How I Smoke a Brisket

Below is a detailed description of how I make a brisket on my Big Green Egg, including my dry rub recipe.  My early attempts at this years ago were plagued with difficulties, and the meat didn’t turn out great, but I have finally figured out how to consistently do it well.  The single most important thing about smoking meat with the Big Green Egg is learning how to correctly build the fire.  If your fire isn’t built right, you will have nothing but trouble.  I describe the key aspects of this process later.

But first, let’s start with prepping the brisket itself.

Peter’s Brisket Rub

Here is the recipe for my brisket rub.  It’s an adaptation of some that I’ve found online, as well as a few others from the Big Green Egg cookbook and everything like such as.  It has a nice spicy kick to it, and just the right amount of peppery flavor.

  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 8 tbsp Kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1 tbsp ancho chili powder
  • 1 tbsp chipotle powder
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp cilantro
  • 1/2 tsp McCormick seasoned pepper blend (optional)

Prepping the brisket (24 hrs. before cook)

  1. Trim the brisket. See http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/virtualbrisket.html
  2. Rub with a light but consistent coat of standard yellow mustard.  I use French’s.
  3. Apply the dry rub above , more generously in the point than the flat.  Don’t go too wild, because it’s possible to over-rub and have brisket that is too salty.  You may also want to use plastic wrap or foodservice gloves to prevent the rub from building up and sticking to your hands.
  4. Foil and place in a tub or pyrex,or wrap the foil with clingwrap.  Juices will collect in the foil, so you need to have it in something.  Don’t place the foiled meat directly into your fridge.
  5. Let sit for 24 hours; at least 12 hours, or it’s not worth doing.

Building the Fire

The idea here is very simple: ensure good and consistent airflow across the charcoal stack, throughout the entire duration of the cook.  This means that the area below the fire pit should be relatively free of ash, and the holes in the fire pit should be mostly unobstructed.

It also means that you should sort your charcoal by size, at least so you can separate out the extra-large pieces from the medium-sized pieces.  You don’t need to have them in separate bins, but you should at least use a wide enough bin that you can easily pick through it.  You will not get good results if you just dump a bag of lump charcoal into the fire pit! In fact, if you do this, I can almost guarantee that you will have trouble and you will need to babysit the smoker for the entire duration of the cooking process.

So, given that you have a reasonably clean fire pit and ash pit, and given that you can easily pick out different sized pieces of charcoal, here is how you build a good fire:

  1. Find two-three extra large pieces of charcoal.  In a standard 20 lb. bag of charcoal you will probably have half a dozen of these.  They will be 2″ in diameter and 5″ or 6″ in length.  They are gigantic compared to the average-sized ones in the bag.
  2. Place the extra large pieces in the center of the fire pit, making sure to leave some room for air to flow up through the holes.  So, if a piece has a flat side, don’t cover up holes with it.  Instead, turn it onto a curved or jagged size, or even prop it up a bit on the others.
  3. Find 8-12 large pieces of charcoal, and fill in around these XL pieces, and a few on top.  Again, make sure that no charcoal with flat parts is block the bottom fire pit holes or the side holes in the fire ring.
  4. Use medium sized pieces to build up another layer and a half of charcoal.
  5. Grab your chimney starter, and place another 3-4 large pieces in the bottom, and fill it up 2/3 of the way with medium sized pieces.  If you’re not using the chimney starter, then put this amount of charcoal directly into the smoker.

Lighting the Fire

  1. Light the chimney starter, or, alternatively, light the coals directly using some other method.
  2. If you are using the chimney starter, don’t let it get too hot.  This can make the initial smoker temperature too high and you’ll have to wait a while for its temperature to come back down.  I usually wait to see the top layer of charcoal just starting to ash around the edges, and then dump them into the smoker and spread the hot coals around.
  3. Place the grill grate (but not the indirect piece or drip pan) in the smoker.  As the fire builds up, the heat will sanitize and clean off the grate.
  4. Open up the bottom vent all the way, and open up the daisy wheel (i.e. swivel it out of the way).  Close the dome, and monitor the temperature.
  5. As it nears 200 degrees, close the bottom vent to 1″, and swivel the daisy wheel back in place, although leave it dialed open so all of its holes are undamped.  The reason to start clamping things down at 200 is because later, it will take you some time to get the meat placed on the grill, various probes set up, etc., and during this time fresh oxygen will be gushing into the smoker.  If you wait for the smoker to be at 225 before trying to slow down the fire, then you may end up at 300 by the time you get your meat in there.
  6. Once the smoker seems to be reasonably stable in the 220-230 range, you are ready to put the meat in.  The next few steps need to be done as quickly as possible, so as to minimize the amount of oxygen that is introduced into the stabilized smoker.  This means that you should have everything you need easily within reach before you open the dome.  Mise en place absolutely applies to barbecue.  For instance, your brisket should be de-foiled and ready to be placed on the grill.  You should have a place to put the hot grill grate while you’re messing around with the indirect piece.  Etc.
  7. Open up the dome.  Scrape off the grate if necessary, then remove it and set it aside.  Remember: it is hotter than boiling water, so keep that in mind as you look for a place to put it.
  8. Throw in your smoking wood chips.  For a brisket, I use a little mesquite but mostly hickory.
  9. Put in your indirect piece.  Some people use the plate setter, flipped upside down.  I use a Woo3 extender ring with a a large 18″ drip pan on the bottom level as my indirection piece.
  10. Replace the grate.
  11. Place the brisket on the grate.  Insert the temperature probe into the thick part of the point, but try to avoid leaving the tip in the fat vein that runs between the point and the flat.  Install the grate-level temperature probe, if you have one.  If you are using the upside-down plate setter as your indirect piece, then try to place the grate probe away from direct exposure to the coals.
  12. Close the dome, grab a beer, and chill for 5-10 minutes.  There is nothing you can do during this time because none of your temperature probes will read the right temperatures.
  13. After a while, the dome thermometer will start registering the true temperature again.  This will consistenly be about 25 degrees hotter than the temperature at the grate.

Let the Meat Cook

Now just wait for the meat to cook.  Keep the temperature at 225 degrees.  The brisket will take about 1.5 hours per pound.  You are looking for a target internal temperature of 190 degrees.  If there is a thick point, and you have guests that like the lean cuts of brisket a little on the dry side (e.g. they like to drown it in BBQ sauce), then you can go to 195.

If you are doing an overnight cook, tune the dampers so that the temperature is stable/trending downward.  That’s a better failure mode than stable/trending upward, because you still end up with edible meat (albeit a little bit later than you might have wanted).

If you have a temperature probe with an alarm feature, LEARN TO USE IT.  Set the low temperature warning to 205, and the high temperature warning to 240.  This is a little asymmetric because I’ve had OK outcomes when the smoker has rested at 210 for a brief while, but if hits 205, there is a chance that your fire has gone out entirely.

Finishing the Cook

Once the meat reaches 195, take it out and wrap it up using a large piece of foil.  You should wear oven mitts or heat-proof grilling gloves to do this, because the meat is very hot.  Once it is successfully foiled, wrap it up with a beach towel that you don’t mind potentially getting a little greasy, and then place the toweled meat into a cooler.  The meat needs to rest 3-4 hours.  Really try to avoid ever serving it up immediately after taking it out of the smoker.  When you are planning the cook a few days ahead of time, the rest time really should be factored into part of the cooking time.

Bon Appetit!

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