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Pork is a popular meat for barbecue because it's so darn easy. Pork shoulder is easy. Sausages are easy. Even pork ribs are pretty easy. But follow that smoke trail west until you hit central Texas and you'll find something that's not easy: brisket. Good brisket is often called the Holy Grail of barbecue. This is an apt description, given how rarely you find good smoked brisket in the wild.
I've tasted barbecued brisket all over the country, and, while you can certainly find some truly transcendent barbecued brisket, the vast majority of the time, it's a dry, bland disappointment. What makes it so hard?
Two factors: It's tough, and it's lean. With traditional smoking methods, a pork shoulder will tenderize in a matter of hours, and it has tons of connective tissue and fat to help keep it moist as it slow-cooks. A brisket, with its tougher meat, needs to be cooked overnight to completely tenderize. Not only that, but there isn't as much fat or connective tissue to lubricate dry meat when it's finally tender. Unless you have either the experience or the luck to nail every single step of the process, moist, tender brisket exists only in the realm of dreams.
Sous vide cooking changes all that by allowing even a novice to produce brisket that's as moist and tender as the very best stuff you'll find in Austin or Lockhart.
The Food Lab's Complete Guide to Sous Vide Brisket
Why Cook Brisket Sous Vide?
I can already hear the barbecue purists moaning, But it's not really barbecue! or What's the appeal of boil-in-the-bag? or perhaps simply muttering into their keyboards, Sacrilege.
It's a fair point. Sous vide barbecue is not "true" barbecue, in the sense that we aren't using hot, smoky air to slowly break down connective tissue and imbue flavor. But, with a bit of good technique, we can certainly come up with a dish that looks, smells, and tastes like barbecue. Not just any barbecue—really, really good barbecue. Barbecue that has a thick, crisp, near-black bark that gives way to meat that melts in your mouth, with a deep smoke flavor. And let's be honest here: That's better than what can be said for at least 98.3% of the "true" barbecue brisket out there (I did a count to verify that number). How many times have you had brisket that's rubbery and tough? How many times have you had brisket that falls apart in your mouth like it's made from sawdust? Yup, I thought so. Sous vide makes those scenarios a thing of the past.
For many folks, sous vide offers convenience. I personally don't have a smoker capable of maintaining a nice low temperature without being monitored, which means that if I want to smoke a brisket the right way, I'm camping out overnight in my backyard, with a thermometer and an alarm to make sure I keep that fire at the exact right level throughout the night. This is fun to do when there are friends and beers involved, but it's not something everyone is willing to do every time they get a hankering for brisket. With sous vide cooking, there's no babysitting required. Set the water bath to the right temperature, drop in the meat, walk away until it's cooked through, then finish it off on the grill or in the oven when you're ready to serve.
What Temperature and Timing Should I Use?
Depending on the temperature to which you set your water bath and how long you leave the meat in it, you can achieve a wide range of textures in the finished brisket.
At 135°F (57°C), brisket will never achieve the fall-apart texture of a traditionally barbecued brisket. Instead, it will soften while retaining its structure. After 12 hours, it's still quite tough. After 24, it's as tender as a New York strip steak. After 36 hours, it's even more tender, and, by 72 hours, you'll have brisket that can be cut with a spoon, while still giving you a meaty bite and juicy texture. At 145°F (63°C), the meat will just barely start to separate into a traditional brisket grain, but it will be a little drier than it is at 135°F. This is sort of a temperature dead zone for me: too cool to significantly break down muscle fibers to the point that they shred like traditional brisket, but hot enough that the meat will dry out as it cooks.
At 155°F (68°C), we get much better results than at 145°F. Yes, the brisket will expel a lot of moisture as it cooks, but what it loses in water it gains in tenderness and moisture in the form of more connective tissue breaking down and fat rendering. For me, 155°F for between 24 and 36 hours is ideal.
Recommended Sous Vide Barbecue Brisket Temperatures
|Temp and Time||Result||135°F for 36 to 72 hours||Firm and meaty, like a tender steak|
|155°F for 24 to 36 hours||Extra moist, with a traditional texture|
Flat Cut or Point Cut?
A full brisket is made up of two distinct cuts of meat: the flat cut and the point cut. The flat is a wide, thin muscle about the size and shape of a large flank steak. It has a small amount of intramuscular fat (marbling), but typically has a nice fat cap on top of it. The point cut (a.k.a. deckle) is a triangular hunk of meat that lies on top of the flat. It is much higher in intramuscular fat and is correspondingly tastier and moister. In fact, most barbecue joints will refer to the point cut as "moist" or "fatty" brisket to differentiate it.
Whether you prefer one over the other is largely a matter of taste, but a point-cut brisket is far more forgiving. The real problem? It's very difficult to find point cut; most of it gets sold to restaurants, leaving us, the lowly home cooks, with the lean flat to deal with. Don't worry, it comes out just fine using this technique.
EDIT: After a few reports from home cooks experiencing some dry brisket, I strongly recommend looking for brisket that has a fat cap still intact with a good amount of intramuscular marbling. Very lean, trimmed brisket is more likely to come out dry.
What Rub Should I Use?
Traditional Texas-style brisket is rubbed with nothing but salt and coarsely ground black pepper. While you can use whatever barbecue rub you like, I prefer to stick with the classic here.
Electric spice grinders or coffee grinders are great for making fine powder, but for an even coarse grind, I'd recommend ponying up for a mechanical coffee burr grinder. With a few quick turns of the handle, you can reduce a pile of peppercorns into an even grind, as coarse or as fine as you'd like.
Should I Inject a Brine?
Injecting a brisket with a salty brine is a good way to safeguard it against potentially drying out, while also seasoning the interior of the meat. That said, with the precision of sous vide, there isn't really an issue with the meat drying out, so I find brine injection to be superfluous. (It certainly won't hurt if you choose to do it, though.)
To Smoke or Not to Smoke?
Brisket cooked over a real Texas-style hardwood pit gets a thick, black bark with a smoky flavor. To get that bark at home, we can finish the brisket either in the oven or on an outdoor grill over indirect heat. Getting that smoke flavor in there is a bit trickier. Here are two methods.
Method 1: Using Liquid Smoke
One way is to use the method I use for my indoor sous vide pork ribs: liquid smoke.
A small shot of liquid smoke added to the bag before cooking the beef sous vide will give it a mild smokiness that captures most of the flavors of real outdoor cooking. (After all, liquid smoke is nothing more than the condensed contents of actual wood smoke—mostly the exact same condensates that are deposited on meat as it is smoked.) The liquid smoke approach is great if you're finishing the brisket in the oven, but it will also work if you are finishing outdoors.
Adding a smoked product, like smoked salt, to the rub can also give the beef a smoky flavor without any actual smoking in the process.
Method 2: Using Live Smoke
If you've got yourself a kettle grill or smoker, then you can enhance your sous vide brisket through a bit of honest-to-goodness smoking. I find that by letting my brisket cool a bit (or even refrigerating it for up to a week), I can place it on the cooler side of a kettle grill that I've heated to around 300°F with charcoal and wood chunks and let it smoke for a good three hours or so before it starts to dry out at all. This is ample time to develop a deep, dark crust and to get some smoky flavor in there.
Is it better to apply that smoke before or after cooking sous vide? Well, according to folks like Meathead Goldwyn, author of the eponymous book on the science of barbecue, the flavorful compounds in smoke will adhere to and penetrate raw meat much better than they will with cooked meat. This is true, but I find that the amount of smoke flavor I get out of a post–sous vide session in the smoker is plenty for my taste buds, and smoking at the end makes the process so much more efficient. I'll stick to the post–sous vide smoke.
What About the Smoke Ring?
The smoke ring? You mean that pink ring of meat that appears around the edges of a well-smoked rack of ribs or brisket? Yeah, what about it?
Here's the fact: The smoke ring is purely cosmetic. That's right. It signifies absolutely no guarantee of smoke flavor or proper cooking. The smoke ring appears due to the interaction of carbon monoxide (CO) and nitric oxide (NO) with myoglobin, the natural pigment that makes meat red (a close relative of hemoglobin, the red blood pigment). As meat cooks in an environment rich with carbon monoxide and nitric oxide, its pink color becomes "fixed," preventing it from oxidizing and turning into metmyoglobin, the brown pigment you see in cooked (or old) meat. A red "smoke" ring will appear in any environment in which meat is slow-cooked in the presence of CO or NO, whether or not any smoke is involved in the process at all. For some deeper science on the smoke ring, I highly recommend reading this great myth-busting article on the smoke ring from AmazingRibs.com.
All that said, what if you do want a smoke ring, to help you replicate the barbecue experience as fully as possible? There is no CO or NO present in a sous vide bag, so getting that smoke ring seems like an impossibility, right? Not so fast. We can't get the exact same reaction, but we can get one that's darn close by using pink curing salts, a.k.a. sodium nitrite.
The reaction between sodium nitrite and myoglobin is very similar to that between myoglobin and CO/NO, and it has the same effect: fixing the pink color. By adding a small amount of sodium nitrite to the spice rub and letting the meat rest in that rub for a couple of hours, you end up with a nice pink "smoke" ring after it's done cooking—no actual smoke involved!
Sous Vide Barbecue Brisket, Step by Step
Step 1: Grind Pepper
Start by grinding a half cup of whole black peppercorns using a burr grinder, a pepper mill, or a food processor. You're looking for a coarse grind, but not so coarse that identifiable peppercorns remain.
Step 2: Apply the Rub
Combine the pepper with a quarter cup of kosher salt and rub it evenly over every surface of the brisket.* If you're using pink salt, add 1 tablespoon of pink salt (about 10 grams) to the rub before applying it.
* Note that, at least in this photo, I've gone ahead and done exactly what I said not to: I've under-ground my peppercorns. This photo was taken when I was still testing out the method using a standard spice grinder instead of a burr grinder. In other words, do what I say, not what I do.
Step 3: Split in Half
Chances are your brisket will be too large to fit in a single vacuum bag. Split it in half crosswise to allow it to fit into two bags.
Step 4: Seal It!
Place the brisket halves inside two vacuum sealer bags. (Fold over the tops while you add the meat so that no juices get on the edges of the bags, which can weaken the seal.) Add a half teaspoon (about 3 grams) of liquid smoke to each bag if you're using the liquid smoke method. Don't worry much about distributing the liquid smoke evenly over the meat; it'll spread around during cooking no matter where you add it. Seal the bags using a vacuum sealer.
Step 5: Preheat the Water Bath
Set the temperature on your sous vide cooker to 155°F for traditionally moist and tender brisket, or to 135°F for brisket with a meatier, more steak-like texture.
Step 6: Cook
Drop your brisket into the water bath; set a timer for 24 to 36 hours if cooking at 155°F, or for 36 to 72 hours if cooking at 135°F; and relax. For extended cooks like this, it's a good idea to cover the top of the container with foil or plastic wrap to prevent excessive evaporation, which could lead to the circulator shutting down.
Once the beef is cooked, you can chill it and refrigerate it for up to a week before continuing, or just continue straight to the finishing steps. The first thing to do is get rid of excess moisture by removing the brisket and patting it down thoroughly with paper towels. If desired, you can reserve the juices from the sous vide bags, discard the fat, and add those juices to your favorite barbecue sauce, reducing it over the stovetop to give your sauce extra meaty flavor. Re-rub the brisket with another coating of salt and pepper before continuing.
To Finish on a Smoker
Step 7: Light It Up!
To finish your brisket over live fire, light up a smoker and set it to 300°F, or ignite a half chimney of coals and spread them out over half of the coal grates of a kettle grill. Add a few chunks of hardwood (no need to soak it), and as soon as it begins smoldering, place the brisket in the smoker or on the grill, away from any direct heat. For a gas grill, light up half of the burners and leave the other half switched off. Place the wood chunks in a foil boat directly over the hot side of the grill, and place the beef over the cooler side.
Cover and cook, adding a few pieces of wood and coals as necessary and maintaining the air intake valves to try to keep the cooker hovering between 275 and 300°F at all times.
Step 8: Finished!
Keep cooking until the brisket has built up a deep, dark bark, about three hours. Jump down and continue with step 9.
To Finish in the Oven
Place the brisket on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack placed in it. Set the baking sheet in a preheated 300°F oven, and cook until the exterior achieves a dark mahogany bark, about two hours. If your oven has convection settings, turn them on and set the oven to 275°F. Remove from the oven and continue with step 9.
Step 9: Slice and Serve
Tent the brisket with foil and allow it to rest for 15 minutes, then slice it thinly with a carving knife.
The brisket above was made with liquid smoke and no pink salt, and finished in the oven. It has no smoke ring to speak of.
This one, on the other hand, was finished in the smoker and treated with a little pink salt, giving it a more traditional smoked-brisket look, plus a darker, thicker bark and a somewhat more pronounced smoke flavor.
Whichever way you choose to finish your brisket, you can rest assured that it will be as moist as the moistest brisket you've ever had, and, unless you live within half a day's drive of Interstate 35 in central Texas, orders of magnitude better than what you'll find at a restaurant. The best part? Consistent, repeatable results time after time, whether you use flat- or point-cut brisket.