Any experienced grill master will tell you that smoking meat is an art, not a science. There are a million different factors that can affect the outcome of your smoked brisket, from the type of wood you use to the atmospheric conditions on the day you’re cooking. With so many variables at play, it’s no wonder that even the most experienced pitmasters can have trouble getting it just right. Add brisket to that, clearly one of the most difficult to get right, and knowing when to pull your brisket off the smoker can be the key to achieving that juicy, flavorful smoked brisket you are after.
Overcook it, and your brisket will be dry and tough; undercook it, and you’ll be left with a raw, unpalatable mess. So how can you tell when your brisket is cooked to perfection?
Take a bite of this succulent delight
You’ll soon understand why we cook it all night
Check the internal temperature
The most reliable way to tell if your brisket is done is to check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer.
When inserted into the thickest part of the brisket, away from any bone, the internal temperature should read between 190-195 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keep in mind that there will be some carryover cooking after you remove the brisket from the heat, so you don’t want to wait until it reaches 195 degrees before taking it off.
Depending on how big your brisket is, it can take anywhere from 8-12 hours to reach this point, so be patient and resist the temptation to open the smoker too often. Every time you open the door, heat escapes and unravels all your hard work up until that point.
As my mentor says, “if you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’,” so keep the door closed. This is one of the reasons we do not recommend spraying or spritzing your brisket while it’s smoking.
Look for the telltale signs of doneness
In addition to checking the internal temperature, there are some visual cues you can look for that will indicate that your brisket is ready to come off the heat.
One of these is what’s known as “rendering.” This is when the fat starts to melt and renders out of the meat, leaving behind a dryer, more firm texture.
Another sign that your brisket is almost ready is “bark formation.” The bark is a crispy crust that forms on the outside of the meat during smoking and adds both flavor and texture. When this bark has formed, it can be a good indicator that your brisket is cooked through.
Finally, once your brisket has been on the smoker for several hours, you’ll notice that it starts to shrink in size. This shrinkage is caused by evaporation and is another good indicator that your meat is cooked through.
Use these signs in conjunction with each other—internal temperature plus one or more visual cues—to determine when to pull the brisket off the smoker.
When is the brisket done smoking?
One of the most important things to remember when smoking brisket is that it’s a tough cut of meat. This means that it’s going to take longer to cook than other cuts of beef. As a general rule, you should plan to smoke your brisket for about 1-2 hours per pound. However, this is just a guideline; the actual amount of time will vary depending on factors like the type of smoker you’re using and the temperature of the smoker.
Once the brisket has reached the correct temperature, remove it from the smoker and let it rest for at least one hour, preferably two, before slicing it. This resting period allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, resulting in a juicier, more flavorful final product.
One common mistake people make is thinking that they need to cook the brisket until it reaches 200 degrees Fahrenheit. However, this will result in a dry, overcooked piece of meat. Remember, grilled meat will continue to cook even after you take it off the heat source, so you’ll want to pull the brisket off the smoker when it’s still slightly underdone.
What if I don’t have a meat thermometer?
If you don’t have a meat thermometer on hand, there are still ways to tell if your brisket is cooked through.
One way is to insert a fork into the center of the brisket. If the fork goes in easily and comes out clean, the meat is done. We like to call this “fork tender.”
Another way is to simply trust your instincts—if the meat looks and smells cooked through, then it probably is.
How do the pros know when to pull brisket off the smoker?
Aaron Franklin, brisket cooking royalty, explains in his Master Class that he knows by the feel of the brisket when he picks it up. Using a light towel to cover the brisket and picking it up gives him the ability to feel the firmness of the meat, how much it ‘droops’, and with this, he knows if it’s done or not. He explains that if you can work your finger through the point and the flat, that’s a good indication of the brisket’s tenderness and is therefore done. Another analogy he uses is pushing a wooden spoon handle through it without a lot of resistance. That’s the feel you are looking for to know when to pull the brisket off the smoker.
Myron Mixon cooks the briskets to 205(F) and then pulls them off the smoker to rest.
You can also learn a ton from the true masters about how to best tell when brisket or other food is done, in addition to wonderful recipes and additional explanations for various aspects of smoking meat in our article about the best cookbooks for smoking meat.
What can you learn from the pros?
Obviously, knowing when the brisket is done just by picking it up is knowledge learned from cooking hundreds, if not thousands, of briskets. You and I will take some time to get there.
As Aaron suggests, I’ve started handling my brisket with a light towel when I’ve confirmed it’s done via my meat thermometer. Over time, I, too, will master the art of knowing when it’s done by feel. But I have my meat thermometer as a backup until then.
Also, the pros will remind you not to neglect your side dishes. The meat takes center stage, but you need the baked beans, corn-on-the-cob, potato salad, etc., to round out the meal.
A few thoughts about smoking other types of meat
Brisket is the end-all, be-all of the smoking world. Get a brisket right, and it’s something to be proud of, and you’ll look forward to doing it again. So will your friends and family. But there are other meats to smoke so don’t limit yourself.
- Smoked pork
- Smoked turkey
- Smoked liver (yep, you read that right!)
- Smoked prime rib (one of my personal favorites)
And, of course, check this article for a list of good, cheap meats to smoke.
Keep an eye on the clock and on the temperature of your smoker, watch the smoke coming out of the chimney, and use a meat thermometer to check for doneness—190-195 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal. And remember, it’s better to err on the side of caution and take the brisket off the smoker sooner rather than later. With these tips in mind, you’re sure to whip up a batch of delicious smoked brisket that will please even the most discerning barbecue aficionados!
Smoking meat is an art, not a science—there’s no single right way to do it. The best way to become a master pitmaster is through practice and experimentation. But even if you’ve been smoking meats for years, there are still going to be times when you’re not sure if it’s time to pull your brisket off the heat. Use these tips as guidelines next time you’re smoking a brisket, and before long you’ll develop a sixth sense for when your meat is cooked to perfection!