In Texas, barbecue means brisket—in fact, barbecue is the only way to eat brisket in the Lone Star State. But no matter where you live, barbecued brisket is a real treat, when it's done right.
A properly cooked brisket comes off of the grill looking as if it has been burnt to a crisp, but don't be fooled—beneath that outer crust is juicy, tender, deliciously smokey meat. (A brisket that hasn't been cooked right will have the texture you would expect: dry, chewy, and leathery.) And a great smoked brisket starts with the best raw materials—the right cut of meat, a savory marinade or rub, and good wood for smoke. Mastering the proper preparation and smoking techniques will also guarantee a winning barbecue brisket. Smoking is the ideal method for cooking brisket; to keep this meat from drying out and becoming tough, you need to cook at a low temperature.
Brisket is cut from the underside of the cow, which is tough and filled with fat and collagen. Collagen is a fibrous protein that connects tissues together and is very strong. As collagen cooks, it breaks down, turns into a gelatin, and dissolves into the meat. This is one of the things that makes smoked brisket so good. But another factor is starting with the right cut of meat.
Buying a Brisket
The brisket champions of the cook-off circuit will tell you that you need to get an expensive cut of brisket—it's USDA Prime from grain-fed cattle or nothing. Unfortunately, the highest quality beef tends to get shipped off to Japan because they are willing to pay for it. You might want to shop around if you get serious about brisket, but don't sink a lot of money into a brisket if you're just starting out—you can have success with a $1-a-pound brisket. Whatever you buy, try to get a brisket with good marbling, white fat, and a deep color in the meat. There should be good fat throughout the meat and not just in one place.
And don't be shocked by its size—briskets easily weigh in over 10 pounds or more, but will lose about 30 to 40 percent of their weight during smoking. So make sure to plan accordingly when calculating how many pounds to buy.
A "Packer's Cut"
Brisket is sold in two different ways—either whole or divided into two parts, the flat and the point. The flat cut is also called a "first cut," and the point can also be labeled as "second cut" or the "deckle." For barbecue brisket, you will want it undivided, which is sold as a "packer's cut." This type of cut is also untrimmed and will have a strip of fat running through the middle and a layer of fat on the top called the fat cap. Though the fat cap will add moisture to the meat during smoking, the fat spread throughout the meat will be much more effective. The fat cap should be about 1-inch thick, so if it is more than that you might want to trim it down—it is best to have a single even layer. (When smoking you will want the brisket to cook fat-side up so that the melting fat will run over the brisket and keep it moist.)
Prepping the Brisket for Smoking
Before the brisket hits the smoker it needs to be rinsed in lukewarm water, patted dry with paper towels, and be at room temperature. If desired, you can marinate the meat or apply a seasoning rub ahead of when you plan to begin smoking. If you are going to marinate the meat, it should be placed in the mixture and refrigerated at least 12 hours before cooking. If you are going to apply a rub, it should be done at least an hour before you smoke. But no matter which seasoning method you use, be sure to have the brisket come to room temperature before cooking.
To enhance the tenderizing effect of smoking you can marinate the brisket with lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, or any other acid-based marinade. This will help break down the tough fibers in the meat and the acid will carry any flavor you add to the marinade deep into the meat. You can still apply a rub to your brisket if you marinate it—just let the marinade run off the surface before you apply the rub.