Brisket is quite possibly the pinnacle of great Texas smoked barbecue. It’s hearty, beefy, smokey, and delicious.
But while it seems simple, turning that large piece of meat into that smokey, melt-in-your-mouth goodness requires a little prep. To get the right results, you’ve got to find the best wood for smoking the brisket.
Basics of Smoking a Great BBQ Brisket
Smoked brisket is one of those barbecue dishes that are notoriously simple yet infinitely complex. There’ aren’t usually many ingredients, which means each one needs to be perfect. Everything you do and everything you change can make a big difference in the end product.
The steps to smoking a brisket are simple, too. In essence, all you need to do is find a brisket, trim it, season it, and smoke it. But the simplicity of this setup means you need to pay attention to each step.
The Meat Quality Matters
Since brisket is a simple beef dish at its heart, start by picking the best brisket you can get your hands on. Order it online from a reputable supplier or your local meat monger, whoever you trust the most. Look for fresh cuts that have wonderful marbling. When you get it home, trim it down to get rid of excess fat and fit it in your smoker.
Season It Well
You’ll definitely want to season the brisket with something. Classic salt and pepper are enough for this job; just make sure they are coarse. Some chefs like to add in some garlic powder or other aromatic accents.
Smoke Low and Slow
Next, pick the right wood for the job, and make sure you’ve got enough of it to cook the brisket from start to finish.
Brisket is a flavorful and tough cut of beef. It will take a large brisket many hours of smoking to get finished. One of the great things about real barbecue is that it’s done only when it’s done.
If the outer crust starts to get too dry, wrap the brisket at the end of its cooking cycle. Peach butcher paper is perfect for this because the meat can still breathe, and the smoke can still get in. Foil will work in a pinch. Finally, never forget to let the brisket rest for at least 3o minutes before you slice it.
Best Woods for Smoking Brisket
Woods for smoking can roughly fall into two categories — those with robust, smokey flavors and those that offer a more subtle hint of smokiness.
The trick with a slice of big, powerful meat like brisket is finding the right balance: If you go all-in with mesquite, it can be quite overpowering if things get out of proportion. In case you opt for something subtle, like pecan, it could come out plain and boring.
What’s the solution? It’s possible to mix and match the woods you use in the smoker to find just the right combination. Also, the amount and size of wood pieces you use affect how smokey your brisket will taste.
You can play around with pretty much any combination of woods you want, but it’s key to understand a little about each type of wood’s flavor profiles before you start. Then you can think about how you want your finished product to taste and work backward from there.
Woods with Stronger, More Savory Flavors
Mesquite is the most powerful of the savory, smokey woods. It’s the classic choice for knock-em-out Texas-style brisket, but it requires some careful usage.
It’s so strong that mixing it with milder woods seldom works, but it can help temper the strong mesquite flavor just a bit. You certainly don’t want to use it on a delicate piece of meat as it could easily overpower the entire dish. Mesquite has a deep, earthy flavor, and the wood burns fairly quickly.
This wood lies in the middle of the road; it’s got a lot of flavor, but like mesquite, it can and does overpower some dishes. The flavor is often described as nutty or something like bacon. Too much hickory can make your meat bitter. It’s great for smoking brisket or any other beef, pork, or wild game dish.
Oak is the most neutral of the strong woods, making it a great place to start for beginners. It’s harder to overpower things with oak than with hickory or mesquite, and if you want to use something with a more complex flavor, like a fruitwood, oak can up the smokiness enough to make it all work. Another great thing about oak is its ultra-slow burn time.
Oak often adds a deep coloring to the outer skin of your meat. Either red or white oak can be used for smoking.
Woods with Milder and Sweeter Flavors
Apple and Cherry Wood
Both of these are sweet and fruity, and they pair well with others. For more delicate meat, like fish or chicken, they might be okay on their own. For something hearty like brisket, you’ll want to combine them with something stronger. Both pair well with hickory, for example. Apple is the stronger of the two should you want to use it alone.
In particular, Cherry adds a reddish hue to your meat, so you’ll want to make sure to use a meat thermometer.
Olive is an interesting pick if you can find it. It has a flavor that is similar to mesquite, though not nearly as strong. That means you can smoke with it alone or combine a little with mesquite to keep the flavor pure but tone it down a little bit.
Peach or Guava Woods
These make light and mild smoke that’s great on white meats but a bit soft on beef. Either can be combined, with more robust options, too.
Maple is very mild and almost sweet. It’s usually reserved for pork or poultry, so if you’re using it on brisket, consider combining it with a more robust flavor for more depth. Maple tends to tone down stronger wood flavors, making it a good one to combine with something powerful, like mesquite.
This wood has a nutty flavor that pairs well with many stronger smokes. If you use only pecan, it will likely be too subtle to notice on a beefy piece of brisket. It’s best when paired with something like oak or hickory, which will add depth and complexity to the smoke that is second to none.
Selecting the Right Wood Size
Picking the type of wood is just the first step in your decision-making process. Most grill and big-box retailers will sell you various hardwoods in different sizes. The most common selection includes chunks and chips, but logs are sometimes available, too.
Overall, the rule of thumb when it comes to wood size is to pick bigger woods for bigger meats. Something like a large brisket should ideally get the biggest pieces of wood you can find. Or the largest that will fit in your smoker, at least.
Common Wood Sizes
Logs are precisely what they sound like, split from full logs. They can produce a lot of smoke. The problem is fitting them in your smoker — they often measure 12 to 18 inches in length.
Most home electric and gas smokers aren’t set up to take them. A commercial or an offset smoker, if large enough, is the perfect place to use them. Logs can be your entire fuel source, but it might be a costly option for city dwellers to buy their wood from suppliers.
Despite these problems, the long burn time and plentiful smoke make full logs an excellent choice for briskets.
Chunks are usually a few inches long and are roughly chopped. They work great in many applications, making them the Goldilocks of smoking wood size.
A soaked wood chunk will last a lot longer than a chip will, for example, and they will fit in many smokers that don’t have room for entire logs. They heat up and produce smoke quickly, making them the most common and best choice for most home cooks.
These small bits are basically scraps, but they come in handy for some smoking jobs. These are often the best choice for gas, electric, and portable smokers that will use a smoker tray with water. Some people mix them up with charcoal to add a little smoke, as well.
But the problem with wood chips is that they burn very quickly. While many people do, you don’t have to soak them. To slow down their burn time, you can put them in a perforated tin foil wrapper. For something big like a brisket or pork shoulder, you’re going to run through quite a lot of chips before you’re finished.
Other Smoking Wood Sizes
Dust from hardwoods is a coarse powder, but you don’t want to use just any sawdust. Look for species-specific dust, just like with other smoking woods. Never use dust from treated wood as it will have all kinds of nasty chemicals in it. It makes a lot of smoke fast, but it also burns away very quickly.
Wood pellets come in bags that look a little like chicken or livestock feed. It’s a product made from pressed sawdust. They’re the fuel and smoke source for pellet grills and smokers, which are becoming very popular. These units have special burners that meter how many pellets to use and hold exact temperatures.
But pellets have other uses, too. Many smoke generators and smoke boxes are sold for use in regular gas grills that use pellets as their smoke source. Pellets are pretty easy to find at most hardware stores, and they’ll often have a variety of wood types. You can’t soak them since this will make them disintegrate into dust.
Disks are made of compressed sawdust and are used in some electric smokers. They are a little hard to come by, so it’s more of a situation of using them when you can find them. They produce a lot of smoke very quickly.
Hungry yet? Brisket is genuinely one of the best meats for smoking you can try. It’s great for a big gathering, and leftovers are even better for days after that.
Once you’ve got the right kind of wood for smoking brisket and the technique for your smoker mastered, you’ll be enjoying it every weekend.