Smoking a Small Brisket

Most of the brisket purchased in the store or that comes with quarter and half beef is on the smaller side. It’s usually the flat or chuck and comes in sizes ranging from 2 to 8 pounds. For these, scaling the cook time is all that’s needed for a perfect brisket every time.

For this recipe, cook time is the most variable component, so a wireless grill thermometer or similar is a good idea. Otherwise, be prepared to be on hand for the entire cook, checking temps regularly.

This can be done with a brisket of any size, even a full-sized one if you have the time to cook it. You’ll need a few things before getting started. First is the brisket itself, of course, and then some kind of rub. Lots of flavored brisket rubs are awesome, including mesquite-based, hickory-based, and (my favorite) coffee-based. Do not use rubs that are largely sugar-based, such as most barbecue sauces, and avoid heavy vinegary rubs. Traditionally, kosher salt and coarse-ground pepper are the primary rub ingredients. For Texas-style purists, this is the way to go, using a 50/50 salt/pepper mix and not much else.

Next you’ll need a cooler capable of holding your brisket flat (we’ll get into this later), some clean towels, some tinfoil, and a smoker with good wood in it. Briskets can be smoked on any type of wood. Hardwoods like apple, oak, or cherry will be simpler in terms of burn times and flavor imparted while coarser, more flavorful woods like hickory and mesquite are also popular. For your first time, I’d recommend the hardwoods.

Start the smoker, setup for indirect cooking, and set to 250°F for warm-up. Brisket can cook anywhere from nearly frozen to room temperature and be fine. The higher its starting temp, the less time it will have to set the rub, though, so cooler is usually better.

To begin, take your thawed brisket and pull any silver skin off the meat. Trim the fat cap off, if you need to, so that it’s about ¼ inch or so thick and no more. Then lightly rub with olive oil to get it nice and shiny on all sides, edges, etc. Using a dry rub, work it into the meat softly, aiming to coat the entire brisket in a thin layer of rub and to get it into any crevices or notches in the meat. If at this point you forgot to start the smoker, go ahead and let the meat sit in its rub while you do that.

Place a thermometer (if you have a remote or external or grill-based one) into the thickest part of the brisket. Place it on the smoker, close the lid, and let it smoke slowly at 250°F. Allow about half an hour to 45 minutes per pound at this stage.

When the brisket reaches 160°F internally, remove it from the smoker (leaving the smoker running) and double wrap it in aluminum foil. This “Texas Crutch” seals in flavors and will be important for the next step as well. Once wrapped, with meat probe still in place, put the brisket back on the grill. Increase temperature to 325-350°F and cook another fifteen to twenty minutes per pound or until internal temperature is about 205°F.

Remove the foiled brisket, pull the thermometer and seal the hole in the foil, then wrap in a towel. Place the wrapped brisket in a cooler and close the lid. Let it sit there for at least two hours, but most of the day is just fine. The brisket will still be hot when removed from the towel and aluminum and will be tender with a heavy crust (“bark”) on the outside. Slice against the grain for best serving results.

Once you’ve mastered this style of cooking, you can forego the Texas crutch if you’d like and experiment with longer cook times instead. Using the cooler for the long finish is how experts and competition smokers often get the heavier crust and better internal moistness in their briskets. It’s a poor man’s version of the Cambro, an industrial warmer that serves the same purpose. If using this method after having cooked the brisket without foil, it’s recommended that a layer of foil be put on before the brisket is towel-wrapped in order to preserve the bark against the abrasion of the towel’s fabric and to further preserve internal temperature.