How to Smoke a Brisket on a Grill (Step by Step)

By Matt Richmond

I know the feeling. You found a smoked brisket recipe you want to cook so you could become an instant hero to your friends and family. After all, an amazing brisket is the holy grail of any aspiring barbecue aficionado. You want to prove yourself.

But there’s one problem. You don’t own any type of smoker at home. And according to the “pitmasters,” the best results for a Texas-style juicy brisket are achieved by using a smoker. So, how can you still get that essential smoke flavor without a smoker?

The good news is the best brisket doesn’t have to come from an actual smoker. You can smoke it using the charcoal or gas grill you have at home to make your burgers and hot dogs. It’ll still cook a flavorful brisket!

Whether it’s your first time or you’re just looking for a pro tip or two, follow these instructions and the student will become the pitmaster.

What You Need to Know Before You Start

sliced brisket pickles and whiskey
photo by MARCELOKRELLING from Getty Images

For a great brisket, the key words to remember are “low” and “slow.”

What do I mean by that? Whether it’s a full brisket or a small piece, it needs to cook at low heat for a long time.

Why? Brisket is a tough piece of meat. Found in the breast of the cow, its thickness is due to muscle fibers and connective tissue throughout to help the cow walk. All of that needs to be broken down over a long cook.

If cooked with too high a heat, like you would when grilling a ribeye steak, all that collagen would burn off quickly and leave a sad, dry brisket. Good luck serving that (but if you do, that’s what BBQ sauce is for!).

There is also a layer of fat around the brisket, which is a good thing because as the fat cooks it helps tenderize those tough fibers.

So before you get into buying the meat, the tools, and other ingredients, it’s good to first understand that the first thing you need is TIME.

The first thing you need is plenty of TIME!

We’ll get into how much time we’re talking later, but let’s just say that if you’re cooking a 14-pound brisket, you’re going to want to clear your schedule for the whole day.

As for the grill temperature, how low should you go?

In the BBQ beef brisket recipe by Aaron Franklin, founder of Franklin’s BBQ, his brisket is smoked at 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, there is some debate in the pitmaster community arguing 225 degrees F results in more tender beef.

Does Brisket Get More Tender the Longer You Cook It?

Considering how cooking low and slow makes the most tender brisket, then technically a smoker set at 225 degrees would make a more tender brisket than one set at 250 or higher. However, is the degree of added tenderness worth the extra time?

Is It Better to Smoke Brisket at 225 or 250?

Despite it being true that a brisket cooked at 225 will result in more tender meat, 250 is still better according to most pitmasters. Why? 250 may not be as low as 225, but their difference in delicious smoky beefy flavor is ultimately negligible when compared to each other.

And 250 has a much more reasonable cook time…

How Long Should I Smoke Brisket on the Grill?

smoked brisket sliced to reveal juicy center
photo by NadzeyaPhoto from Getty Images Pro

One major difference between smoking at 225 or 250 is their overall cook time. Cooking at 250 can greatly reduce the overall cook time. How much less time? It depends on the weight of the brisket. Let’s get into how much time we’re talking exactly.

How Long Does a Brisket Take at 225 Degrees?

At 225 degrees, a brisket will smoke, grill, or bake in the oven for about 1-1/2 to 2 hours for every pound. This means a 10 lb brisket would take between 15 and 20 hours to cook.

How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Brisket at 250 Degrees?

When cooking a brisket at 250 degrees, one pound of meat equals one hour of cook time. By that measure, 10 pounds of brisket takes about 10 hours in the smoker or on the grill.

Now compare that time to the 15 to 20 hours at 225 degrees. That’s a difference of 5-10 hours! But, granted, that’s because we’re talking about a whole packer brisket size.

225 is far more manageable if you’re grilling or smoking a 3-pound brisket. At 250, that would take about 3 hours, and at 225 it would take between 4 1/2 and 6 hours. In that case, you might as well set the grill temperature to 225 since the whole process would only take you an afternoon.

Another advantage to cooking at 250 is compensating for when you inevitably need to open the grill. If you let a little heat out, no biggie. It will probably only drop down temporarily to 225 before climbing back up to 250.

Now that you can properly plan ahead for what to expect with approximate cook times, now we’ll get into what you need to prepare for your cook.

What You Need to Get Cookin’, Good Lookin’

raw brisket on cutting board
photo by Ilia Nesolenyi from Getty Images

You’re probably working with either a charcoal grill or a gas grill, and don’t worry, either one can be used to craft the perfect brisket. But the process for these grill types is slightly different, so here’s what you need to know and have on hand to prepare.

1 – Wood Chips

If you’re using a grill and not a pellet smoker, you have to get that smoke flavor from somewhere! Placing wood chips in the grill with the meat will create that long smoke. But there are many kinds of wood chips, and the wood you choose actually does subtly affect the flavor in the end.

So what are the best woods to buy for smoking brisket?

Actually, the wood chips you choose is a matter of preference. What I can tell you is that the most popular choice in Texas is white oak. Other popular wood chips for smoking are hickory, applewood, mesquite, maple, red oak, and cherry.

Buy a minimum of 8 cups’ worth of wood chips

As far as quantity goes, have on hand a minimum of eight cups’ worth.

One way to determine which wood chips you should buy is to identify which BBQ sauce you personally like best. If, for instance, you always buy mesquite barbecue sauce, then buying mesquite wood chips is a safe choice.

2a – Smoker Box (if using a gas grill)

Now the question becomes, what do you do with the wood chips during the grilling process? For a charcoal grill, the chips would just be placed among the charcoal (we’ll get into those specifics later). But if you’re looking to treat your gas grill like a smoker, then you should invest in a smoker box. It’ll only set you back about $25-30.

What is a smoker box for a gas grill?

It’s a steel box that houses your wood chips, small enough to go over your gas grill’s burner on top of the grill grate. There are holes in the top of the smoker box, allowing the smoldering chips inside to vent smoke outward into the rest of the closed grill. Essentially, it’s the source of the smoke when you’re cooking with gas.

HOT TIP: In a pinch, you can wrap the wood chips in foil and just leave a small opening at the top for the smoke to rise through.

2b – Charcoal & Chimney Starter (if using a charcoal grill)

charcoal chimney starter
photo by cagkansayin from Getty Images

The amount of charcoal you buy depends on the size of your grill. Since you’re cooking on low heat, you won’t need a ton of coal because more coal means more heat. But at a minimum, plan on having 16 pieces of charcoal per hour of cook time on hand.

And a charcoal chimney starter.

If your charcoal grill doesn’t already have one included, this steel contraption is meant to light charcoal more evenly and quickly. Before you buy, make sure you confirm that the size fits your grill.

3 – Two Kinds of Knives and Cutting Board

There are two stages in the brisket cooking process you need a sharp knife. The first is when you’re trimming the excess fat off the brisket before it goes on the grill. The other is for slicing the meat to serve at the end. Each purpose requires a different kind of knife.

For the trimming stage, you need a boning knife, to have more control when cutting away at this tough piece of meat. If you don’t own one of these knives you can always ask the butcher to trim it for you if you ask in advance.

For the slicing stage at the end, a good sharp chef’s knife can slice the meat with ease. If you use a knife not sharp enough, you’ll risk squeezing out all those juices during the act of cutting it. That is barbecue high treason!

As for the cutting board, its size entirely depends on the size brisket you chose. Maybe you can’t see yourself for now attempting to cook a whole brisket at 16 lbs. But if you think there’s a chance you might change your mind and go big later on, I would advise buying a big enough cutting board so you’re prepared to meet that moment.

4 – Thermometers

grill temperature gauge
photo by xjben from Getty Images Signature

It helps immensely to have two kinds of thermometers at the ready. One measures the temperature of the heat inside the grill with the cover closed, and the other lets you know the internal temperature of the brisket.

For the former, if you have a gas or charcoal grill with a built-in thermometer, you should be good. Some grills will even adjust the heat accordingly to maintain that 250 degrees.

If your grill is not electronic whatsoever, let me say first, kudos on going old school. And then I’d recommend buying a grill temperature gauge, which can monitor that grill cooking temperature for you.

Regardless of what way you’re cooking your brisket, a meat thermometer is essential as you check its status along the way. A number of factors can speed or slow down the meat’s readiness, so a thermometer will keep you in the know so you can pull it out at the right time. A digital thermometer especially is consistently accurate.

5 – Drip Tray (if using a gas grill)

As the meat cooks, fat will melt off and there needs to be something below it under the grill grate to catch it all. This could simply be a rimmed foil pan – whatever is big enough to match the size of your brisket.

6 – Dry Rub Ingredients

seasoning brisket with salt and pepper
photo by connerscott1 from Getty Images

Here’s one of the best things about brisket. It’s so flavorful on its own you don’t need to slop a truckload of seasoning on this bad boy.

This is why pitmasters usually prefer a simple recipe of only kosher salt and black pepper to season their brisket.

Of course, if you want to slather your trimmed brisket with some garlic powder and brown sugar to give it an extra crust, it wouldn’t hurt! I’m just saying this is totally optional.

How much to season it with salt and pepper though? Here’s a visual indicator that may not sound very appetizing but is hopefully helpful. The raw meat with dry rub should look like your wet arm after touching sand.

7 – Aluminum Foil (if using a charcoal grill)

Do you put brisket in foil when smoking? In a charcoal grill, yes. You’re going to smoke it on heavy-duty foil with upturned edges. That way, the rendered fat doesn’t drip down on top of the coals.

8 – Shop for the Right Brisket

even marbling on brisket
photo by Ilia Nesolenyi from Getty Images

Now for the pièce de ré·sis·tance – the meat itself. Here’s what you need to know about what you’re buying in the grocery store or butcher shop.

The entire brisket of the cow is composed of two parts – the flat and the point. Together is called the packer.”

The point cut, also known as the “deckle,” is the fatty part of the brisket. This part is essential to getting that juicy bite. It’s worth noting that since its excess fat will be trimmed off, what you’re buying will be reduced by about a third in weight.

The flat sections is typically a leaner cut because the deckle is removed. It’s called “flat” because of its shape.

Choose the cut with the most consistent white fatty marbling.

Whichever you choose, you want a cut of brisket with the most consistent white fatty marbling throughout it.

You may notice different classes of brisket at different price points. USDA Prime, the most expensive kind of cut, typically has more of this marbling than the less expensive USDA Choice. Some stores don’t have Prime, so try to buy the Choice grade at a minimum.

How to Smoke a Brisket on a Charcoal Grill

smoke coming from charcoal grill
photo by torando98 from Getty Images

Light ‘er Up, It’s Time to Get Cooking! I’m going to show you how to smoke a brisket on a charcoal grill step by step from start to glorious finish. If you’re using a gas grill, I’ve got you covered, too.

1 – Prep the Meat for the Grill

First, the brisket needs trimming. There’s a fat layer that is about 1 inch thick called a fat cap. Cut it off but leave behind about a quarter of an inch. This will give the meat flavor during the smoking process.

You’ll also want to remove the silver skin, that filmy layer that only serves to block smoke and fat from cooking the meat properly.

Trim fat cap down to 1/4-inch and remove silver skin.

Then season with your preferred dry rub, and let the brisket sit outside the fridge to come up to room temperature. This will save you unnecessary cooking time.

Meanwhile, soak about 6 cups of wood chips for about an hour in cold water. Be sure to leave about 2 cups of dry chips to the side.

2 – Placing the Brisket in the Grill

For charcoal: Double up some aluminum foil and then set the brisket on top. Angle the edges upward to create a ridge to not allow the juices to drip below.

Place charcoal on either side of the grill but leave the middle of the grill empty, and let it get hot. Then put about a cup of the wet wood chips over the coals. This is so the brisket isn’t sitting on direct heat and won’t cook too quickly.

Place the brisket in the middle part and cover the grill, only leaving a small opening for ventilation away from the heat source. This way the temp can stay around 250 degrees.

For gas grill: Preheat only half your gas grill on medium to 250 degrees. Fill your smoker box with about 1 cup of wet wood chips and place this on the heated side. Then place the brisket (fat side up) on the part of the grill that doesn’t have the burner running. Instead, the heat source will be directly heating your smoker box, which will allow smoke to rise from its vents. Close the cover.

3 – The Smoking Process

smoking charcoal
photo by HT-Pix from Getty Images

For charcoal: Every hour, add fresh hot coals and about half a cup of new wet wood chunks in the same spots off to the sides. This is where your charcoal chimney comes in, heating up the coals prior to placing them in the grill. Seeing the temperature drop in your temp probe will indicate when the coals need to be changed.

For gas grill: Check every 45 minutes to an hour to add another half cup of soaked wood chips to keep the same level of smoke going. Keep an eye on the heat to keep a steady temperature of 225 to 250 degrees.

If the temperature ever gets too hot for either charcoal or gas, you can adjust the vents.

You should notice that the coloring of the brisket is getting darker, becoming a kind of crust, often called the “bark.” If one side seems to be coloring this way faster than other, rotate the meat along the way.

Along the way, stick the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the brisket to check its progress. Cook until the internal temperature of the meat is in the range of 190-203 degrees Fahrenheit (but not higher).

Watch Out for the Stall

A heads up: A part of the cooking brisket process is called the “stall.” Once the internal temp hits around 165 degrees, the temperature stalls due to moisture evaporation on the meat’s surface. If you are cooking a large cut of meat, this will happen around the 6 hour mark.

If you’re cooking on the grill instead of a smoker, it’s worth waiting it out. But if you’re in a time crunch, there’s a workaround process called the “Texas crutch.” It involves wrapping the brisket in peach butcher paper at this point and placing it back in the grill.

How Do You Keep Brisket Moist?

While this isn’t totally necessary, you can spritz the meat with a special mixture. Fill a spray bottle with some water, apple juice or apple cider vinegar. Then when you check on it every 45 minutes to an hour, use this opportunity to spray the fat side of the meat.

4 – Remove the Brisket and Let It Rest Before Carving

perfectly smoked brisket partially sliced
photo by C3PICS from Getty Images

Once the temperature hits that 190 to 203-degree mark, remove your brisket from the heat. For a few minutes more it will actually rise in temperature outside the grill! Oh science…

Then place the brisket in a container, like a cooler without ice so it’s out of the elements (and away from bugs) for about an hour to rest.

Let the temperature come down to 145 degrees and that’s when it’s ready to carve!

To do so, separate the point from the flat end then cut against their grain since each part’s grain is in a different direction. After slicing you should see that your brisket has a “smoke ring,” which is a ring of pink or red just under the crust around the edges. 

Should I Wrap My Brisket in Foil or Butcher Paper?

While not absolutely necessary, you can wrap the brisket at 2 different points. During smoking, you can wrap the brisket when it stalls with butcher paper and then return it to the smoker. Once done, you can double wrap your brisket in foil after removing it from the grill to trap the juices. Then let the wrapped brisket rest.

One Last Step…

EAT IT ALL! But if you have any leftover brisket, send it to me please in some plastic wrap? With some potato salad if ya got it? Appreciate you.

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