Brisket: It's Smoke That Makes It Barbecue

It's the Smoke that Makes it Barbecue

Trim and discard

The Spruce 

Long before Sam Houston moved to Texas, Mexican Cowboys would cook up a big bull's head in an underground pit. They called this Barbacoa de Cabeza. It remained a popular dish for cowboys on the cattle drive until German immigrants in Texas decided that brains and sweetbreads were too good to waste in a pit in the ground. They started the use of Brisket (usually a throwaway cut) in Texas Barbecue. They found that cooked properly it was quite a delicacy. The proper way to cook brisket is low and slow, with a good amount of smoke, a sweet or spicy rub, and a tasty sauce. Throughout Texas and much of the mid-west, this recipe for brisket thrives.

how to barbecue brisket
Illustration: Tim Liedtke. © The Spruce, 2019

The Right Equipment

To follow this recipe requires the right equipment. You need a smoker. What kind of smoker (or pit as the Texans generally refer to them) is up to you. You can mortgage the house or go cheap. Whatever you use you need to know your equipment and know-how to maintain a steady temperature for as much as 10 to 15 hours.

With the brisket prepared you need to get the smoker ready. You will want a fire of about 200 F to 230 F (95 C to 110 C). At this temperature, you can expect the cooking time to be about 1 1/2 hours per pound. Do the math ahead of time so you know how long you will need to keep the fire going. At this temperature range, the collagen in the meat will break down nicely and make the meat tender and tasty.

Once you have the smoker ready place the brisket fat side up (read: ​Brisket - Which Side Up?) in the center of the cooking grate. If you are using a water smoker you can leave it fat side up the whole time. With an offset smoker, you will want to turn it after a few hours to keep the bottom from drying out. You will also need to baste or mop it every hour to keep the surface moist. Brisket can dry out even with a good fat cap so be prepared to mop it if necessary, or if you want to. If you are using an offset horizontal smoker you can add a water pan to the smoking chamber to help keep the moisture up.

Because of the drying problem, if you are planning on going very low and slow you might try wrapping the brisket after the first 5 to 6 hours. Though there are people who swear they go 20 hours naked to the smoke, most people find that the meat eventually dries out. Mopping helps, but sometimes you just have to go the extra step of wrapping the brisket in foil to finish it off. You must keep a good eye on it to make sure it is staying moist. I have heard some people complain that after about 8 to 10 hours that the meat can get too smoky. If you like a milder smoke flavor then you have another reason to wrap the brisket in foil.


The general temperature to aim for is about 180 F (80 C). You want to measure that with a good meat thermometer in the thickest part of the meat being careful to keep it away from the fat. When you have reached this temperature the brisket is done. Actually, the temperature of the meat will continue to climb before you carve it. You can continue smoking the brisket until it reaches 195 F (90 C) Some people will continue smoking, letting the fire die down a little and being very careful to avoid drying.


On the point of wrapping, many people have pointed out that if you are going to do this you might as well put the Brisket in the oven at 220 F (105 C) and finish it there. After all, you have better temperature control in the average oven than you do in a smoker. Purists scoff at the idea of using the oven. The reason for the wrapping is to keep the Brisket moist. But if you have a good fat layer, your temperature isn't too high and you keep a good supply of water in the smoker you shouldn't have any trouble with the meat drying out.


When the brisket is done, remove from the smoker and let stand for about 10 to 15 minutes. Then carve. There is something of an art to carving up the brisket. This is because with a full brisket the grain runs in different directions between the point and the flat. Lay the brisket, fat side down and carve off the point. If you look at the grain and fat line you should be able to see it pretty clearly. Then carve the remaining fat layers off, stack the point on the flat and carve across the grain into thin, long strips, about the thickness of a pencil. You should get long rectangular pieces.