What Is Smoked Brisket?

Meg Higa

Smoked brisket entails a method of grilling a cut of spiced beef with the low heat and subtle flavor of smoldering wood. Low heat necessitates a long cooking time. The long cooking time is dictated by the especially tough flesh of the specific part of a cow used to make brisket. There are a few regions of the world with a tradition of curing and preserving beef meat in smokehouses. Brisket is one of the signature culinary specialties of the southern regions of the United States.

A smoked brisket.
A smoked brisket.

There is a thin layer of flesh on the underside of a cow covering what might be considered its chest, its first five ribs. The meat is very tough, filled with veins of fat and connective tissue. Many butchers in the past simply discarded this part, to be ground with other cast-off trimmings. This meat is typically inexpensive relative to other, more tender cuts of beef. The slab may weigh about 10 pounds (4.5 kg), but is usually split into two distinct sections called brisket point and flat.

Charcoal is often used to provide the heat in a smoker.
Charcoal is often used to provide the heat in a smoker.

Compared to large muscles elsewhere on a cow which must be supported by plenty of fat, brisket is very lean. To tenderize the flesh, it is commonly soaked in frequent changes of fresh water for up to three days. This is followed by 12 to 36 hours in a chilled solution of either salty brine or an acidic marinade. When rinsed and allowed to dry, the meat is generously coated with a mixture of dry spices which permeate the meat at room temperature for about an hour.

There are many types of smokers, from small, chimney style drums to cast-iron smokers as large as a car. Functionally, they are much the same. There must be a controllable heat source — either charcoal, gas or electricity — to burn pieces of fresh hardwood such as hickory and mesquite without igniting them. The resulting smoke rises to engulf — or is funneled through an off-set chamber to engulf — a grill upon which the spiced brisket meat sits. The smoker must be able to maintain a steady, internal ambient temperature ranging 200° to 230° Fahrenheit (93°-110° Celsius).

For smoked brisket, this narrow cooking temperature must be sustained for as long as 10 to 15 hours, a very dedicated task. Ordinarily, any meat cooked this long will become a dried preserve. In addition to soaking and marinating the meat for smoking, there are other features unique to its preparation that result in the moist, almost butter-soft texture of smoked brisket.

Distinctive of the brisket cut of beef is a layer of skin fat called the “fat cap.” As it slowly melts in the smoker, it bathes the meat underneath. Some of the fat juices fall into a drip pan that is typically attached to a smoker’s grill. The pan will also be filled with steaming water or wine for the method termed a “wet smoke.” For extra moisture, a mop, brush or spray of perhaps acidic fruit juices would be applied to the meat once an hour as a basting liquid.

After half a day of smoking, the brisket meat will be fully cooked. It will have shrunk up to 30% in size, and its fat cap will likely have mostly disappeared. Smoked brisket is usually carved across the grain of its muscle into thin and long rectangular slices. A stack of them might be served with a pour of barbecue sauce accompanied by baked beans, potato salad and corn-on-the-cob; this is popular in some regions of the US. Elsewhere, pastrami is one of the world’s best known smoked briskets.

A smoked brisket might be served with sides, such as corn on the cob.
A smoked brisket might be served with sides, such as corn on the cob.

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