In my earlier life, I was a musician and a physicist. Music, science, and food are still my great loves in life, but that initial training as has made some things in cooking more difficult. You see, in physics there is a right answer. You can do the math a few different ways, but even within those varied pathways, there are rules that point the way forward. Music was the same: follow the conductor, play the notes as written, remember the rules of harmony and music theory. Jazz was not my forte.
This reliance on rules and direction has been no problem with “classical” cuisines in cooking. (Read: “western European cooking.”) But then there is barbecue, which is—more than any other mode of cooking—improvisational jazz.
Line up three expert pitmasters and grill them on technique, temperature, smoke, wood, fuel, wrapping, resting, or bark and you’ll get three different answers. You’ll pick up on themes—chord changes, if you will—but not “right” answers. At first, it was hard for me to adjust to. But now I understand that the placement of the water pan, the time you spritz or wrap, whether you use charcoal or plain wood for heat, or the sugar content of your rub—those are all stylistic differences, flairs and trills on a theme with one persistent beat: low heat plus time, low heat plus time, low heat plus time.
In the end, the most important factor in your barbecue success is the final state of the collagen/gelatin transformation in meat. Not enough time in the melting-zone and you get tough, chewy, regrettable BBQ. The kind your uncle makes that he’s so proud of and that everybody eats out of politeness. Too much time in the melt zone and you get fall-apart BBQ that can start to dry out and that, while still tasty with a little sauce, isn’t going to win any awards.
In today’s post, we intend to walk you through the whole brisket process, including some of the methods that are used by amateurs and professionals alike to help you navigate your way to some fantastic brisket. After all, May is National BBQ Month (did we mention that?). And you can do this.
Difficulties of cooking beef brisket
Two muscles: what is brisket?
One of the reasons that brisket is known as the king of BBQ meats—aside from the fact that it’s packed with delicious, almost sweet-tasting fat—is that it’s hard to get right. To make perfect brisket, you have to surrender: you do what it says for 8–16 hours. Not what you planned. Stoke the coals at 3 a.m? Do it. Stay up an extra hour to let the bark set before you wrap? Yes. Put the potato salad back in the fridge and try to think of things to talk about with your brother-in-law for the 2 more hours than you expected to get this thing just right? That’s the price of perfection. Those that master brisket are great pitmasters, indeed. But they have also learned how to be patient.
What makes brisket so difficult to cook, though? The very muscle itself. A whole brisket (full packer) is actually composed of two different muscles: the flat and the point. They are separated in the brisket by a thick layer of fat (the deckle) and cook at different temperatures. The flat is relatively lean and prone to overcooking, while the point is marbled with fat, which requires long cooking to render properly. Add to this the fact that the point is stacked on top of the flat—well, really, half the flat—and the thermal conundrum of how to properly cook brisket comes more sharply into focus.
For instance, where should we put the thermometer? If we place it in the true thermal center of the meat (between the point and the flat), we’ll overcook the flat. If we cook the point to the standard BBQ pull temp for tough meats—203°F (95°C)—the flat will likely be toast. (Spoiler: put it in the flat.)
Toughness/tenderness and time
But the two-muscle problem isn’t the only puzzle the brisket demands we solve. Brisket is also—thanks to its active position on the breast of the cow—positively packed with collagen. This connective tissue must be rendered into luscious gelatin so that the meat is tender, not tough and rubbery/chewy.
Collagen dissolution is, sadly, not just a factor of temperature but also of time. Would that we could just stick a thermometer in the meat and blast it at high heat until it reached 203°F (95°C)! But getting there in an hour will only give us a brisket that is so rubbery that you could almost dribble it down the street. This is why our theme of low heat plus time is so important. And it is why brisket cooking often involves late nights with a flashlight. We have to give the collagen time to break down.
For those of you that don’t remember your protein science, when meat fibers begin to cook, they contract and expel water that is otherwise bound up in them. This is what causes meat to dry up when overcooked. In the case of brisket, as the muscle fibers contract and expel their water, that water acts like perspiration, causing evaporative cooling to take place on the surface of the meat. This cooling literally causes the cooking of the meat to stall. The stall starts at about 150°F (66°C) and runs up through about 180°F (82°C), and those thirty-or-so degrees can take upwards of six hours to get through. For new barbecue cooks, this can be a near-panic inducing time. Why isn’t my brisket cooking?
This stall allows you to practice the art of barbecue patience. As long as you maintain…temperature, your brisket will eventually move beyond this stall, and the meat temperature will rise again”—Will Fleischmann, southern pitmaster
To make matters worse, the stall starts just below the temperatures where collagen dissolution begins. If only there were some way to get past the stall and into collagen dissolution!
There is. And most of the rest of this post will be devoted to defeating the stall, and the costs of such a victory. But there are a few more things to consider first.
Parameters of brisket perfection
Perfect brisket means different things to everyone, but judges for the Kansas City Barbecue Society look for a very particular brisket doneness. They use what is called the pull test to check for over/undercooking of brisket. For the pull test, a slice of brisket is held up. It should be able to support its own weight without breaking and crumbling, but should be easily pulled apart with a slight tug. To the KCBS judges, if it falls apart on its own then it is overcooked. If it can’t easily be pulled apart, it is undercooked.
To you, that may or may not sound delicious. Perhaps you want absolutely fall-apart brisket. If so, that’s fine, and you can get what you want by simply leaving your meat to cook a little longer—just don’t take it to a KCBS event!
Perfect brisket should also have a good bark. Bark is the crusty, smoky layer of spices that coats a brisket. The rub you use will mix with the juices of the brisket and dry out, creating a delectable crust that is one of the hallmarks of a good brisket. Any brisket method that we use should give us a good bark.
How to smoke a brisket: keys to success
Slow cooking brisket
As we discussed above, the stall is caused by water being squeezed out of the muscle fibers, meaning the meat perspires and cools. So why don’t we end up with dry brisket every time? Because of the collagen! In brisket, the collagen connective tissue unwinds as it cooks into gelatin—which is highly absorbent, holding up to ten times its weight in water. The gelatin in brisket acts as a reservoir, holding on to water that is not bound up in the muscle fibers themselves. After the meat passes “well done” and is dried out, the collagen starts to dissolve, replenishing the meat’s structure with moisture. This is, again, why the low and slow cooking is so important. The meat actually dries out before it becomes moist again.
So the problem of chewiness and dryness is solved by the very fact that we’re cooking this BBQ style. But what of the stall? What if you don’t want to spend 16 hours cooking dinner?
The Texas Crutch
Long ago, legendarily in Texas, some pitmasters found that if they smoked their brisket partially, then wrapped it for the remainder of the cook, they got to their end goal sooner. The stall wasn’t taking as long. The reason for this, unbeknownst to those old-time cooks, is that wrapping the brisket slows evaporative cooling. When the brisket is wrapped in, say, foil, a micro-climate is established. The humidity in the foil quickly reaches 100%, meaning that there is no room for evaporation to take place. No evaporation, no stalling, and you can push right on through the stall without waiting for the meat to wring itself out like a sponge before heating. Called the “Texas Crutch,” this technique is the sworn technique of barbecue cooks the world over.
I always crutch brisket. I think it makes a significant difference.” —Meathead Goldwyn
The most traditional crutching method is to use aluminum foil, which is non-permeable to water, and thus creates a solid barrier against evaporation.
Other brisket gurus, most notably Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ in Austin, swear by peach paper: a type of pink-colored un-coated thicker butcher paper (0.22mm thick). The idea behind using peach paper is that it creates a non-perfect barrier to evaporation. Some transfer of water can occur through the paper, but not so much as naked evaporation would allow. This theoretically speeds the cooking to some degree and retains some moisture in the meat, while allowing more of a bark to form.
Those who cannot locate peach paper often use packing paper, craft paper, or other uncoated paper. The goal is the same as that of peach paper: less evaporation, more bark, faster cooking.
And, of course, there is always the naked brisket. We’ll be cooking one of each of these and analyzing their outcomes.
We cooked four briskets, each one with a different crutching method. Each was of roughly equal size. They were all cooked on the same cooker, though at different times. Each brisket was first rinsed and patted dry, then trimmed of excess fat, rubbed in olive oil (to help the spices adhere), and coated in a mixture of equal parts by volume of salt and black pepper—pure and simple.
We cooked one without any crutching, naked. We cooked one each with brown paper (0.11mm thick), peach paper, and foil, wrapping each brisket once an internal temperature of 150°F (66°C) had been reached.
We placed the probe from our cooking thermometer in the flat of the brisket.
Though fire control can be difficult, we tried to cook all the briskets in a smoker at approximately 250°F (121°C). We used no water pans or assorted paraphernalia. Just a smoker with fuel.
We placed eight additional probes in each brisket, four traversing the width of the flat, and four evenly spaced along the length of the point.
These were attached to ThermaData® 2-Channel Type-K Thermocouple Data Loggers. We collected the temperature data from these over the course of each the cooks, and, in some cases, of the rests, as well.
Results of crutching the briskets
(Note: If you look at the time markings on these cook charts you can see them going all through the night. I used the Smoke Gateway to monitor the brisket from my home as the brisket cooked on the ThermoWorks patio. This tool makes BBQ much easier to deal with, because you don’t have to sit by the pit the whole day or, as the case may be, the whole night long.)
Tha naked brisket—our control for this experiment that was not wrapped— took 14.5 hours to cook.
As you can see from the chart, the fire was a little hot for the first two hours or so. This got us to the stall very quickly, and the meat spent a long time slowly coming up to fairly even temperature. We allowed the probes to remain in during the rest period—shown at the far right of the graph.
The bark on our naked brisket was crusty, flavorful, and plentiful.
The meat was smoky, tender, and juicy. It was, truth be told, a little past the pull-test stage. But the moisture in the meat was excellent. The fats had fully rendered. It received high marks from everyone who ate it, but it could have been pulled from the smoker sooner for a more competition-worthy texture.
Brown paper brisket:
The brown-paper brisket cooked for 15 hours, 48 minutes.
While one part of the flat reached the target temp 2 hours before we pulled it, that point was near the edge, and the point was only reading about 176°F (80°C). This was too low to pull it, so the flat overcooked to salvage the point.
The stall seemed mostly to be eliminated for the flat, but not for the point.
The bark was good, But the meat was overcooked in the flat, dry, and still overly chewy in the point.
The foil-wrapped brisket took only a little over 7 hours to cook. It is the speediest method we tried.
If you were gettin’ in trouble and maybe your brisket wasn’t going to get done on time, you could wrap it in foil and really accellerate the cook time. It really comes down to taste.”—Aaron Franklin
Not only was there no stall, the temperature increase actually accelerated once we added the foil! And the final temperature had the least spread in temps across the meat—it had a more even temp across the whole brisket.
The problems here were twofold: the bark and the meat itself. When it comes to bark, there wasn’t really any. The seasoning and even some of the smoke flavor washed off in the accumulated delicious meat juices. The meat was generally tougher than the other methods. That fact, coupled with the nearly perfect temperature of this brisket shows that collagen dissolution really is a function of both temperature and time. While we pulled this brisket at the same pull temperature as the other three, it had not had as much time in the smoker for the collagen to unwind.
(Note: This method could probably be improved by giving it more time than the minimum to get to 203°F (95°C). Letting it go for another hour or so might have solved some of the toughness.)
Peach paper brisket:
The peach paper brisket took 14 hours, 4 minutes to cook.
You can see the long stall in this graph, with little change in temperature over the course of 6 hours. This long, yet protected cook gave us results that most tasters found to be the best of the four.
The bark was not quite as thick and crunchy as the naked brisket, but it was still excellent.
And this is the only brisket that passed the pull test. That texture, super tender, but with a bite, is simply delightful.
Here’s a quick rundown on the results:
|Method||Time||Bark outcome||Meat quality|
|Naked Brisket||14 hours, 37 minutes||Strong, crisp bark||Juicy, tender, just a hair past KCBS perfect|
|Brown Paper Brisket||15 hours, 48 minutes||Quality bark||overcooked flat, chewy point|
|Foil Brisket||7 hours, 6 minutes||No bark to speak of||Generally a little chewy, not enough collagen breakdown|
|Peach Paper Brisket||14 hours, 4 minutes||Strong, crisp bark||Juicy, tender, passed pull test. Could have rendered a bit more.|
Obviously, these outcomes are variable. Because brisket is jazz! Every cook is an adventure. May is National BBQ month, and we hope that you’ll get out there and give brisket a try, and then tell us about your own results!
If this is your first time cooking a brisket, our recommendation is to try the naked brisket first. This will give you a baseline against which to judge your subsequent cooks and experimentation. Have the unwrapped, full cook experience first and then try messing with rubs, sauces, crutches, etc. Simplicity first, then jump into the music and start to improvise.
I know you saw it on TV. But until you master the basics, skip the Crutch.”—Meathead Goldwyn
But no matter what way you choose to cook your brisket, be sure to monitor it with a quality thermometer! The ThermaQ® or the SmokeTM BBQ Thermometers are both excellent ways to keep an eye on your brisket to know when to wrap it, when to squeeze it, and to make sure your fire is burning just right. Smoked brisket is truly one of the most challenging meats to cook properly, but with the right instruments you, too, can wail with the kings of the ‘Q!
(Note: we will soon be adding a post with a video on how to properly slice your brisket. Until we get that built, here’s the video so you can do it up right.)