• Adam Tilton

You Bring the Sourdough, I'll Bring the Brisket

Brisket has been my pandemic challenge, and since January 2020 I’ve smoked 10 of them. My first brisket was inedible, and numbers 2-7 were each slight improvements on the last. Brisket 10, however, was phenomenal—a thick bark bordering melt-in-your-mouth brisket.

I’ve learned that brisket is actually very simple. Quality beef, kosher salt, and fresh-cracked pepper are the only ingredients. The required preparations are minimal, and the tools and cooking methods are basic. It’s a labor of love and all about execution. One of the first opportunities to go wrong is to buy the wrong brisket. The last four I’ve sourced from Snake River Farms, where an 18-20 pound brisket costs ~$230 at the moment. Since I spend a good 24 hours on preparations and cooking and have enough to feed at least 20 adults, I might as well use gold grade wagyu. Also, there is no waste. Leftover brisket is turned into brisket tacos, beef trimmings are cubed to make beef bourguignon, and I render the trimmed fat into beef tallow. It’s all delicious.

Here’s the list of simple tools I use:

  • Heat-resistant gloves: The most used accessory I own for smoking are long sleeve, extreme heat-resistant gloves. I can pick up hot charcoal with these, which is just fun to do and almost never necessary.

  • Grill tongs: The safer alternative to picking up hot charcoal with heat-resistant gloves is to use grill tongs.

  • Kingsford charcoal briquettes: I've experimented with others, and had a few bad experiences with lump charcoal.

  • Hickory wood: I typically buy whatever I can find at Home Depot, but have some experiments planned to test this variable.

  • Pink butcher paper: To wrap briskets when they’re done. I don’t use the Texas Crutch, and this post is not sponsored by Reynolds Wrap.

  • Thermometer: I recently upgraded to a Bluetooth meat and grill thermometer that connects to my phone. I also use a precise instant-read thermometer to confirm it’s done.

  • Latex gloves: Since I’m typically cooking for others I wear latex gloves whenever I handle the brisket, both during the preparation and while serving.

  • A smoker: I use the Weber Smokey Mountain. It’s great—easy to clean, light enough to move around, and holds a steady temperature. I have the 18”, but have also used a 22”. Bigger is better.

  • Chimney starter: Used to get the charcoal started.

  • Lighter cubes: Something to set under the chimney starter to start the charcoal.

Trimming is easiest while the brisket is still cold, and it arrives frozen solid from Snake River Farms. Before it’s completely thawed, I trim the fat. There are a number of videos on how to do this well on YouTube. Over time, I’ve learned to not fret too much about this part. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, but no one has ever commented on how it is trimmed. If in doubt, just ask yourself if you’d want to eat it, and if not cut it off. I trim off 3-4 pounds from an 18-pound brisket, and when I’m done I take a picture to remember which way the grain moves (this is important to reference when slicing).

Seasoning is straightforward. I use high-quality coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper in equal portions by weight (not volume). I use a kitchen gram scale to measure, and typically need about 60 grams of each. If anyone ever offers to help me make a brisket, I ask them to grind 60 grams of peppercorns with a manual pepper mill. Once ground and weighed, mix the salt with the pepper and spread it all over every inch of brisket liberally, but not so much that it cakes. That’s it. Say “BAM!” out loud and you’re ready to smoke.

Start the charcoal by filling the chimney starter to the top. Light two lighter cubes underneath, and wait for about 20 minutes. It’s done when the smoke has cleared and flames are visible at the top. I usually start with two chimneys. Don the heat-resistant gloves and transfer the charcoal to the smoker.

Once the fuel is in, the main objective is temperature control, which I achieve by configuring the vents to be about 1/8 of the way open. Every 30 minutes, for 24 hours, I check and record the key temperatures. Naturally, I keep track of the key temperatures in a spreadsheet and use historical data to estimate cooking time and fuel usage. There’s room to improve my estimates, but I need more data, which is a truth I never seem to escape.

The most important lesson I’ve learned is to never, ever disturb the smoker while the brisket is cooking, mainly to avoid getting ash on the brisket. When the smoker needs more fuel, I remove the top portion of the WSM completely and set it aside, which separates where the brisket is from where the fuel sits. Then, I stir the old charcoal with my hands while wearing my heat-resistant gloves, refill with freshly started charcoal and wood from the chimney, and finally reassemble the smoker. I try not to have it separated for more than a minute or two.

The hardest part of smoking is the refill at 4am. Getting up and carrying on is the difference between good brisket and amazing brisket. You have to finish, and in the end, it’ll be worth it. Here’s what my latest (and best) brisket looked like after slicing.

Don’t be put off by the all-nighter. Smoking is an art, and while the flavor of the slow-cooked meat is exceptional, the labor itself is part of the fun (despite my Oura ring readiness score the next day). And I guarantee that the words“I’m smoking a 24 hour, gold grade wagyu brisket if you want to come over” will land you an afternoon spending time with just about anyone.

If you go for it, let me know how it turns out.