Dry Brisket: What Went Wrong?

I smoked a brisket for Thanksgiving (plus a roasted turkey). The flavor was excellent - everything I’d want in smoked brisket - but it was very, very dry.

This was my first attempt ever at cooking a brisket. I assembled the Conventional Wisdom by tabulating a consensus among a variety of YouTube videos, thoughtful Reddit posts, and dedicated sites.

Here are what I considered to be the mainstream instructions, which I followed exactly (equipment: Traeger pellet smoker; Thermoworks probes/remote; 11 pound gross/9 pound fat-trimmed brisket):

  • rub the brisket just before (~ an hour) smoking (while some do it overnight, they complain of “sludge” in the morning, and about half say they rub just before smoking), using a rub of roughly 1 part kosher salt and 4 parts ground black pepper plus optional flavorings (I added a bit of smoked paprika and garlic powder)
  • pre-heat the smoker for 200 - 225 degrees (225 for me, as my Traeger’s temp control runs actual temps about 10-15 degrees cooler at times)
  • add the brisket, fat-side down
  • smoke until the brisket internal temp runs 160-165 degrees; (for me, that took about 5 1/2 hours)
  • remove brisket, wrap well in uncoated butcher paper, return to smoker (or oven, but I continued to use my smoker)
  • continue cooking until internal temp is 200-205 degrees (during the latter part of this phase, I increased the smoker temp to about 275-300) (this phase took another 3 hours)
  • remove brisket; keep wrapped; place into a cooler with towels on bottom/top, for at least 1 hour but as much as 4 hours (mine was 2 hours)

When I unwrapped the rested brisket and started slicing, I could see it looked very dry; it was worse in the eating. But, again, the flavor was fantastic.

What went (or where did I go) wrong?

I have one possible reason, but it’s a cop-out and I don’t want to trot out that possibility without hearing from the experts here.

I don’t know anything about smoking, but I’m going to hang around to see the answer.
In a pot, of course, we make sure there is liquid present.

“Fat side down.”

That was your major problem right there. Fat side UP so the fat can baste the meat. Stays juicier that way.

Yeah, fat side down seems like the core issue.

I just came by to third this.

When I do it, the usual path is that I set my smoker for 250-275, and smoke it until the stall (the point when evaporation balances out any heat gain, and the internal temp stops rising). Once I hit the stall, I wrap with paper, and keep on trucking until the internal temp is around 205. I poke it with a skewer- you can tell the difference between done/not-done. I haven’t had dry brisket yet. It usually takes closer to 12 hours instead of 8 though; my guess is that it’s slighly undercooked, and seems dry as a result.

Keep in mind that a lot of what we perceive as “juice” in a slow-cooked brisket is actually collagen that has converted into gelatin during the long, slow cooking process. That process doesn’t even start until the meat hits 160 internal, and accelerates above 200. Meanwhile, at about 150, the meat proteins contract and squeeze a lot of the actual water out of the meat. Basically, you need a prolonged period between 160-200 to convert that gelatin. If you don’t get that, you end up with tough, dry meat.

My hypothesis is that it didn’t get long enough above 160 internal temp (3 hours) to actually convert that collagen to gelatin, and that technically speaking, your brisket is slightly undercooked in brisket terms. I’m not sure fat side up or down really makes a lot of difference. Neither does the USDA grade of the meat from what I can tell.

FWIW - the temps/descriptions are from On Food and Cooking, which is a fantastic cooking reference as far as what actually goes on when you cook something.

This also seems like an issue here. Why so hot?

Brisket is tricky-- it can go from ‘impossible to chew because it didn’t reach a high enough internal temp to render the collagen’ to ‘overcooked and dry’ quickly.

As others have mentioned, FAT SIDE UP, and increasing the smoker temp to get the internal meat temp up seems problematic Yeah, the ‘stall’, where it seems like it’s taking forever for the internal temp to get past 150 F or so, is frustrating, but don’t crank up the heat-- go low and slow the whole way, it’s worth the wait!

I don’t usually wrap my briskets and pork shoulders at all, I allow for a lot of cooking time to get past the stall, but if you do wrap, try using foil instead of butcher paper; it might help hold the juices in better.

Finally, getting to an internal temp of 200-205 seems a bit high-- I usually go to 190-195.

I work at a BBQ joint, and brisket are smoked daily.

The above would get you laughed at, or a manager would have a quick chat, depending on who’s working that shift.

My brother has a Pitts and Spitts Pellet smoker which I cooked on over the holiday as well. I’ve made 2 briskets on it using this video as a guide: Pitts & Spitts Maverick 1250 - Brisket - Low And Slow - YouTube

I’m going to side with others about fat cap up and to pull about 190. What I do based on the video is let it cook overnight at a very low temperature of 180 then I wrap it in the morning and turn the heat up to about 225. It’s done when I stick the probe in and it feels like soft butter. The end result is a beautiful smoke ring and juicy brisket. Yum!

  • I don’t do the seasoning in the video I posted, instead I keep it simple with Salt and Pepper.

To address the “fat side up” issue: while I do see sites recommending fat side up, others like the below (first link is from the mfgr of my smoker) say “fat side down”:

(“Cook brisket fat-side down.”)

("Most of the time, cooking brisket fat side down will taste and look better. ")

Still others present both sides of the issue and don’t make a firm call.

I’ve smoked several briskets and dryness is not generally a problem. My method:

  • coat with mustard and pack with dry rub, wrap in Saran and refrigerate overnight.
  • Smoke unwrapped at 225F with fat side up for about 4-6 hours
  • Adding some apple juice, wrap with foil and continue to smoke until 205C. This can take up to 18 hours.
  • Leave foil wrap on and let it sit in an insulated cooler for about 45 minutes.

I tried butcher paper instead of foil the last time and found no advantage to it. Foil works well, with less mess.

Once you put foil on the brisket, you can finish in an oven at 225F if you want without any loss of flavor.

205F obviously. 400F would be a bit hot. :smiley:

Dry brisket? That’s when the extra sauce comes out.

My guess is the meat was overcooked. 3 hours at 275-300 would have done that at the very end. Brisket is a long, slow cook and forcing the finish with that high a temp seems like it may have been where things went sideways. The theory I heard was that cooking at those temps lets the moisture start boiling away and toughens the meat. Probably an old wives’ (old pitmasters’?) tale, but following it has always worked for me.

I’ve taken to trimming almost all the fat from my brisket before cooking and haven’t noticed a difference in the juiciness of the meat. It makes me question the fat cap up vs cap fat down. But I always go cap up, myself.

I haven’t been happy with the results of cooking brisket to over 200F, but I think there is room to argue and to be honest I haven’t taken multiple readings to see if there is a temp difference between the flat and the point. I aim for a point internal temp of 190F and for all I know the thinner flat is running closer to 200 by that time.

I’ve also started using the foil boat method rather than a full wrap. I believe this was started down in Austin and I get a better bark while still having the benefit of the wrap to help the cooking time and hold moisture.

I’ll note that in the video from Chuds, they cooked internally to about 205F. They say part of the key is a long rest to allow the brisket time to recover around 140-180 for several hours (overnight, even). You had that part down with the cooler.

Good luck with the next one!

Yes! Thanks for the correction. I’m used to Celsius and incorrectly labeled it.

I will add to the bandwagon, that the bolded parts are your mistake(s). Fat down probably didn’t make too much difference, but the high heat at the end almost certainly did. As noted, that slow phase from 160-200(ish) is key. Slow being the operative word. A big brisket is usually 12-14 hrs minimum and 2 hrs per pound is not unusual.*

The other thing I’ve done with both pork and beef is a drip pan under the meat with water and (usually apple cider) vinegar in it and/or the occasional spray of apple cider vinegar while it’s unwrapped.

I will also say that I always use foil as a wrap. As mentioned, it’s just easier.

I cook on a Kamado-style grill using smoke packets and indirect heat. Never had any complaints yet.

Fat side up vs down makes no difference as far as any basting goes, meat is impervious to fat which is why you can oil poach a piece of meat and it won’t be any fattier on the inside than if you roast it. You want to face the fat towards the hotter side of the smoker to get better fat render and protect the meat which is down in a pellet /drum smoker and up in an offset/bullet.

Juiciness in meat doesn’t come from water, it comes from fat. The two causes of a dry brisket are either there wasn’t enough fat in there in the first place or it was overcooked and too much intramuscular fat drained out. You can tell which is which by saving and measuring the drippings. After enough cooks, you can quickly figure out whether you drained an abnormally small or large amount of fat and what that means for the fat left in the meat.

Cooking to temp is one of the dumb brisket myths that refuse to die. There’s no intrinsic reason why any temperature for brisket corresponds to any particular tenderness level. After all, beef stew reaches an internal temp of 212F quite quickly after the start of cooking and remains tough for hours while sous vide brisket can never go above 170F and become tender after 24 hours. What’s important is the time under temp curve for calculating the rate at which collagen converts to gelatin. The conversion process roughly doubles in speed for every 15F which is why most of the conversion happens during the latter part of the cook and pulling at 205 produces an acceptable brisket most of the time but you really should just be testing for tenderness directly via a skewer/probe and just pulling when you feel just a slight “give”.

Brisket can be held almost indefinitely at 140F and it’s generally believed that the quality continues improving up to 24 hours of resting at these temps so all the brisket people who brag about waking up every half an hour in the middle of the night are macho idiots. I cook all of my briskets the day before at the time of my convenience and just throw it into an oven to rest overnight and then serve it the next day at a time of my convenience. If you don’t have an oven that can go down to 140F, a cooler is also a popular option.

If you have a dry brisket, either you bought one with inadequate marbling or you overcooked it. Fix those mistakes and you’ll have a much juicier brisket.

Ninja’d =) Yup, fat side up so it self bastes.

This is the correct answer.

Hmmm, I’ve always heard ‘fat side up’ as gospel, but the articles you link to do make a good case for ‘fat side down’, or more accurately ‘fat side toward the heat’. I may try this next time I smoke a brisket.