How to Smoke a Brisket: An Interview with Arnis Robbins
We recently got to spend some time with Arnis Robbins, Owner and Pit Master of Evie Mae’s Pit Barbecue in Wolfforth, Texas. He shared his entire brisket process with us, including how to select the raw brisket, how to trim it (read about that here), how to season it, how to smoke a brisket, and how to serve it! (Read about slicing and serving brisket here.) This portion of the interview centers on seasoning and cooking Texas brisket, so read on to learn from the best!
Big Plate: You taught us so much about selecting and trimming a brisket. Now we’re excited to hear what you have to tell us about how to season and how to smoke a brisket.
Arnis: This is where it really gets fun. There are lots ways to season and smoke a good brisket, so I’m just going to share the way we do it here at Evie Mae’s.
Big Plate: Sounds good. We’re all on the edge of our seats wanting to hear your method!
Season with Salt and Pepper
Arnis: Evie Mae’s seasons 1-2 days before cooking the briskets. We use kosher salt and 16 mesh black pepper in a 1:1 ratio. That’s pretty classic for a Texas brisket, although adding garlic and onion would still be considered a Texas brisket. This isn’t competition barbecue, which has to wow in one bite. Brisket for your family or for my restaurant needs to have a balanced flavor that people can enjoy an entire serving of.
Big Plate: Any advice about the type of salt and pepper?
Arnis: Use good, fresh pepper. The volatile oils in pepper break down over time, making it lose its flavor, so fresh is key. It’s hard to season evenly with salt or pepper that’s too fine, so we use kosher salt and 16 mesh pepper. You want the brisket fully coated, but don’t go crazy with the pepper. If you over pepper the brisket, as it cooks and the meat shrinks up, the pepper will just mound up and fall off. It is hard to over salt a brisket.
Load the Smoker Where the Heat Hits the Point
Big Plate: OK, so once the brisket has been seasoned 1 or 2 days in advance, then what?
Arnis: Then it’s time to load the smoker. Evie Mae’s cooks on reverse flow smokers, so we load the briskets with the flat toward the fire box, otherwise the flat will dry out too quickly. We also cook fat side up. If you use a traditional offset smoker, you’ll need to load your briskets with the point toward the fire box. You want the hot air to hit the point first and flow down over the flat. This is where proper trimming is essential.
Big Plate: Do you use a water pan?
Arnis: We do use water pans. I highly recommend them. Anything you can do to introduce water into the environment. You want the water pan right where the heat comes in. In my reverse flow smoker, the pan goes on the end furthest away from the fire box and flue. In an offset smoker, you’ll want the water pan on the firebox end.
Smoke at 275-285 Degrees F for About 6 Hours
Big Plate: Do you wrap the briskets first or anything?
Arnis: No, we cook them naked for the first 6 hours or so—until the bark has formed nicely. We cook at about 275°F-285°F for the first half of the cook. After 6 hours or when the bark develops, the internal temp is usually around 160°F-165°F. Then we wrap the briskets in butcher paper. Tip off any pooled fat before you wrap.
Big Plate: Wrapping in foil…is that what’s referred to as The Texas Crutch?
Arnis: Yes, that’s right. The Texas Crutch is the method of smoking the meat naked for several hours, then sealing it in foil to speed the cooking process and trap in moisture. Aaron Franklin is the guy who popularized wrapping briskets in butcher paper. With paper, you get the benefits of wrapping in foil but, since paper breathes, you don’t end up steaming the brisket into a pot roast.
Big Plate: So is that why you wrap, to speed the cooking time?
Arnis: When I was only cooking 6-10 briskets a day, I never wrapped. When I started cooking more than 10 briskets at a time, I had to start wrapping them so they could all come off the smoker within an hour and a half window. It evens things out that much.
Wrap the Briskets in Butcher Paper
Arnis: Overlap two sheets of 18” or 24” peach paper with the seam running horizontally. Place the brisket vertically at one end of the paper with the point away from you. Spritz it with full strength apple cider vinegar. It’s not a drenching. I don’t have scientific proof, but I feel like the acid in the vinegar helps render the fat.
Arnis: Fold the paper edge the brisket is closest to up and over the brisket.
Arnis: Bring the bottom paper up over the end of the brisket. Make a good crease all the way across the paper.
Arnis: Go up to the top (point) of the brisket and do the same thing, folding the paper down over the point. Make a nice crease all the way across the paper.
Arnis: Bring the empty side of the paper up and over the side of the brisket. Make sure the paper over the top (point) and bottom (flat) of the brisket stays tucked under.
Arnis: Tuck that long piece of paper under the brisket, and it’s wrapped! Pull the paper nice and tight, getting as much air out as possible so you don’t end up steaming the brisket. If that paper “tail” is too long, fold it under itself to keep it out of the way. You should have a nice, tight pouch that makes the brisket easy to handle.
Big Plate: We have to mention that we carry the peach butcher paper.
Arnis: Yes! That makes it convenient for everybody.
Big Plate: So the briskets have cooked about 6 hours, you’ve wrapped them, and now they go back in the smoker?
Arnis: That’s right. And they go back in fat side up again. We do that because as the fat continues to render, it will pool around the flat end instead of pooling where the fat already is, which is what would happen if the fat side was down. We can crank the heat from 275°F to 300°F after wrapping if we want to. You have to know your smoker to know how to smoke a brisket properly. Three hundred degrees in my reverse flow smoker is a much cooler 300°F than a green egg, where you get a lot more radiant heat.
Big Plate: Does the paper ever tear?
Arnis: Yes, sometimes. If your paper tears, re-wrap the wrap. Keep the paper that already has fat on it so you keep whatever moisture is already on it.
Big Plate: So do you recommend that someone smoking briskets at home try paper?
Arnis: I do. Smoking naked, wrapped in paper, and using foil all have their benefits. But just give paper a try and see what you think. Your bark will be…barkier. Also, the wrap protects the bark as you pull briskets off the smoker to let them rest. You can stack cooked, wrapped briskets in preheated coolers, and they’ll be fine for hours.
Temp the Briskets
Big Plate: Once you’ve put the wrapped briskets back on the smoker, how long do they need to cook?
Arnis: Four to five hours after the wrapped briskets go in, we’ll start doing temp checks. When we’re smoking 100 briskets, it’s a lot easier to stab them with a thermometer than it is to pick up and handle each one.
Big Plate: We carry a Taylor instant read thermometer. Would that work?
Arnis: That’s perfect. And I know you also carry probes, which are great for a home cook because you can sit on the couch and know where your brisket is temping.
Big Plate: Where do you check the temperature of the brisket?
Arnis: We are temping dead center of the brisket. Stick it through the paper. If the temp is over 200°F, I’m going to pick it up & see what it feels like. Something magical happens between 198°F and 206°F. It’ll go from feeling very stiff like a brick to feeling like a water balloon. That intermuscular fat and connective tissue melts. Feel underneath the brisket. The edge will be tight until it’s done. If the edge feels soft and tender, the brisket is probably ready.
Big Plate: Sounds like there’s an art as well as a science to knowing when the brisket is done.
Arnis: The higher temp you cook, the higher the finish temp will be. It’s not just a function of internal temperature for knowing how to smoke a brisket; the connective tissue needs x amount of time and temp. You want to get the connective tissue and fat to melt before the muscle fibers dry out. Brisket has really large muscle fibers that are really lean, so getting there slowly is key. Each brisket is different, so you can’t make a call that all the briskets will be finished at 203°F today. You have to handle each one. Ambient temperature, environment in the pit room, cook temp, atmospheric conditions, all influence how long it takes to cook and what temp your brisket finishes at.
Big Plate: Man, this is super helpful information. Thanks so much for sharing all this with us about how to smoke a brisket. It’s a real game-changer, for sure.
Arnis: I love talking brisket! Come to Evie Mae’s any time to taste exactly what kind of product this process yields.