact, the internal temperature of the meat may actually fall a few degrees during the stall. Clearly water does not boil at 160°F, but the science is correct. The internal temperature of the brisket is not moving until the evaporation stops.
Resist the temptation to open the lid and peak. Resist the temptation to add more wood. You will just add 10 minutes to the overall cooking time every time you do. Be patient, it will break through. When it does and the temperature starts to climb, the first stage of cooking is done. It’s time to take the brisket out and wrap it up.
Remember the water pan mentioned above? A pan of water set in the smoker, preferably below the brisket if possible, helps maintain a bit of humidity inside the smoker. This, in turn, helps the brisket preserve some of its moisture resulting in a juicier brisket.
This first stage of smoking a brisket can take a while. A 15 pound full packer brisket could easily take 7 – 9 hours to reach the stall and another hour or so to break through the stall.
Measuring the Internal Temperature
By the way, it is just not practical to cook a brisket using an instant-read thermometer. Every time you open the smoker lid, you are letting out a bunch of heat and letting in a lot of cooler air. It takes about 8 – 10 minutes for the smoker to normalize and get back to where it was each time you open the lid. Invest in a good meat thermometer with a remote capability that will link to your phone. Watch my video on the Fireboard to see how they work. Simply insert the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the brisket before placing it in the smoker. This is important, if the thermometer probe is not in the thickest part of the meat, the temperature reading may be inaccurate causing the brisket to be underdone.
Wrapping the Brisket
It’s no secret that most every pit master in Texas wraps their brisket. It’s an essential part of the whole cooking process because it helps keep the brisket moist and prevents it from drying out. Besides, if wrapping a brisket in peach butcher paper is good enough for Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, it's good enough for me.
Foil vs. Peach Butcher Paper
A brisket can be wrapped in aluminum foil, a technique called the Texas Crutch. The foil basically steams the brisket and produces an end product a bit like a pot roast. The taste will be fine, but the texture of the meat will be loose.
Many BBQ gurus, including Aaron Franklin and cookbook author Steve Raichlen, now use peach butcher paper exclusively. The peach butch paper allows the brisket to breathe, resulting in a moist brisket with a better texture. Peach butcher paper is easy to find online. I bought mine at webstaurant.com.
Learning how to wrap brisket in peach paper is easy. Just lay two pieces down on a table with about a 6" overlap. Lay the brisket in one corner, fold it over, then fold both sides in and the roll up the rest. It’s basically a “butcher wrap” using two pieces of paper. Place the roast back in the smoker in the same orientation that it was before being wrapped. Remember, you are not really smoking the brisket with the peach butcher paper wrap. Smoking is over and no additional smoky flavor will penetrate the peach butcher paper, and that's OK. At this point, it's about preserving the remaining moisture in the meat, not adding more smoke.
It may not be conventional, but I add a bit of Wagyu beef tallow to both the brisket and the paper prior to wrapping. I think it helps keep it most and adds a bit of flavor.
The Second Stage of Cooking
Now that the stall is over, the internal temperature of the brisket will once again steadily climb. This is the second stage of cooking a brisket and it is where the connective tissue breaks down resulting in tender meat. It’s also the stage where a lot of the fat will finally be rendered. Continue to cook the brisket until the internal temperature reaches 203°F. This could easily take another 2 – 4 hours or more, depending on the size of the brisket.
Testing When the Brisket is Done
There will be no visual clues that your brisket is done. The surface of the meat will have a nice dark crust no matter what the internal temperature is. Assuming that the brisket has been cooked using the slow cooking method outlined above (at 225°F) then the ideal internal temperature for a properly cooked brisket is 203°F.
For accomplished pit masters, like Aaron Franklin and Steve Raichlen, internal temperature is just an indicator that a brisket is done. They will also employ a variety of novel tests including the bend test, the probe test and the jiggle test to ensure a juicy brisket. They also target a temperature range of about 200°F up to 208°F. Aaron Franklin judges doneness by feel. He wants to see the fibers pull apart easily. He also looks for a brisket to be “pliable” and “jiggly” in his hands.
While “feel” may be the best way to determine when a brisket is done, those two gentlemen have already cooked many more briskets than I ever will. For me, I consistently get the best results by employing a long cooking time at a low temperature and target a final internal temperature of 203°F. That is the best internal temperature for my brisket. Unless you are an experienced pit master, the internal temperature is the best way ensure a perfect brisket.
Let the Brisket Rest
Just because your brisket has reached the ideal temperature, it doesn’t mean it’s ready to eat. Slice the brisket now and all of the juice will literally run out and you will end up with dry brisket. The brisket below was sliced after resting for only 10 minutes. Look at how dried out it is.
To get a juicy brisket, just let the brisket rest a bit. I wrap my brisket in plastic wrap then a few old bath towels before placing it inside a small insulated cooler for an hour or two. This allows the muscle fibers to relax and the juice to be reabsorbed.
When it comes time, cut the brisket across the grain. Watch my video on Smoked Beef Brisket and Burnt Ends for tips on how to notch the brisket before cooking to make cutting across the grain easier. Also, take a look at the recipe on this site for more tips.
If you are going to invest the time and money into making the perfect smoked brisket, then you should also consider making your own rub and BBQ sauce. Both are easy to make and taste great. Take a look at my Kansas City BBQ Dry Rub recipe and Bourbon Barbecue Sauce recipe for inspiration.
- Invest in a remote thermometer
- Cook low and slow at 225°F
- Wrap the brisket when it comes out of the stall
- Remove the brisket when it reaches 203°F, wrap it up and place it in a cooler for an hour or two
- Cut across the grain
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