Brisket Smoking

When it comes down to it, brisket smoking doesn't have to be done in a high dollar horizontal pit smoker. You don't need a smoker at all. Learn the techniques and you can use your gas or charcoal grill to turn out great smoked brisket.

If you're a purist, please excuse my take on this subject, but I know from experience that it's possible to turn out great smoked brisket from gas grills and charcoal grills. They might not be award winning in quality, but they can be pretty darned good.

Traditional Brisket Smoking

Arguably, the best smoked brisket comes from wood fired pit smokers. Many hours of being kissed by a touch of smoke at temperatures not too far above the final done temperature of the brisket create meat with a deep, yet not overbearing smoky flavor. And because of being cooked gently, most of the juices remain inside the brisket, meaning even more flavor and extreme juiciness.

But what if you don't have a great pit smoker. Or a smoker of any kind, for that matter. Read on.

Cooker Choices for Brisket Smoking

Both gas grills and charcoal grills can be finessed into smoking pretty good briskets. The important aspects are temperature control, heat application and appropriate airflow.

With a gas grill, temperature control is fairly easy. It's a little tougher with a charcoal grill, but can be managed by adding the appropriate number of burning charcoal briquettes at the right times. The conditions outdoors have a bearing on how often to add new charcoal, and how many briquettes to add each time.

It's also important that the heat is applied evenly to the brisket as it cooks. In an average to large size propane grill, this is accomplished easily by positioning the brisket in the center of the grill and using the outer burners for heat. With heat on two sides of the brisket, it cooks evenly.

In larger charcoal grills coals can be piled on opposite sides, placing the meat in between, then adding more briquettes as required.

It's more of a challenge when using small charcoal or gas grills. Since the brisket must be cooked with indirect heat, a small grill won't provide enough room to provide heat on two sides. In that case, a gas burner on one end is used (or a single pile of charcoal is place on one side) and the brisket goes on the opposite side. In this case, the brisket will have to be rotated at regular intervals so each side gets an equal application of heat. It can be done, but takes longer and is more of pain in the you know what.

Brisket Smoking in a Gas Grill

Since gas grills have no exhaust vents, it's important to prop open the lid a bit to allow some of the heated air to flow out. This also carries out the smoke from the charring wood chips or chunks, and prevents the brisket from taking on a bitter flavor.

I usually place the brisket in a disposable aluminum pan when grill smoking. You may think that the lower part of the brisket won't get any smoke flavor, but that's not the case. As the top takes on it's smoky flavor, the juices will carry some of that smokiness down to the lower portion of the brisket. And the juices that accumulate in the pan are also smoky, so it's a sure bet that the entire brisket will have smoke flavor. Another benefit of grill-smoking in a pan is that the part of the brisket laying in the juices becomes really juicy and flavorful, for obvious reasons.

Tips For Gas Grill Brisket Smoking

  • Put wood chips or chunks in a wood chip pan or in foil wrapped packages, placed directly on top of one of the burners. Slide the grate right over the one next to it to get it out of the way.

  • Position the pan or foil pack on the upwind side of the grill. The smoky air will flow over the brisket and out the other side. Good woods for brisket smoking- oak, pecan and apple are my favorites. Hickory and mesquite are good too, but use them more sparingly.

  • Use a remote thermometer to measure the grill temperature. Stick the probe through the top of the brisket, sideways (with the tip pointing front or back, not towards a burner) so the tip measures the temperature right next to the brisket. Don't rely on the thermometer mounted on the grill lid. It may match the actual temp, but probably not.

  • Maintain a temperature of 225-240 degrees

  • Estimate the smoking time to be 1 hour per pound, and keep wood chips smoking for half that time. For a 12 pound brisket, apply smoke for six hours, then let it finish cooking without smoke.

  • Use another thermometer to check the brisket internal temperature. It may not take an hour per pound, or it may take longer. Brisket is done when it's done, generally somewhere in the 185-200 degree range.

Charcoal Grill Brisket Smoking

Since charcoal grills have adjustable vents both above and below, good airflow isn't a problem. The toughest thing to master is temperature control. Again, use a remote thermometer to monitor the grill temp, as described in the gas grill smoking section above.

There are handy charcoal baskets available that make positioning the charcoal to the sides really easy. If you don't have a pair, just pile them up against opposite sides of the grill the best you can.

Charcoal Grill Brisket Smoking Tips

  • Weber kettles in the 22 inch size are great, but the 18-1/2 inch kettles will work too, but better with smaller briskets. With the 22 inch model, start with 30 pre-lit briquettes on each side of the grill. Use 25 briquettes on each side of the smaller 18-1/2 inch kettle.

  • Add more briquettes to each pile of coals as needed. When the temperature starts dropping, first try gently stirring the piles of coals. That will expose them to air, and they'll burn hotter for a while.

    When the temperature starts dropping again, add 15-20 pre-lit coals to each side. Outdoor temperature, wind and charcoal quality are variables you'll need to contend with when determining how often to add additional charcoal. With experience, you'll get a feeling for the quantity and timing of adding briquettes.

  • Airflow: Position the lid vent on either side between the charcoal piles. Start with the lid vent open halfway. Crack the bottom vent (or vents) open about 1/4 of the way. Monitor the grill temperature. If too low, open the bottom vents a bit more. Too high, close the bottom vents a little. This is another aspect that'll just take some practice.

  • Use smoker wood chips or chunks wrapped in foil packets. Place one or two directly on top of one of the charcoal piles. Smoke the brisket for half its estimated cooking time (as described above, in the gas grill section)

  • Maintain a temperature of 225-240 degrees. If it goes a little higher, no worry, but if it starts sneaking up to 260 or more, slightly close the bottom vents. Wait for 10-15 minutes before making any more adjustments. It takes time for charcoal grill vent adjustments to affect the grill temperature.

  • Check the internal temperature of the brisket after the first (estimated) half of the cooking time is past. A remote thermometer is your best bet, because you don't have to open the lid to know the meat temperature.

Basting the meat is a good thing, and the accumulated juices in the pan are the perfect basting liquid. Start basting after the halfway point, and again after every 45 minutes or so. And be quick about it to prevent grill heat loss. Open the lid, do a quick baste, and shut the lid.

As the brisket smoking winds to an end, be sure to let the brisket rest for 30 minutes to an hour before serving. The rest period allows the meat fibers to relax, and the brisket will retain more of its flavorful juices.

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