The 4 Stages to Smoking Brisket

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Brisket can be a melt-in-your-mouth BBQ delicacy or the consistency of shoe leather. The difference comes down to mastering the 4 stages of smoking brisket.

Disclosure: Certified Angus Beef® brand sponsored this post. Opinions are my own.

platter of sliced smoked brisket, mac and cheese and pickles

As a barbecue competitor, I have smoked quite a few briskets in my life. I’ve been given some tough critiques and some glowing reviews. In order to get a championship call, you’ve got to turn out a brisket with fantastic taste and tenderness. I’ve found that these four stages help yield the best results.

Stage 1 – Beef Selection

If you want delicious, tender brisket, I highly recommend starting with a quality, marbled Certified Angus Beef® brand packer brisket. A packer brisket is one of the largest pieces of meat you’ll find at the grocery. It consists of the two main muscles that make up a brisket – the flat and the point. The flat is the muscle commonly used for brisket slices, and the point is the fattier muscle used for burnt ends.

The brisket comes from the pectoral (chest muscle) of the cow. It rests above the front legs. The connective tissue in the muscle makes it a pretty tough cut. If you mix more marbling with that tissue, you’ll have a tastier end result.

When you find the brisket at the grocery, it should be marked with one of three USDA grades: Select, Choice or Prime. Select is the lowest grade, meaning it will have the least amount of marbling. Prime is the highest grade, meaning it will have more marbling and flavor.

Certified Angus Beef® brand grades out in the upper Choice zone. Plus, the brand requires their beef to meet stringent quality standards that guarantees great taste and tenderness. For competitions, I spend a little more and purchase their Certified Angus Beef® brand prime. It represents the top 1.5% of all beef.

To find a Certified Angus Beef® brand retailer near you, visit their buyer’s guide.

raw brisket packer on wooden platter

Stage 2 – Pre-Season

While the first stage of flavor happens on the ranch with proper care and feeding, step two happens in your kitchen. Once you’ve selected your perfect brisket, trim down the fat. Remove the hard chunks of fat near the point, and trim the fat on the bottom, so that it’s no more than 1/4-inch thick. This will ensure that the rub will cook into the meat.

Apply your rub the night before. What you’re doing is essentially dry brining it, like you would a turkey. The salts in the rub will draw moisture from the meat and aid in its tenderness.

There are a ton of BBQ rub options on the market, and it’s fun to experiment with the varieties. Some people swear by pure salt and pepper. Below is one of my go-to brisket rub recipes. It’s basically the same blend I add to steaks. I rub the brisket down with Worcestershire sauce first and then heavily apply the rub all over the brisket.

Girls Can Grill Brisket Rub

2 tbsp kosher salt

2 tbsp black pepper

1 tbsp garlic powder

1 tbsp Lawry’s

1 1/2 tsp Accent

Once the brisket is coated, place it on a pan or in a large bag and refrigerate it overnight.

Stage 3 – Create Bark

All of that rub you applied is going to create a beautiful bark during the smoking process. This is also the stage when the smoke ring forms.

Smoking temps usually range from 225F-275F degrees. Some of my competition buddies even smoke as high as 300F degrees nowadays. I find that 225F works best for me.

Because I live in Las Vegas where we have basically zero humidity, I add a water pan to my smoker. Smoking brisket is all about controlling the flavor and the tenderness. We’re already controlling those by starting with quality beef and dry-brining it. Adding humidity is one more step to control that tenderness.

brisket smoking on grill with pan of water

After 4-6 hours on the smoker, depending on the size of your brisket and your smoker temp, you will develop a gorgeous mahogany bark. This crunchy, salty exterior is the contrast to the tender meat that makes barbecue brisket so coveted.

When you see this color, your brisket will have an internal temperature between 160-170F degrees.

At this point, I recommend using the Texas crutch, which means wrapping the brisket, until it’s done. You can wrap in a couple of sheets of foil or peach paper. I prefer using foil because I’m in a really dry climate. I find it locks in more moisture. If I don’t control the moisture throughout the cook, my brisket ends up dry. Others swear by peach paper, saying it preserves the bark better.

Try them both and see which works best for you. Either way, add a bit of beef broth to the wrap to keep the juices flowing.

close up of brisket point on grill

Stage 4 – Wait for the Magic Moment

I’m sorry to say that you can complete the first three stages and still end up with crappy brisket. I’ve been there and done it. There is nothing more frustrating than spending all of that time and energy on a brisket and then slicing into a dry piece of meat, which is why this final stage is so important.

I’ve found there really isn’t a set temperature or time clock that will tell you when brisket is done. Sometimes it’s done when the internal temperature reaches 190F. Sometimes it needs to cook to 210F. It all depends on your climate, altitude and the meat you started with.

So how do you know? It’s all about the feel.

When you insert the temperature probe into the meat, ignore the reading and just look at how easily it glides in. If it slides into the meat like soft butter, you’ve just smoked a masterpiece. If the probe has some resistance, it needs more time.

Once you’ve created buttery beef goodness, wrap the entire brisket in a towel and transfer it to a cooler (without ice). Let it rest for at least an hour – three if you have time. Just like a good steak, the resting phase will help guarantee juiciness.

smoked brisket in peach paper

Now that you know the 4 stages to smoking brisket, give it a shot, and let me know how it turns out. As always, drop me a comment below or shoot me an email, if you have questions.

For even more tips, check out my brisket guide infographic.

platter of sliced smoked brisket, mac and cheese and pickles

The 4 Stages to Smoking a Brisket
By |2018-06-09T17:46:58+00:00June 9, 2018|


  1. Paul June 30, 2018 at 11:57 am - Reply

    So where in Vegas do you get the certified angus beef. I used the link and it didn’t show any stores here in Vegas

    • Christie June 30, 2018 at 7:20 pm - Reply

      I pick up my Certified Angus Beef at Newport Meats. They mostly do wholesale, but they do some retail, too. John Mull’s Meats carries Certified Angus Beef, too. Other than that, you’d have to go to Overton or Pahrump or order online.

  2. Mike August 8, 2018 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    I live at an altitude of 7500ft. At this altitude there is a second stall at 198 (the boiling point of water at this altitude) and regardless of pit temp the brisket just sits there a 180 and drys out. It seems difficult to get internal temps above 198 without drying out the meat completely. Any advice for high altitude smoking?

    • Christie Vanover August 13, 2018 at 11:06 pm - Reply

      How does your meat feel at that temp? I recommend cooking to feel instead. Insert your probe into the meat, if it glides in like butter, it’s done. Don’t worry about the temp.

  3. Dean October 4, 2018 at 6:13 am - Reply

    From the pics it looks like you cook it fat side down. Can you explain your reasoning for that? Also, rubbing it with salts the night before to draw out moisture that’s so hard to keep in a brisket. Can you explain that a little more for me? Thank you so much in advance!

    • Christie Vanover October 4, 2018 at 7:47 am - Reply

      Great questions. I cook it fat-side down for a couple of reasons. I find the fat is a protective barrier from the heat. If I put the fat up, the meat is closer to the heat, which can cause it to dry out some. Also, I cook brisket for competitions and it’s important that the top of the brisket looks great for presentation. If I cook that side down, I can’t control the appearance as much.

      As for the salt. Salting a steak before you grill it can cause moisture to escape. When you do that, it’s not so much that you lose moisture in the meat, it’s that you create liquid on the surface that can effect your sear. When the liquid hits the grill it steams, and can impact those sexy grill marks. In this case, the salt acts as a dry brine. While the moisture is pulled from the meat, at first. Overnight, it actually redistributes and seasons the meat, helping it become more juicy and flavorful.

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