The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Texas-style Brisket in an Electric Smoker

July 4th, 2010 · 29 Comments · Posted in Blog, Recipes

We use a whole brisket on the smoker

We use a whole brisket on the smoker

Here’s a piece I wrote three years ago about smoking a whole brisket, Texas-style, on an electric smoker. I do believe this contains just about everything I know on the subject. I get my whole brisket from a butcher at the Eastern Market here in the District of Colubia. You should also be able to order them through the meat department at Whole Foods, or check your nearest Jewish supermarket.

Of all the wacky things coming out of Washington, DC, these days, this may beat all: Me, a decidedly urban, inside-the-Beltway kind of guy, telling Texans how to barbecue. But here’s my dirty secret: I make a mean barbecued brisket, and I do it on my deck, barely a mile from the White House and you-know-who.

Frankly, I was barbecue-deprived as a child. Where I grew up outside Chicago, we had to make do with a strange, reddish goo they slapped on a hamburger bun at the local root beer stand. Even after I moved to the nation’s capital and started cooking for myself—oh, a century or so ago–barbecue seemed to fall into that “don’t try this at home” category. I could only dream about great Texas brisket, about coaxing flavor from smoldering wood, about slowly imparting that incomparable flavor to that stubborn cut of meat, and about how my eyes rolled back in my head at the first bite into the meltingly tender beef.

But then a certain appliance entered my life, and I said, Hallelujah: the electric smoker.

          I know, I know. I hear the howls of protest already. Barbecue out of that little ol’ thing?

True, it’s only 36 inches high. True, it’s only 16 inches in diameter. And true, it isn’t fueled with hardwood. But I happen to believe Texas barbecue champion Harley Goerlitz when he says he can make barbecue in almost anything. With a little imagination, with a bit of patience, and with 1,500 watts of electricity, I can—I assure you–turn out barbeque at home that would make Goerlitz weep with delight.

Here’s how it works:

My $80 electric smoker consists of three main parts. At the bottom is a base containing an electric element like the one in your oven and either a reflecting pan or—in my case—lava rocks on which to place wood chips. Above that is a metal cylinder with brackets to hold two metal food grates and one large water pan, which helps create a moist cooking enviroment. A domed lid completes the smoker’s trademark bullet shape.

The heating element is designed to keep cooking temperatures low, somewhere between 215 and 250 degrees, during the many hours it will take your meat to cook. The flavorful smoke is created when you place wood chips—oak, hickory, possibly mesquite–near the hot element.

          Several manufacturers make electric smokers, but the most widely distributed—usually wherever outdoor grills are sold–may be Brinkmann (based in Dallas) and Charbroil.

Once you’ve spent a few minutes assembling your smoker, you are ready to cook your meat. This could include pork shoulder, for “pulled pork,” or pork ribs, lamb, goat, chicken, turkey. But as anyone who knows  barbecue will tell you, beef brisket reigns supreme.

Proceed as follows: Soak some wood chips in water. Season a large piece of brisket with a mix of spices and herbs called a “rub.” Mix a basting liquid called a “mop.” Then fill the smoker’s water pan with hot water and scatter some wood chips around the heating element. You can then put the meat on the cooking grate, cover the smoker and plug it in. Later that day—typically eight hours later for a 6-pound piece of brisket—you are likely to have barbecue.

          No messing with hot coals. No lugging a propane tank around. No adjusting vents to get the right temperature. Heck, the electric unit may even be legal in your condo or apartment building. And the hands-off approach allows me to romp with my 4-year-old daughter so she doesn’t think her dad is completely obsessed with his barbeque.

Well, it might not be quite that easy. There is, for instance, the issue of judging when the meet is done. For a seasoned “pit master,” or barbeque expert, this is a matter of ingrained visual, tactile and olfactory recognition. Meaning, he can take one look at his brisket, poke it with his finger, sniff the air, and know whether it’s done or needs another hour or two.

          For the amateur cook, the best guide is temperature. Normally I would use an instant-read thermometer to see what’s going inside my brisket. It’s done at 190 degrees. But it takes some effort to get a reading, and every moment the smoker’s lid is open extends the cooking time. Plus, there are all those holes in the meat from the thermometer letting precious juices escape.

          Consequently, my newest toy is a probe thermometer that inserts into the meat and stays there throughout the cooking process. It has a heat-proof cord that attaches to a digital readout pad about the size of a small calculator. You can close the smoker lid on the cord, place the pad on a nearby surface, and watch the meat’s temperature rise or fall on the digital display. You can even set an alarm to let you know when the meat’s done. A second sensor on the probe tracks the temperature inside the smoker.

          Every hour or so, check on your brisket. Give it a little baste. Make sure the water pan isn’t empty. Add a few more wood chips.

          Wondering when you will be serving your brisket if it takes so long to cook? Well, you could get up at the crack of dawn and have it ready for dinner. But the flavors only improve with age. I like to smoke the meat a day or two ahead and then refrigerate it. It slices much more easily cold. Simply reheat the slices in a 200-degree oven. Or, remove the entire cooked brisket from the fridge an hour before guests arrive, then place it in a 200-degree oven, lightly covered with foil, a half hour before you sit down to eat.

          Meanwhile, you can cook up some sides: cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans. Serve with some soft potato rolls and homemade barbeque sauce and, of course, ice cold beer. Need I say more?

 

 

          The keys to great barbecued brisket are a choice piece of beef with a thick layer of fat and plenty of patience for the long, slow cooking process. You can’t rush great barbeque.

          A whole, untrimmed brisket weighs anywhere from 10 to 14 pounds. It should be several inches thick at one end, then taper to a large, flat slab about 1 ½ inches thick, with a layer of fat—called the “cap”—covering the whole thing. The thickest end has multiple layers of meat and fat and subsequently is more unctuous. The thinner end is prized for its even grain. A whole brisket is too long to fit on a small smoker. Instead, have the butcher cut a 6-pound piece from whichever end you prefer. Insist he leave on the fat, which will protect the meat and help baste it while it cooks.

This brisket can be made in an electric hot water smoker, or in a charcoal version if you are willing to tend the coals. Use an instant-read thermometer, inserted in the thickest part of the brisket, to measure the internal temperature of the meat periodically. Even better, use a probe with a digital readout that you can leave in the meat and monitor during the entire cooking process. 

          1 6-pound, untrimmed brisket

          1-2 pounds oak or hickory chips (either small chips, or knobs about half the size of your fist)

          Potato rolls         

          Several days ahead, place the wood chips in plenty of water to soak. The wood must be thoroughly moist so that it doesn’t flame and overheat your smoker. Flaming chips will cause the temperature inside the smoker to spike.

          The day before you plan to cook the meat, cover it all over with dry barbecue rub (recipe follows), massaging the spices into the meat. Cover the seasoned meat with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

          Two hours before cooking, remove the meat from the fridge and allow  to come to room temperature.

          Meanwhile, remove the top portion of the electric smoker from its base, exposing the reflecting pan or lava rocks underneath the heating element. Also, remove the grilling racks from the cooking chamber. Fill the water pan with hot tap water and replace the pan.

          Place a handful of soaked wood chips (or a good-sized knob of wood) in the reflecting pan or on the lava rocks, being careful not to place chips on the heating element. Carefully lift the smoking chamber back onto its base. Replace the upper grill rack. Put the meat in the center of the rack, fat-side up. Place the lid on the smoker. Plug it in.

          Too much smoke is the most common problem with barbecue. You should see trails—not clouds—of smoke coming from the smoker after the element heats up. Check on the progress of your barbecue every hour, moistening the meat with mop liquid and adding wood chips as needed. Although the manufacturer may not like you doing so, this will mean lifting the smoking chamber off its base, being careful not to spill any water on the heating element.

          Also, the hot water pan may need a refill at some point. There should be a door on the front of the smoker for this purpose. I use a funnel with a foot of hose on the end of it to get water into the pan.

          The meat is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees. Remove it to a cutting board and let it rest, loosely covered with aluminum foil, for 15 minutes before carving. Cut into thin slices and serve with barbeque sauce (recipe follows) and—my favorite—soft potato rolls for making sandwiches. 

Variation: After several hours cooking in the smoker, a brisket can be finished in the oven. When the internal temperature of the meat reaches 165 degrees, remove it from the smoker. Heat your oven to 225 degrees. Place the brisket in a disposable aluminum pan just large enough to fit the meat. Pour any remaining mop liquid over the meat. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, leaving the temperature probe, if using, in place. Place meat in oven and continue cooking until internal temperature reaches 190 degrees, about 2 ½ hours.      

 

Brisket Rub 

            Some Texas pit bosses swear the only seasonings needed for a perfect brisket are salt and pepper. They let the flavor of oak or hickory smoke carry the day. But usually some sort of spice mix is rubbed into the meat prior to cooking to add zest. Make it more or less piquant, more or less herby, according to your tastes. 

For a 6-pound brisket: 

2 tablespoons chili powder

l tablespoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons garlic salt

2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon dried oregano 

          Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl. 

Brisket Mop

          You can go wild with ingredients for your mop liquid: onion, celery, bay leaf, green pepper, lemon juice, sesame oil, soy sauce. The possibilities are endless. But I figure there’s already plenty of flavor in the spice rub. I just use the mop to keep the meat moist. And rather than trying to mop the liquid onto the meat, I opt for a small spray bottle. It’s just as fast and less messy. 

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1 cup lager-style beer

Mix liquids and pour into a spray bottle. 

Simple Barbecue Sauce

          There is no correct barbecue sauce for smoked brisket, only endless variations and dispute. Some traditional meat markets, such as Kreutz Market in Lockhart, regarded by some as the epicenter of Texas barbeque, consider sauce an abomination and refuse to serve it. Elsewhere, the sauce recipe is a closely guarded secret, passed from generation to generation.

          I happen to like an extra bit of lubrication on my brisket sandwich, and I don’t get too carried away in the preparation: just a bit of sweet and tangy with some smoky undertones.  You may have all of the ingredients already in your pantry. 

2 cups ketchup

¼ cup cider vinegar

2 tablespoons dark molasses

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon dried cumin

freshly ground black pepper to taste 

          Mix all of the ingredients together. Serve in a bowl with a spoon.

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  • tx vaquera

    Aren’t those smokers wonderful little inventions? I had one for years! I smoked more briskets, fresh hams, chickens, made my own pastrami on it too. Mine finally rusted so badly after about 10 years of use that I finally bought a horizontal smoker that I can smoke a couple of briskets on at once. I do miss the simplicity of just plug it in and go. Glad I linked up from Food Renegade’s blog.

  • Tom B.

    Great story. I have just started my very first brisket to slow roast in our oven. I expect to finish it off on the grill to smoke it up a bit. I was searching the net for more info about brisket cooking when I came across yours. I am quite intrigued by the prospect, being also a Washingtonian, of creating a tantalizing, smokey barbecue that would make a Texan nod with nostalgic appreciation. I may just have to buy a smoker now.

    Thanks,
    Tom

  • Rick

    it takes one word to discribe real texas bbq. mesquite, mesquite and mesquite, oh, did i say mesquite?

    Rick

    Austin

  • Pat

    I’m a novice smoker and tried your way of doing things on my first brisket. Went to the meat market and got a 7.5lb brisket, followed your recipe to the T, a little over 9 hours later the temp reached 185 degrees, so the time came came to pull it out of the smoke. Took it in, carved it up and……..WOW, as good as any brisket I’ve had before. My family who usually frowns at smoked foods ate this thing like it was their last meal, and now want me to smoke more often. Thank you for the great recipe.

  • Ed Bruske

    Pat, we love that recipe, too, and so do thousands of readers. It’s one of the most popular posts on this blog. I just smoked a brisket we bought at Joel Salatin’s farm–completely grass-fed beef, smaller than usual–and I do think it was the best smoked brisket we’ve ever had. Enjoy!

  • Sammie Q

    Going to try to smoke my first brisket. Been smoking ribs and pork butts for a year or so but have been tasting that Texas Brisket ever since I ate it at Rudy’s a couple of years ago. Wish me good luck. Thanks for the advice from Webster, Ky..

  • Rick in Texas

    As a native Texas I have to say welcome to the world of delicious, tender, slow-cooked brisket. Sounds like you have the plan, man. I’ve got a 10 pounder smoking on my electric smoker right now. I use oak or hickory. To me mesquite is too strong and leaves a bitter taste. But to each his own. Your other recipes sound good to me too!

  • Kevin in SC

    I have been a novice smoker for years and have had much success from turkeys to butts to ribs that would make you slap your momma over to get the last one. LOVE YA MOMMA!! but I am planning on doing a beef brisket for my father in law for his birthday something I have never tried but feel a level of confidence after reading your page. wish me luck

  • Ed Bruske

    Kevin, I have never had a failure using this method. I’m sure you will be successful. Just get the best brisket you can find. I’ve almost always used a whole one–sometimes they are really big. But it also works with smaller portions. Just be prepared for an all-day affair.

  • Ludwig

    Hey, thanks for the great rundown on what you do with the electric smoker. I have been having failed attempts at brisket in my electric smoker and I finally found your article to shed some (electric)light on the problem; I wasn’t cooking it long enough. I would get the brisket up to 165 and figured, yup, it’s done; well, technically it’s done but not bbq edible (not juicy and tender like a brisket should be). I’ve made 3 under done briskets. Boo! So, around 190 is magic number. Excuse me while I tattoo that onto my forehead and stop wasting meat. I’ll try this again–this time, the correct way! Thanks again.

  • jerad

    as a real texas bbq champ i dont disagree with electric smokers but they do not impart the real smoke flavor that i love try using a weber kettel grill and place the charcoal on one side put a brick in the middle of the grill use a small tin pan on the other side of the grill and fill 3/4 of the pan with apple juice and water mix 50/50 then place the grill grate onto the grill let the temp hit 250 and then place your brisket onto the side with the pan on it directily above the pan and put on the lid be sure to get the top vent of your grill above the meat to draw the smoke and heat across the brisket and let it cook adding charcoal and wood chunks to keep a nice smoke for about 8 hours then finish it off with a 3 hour cook at 250 with no smoke to finish it up let your brisket reach a temp of about 190 then remove it and wrap it in foil and a towel let it sit for 30 to 45 min to rest then slice and enjoy

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks, Jerad. No doubt smoking with live coals make a more flavorful brisket. The method described in my post if for people who don’t want to spend the better part of a day lighting and tending charcoal. It also works better, I think, for many urbanites who don’t have the facilities for messing with a lot of lit charcoal. Using an electric smoker, you can smoke brisket on your apartment balcony–as long as your neighbors don’t object to the smoke.

  • Normy

    Great stuff for sharing!

  • Daniel Fletcher

    Thank you for this amazing recipe and for the detailed guide on how to cook a brisker in an electric smoker. I have recently purchased an electric smoker myself, but i have not had too much success with the cooking to be honestly, i was expecting a more flavored aroma to the meat. Perhaps it’s something i do, or perhaps i did not have proper instructions until now, so i am planning to give your recipe a go.

  • Ed Bruske

    Maybe you need to adjust your expectations Daniel. Or maybe you’ll have a very different result. Good luck with it. Smoking meat on an electric unit certainly isn’t hard.

  • Thom

    My wife has asked me to smoke three 6 lb half-briskets next weekend. When smoking multiple large cuts of meat, do you increase the cook time proportionally? I’m thinking that 9 or 10 hours at 225 should do it, but I really want this to be tenderer than the last one I did. What do you think?

  • Ed Bruske

    I’ve never been able to finish a brisket in less than twelve hours and it doesn’t matter whether the smoker is filled with meet or it’s just one piece involved. Once it comes up to temperature it just keeps chugging along. What will impede the smoker is a cold outside temperature or lots of chilling wind.

  • tom

    did my 8 lb brisket according to your rescipte app. 8 hours at 235 degrees and when I finally got to cutting it up after letting it rest for about 1 hour, it had no juice left it it and tasted dry looked terriable, what went wrong.

  • Ed Bruske

    Tom, I’ve never had a failure with smoked brisket and I can’t know why yours didn’t turn out with so little information. For instance, what kind of apparatus you were using, how thin or thick the meat was, if you had water in the smoker if it was a water smoker, what the internal temperature of the meat was when you took it out of the smoker. 235 degrees seems a little high. I always use a full brisket (with both thick and thin ends) and I’ve never been able to finish a brisket in less than about 14 hours. It’s usually an all-day affair.

  • Mike

    This is the first thing I have EVER smoked. People warned me not to do brisket. They said start with pork butt or something ease ire. I followed your instructions and ooooo mama it’s GOOD! Thanks for the great recipe!

  • Ed Bruske

    Glad to hear it, Mike. Enjoy!

  • Don King

    I use same reciepe,but use pecan shells to smoke with,they are great!

  • Mike

    Ok I am ignorant. What are pelican shells!?

  • Ed Bruske

    Not “pelican” shells, Mike, but pecan shells.

  • Mike

    O sorry! My yes aren’t what they used to be :)

  • Dan B.

    I am in Seattle, wife is from Central Texas… After seeing the ordeal her brothers go through to smoke brisket down there, I never thought I could reproduce their technique up here. Well, my wife bought me a Masterbuilt smoker recently. This was a real game changer!
    I have the “family secret recipe” (rub) and heavily guarded BBQ sauce recipe. They do not use a mop sauce… The first brisket I did came out very good, but a wee bit salty. I found that I needed to tweak the recipe. I found your blog and, what do you know, your recipe is pretty much the family secret.lol After cutting back the salt a bit in the rub, it came out perfect. Thanks so much for sharing your recipe’s and insight into urban BBQ!
    Dan B. Washington–> (the other one)

  • Ed Bruske

    Well, Dan, sounds like the secret’s out. Glad to hear your brisket efforts are going so well Smoke on!

  • Bob kweller

    Fat side up-or fat side down while in the electric smoker?

  • Ed Bruske

    Fat side up to baste the meat