Many barbecue cooks guard their techniques. But this is the tale of how one Central Texas barbecue specialist turned a 10-pound brisket into a delicacy. After much pleading, here's what Tommy Williamson, a 20-year H-E-B meat man, had to say.
It's all in the technique
Cooking brisket is a ritual with me. I like to make it an event: about 8 or 10 hours of cooking to make a 10-pound brisket. That's when I have the most fun. If I'm just doing one brisket for the family, maybe 6 to 8 hours. I've developed my technique through trial and error and some from cooking with other guys.
Let's do grill talk
The first thing you'll need for smoking with indirect heat is a stainless-steel smoker grill. You need a fire chamber with a good draw and a heat deflector designed to direct the hot air under the meat to prevent hot spots. A separate opening to the firebox is a must, so you can tend the fire or stir the coals without disrupting the meat.
Pick a packer-trimmed brisket with 1/4-inch of fat trim. Otherwise the meat will be dry. Rub both sides of the untrimmed brisket about 2 hours ahead. I use my own blend of brisket seasoning, paprika, onion powder, and pepper.
Light your fire
I start with a base of newspaper and then pile about a half a bag of wood chips on top. I light the newspaper, and the wood takes off. Have the lid, side, and chimney vents open, so you'll have a good draw while it catches.
Once the flame is going, add two pieces of wood: either mesquite, pecan, or oak. Oak is preferred by some. Mesquite can get a little strong. I like to mix the two. To smoke the right way, split the wood into wedge-shaped pieces, about 3-inches wide.
Dry wood, about 8 months old, provides the heat you need for cooking. Green wood, which means it was just cut, smokes more and doesn't burn as fast, so it sustains the length of the fire. I mix half and half; dry wood and green wood.
If you're going to cook 15 or 20 briskets for a big crowd, a long-bed pickup truck full of wood would be about the right amount. For cooking one brisket, you'll need about 15 to 20 pieces of split wood. Add pieces one at a time between turning the brisket to keep a constant heat.
Once the flames die down, the embers are hot, and there's a little flame, but not so hot it blackens the meat, sear in the juices about 20 minutes per side. Place the brisket close to the firebox or directly over the coals — the lean side first, then the fat side.
Where there's smoke, there's flavor
Now you're ready to start smoking the brisket. Move your brisket away from the firebox. If you're cooking in a barrel, place it on the other side, away from the fire. Close the lid to raise the temperature of the chamber.
It's a good idea to leave the fat side down for the first hour or so. It protects the meat from drying while the fire settles to the temperature where you want to cook.
I also like to put 1 or 2 inches of water in the bottom of the barrel. It helps to hold heat, keep the heat even, and keep the meat moist. It's helpful if the smoker or pit has a drain in the bottom to let the water out. If not, you can put water on the bottom in a foil pan positioned under the brisket.
The secret's in the sop
Before you close the lid and really get cooking, be sure to completely shower the brisket with sop. Get it good and wet until it's drippy. I prefer a spray bottle. A sprayer keeps from taking your rub off the meat and let's you stand back from the heat of the fire.
To make sop I like to mix a can of beer, a can of water, half a jar of onion juice, and a can of vinegar. Four of my buddies and I came up with that one afternoon a few years back at the ranch.
In the cooking chamber, maintain your heat level between 250 and 270 degrees. Check the temperature every 30 or 40 minutes. If you're cooking more than one brisket, be sure they don't overlap to keep good heat circulation.
For smokehouse results, a grill with an offset firebox is helpful. Fireboxes provide heat and temperature control. Hotter air travels into the chamber, is drawn toward the chimney, cooks the food, and adds flavor as it flows.
Wearing rubber-insulated gloves, turn your brisket after the first hour so the fat side is up. This is the best way to handle the brisket so you don't pierce the meat.
After you turn it, douse the brisket with soppin' sauce again. Then turn the brisket about every 2 hours, and sop it every time you turn. Keep checking the heat from the fire, turn the brisket now and then, and sop, sop, sop to keep the brisket moist the whole time.
Is it done yet?
Checking the doneness is a matter of taste testing. The outside of the meat will look charred. Don't worry. It's supposed to look that way.
Just reach in there and cut a little slice off the end. You're looking for a smoke ring when you slice into the brisket. About 4 hours into cooking, the ring starts to develop.
Depending on the brisket weight and temperature, it might be ready in 6 hours, usually 7, but sometimes longer. At our house, sometimes we take it inside, cut a slice, and if it's not done, we just take it back out and cook it a little longer until we like it.
Try these carving tips
Before I carve a brisket, I separate the web portion, or the point, from the flat. It's a good idea to separate the two portions because the grain of the meat runs in opposite directions, and it's easier to carve against the grain when you separate them.
Before I start slicing, I trim off the deckle fat from the thicker point end and off the flat portion. When it's time to dig in, 1/4-inch slices are the way to go.
Helpful equipment for barbecuing brisket
- Smoker grill with offset firebox and chimney
- Oven thermometer
- Quick response meat thermometer
- Spray bottle for applying sop
- Two pairs of tongs or rubber-insulated gloves for turning large briskets
- Shallow foil drip pan for water under brisket
What to look for in smoker grills and barbecue pits
- Stainless steel for holding heat and minimal rusting
- Separate firebox with adjustable vent to ensure good draw and door for easy access
- Chimney on far end, opposite firebox, with adjustable damper on top
- Teflon-coated grate for easy cleaning, positioned halfway from bottom of barrel
- Drain plug in the bottom of the barrel
- Thermometer to monitor cooking temperature