Good brisket is often called the holy grail of barbecue. 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 needs to be cooked overnight to completely tenderize. There isn't as much fat or connective tissue to lubricate the 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.
Why Cook Brisket Sous Vide?
I can already hear the barbecue purists moaning: But it's not really barbecue! 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. 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.
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 precision cooker 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 of 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.
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), and typically has a nice fat cap on top. 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.
Edit: After a few reports from home cooks experiencing some dry brisket, I strongly recommend looking for brisket with the fat cap still intact and 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 powders, 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 a 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.) 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 (149°C) 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 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?
When I wrote about sous vide barbeque pork ribs I described how to create the famed “smoke ring” that’s considered to be a quintessential component of properly made barbeque. That same technique is also applicable with this recipe. Here’s what I had to say about it before:
"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 salt, 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!"
Tips for Sous Vide Barbecue Brisket
Apply the Rub Evenly
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 one 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.
Seal the Brisket with Liquid Smoke
Add a half teaspoon (about three 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.
Slice and Serve
After cooking, tent the brisket with foil and allow it to rest 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? Your results will be consistent and repeatable, time after time.
Editor's Note: This guide was produced for Serious Eats as part of our partnership with Anova, the makers of the Anova Precision Cooker.
Why It Works
- Cooking sous vide takes all of the guesswork out of traditionally attention-intensive barbecue.
- Combining sous vide cooking with actual smoke from the grill makes for brisket that's moist and tender yet still smoky, with a great bark.
- 2 ounces coarsely ground black peppercorns (about 1/3 cup; 55g); see note
- 2 1/4 ounces kosher salt (about 1/4 cup; 65g)
- 1/4 ounce (10g) pink salt, such as Prague Powder Curing Salt (optional; see note)
- 1 flat-cut or point-cut brisket, about 5 pounds (2.25kg); see note
- 1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke, such as Wright's Liquid Smoke (optional; see note)
- Dill pickles, sliced yellow onion, and white bread, for serving
Combine pepper, salt, and pink salt (if using) in a small bowl. Rub two-thirds of mixture evenly over surface of brisket. Reserve remaining one-third of mixture. Slice brisket in half crosswise in order to fit into large vacuum bags.
Place each brisket half in a vacuum bag. (Fold over the top of each bag while you add brisket so that no rub or juices get on the edges of bags, which can weaken the seal.) Add 4 drops (about 1/8 teaspoon) liquid smoke, if using, to each bag. Seal bags using a vacuum sealer and let rest for 2 to 3 hours in the refrigerator.
Set your precision cooker to 135°F (57°C) for brisket with a tender, steak-like texture, or 155°F (68°C) for more traditionally textured brisket that falls apart when you pull at it. Add brisket to water bath and cover it with a lid, aluminum foil, or table tennis balls. Cook for 24 to 36 hours at 155°F or 36 to 72 hours at 135°F. Allow cooked brisket to cool at least to room temperature before proceeding (an ice bath can speed up this process). Brisket can be stored in the refrigerator at this stage for up to 1 week before finishing.
To Finish on the Grill: Light 1/2 chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to medium-high heat, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.
Remove brisket from bags and carefully blot dry with paper towels. (Liquid from bags can be added to your favorite barbecue sauce and simmered down to provide extra flavor.) Rub reserved salt and pepper mixture into surface of brisket. Place brisket on cooler side of grill, fat cap up. Add 4 to 5 hardwood chunks to hotter side of grill. (If using a gas grill, wrap wood chunks loosely in aluminum foil before placing over hotter side of grill.) Cover and allow brisket to smoke, adjusting vents to maintain a temperature between 275 and 300°F (135 and 149°C) and adding 2 to 3 wood chunks twice during cooking. Smoke until a deep, dark bark has formed, about 3 hours. Continue with step 7.
To Finish in the Oven: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). (If your oven has a convection setting, turn it on and adjust heat to 275°F/135°C instead.) Remove brisket from sous vide bags and carefully blot dry with paper towels. (Liquid from bags can be added to your favorite barbecue sauce and simmered down to provide extra flavor.) Rub reserved salt-and-pepper mixture into surface of brisket. Place brisket on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, fat cap up, and place in oven. Roast until a deep, dark bark has formed, about 2 hours. Continue with step 7.
Transfer brisket to a cutting board and tent with foil. Allow to rest until the temperature drops to between 145 and 165°F (63 and 74°C), about 30 minutes. Slice against the grain into thin strips and serve with white bread, dill pickles, and sliced onion.
You can grind pepper in a pepper mill, a food processor, or a blade grinder, but the easiest way to get a consistent coarse grind in bulk is to use a burr grinder. If you'd like a pink smoke ring for a more traditional look, use pink curing salt, available from spice stores or Amazon. Liquid smoke can be used to add smoke flavor to the beef if you're not planning on smoking it outdoors.
I strongly recommend using a brisket with the fat cap intact and plenty of intramuscular marbling. A fully trimmed flat-cut brisket will come out relatively dry compared with an untrimmed cut.