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How to Grill Brisket Like a BBQ Pit Master

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I am a practicing attorney who writes about everything from pop culture to law.

Brisket that is grilled to perfection

Brisket that is grilled to perfection

How I Became the Go-To Grill Guy

If you're anything like me, you're the guy (or gal) who always ends up behind the grill at all manner of parties, family functions, summer BBQs, etc. Maybe the first time you were given this responsibility, you and everyone else present were anxious to step up to the plate, fearing that you'd ruin the festivities with a sub-par product. But you accepted the challenge and—after competently grilling up a bunch of burgers and dogs—the default assumption became that you'd handle these duties in the future.

That's how I became the "grill guy" at family functions, parties, and summer BBQs. I could be trusted not to overcook the burgers (like my father always does out of fear that he'll otherwise kill everyone), deftly handle the logistics of getting the food to hungry customers in a timely and organized manner, etc.

For some reason I couldn't put a finger on the time, I loved being that guy! Being behind the grill with a laser focus on preparing something others would enjoy became an obsession for me, and developed into one of my biggest hobbies and a labor of love. It was a peaceful break from all otherworldly concerns. And it was something I was recognized at being good at; people not only trusted me not to kill them and to handle their food properly but also looked forward to eating something I made myself.

Steven Raichlen's Book BBQ USA Helped Me Become a Pro

Over time, my status as the trusted and default "grill guy" known for consistently and competently preparing the most basic party BBQ foods evolved into an obsession and a labor of love. I wanted to learn more about the Art of Grilling and began dabbling in some more elaborate recipes. I went to the local Barnes and Noble and wandered around the Cooking section until I found what—unbeknownst to me at the time—would become known in my future, then-non-existent family, as the "BBQ Bible" (or "Buy-buhl"); Steven Raichlen's BBQ USA.

I chose this book because, after just flipping through it, I saw that—while it most definitely contains many incredibly elaborate "pit-master" recipes I would one day be able to handle—it also had a comprehensive "basics" or "fundamentals" section at the beginning, which provides definitions and guides for such concepts as slow cooking; low vs. medium-low vs. medium heat; direct vs. indirect grilling; smoking through various methods (the easiest is using a "smoker box"); etc.

Despite physical bookstores and books arguably becoming obsolete, I recommend you buy a physical/hard copy of any BBQ book rather than an "e-book". By now, our BBQ Bible is totally beaten up, and I probably need to just replace it due to its condition, but that type of wear-and-tear is from using the book as a reference and guide while actively in the grilling process, which I do not think would work well using a Nook or Kindle.

In any event, as I would recommend any beginner to do, I started small. I carefully selected a recipe I knew I could handle, Garlic Romanian Skirt Steak, and followed the directions religiously. It came out awesome, and my buddy and our two dates loved it and were impressed at our ability to put together such an "elaborate" dinner from the grill (meaning, for college-aged kids in suburban Long Island, anything beyond burgers and dogs).

After starting small with the skirt steaks, I'd use the Bible from time-to-time over the years as a reference to make a sauce, for some tips on how to best grill chicken cutlets, etc., but it wasn't until I was married with kids (i.e., more domesticated and, of necessity, spending far more time at home) that I started to get closer to becoming a true grill-master (I consider that a very high standard and am still nowhere near reaching that title in my mind).

In the paragraphs that follow, I outline what I have learned to be the basics/fundamentals of doing brisket the right way. If you apply these fundamentals (and, I strongly suggest, purchase, reference and follow the advice contained in either Steven Raichlen's BBQ USA or a similar book with a "how-to" and basic concepts section), you'll have some very satisfied customers who believe that you are a BBQ Grill Master (even if you know that you have a lot to learn before becoming one in your own mind).

The Basics/Fundamentals of Slow Cooking a Brisket

Most of the following concepts are basic fundamentals of grilling and slow-cooking that are universally applicable grilling meat generally, while some are obviously specifically-applicable to grilling brisket only. Since grilling a perfect brisket is so labor-intensive, however, strict adherence to these principles is especially important with respect to briskets as compared to some other types of meat.

The Brisket Will Shrink

When purchasing your brisket, keep in mind that over the course of slow-cooking it, the brisket will shrink: As a result, I suggest buying a piece that is significantly larger than you'd otherwise think would be needed to feed the number of guests at your BBQ.

How to Find the Right Slab

If possible, select a slab of brisket (or ask the butcher to cut you one) with 1/4" (one-quarter inch) of fat on the top. Cooked over many hours, this fat will melt into the brisket, one of the most important aspects of a beautiful BBQ masterpiece brisket!

Purchase a Smoker Box

Follow the directions and soak the smoker chips for at least an hour! The recipe may direct that you soak the chips in water, but I prefer a mix of water, apple cider vinegar, and a dark beer (I usually use Becks).

Prepare Mop Sauce

The recipe you use will almost certainly include preparing a "mop sauce" to be slathered onto the brisket from time-to-time while it's on the grill. Personally, my best briskets have come when obsessively-compulsively applying the mop sauce in 15-minute intervals (the recipes typically contemplate doing so far less frequently). My advice in this regard is to simply make the mop sauce exactly as the recipe dictates but to make at least 3 times the amount of mop sauce suggested.

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One of the reasons I end up apply mop sauce so frequently is that I typically stay in close proximity to the grill the entire time I'm cooking brisket, to ensure that the temperature stays in an acceptable range (i.e., low to medium-low). I'll often see the needle rising over the preferred range and will open up the grill anyway to let out some heat, and it is as though the slab of brisket is almost audibly begging to be bathed in mop sauce, so I feel like it's just the right and humane thing to do!

Learn the Basics of Indirect Grilling and Slow-Cooking on the Grill

Teach yourself about the basics of slow-cooking on the grill at low to medium-low temperatures. My best briskets have been grilled for up to 12 hours at a temperature ranging from 250 to 275 degrees.

Teach yourself about the basics of indirect grilling (a fundamental of slow-cooking that applies heat but without the meat being directly over the flame).

Learn the Ins and Outs of Your Grill

If using a standard gas grill, figure out how to manipulate the burners in such a way that you simultaneously achieve:

  • the desired low to medium-low temperature inside the grill with the grill closed
  • having enough space to place the brisket on the grill in such a way so as to keep it as far away from the flame as possible.

Just use common sense; if you have a big, 3-burner gas grill, this is easy. When you're ready to put the brisket on, turn off the front 2 and leave the back burner on, placing the brisket at the front end of the grill away from the flame. Turn it around from time-to-time so that one half of the brisket doesn't spend the entire time it is on the grill closer to the flame while the other side is further away. Turning is yet another reason to open the grill (in addition to temperature regulation), meaning another opportunity to apply more mop sauce!

Place Your Smoker Box Under the Grill Gate

Finally, when you've religiously followed all of the directions in the recipe (including preparing any rubs, marinades, mop sauces, etc., and letting it sit in its rub or marinade for the amount of time called for in the recipe), place your soaked smoker chips into the smoker box (you can dribble some of the water-apple-cider-vinegar-dark-beer mixes into the smoker box on top of the chips as well), and place the smoker box under the grill grate (typically, you'll have to rest it on two of the burners).

Put the grill grate back on, set it on high heat and close the grill. Once you start seeing smoke coming out (which should smell delicious in its own right), you are ready to transition to low / medium-low heat and throw that sucker on the grill!

I hope these tips help and I'd appreciate you chiming in with comments in the comments section with any additional insight you might have, criticism of my suggested techniques, or recipe suggestions!

I recommend checking out Steven Raichlen's recipe for Millionaire Brisket.

Questions & Answers

Question: What temperature do you cook a brisket?

Answer: My answer to this is two-fold. Firstly, at the end of the slow-cooking process, you want the internal temperate of the brisket be consistent throughout and to reach about 170 - 175 degrees. The answer regarding what temperature to cook it to get there depends on how much time you have available. When I'm going to be around the house all day (e.g., if doing lawn work in the backyard for an extended period of time close where the grill is, having people over for a BBQ when I know I'll be near the grill for an extended period of time, etc.), I'll keep it as low as 200-225 degrees and leave it on for as much as 8-9 hours.

The concern with having the brisket on the grill so long at such a low temperature is that you need to take measures to protect it from becoming very dry. That is why it is suggested to keep at least 1/4" of fat on the top (and/or lay slices of bacon across it while it's on the grill).

Finally, you can monitor things as the process goes along and either add or remove heat if needed to get the meat to where it needs to be at the end of the process. Sometimes I'll set the temperature so low that you can barely notice it is on, and the smoke from the smoker chips is coming off so faint that you can barely see it, and sometimes I have to crank it up because the temperature is lagging behind schedule. Other times for safety and consistency purposes, if I'm running errands or want to go to the gym, I'll wrap the brisket in tin foil and put it in the oven for a few hours as well, then return it to the grill when I'm back.

Question: What should be the internal temp of beef brisket?

Answer: I aim for 170 - 175 degrees, maybe even a tad bit lower than that at the end of the process, but I also like meats to be cooked on the rare end of the spectrum.

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