My recent recipe assignment was a doozy: create a home-cooked version of the Texas-style brisket that restaurants like Killen's Barbecue specialize in. Here's the story of how I achieved this—as well as the equipment you'll need to make it at home. After months of testing and hundreds of pounds of brisket, I can confidently say it's worth it.
SETTLE IN AND GET comfortable. Like drinking 18-year-old single-malt Scotch, smoking a whole brisket is a task best taken slow. But if you're willing to invest a bit of time, attention, and patience—and take a bold leap of faith—truly sublime eating is well within reach.
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As any Texan worth their spurs will tell you, a properly smoked brisket holds irresistible appeal—ultrabeefy, tender, and juicy inside, with a dark, peppery, smoky crust (or “bark”). Legendary Texas barbecue joints don't even offer sauce; instead they season the meat sparely and confidently with salt, pepper, and smoke.
Why cook a whole brisket? Most home cooks use just half a brisket, either the lean flat cut or the fattier point cut, because whole briskets are so large and take so long to cook. But a whole brisket feeds a crowd, looks and tastes incredible, and, for those who love a grilling challenge, is the crowning achievement of backyard barbecue mastery.
Test Kitchen Tip: How To Buy the Right Brisket
A full brisket is from the lower chest of the cow and ranges from 8 to 20 pounds in size. It's made up of both the “point” and “flat” cuts. While the flat alone is easier to find (it's what you're likely to find packaged in the meat case), special-ordering a full brisket from the butcher counter is well worth it. A full brisket allows you to offer diners both lean slices from the flat portion and “moist” (or “fatty”) slices from the point.
The ideal brisket will have an even, ½-inch-thick fat cap. If you can't get a whole brisket in the 10- to 12-pound range, it's better to buy a slightly larger brisket and trim it down to size (smaller briskets are more prone to drying out on the grill).
Texas-Style Barbecue BrisketRemember to plan ahead: The brisket must be seasoned at least 12 hours before cooking. We recommend reading the entire recipe before starting.
Texas brisket is traditionally smoked in commercial smokers that can handle hundreds of pounds of meat at once. Brisket is just about the least tender cut on the steer; it's laden with tough collagen and needs long, low, moist cooking to break down that collagen and become tender. Commercial smokers have fireboxes set away from the smoking chamber so the meat is never too close to the fire; this indirect cooking allows the meat to retain moisture while it slowly tenderizes and soaks up smoke flavor over the half-day cooking time. I set out to defy convention and smoke an entire brisket to Texas-level tenderness using just a regular charcoal grill.
But there were some challenges. Since charcoal grills are much smaller than commercial smokers, the brisket has to be closer to the fire on a grill, putting it in danger of cooking too hot and drying out or of becoming a victim of sooty flare-ups. Plus, refueling the grill with more charcoal means opening the grill lid, a step that makes it hard to maintain a steady temperature inside the grill.
I started at the butcher counter, ordering several 12-pound full briskets. I tried a handful of techniques from different experts that promised smoker-quality brisket using a charcoal grill. But at best these recipes and methods gave me mediocre brisket—and at worst, bone-dry, stringy meat. Seeing my frustration, a coworker sent me a link to a website that described something from the competitive barbecue circuit called the “charcoal snake.” The what?
A charcoal snake is a C-shaped array of briquettes that slowly burns from one end to the other (see below). With wood chips or chunks on top, it is supposed to provide hours of low, slow, smoky heat without the need to open the grill or refuel. It sounded a little ridiculous, but I figured it was worth a shot. (Read Hardwood Lump Charcoal vs. Briquettes to see which is better for barbecue.)
Over several weeks, I honed my process and learned some valuable lessons. Wood chunks are preferable to chips because they burn more slowly and thus produce more constant smoke. Placing a disposable aluminum pan filled with water in the center of the snake helps moderate the grill temperature. Precisely configuring the briquettes and wood chunks into a snake provides about 5½ hours of slow, gentle heat (meaning I had to refuel only once). Rubbing the raw brisket with plenty of salt and pepper and refrigerating it for 12 to 24 hours before grilling ensures deep seasoning. Wrapping the brisket in foil once it reaches 170 degrees helps keep it juicy and speeds the last bit of cooking. And cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 205 degrees is best; any lower and the meat will be chewy, any higher and it can get too soft and begin to dry out.
Killen's BBQ in Pearland, TexasStaff photographer Steve Klise and executive food editor Bryan Roof, traveled to Pearland, Texas, to try some of the most popular barbecue food the Lone Star State has to offer.
I was making progress, but I wanted my brisket to be more tender. We know that the sweet spot for collagen to break down without overcooking the meat is between 180 and 200 degrees. I found that if I pulled the wrapped brisket from the grill at 205 degrees and let it rest, still tightly wrapped in foil, in a cooler (or a turned-off oven) for 2 hours, it stayed in this temperature range longer and emerged very moist and tender.
One last problem: The bottom of the brisket was coming out a bit dry. I reached out to the writers of Pitmaster: Recipes, Techniques, and Barbecue Wisdom, Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, two nationally renowned barbecue experts. They suggested cooking the brisket fat side down. It was untraditional, but this way the fat would sit against the cooking grate and act as a protective barrier against the direct heat of the fire. It worked great, making for a brisket that was moist all the way through. And with the water pan below the grate, flare-ups weren't an issue.
After smoking 497 pounds of beef, I sliced up one last brisket. My tasters confirmed that I had finally achieved my goal: a gloriously tender brisket with deep smoke flavor and rich bark, all on a backyard charcoal grill. Texas, we've got news for you.