The moment of truth. When your brisket has come up to temperature and it’s finally time to take it out of the smoker. You’re hoping it will probe like butter and the last thing you want is a tough brisket.
Smoking a beef brisket to perfection is one of the most challenging meats to smoke in barbecue. However, nailing a brisket is one of the most rewarding.
So, if you find yourself scratching your head wondering why your smoked brisket is tough, here’s everything that might have gone wrong in the process, and everything you can do in your power to fix it and prevent it from happening in the future.
Why Is My Smoked Brisket Tough?
Although a tough brisket is commonly caused by undercooking, or not cooking it long enough, there can be so many more reasons why your smoked brisket is tough. From the preparation, smoking, wrapping, resting, and even the slicing of the brisket.
Ultimately, if your smoked brisket is tough, the best way to overcome it is to learn what went wrong so you can improve for next time. These are all the common reasons why your smoked brisket is tough to help you identify what went wrong and what to do next time.
Cooked Too Hot
Whether it was intentional or not, cooking a brisket too hot will be the quickest way to get yourself a tough brisket. There’s a reason 225°F is considered the sweet spot. This is because it allows the brisket enough time to become tender while cooking.
In fact, brisket needs to cook slowly at low temperatures in order for all the connective tissue to break down and all the fat to ‘melt’. If you’ve set the temperature too high, or the temperature crept up without you realizing it, then it’s likely that you’ll be left with a tough brisket. You’ll find that the brisket will reach the internal temperature of 190-210°F before all the connective tissue has broken down leaving you with a tough brisket.
Even if you are afraid the brisket isn’t cooking fast enough or you are battling with the notorious brisket stall it’s not worth cranking the heat up as you will be at risk of cooking the brisket too hot.
Didn’t Cook Long Enough
Not cooking the brisket long enough goes hand in hand with cooking the brisket too hot. However, even if you are smoking a brisket at a low enough temperature you still need to be sure it cooks long enough for all the connective tissue, or collagen, to break down. Luckily, there are a few ways that you can make sure your brisket cooks long enough so it doesn’t end up tough! This is especially important when you’re dealing with smaller briskets, as they naturally cook a lot quicker.
When it comes to the brisket stall at about 160°F, beginners are often quick to wrap their brisket in aluminum foil or butcher’s paper. This locks in the moisture and prevents evaporative cooling. Thus, the brisket’s temperature will rise much more easily. However, experienced pitmasters aren’t afraid of the stall, and in fact, they use it to their advantage.
Instead of immediately wrapping the brisket at the stall, let it continue cooking, keeping it moist by spritzing brisket or using a water pan as humidity affects smoking meats. This does extend the cooking time, but it also allows the brisket much-needed time to break down all the connective tissue.
A good rule of thumb is to wrap only when you are happy with the deep mahogany color and bark formation. This will also help you get a good smoke ring on your brisket.
Didn’t Wrap It
Although it is possible to cook a nice tender brisket without wrapping it at all, you have to be extra attentive to ensure it stays moist, as this is most commonly done only in a pellet grill/pellet smoker.
To be safe, it’s always best to wrap your brisket at the start or midway through the stall, when your meat reaches between 160-165°F. Wrapping your brisket seals in all the juices keeping it moist and flavorful as it cooks.
If you don’t wrap the brisket, the juices will escape and evaporate, leaving you with a much drier piece of meat. Even if all the fat and connective tissue breaks down over the cooking process, if you have a dry brisket it will be much tougher than its moist counterpart.
Didn’t Rest It
We’ve all been tempted to slice or taste the brisket as soon as it comes off the smoker (or we’ve all probably done it before!). But, if you slice the brisket before resting, you will see all the juices literally spill out of it.
If you don’t rest the brisket, all the juices won’t redistribute and reabsorb into the meat. Plus, resting brisket also continues the cook, often raising the internal temperature by 5-10°F. This extra cooking time continues to break down the fat and connective tissue, which makes for an extra tender and juicy brisket.
For this reason, it’s important to allow for at least an extra hour or two at the end of your cooking time before serving. If your brisket is done too early, you can actually rest it safely for up to 6 hours wrapped in a towel, and placed into a cooler for insulation.
Didn't Slice It Properly (Against The Grain).
Just like with any cut of beef, it’s vitally important to slice against the grain.
When it comes to a full packer brisket, you’ll have to take extra care, as both the point and the flat are different muscles and have their muscle fibers running in different directions.
If you slice the brisket with the grain, you’ll end up with meat containing long strands of muscle fibers which are much tougher and chewier slices of meat. Look at the lines on the exterior of the meat, then cut in the opposite direction to slice through the fibers in the brisket. This will naturally be much more tender and easier to chew.
For all the details and how to, check out this video on how to slice brisket properly:
Not Using A Trusty Thermometer Or Probe
Many cuts of meat are forgiving in how you cook them. Brisket however is a whole different story. Ideally, use a probe to monitor its internal temperature over the course of the cook. This will help give you an indication of how it’s tracking when it hits the stall, and when it’s time to pull it off and rest.
With some meats, you can eyeball and guess, but with brisket, it’s vitally important to let it get up to at least 195°F before pulling it off. The only real way to know the temperature is to test it with your probe, or trusty instant-read thermometer, probing it in both the point and the flat.
Choosing The Right Cut Of Brisket
Each brisket has two sections: the point and the flat. If you’re serving a large group of people, you might want to buy the entire brisket. The packer brisket comes whole and is usually untrimmed so it has a lot of extra fat. So, it’s important to trim your brisket before applying the rub.
The flat cut is the first cut on the brisket. This cut is leaner than the point, so you’ll have to pay extra attention to the tenderness of the meat. However, the flat cut is also easier to slice, making it ideal for sandwiches and other dishes.
The point is the second cut of brisket, which has more fat and marbling than the flat cut. It also has the fat running through the middle called the deckle. Most barbecuers use the point for large servings of meat because it’s fattier and juicier. But both parts of the brisket are equally as luxurious when smoked correctly.
Corned Beef Vs. Brisket
When you pick up meat at the butcher shop, you might accidentally order corned beef instead of brisket. Corned beef is made from a flat cut and looks similar to raw brisket. However, corned beef is soaked in brine to give it a distinct spicy flavor that’s popular for sandwiches.
You can still prepare corned beef at home, but it has a strong flavor that doesn’t taste like the luxurious brisket at all. Check with the butcher to make sure that you’re buying a raw hunk of brisket and not corned beef. You might be ordering corned beef if the meat has any flavorings or add-ons.
Due to the brining process, corned beef has the same bright red color as raw brisket. This makes it easy to confuse the two. If you accidentally bring home corned beef, you can make the best of it by preparing pastrami for your guests.
How To Fix A Tough Brisket:
Return It To Low Heat
If you’ve taken the brisket off the heat and you are testing for tenderness and feel it’s still tough then you can return it back to the smoker or oven to cook it further. Even if the temperature has dropped by ~20°F.
Do be aware, however, that repeating the cooking process may cause the brisket to lose excess moisture and may prevent the meat from being able to reabsorb the juices. So, if the brisket has already rested for an hour or more then you might not want to repeat this process otherwise the brisket may actually lose its desirable texture.
This can be done whether you’re using a smoker, pressure cooker, slow cooker, or even sous vide.
Rest It Longer
Resting your brisket continues to cook it, redistributing and reabsorbing juices and fat that have been expelled over the cooking process. So, if your brisket isn’t as tender as you’d like it then there is no harm in continuing the resting process for a further hour or more so long as the temperature remains at safe levels, above 140°F.
Cut It Thinner
Size does matter. Although championship briskets are usually cut between ¼ to ⅜ inches thick depending on whether it’s the point of the flat, the thinner you slice the brisket the naturally easier it will be to chew.
Although this doesn’t necessarily fix a tough brisket, it does make it that much easier and more enjoyable to eat.
Cook To Tenderness Not Temperature
When it comes to smoking brisket, a tip you’ll often hear from pitmasters is “cook to tenderness, not temperature”.
This means, instead of just pulling the brisket blindly when it hits 195°F. Keep the heat rolling until you are happy with the tenderness. The easiest way to test for tenderness is simply by using your probe, thermometer, or a toothpick. If you can insert it into the brisket in various spots with ease then you know you’re good to go.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a failsafe way to get a tender brisket. You can’t just keep smoking the brisket until it’s tender, but you can keep it cooking significantly longer even after it hits 195°F-205°F before you risk overcooking the brisket.
Make Burnt Ends
No matter how it’s happened, if you’ve got a tough brisket you can always turn it into brisket burnt ends. These are arguably more delicious anyway!
Simply cut your brisket into 1-inch cubes, lather them in your favorite barbecue sauce, dry rub, butter, and honey and return them to the smoker in an aluminum tray for a further 1-2 hours.
The extra cooking time and caramelizing sugar turns a tough brisket soft, gooey, and sticky. The only downside is you and all your guests are going to be really full, and you might find there will be no leftover brisket!