Know Thy Smoker, Know Thy Brisket

Hello, once again, Ladies, Gentlemen and Everyone Else who would like to identify as what you would like to identify as. Personally, I identify as a Complete Idiot and, truly, I am at peace with that decision.


Since, as I write this, it is a very clear-skied Monday Morning (trust me, it’s Reno, there could be a severe heat wave followed by a white out blizzard all within the next 15 minutes and no one would be surprised in the least). I have quite few things kicking around in what passes for a brain that I’d like to talk about, but one thing is becoming a rather common source of conversation in the joint: Customers telling me “I’ve tried smoking briskets at home and they are not coming out right…”

People, people, people… In my 48 years of smoking meats, I have screwed up so many times, I have fed entire GENERATIONS of dogs with “not fit for human consumption” mistakes… Pork, Beef, ribs, hell, even *shudder* vegetables!!!

One of my former vets actually took out a contract with The Mob to have me killed because, in her words,

“Troy, Chihuahuas are not designed to weigh 247 lbs!!!”

”Yeah, well, Doc…that’s why I switched to larger breeds….more capacity for my mistakes.”

Needless to say she was not amused and started shooting at me herself when I brought in my 947lb Great Dane… I figured with legs that long he wouldn’t have that whole “legs don’t reach the ground before his belly does” thing going on…

She switched to calling in Drone Strikes and Seal Team Six when I told her about my experiments with carnivorous Giraffes…


The thing I see most people do around here is that they follow the videos of my not-very-close, not-very-personal friend Aaron Franklin *bowing toward Austin, Texas*.

For those who may not know Aaron from a hole in the ground, he is one of the most recognized experts in the art of Smoking Beef Brisket. He has at least one book out, has made countless appearances on TV, has a PBS video series and actually traveled around the world teaching people how to do something so simple as smoking meats. Yeah, and he owns his own BBQ joint named “Franklin’s”. Imagine that…

OK, so people come to ME (yeah, I know…like…WHY??? ) and say “I tried making a brisket ONCE and it didn’t turn out right… What did I do wrong?”

Well, that, right there is the type of question that just screams “STOP!!! DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!!! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!! AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!”

Just for information: Buying a case of brisket, you’ll generally get 5 briskets of anywhere between 12lbs and 24lbs depending on what you order. Now say you are getting a “Good Price” of say (I’m just picking a number here) $3 a pound. So say that case is 80 pounds of brisket…~ $240-250… Now, the average weight per brisket is 16lbs. So you set to “trimming the excess fat”. Your 16lb brisket is now closer to 11 and ½ lbs. That’s right, before you even rub your meat with that magic Pixie Dust and Unicorn Dandruff –based brisket rub you ordered from “Rub A Dub Dub BBQ Meat Rubs and Hardware Store”, you’ve thrown $67.50 right in the trash. So you rub the hell out of your meat until you feel the need for a nap and then throw it in your smoker. You heard Aaron uses Post Oak, so you buy some fence posts made out of oak from “Fred’s Fence Posts and Cattle Prod Emporium” and toss ‘em in your firebox, light the whole shebang off and check the progress every 15 minutes.

After 9 hours of watching the temp gauge go from 150 to 450 as you add wood, play with the vents, put out several grass fires and your neighbors have called the cops 4 times complaining that your smoker is belching more smoke than a Drag Racing Peterbilt on Nitous, you finally pull what used to be fairly nice pieces of meat out of the smoker…and start crying.

Your 1st attempt is a dismal failure because you did pretty much everything like you were told to. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that if we live in Reno, NV, what works in Austin, Texas won’t work here. Humidity, elevation, wind, blah blah blah… It all has a effect. So unless a person who has SUCCESSFULLY DONE BRISKETS IN YOUR AREA shows you how to do brisket, you’re pretty much gonna have to experiment. It happened to me and I’ve been smoking meats *insert old prospector voice* for over 40 years!!! BUT, never at this elevation… So even I had to tailor my technique.

OK, then…

Step one: Learn YOUR smoker. Only you can know YOUR smoker…(Trust me, 2 identical machines, made the same day, at the same factory can act wildly different.) And if you don’t know YOUR smoker? Start learning, quick.

Here’s an easy way to “learn” your smoker. Get a few old telephone books or stacks of newspaper. Get an old cheap pot that will fit inside your smoker. Put the paper in your pot to about 2/3 full and add water until the paper won’t hold any more. You don’t want water visible above the paper. We are creating a “load” so that the heat will have something to do besides go up the chimney (or just heat the walls, in the case of an electric smoker). Having a nice dense “load” will allow you to watch how your vent settings, fire size (or electric dial settings) affect the temps in the smoker. Why not just water? Steam will react differently than meat or our in our case, the substitute “meat”. It’s not perfect, but it’s cheap and better than spending money you don’t need to, yet. The “load” will teach you when to add wood, how much wood and where to put it in your firebox to maintain a good steady temp.

BTW if you don’t have a GOOD thermometer visible as you stand at the smoker (not in the “meat” but a good “probe sticking inside the smoker” style one), get a GOOD one. They are not THAT expensive and will save you a fortune in the long run.

The “inside the smoker” temp you are looking for is a VERY STEADY 250 degrees. Now we generally smoke our briskets at 235, Aaron recommends 275… You’ll figure out YOUR happy temp as you progress. It’s not cast in stone. You’ll figure it out over time. 250 is for our “training”. Once you figure out how to not have the temps bouncing all over the place – even when adding wood, you are about 90% there.

Remember, when you are actually making your briskets for real, they will take as long as they take. 12 hours? 20 Hours? Somewhere in between? They will take just as long as they take. That’s why you need to know YOUR smoker, so you can keep those temps within plus or minus 5 degrees at all times for up to 20 hours. Bouncing temps equal a bad brisket in the end.

While I am thinking about it, NEVER, EVER use a flap or cover on the chimney to control temps!!!! In the case of a wood fired smoker, you can get a build up of creosote in the chimney AND on the meat if you restrict that exit airflow. Even if using an electric and adding “wood chips” for flavor, don’t restrict the exit.

Step 2: Wood selection. This will probably ignite a firestorm of criticism… I don’t use Mesquite, Hickory, Post Oak or any of the “normal” hardwoods here in Reno. Every time I do, I end up with a bitter tasting bark on the meats. I know a whole bunch of people who will say I’m an idiot for saying that, but my customers love it the way we do it. So as long as they’re happy, I’ll keep using Cherry, Sugar Maple, Pecan, Apple and Peach (if I can get it and I’m doing a “pork heavy” smoke). For some reason, fruit woods are the best for what I do. It may have to do with the altitude, humidity, etc…I have no clue, but it works for me. Experiment, you’ll figure it out.

After you have figured out keeping steady temps and what wood you want to try:

Step 3: The biscuit test !!!

Go to the store and get 10 or 12 rolls of those biscuits in a tube.

Trust me it gets better.

Fire off your smoker, empty.

When you get to a temp you like and can keep it there steady, go ahead and separate your biscuits like you normally would and then place them on the bare grates everywhere you might actually smoke something. Leave 4 inches around each biscuit, close the door and wait 15 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, open the smoker and check the biscuits. In a perfect world all the biscuits should be evenly cooked. Realistically, though?   ‘taint gonna happen.

You WILL have “hot and “cold’ spots. Some of your biscuits will be lumps of charcoal and others will be close to raw. No worries though, we can fix that.

If you are using a “Horizontal offset smoker” you can place a baffle at the opening to the firebox where it feeds the smoking chamber to avoid the “blast” effect of hot air coming in. You want the smoke to come in as low in the chamber as possible then swirl around before exiting. That will make a much more even temp across the grates.

Tuning plate and baffles are a HUGE topic so I suggest researching TUNING PLATES on your favorite BBQ forum or at

Bottom line though, is, you want the thickest parts of the meats in the hottest zone. In a brisket, that would be the “point”. It has a lot of fat that will render and keep everything moist. The thinner part of the brisket, the “flat” you want away from the hottest part of your smoker. The flat is VERY lean and doesn’t have a lot of fats rendering (fancy word for “melting”) to keep it moist and cool as it comes up to temp compared to the point.

So you’ve got your temps stable, you have a fairly even temp across the grates and all is right in the world…uhhhh, not quite.

Folks, “Looking is not cooking”. Keep that damned door closed!!!

Every time you “peek at the meat” you are letting out your precious “even temperatures”. Let the damn things cook. If you need to look, do it every couple of hours until you get close to 175 degrees internal temp. Up to about 165 degrees the meats can go into what is known as “The Stall”. The Stall is a bitch to the new brisket smoker who is scared “BAD THINGS” are gonna happen…

To explain, as the brisket is going along the temperature will increase steadily…until…THE STALL. The stall happens when you are just chugging along and then all at once, the meat temp stops moving up. No idea why, but it happens. DON’T PANIC!!! If everything is going ok otherwise, just ignore it, it will start moving up again when it’s good and ready. I have had stalls last 20 minutes and others last 2 hours or more. If you are doing everything else right, it will recover as long as you don’t get stupid and raise temps or keep checking it unnecessarily.

We wrap our briskets in 24” wide “peach” butcher paper (you can use white paper if you want, I won’t tell…) at about 175 degrees and continue smoking until we get to between 203 and 205 degrees internal temp. DO NOT USE FREZER PAPER!!! Use only plain, untreated butcher paper. Take about 6 feet of butcher paper, lay it out and place your brisket on the paper about 2 feet from the left edge. Wrap the brisket by folding that 2 foot section over the top and then just flip it end over end as you wrap, tucking the sides in as you go. Make sure the “top” of the brisket is up when you put it back in the smoker. Keep the paper away from where it may burn due to direct flames. Continue smoking until you get to 203-205 internal meat temp.

Once it has reached temp (an “instant read” thermometer is good for this), remove the brisket (still in the paper) and put it in a towel lined plastic cooler for about an hour to rest. Let it rest for AT LEAST one hour. Trust me it will stay very hot in the cooler. The brisket is a huge muscle and like you running a marathon and stopping at the end, you’re gonna get cramps because you didn’t “warm down”. If you don’t let the brisket rest, it will be “cramped up” – tough and NOT juicy. The juices need time to redistribute from the core out to the entire chunk of meat and the muscle fibers need time to relax from cooking.

Look, this isn’t brain surgery, rocket science or “String Theory” physics… It’s pretty easy if you take your time and plan ahead.

If you have questions, ask. As long as I have the time and you have the desire, we can get you up to speed.


You can just swing in and get some of ours. Either way, we’ll do our best to take care of you.