There’s much to consider when smoking a brisket: Do you smoke the brisket whole, or do you split it into the flat and point cuts? Do you apply the rub overnight, or do you rub the brisket just before putting it in the smoker? To what temperature should you stabilize the pit?
Chief among these considerations is when—that is, at what internal temperature—to take the brisket out of your smoker. And an important consideration it is.
A brisket pulled too early is a brisket that’s undercooked. It isn’t juicy and tender because the collagen hasn’t had time to turn into gelatin. A brisket pulled too late is an overcooked brisket; it’s tough to chew and hard to swallow. With such a brisket, you will have leftovers.
Conventional wisdom says brisket should be smoked for 1 hour per pound (assuming that you smoke it in the 225°F to 275° temperature range). But remember that this is just an approximation. The only way to determine if a brisket is fully cooked or not is to measure the internal temperature with a meat thermometer.
Why Brisket Takes So Long to Cook
According to the USDA, beef is cooked when it reaches an internal temperature of 145°F. At this temperature, the disease-causing bacteria on the surface (think E. coli, S. aureus, L. monocytogenes, and others) have long been killed.
And yet this isn’t the temperature at which you should remove your beef brisket from the smoker.
It comes down to the fact that, as a cut of beef, brisket has a lot of collagen. Collagen, a connective tissue, adds strength and structure to the cow’s body. It also makes its meat tough unless it’s cooked properly.
The most important thing you need to understand when it comes to smoking brisket is that collagen melts into juicy, succulent gelatin—the juice that gives brisket its mouth-watering qualities—when heated between 185°F and 195°F.
In other words, a brisket is safe to eat when cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. But it doesn’t get juicy and tender until its internal temperature has reached 185-195°F.
This, along with the size of the cut, is why it takes longer to smoke a brisket to juicy and tender than it takes to sear a steak to deliciousness. Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, let’s get to the heart of the matter and answer the question you came here for: the pull temp.
At What Temperature to Pull Brisket?
Remove the brisket from the smoker after it has reached an internal temperature of at least 170°F. Some recipes recommend taking the meat out at 180°F, 190°F, 200°F, or even 210°F, and that’s all fine.
My two cents?
Try a few different pull temperatures between cooks and see which one you like the most. People are very particular about this—and many a meat smoker swears by their temperature.
Barbecue legend Aaron Franklin, for example, recommends pulling the meat between 195°F and 203°F. Will Fleischman, Texas pitmaster and author of Smoking Meat: Perfect the Art of Cooking With Smoke, advocates 170°F.
At the end of the day, the important thing is that you don’t take the brisket out of the smoker too soon, because then the collagen hasn’t yet turned into gelatin and the meat is still tough and chewy.
After removing the brisket from the smoker, unwrap it from the aluminum foil or butcher paper, place it on a butcher block or wooden cutting board, and let it rest for a good 1 hour.
During that time, the brisket’s internal temperature will rise by 10 degrees thanks to carryover cooking. So if you pull it off the smoker at 170°F, it will be at 180°F, a.k.a. serving temperature, by the time it’s done resting.
Higher pull temperatures produce a darker, crispier bark and a brisket with richer aroma and deeper flavor as the smoke caresses the meat and the Maillard reaction takes place on the surface. Still, low and slow cooking and a low pull temp have their merits.
Should You Pull the Brisket Before or After the Stall?
Briskets, the hunks of meat that they are, have the tendency to stall at temperatures between 150°F and 170°F.
When a brisket stalls, evaporative cooling takes place and the internal temperature of the meat stops rising, sometimes for hours on end, as it loses about as much heat as is transferred to it from the hot air.
Whether or not you pull the brisket off the smoker at this stage is entirely up to you. When in doubt, use the internal temperature of the meat as a guide.
For example, if the brisket stalls too early, at 150°F, it’s better to wait it out and leave it in the smoker until at least 170°F. If it stalls late and the guests are arriving, you might as well pull it out so y’all can have dinner in an hour.
Should You Wrap the Brisket?
In a cooking technique known as “the Texas crutch,” some pitmasters and many meat smokers wrap their briskets in aluminum foil or butcher paper as soon as they stall. The brisket is then placed back in the smoker, seam side down, and smoked for another 4 to 8 hours.
The Texas crutch helps the brisket push through the stall and cook faster. But, because it traps moisture from the steaming brisket, it can also make it harder to produce a high-quality bark. So some—yours truly included—forgo it altogether.
Don’t remove the brisket from the smoker until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 170°F. Let it rest for 1 hour before carving to allow it to continue cooking and turn juicy and tender.