The Right Temp for Smoking Brisket

Time to take the guesswork out of smoking brisket! Make your brisket the talk of the town by mastering temperature control.

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A question I’m asked often and in many variations is, “Sammy, what’s the right temperature for smoking brisket?”

To clarify, we’re talking here about the temperature of the smoker’s cooking chamber and not the internal temperature of the meat. (The latter is another story for another time.)

However you look at it, this is a good question. And an important one to ask:

Cook the brisket at too low a temperature, and it will stay in the danger zone for too long. Few things can ruin a good cookout like stomach ache or worse, food poisoning, for those at the table.

Cook the brisket at too high a temperature, and it will cook too quickly. Then you have a whole other problem on your hands, and that’s keeping the brisket warm, moist, and edible for hours until it’s time to eat.

So, to help you get that brisket in your fridge just right, let us go into some of the variations of this question that I’m asked and try to answer it once and for all.

Is 180°F or 200°F Too Low for Brisket?

I’m glad you asked.

As a matter of fact, yes, a cooking chamber temperature of 180°F or 200°F isn’t high enough for smoking brisket.

Not that the brisket won’t cook; it will. At this temperature, it will take the brisket a good 20, maybe 24 hours for the meat to get up to internal temp so that the collagen inside it can melt.

The point is that when the brisket is cooked, it may be unsafe to eat. Especially for kids, pregnant women, and those with a weakened immune system.

According to the good folks at the USDA, meat shouldn’t sit in the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F (dubbed “the danger zone”) for longer than 1-2 hours, or the disease-causing bacteria on it will grow to dangerous numbers and render it unsafe to eat.

If you cook a brisket—by all criteria, a big chunk of meat—at too low a temperature, you risk keeping it in the danger zone for too long. Yes, the heat will eventually kill the bacteria, but it won’t do anything to get rid of the heat-resistant toxins they may have left in the meat.

This isn’t to say that a brisket smoked at 180°F, 190°F, or 200°F is guaranteed to cause food poisoning. Not at all! Many a meat smoker swear by their lo’ and slo’ cooking methods, very often at these temperatures, and say their brisket turns out fine.

It means that a brisket will be safer to eat if it is smoked at a higher temperature than those listed above. So says conventional wisdom, and whether you listen to the vernacular is your decision (and your decision alone).

To stay safe, you want the internal temperature of the meat to reach 140°F and above as soon as possible and no more than 1-2 hours after placing it in the smoker.

Is 225°F a Good Temp for Brisket?

Why, yes, 225°F is a great temperature for smoking brisket! At this temperature, the brisket is almost certain to come out juicy, tender, and with a formidable bark.

This temperature is also forgiving in that, even for novice smokers who are still struggling with temperature control, it produces a result that will make everyone at the table wiggle their toes with excitement.

Now, you want to make sure that you can actually maintain this temperature in your smoker’s cooking chamber for it to work. And this is easier to do in some smokers than in others.

For example, low temperatures are easier to maintain in a bullet smoker or a cabinet smoker because the water pan sits right above the fire. Since water boils at 212°F and doesn’t exceed its boiling point, the boiling water in the pan assists you with temperature control.

Stabilizing the pit at a low temperature is trickier in a barrel smoker—especially in the lower-end models that suffer from poor insulation—or a charcoal kettle.

Should You Smoke Brisket at 250°F?

There’s a reason why pitmasters and seasoned smokers consider a cooking temperature of 250°F the gold standard for smoking brisket. At this temperature, the brisket cooks quickly and evenly, and the bark turns out dark, crispy, and delicious.

I’d argue that 250°F is the average temperature to aim for when smoking brisket in a barrel smoker or charcoal kettle. It’s neither too high nor too low. Considering that the temperature will rise and fall by 5 to 10 degrees during the cook, you get great results, even on cold days or in windy weather.

Not surprisingly, this is the cooking temperature that’s called for in many brisket recipes—and the one I’d recommend to those who are new to meat smoking. First master stabilizing the pit at 250°F, then experiment with other temperatures all you wish.

Is 275°F Too High for Brisket?

Yes, a cooking temperature of 275°F is perfectly fine for a brisket, especially if you like your brisket with a dark and crispy bark. At this temperature, the brisket doesn’t take all night to cook, and it doesn’t stall as often (or as long) as it would if cooked at 225°F or 250°F.

What’s important is to mind the internal temperature of the brisket and remove it from the smoker as soon as it is ready. Ideally, when it reaches an internal temperature of 200°F, but a temperature between 190°F and 210°F is also fine.

The rule of thumb is 1 hour/1 pound of flesh. Remember, though, that this is just an approximation; the actual cooking time can vary and comes down to the size of the brisket, the type of smoker, the quality of the fire, and the weather during the cook.

What About Higher Temperatures?

Just like you can roast brisket in a 300-400°F oven, you can also smoke brisket in a 300°F, 350°F, or even 400°F smoker.

But you better know what you’re doing! At this temperature, the brisket can dry out on the outside before it’s cooked through on the inside. The result is tough, rubbery meat that’s about as chewable as the leather belt on your waist!

If you aren’t familiar with your smoker yet and/or you haven’t smoked that many beef briskets, you’re better off choosing a lower temperature that will cook the meat more evenly. But if you’re not new to this and you like a crispy bark on any day, you should definitely try cooking at 300°F and see how it turns out.

In Summary

The best temperature for smoking brisket is between 225°F and 275°F. Whole briskets and big cuts warrant a lower temperature within this range to ensure even cooking. Smaller briskets, on the other hand, can tolerate haste and higher heat.

Of course, one can go even lower and higher. However, a lower cooking temperature raises questions about the safety of the cooked meat that are hard to answer, and a higher cooking temperature presents challenges for its even cooking.

By Sammy Steen

Sammy, Barbehow's editor, is a die-hard carnivore, barbecue whisperer, and self-proclaimed master of the grill.

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