A few years ago my wife took over the role of Thanksgiving host for her family’s annual event. I quickly found that cooking enough turkey for 15-20 people was a challenge. A large beef brisket is a much easier way to feed so many people. On the advice of a friend, I tried wagyu beef and we never looked back. We still have turkey – it wouldn’t really be Thanksgiving without it – but American Kobe is the highlight of our Thanksgiving dinner.
Here’s how you can do it too.
The Gear – about $250
1. A smoker. Get a nice cheap one, you’re only going to use it once or twice a year. Mine cost about $150.
2. Wood chips. Mesquite works well. I like to experiment with cherry and apple wood too. Smaller chips work best if you have a cheap and cheerful smoker like mine.
3. A Remote Thermometer. You’re going to run the smoker for 24 hours or so. Again, you’re not going to be smoking meat all year round, aim to spend about $40.
5. Heavy duty aluminum foil.
6. Oven gloves.
7. Twine (NOT plastic/nylon string!).
8. Squirting water bottle (for dampening your wood chips).
9. Large water container (for replenishing the water dish).
Here’s a great recipe from my friend Tim. There are many alternatives on the web but why muck about with a winning formula?
1/2 cup lawry’s seasoning salt
3 tbsp ground pepper (white or black)
2 tbsp cumin
2 tbsp ground mustard
1 tbsp granulated garlic or garlic powder (not garlic salt)
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp chili powder (adjust to your spicyness liking)
1 tbsp ground sage (optional)
1 cup dark brown sugar
Mix it up real good, taste a pinch of it. You should get a definite sweet up front, then followed by a slight saltiness, spice and smokiness. If you taste super salty, or super spicy add more brown sugar and onion/garlic/mustard/cumin. The cumin brings a latin smokiness to it. Adjust until the flavors are balanced to your liking. You can run a little salty because its a huge chunk of meat.
I use wagyu brisket from Snake River farms ($140 + shipping). I get the biggest I can find as folks keep eating it until it’s gone.
T-45 days – Order Beef
Order the meat well ahead of time. They run out! I order mine in October and then call and ask for delivery the week of Thanksgiving. Get the meat delivered on the Monday so you can defrost and deal with any shipping delays.
T-7 days – Get all the other stuff
Go get your rub ingredients a week early. They’ll keep forever and you don’t want to run out of anything.
T-72 hours – Beef arrives!
The beef will come in a giant insulated box. Keep this handy, as you’ll need it for resting the meat before serving. Follow the defrost instructions so it’s ready for cooking 48 hours later.
Have a think about how you’re going to place the meat in your smoker. This can be a fun engineering challenge. My smoker is vertically oriented and so I have to hang the meat using twine (not nylon as it melts and affects the flavor of the meat). If you have a bigger smoker you may be able to lay the meat flat. In this case, make sure you put it fatty side up, to enhance the flavor.
Do spend some time to plan this before you rub the meat or you will be left struggling with getting it into your smoker on the big day (this was stressful for me the first time as I didn’t have any twine).
T-30 hours – Equipment Prep & Planning
Timing is the tricky part. If, like me, you are a noob to all this, you’ll likely be mucking around with the smoker constantly on the first few times, and each door opening and gas adjustment will extend your cooking time. Officially it’s 1.5 hours per pound, so a 13lb brisket will take about 19 hours to cook, and a 17lb one about 26 hours. You’re looking to cook the meat all the way through, so all the sinew is broken down, which is what makes the meat so tender. The last thing you want to do is serve it before it’s ready, or have a bunch of hungry folk waiting for your masterpiece.
The good news is that once the brisket is cooked you can keep it nice and hot for 4-6 hours in the box it came in, i.e. it doesn’t matter too much if you screw up the cooking time and finish a few hours early.
I recommend you start to setup the day before, around 3 hours earlier than the official cooking time requires. For example, if you have a 17lb brisket (26 hour cooking time) and you want lunch at 1pm, then start 26+3 hours before, in this case 8am on Wednesday.
Find a nice place outside for your smoker. It shouldn’t be exposed to wind or rain – that will cool the smoker and potentially put out the flame – but don’t put it in your porch, it is a smoker after all! We have a nice big open space right in front of our front door. It’s covered and sheltered but the roof is a good 12-14′ above the smoker. Use your head here, the risk isn’t so much from fire as from staining/smoking your property.
Lay down a couple of sheets of foil and put your smoker on top. A lot of fat and other gunk will come out from the bottom of your smoker, and the foil will reduce staining of concrete and other mess. Roll up the edges of the foil and then test with a little bit of water: your foil system should be able to hold a cup of water.
Put your wood chips in the smoking tray and soak with water. Fill the water tray and check the smoker is level: if it’s not you’re going to have fatty water spilling out the whole time. Practice moving the trays in/out. Explore all the flaps and openings on your smoker and familiarize yourself with the manual: these are used to increase/decrease temperature without mucking around with the gas level, which is a blunt instrument to use for finding the right temperature. Do all of this before connecting the gas as they will be very hot later.
T-29 hours – Cooking the Meat
Prepare the rub as described above. For bonus flavor, rub the whole brisket with deli mustard or honey mustard before applying the rub. Applying rub to the meat is fun and very messy – use an apron. Rub it all over, into every nook and cranny, no part should be left uncovered. As it sits, the brown sugar liquifies and it will get sticky and drippy. Plan accordingly going in/out of the house, as your hands will NOT escape unscathed. Multiple towels, tongs, etc are useful.
At this point you should have:
- one smoker setup, gas attached but not on
- one beautiful piece of brisket covered in rub
- very messy hands
Now go put the meat in your smoker. Attach your thermometer, turn up the gas to high and then adjust until the temperature inside the smoker is between 210F and 240F. My remote thermometer measures two temperatures: inside the meat and inside the smoker. Set your thermometer to alarm if the temperature of the oven goes below 180F (this means your flame has gone out) and above 250F (your water has run out).
Keep an eye on the thermometer. The smoker will cool at night (duh) and you’ll need to fiddle with those vents and gas to keep the temperature up. Try to keep door openings to a minimum. The smell will be delicious and you’ll want to stare at the meat but try to keep this to a minimum. Most smokers have a separate door for the water & chips so you don’t have to keep opening the main door.
It’s really important to keep the water topped up. If you don’t, the meat will dry out. You’ll quickly learn how long it takes for your smoker to exhaust its water supply.
T-12 hours – Tuck Your Meat into Bed
There’s a lot of debate about when to wrap your meat. Purists leave it to the last minute, I recommend noobs like me do it sooner than later.
The point of wrapping is two fold: it reduces the chances of you drying out the meat, and it limits the amount of smoke you get into the food. Some folks like more smoke, others like less. You’ll have to experiment to find out what’s best for you.
I prefer to wrap my meat the night before. Take the meat out of the smoker. Wrap it in two full layers of heavy duty aluminum foil like a pouch, then put it back on. Don’t forget to re-attach your thermometer and to top up the water once last time. Wait for the smoker temperature to get back up to 210-240F. Put your thermometer by your bed and dream about how delicious this meat will be.
T-4 hours – The Next Morning
Your goal today is to get the inside of the meat to 180F, at the thickest point of the meat. But first, we’re going to make some burnt ends.
Remove the meat again from the smoker and cut off the triangular hunk at the top (the point). Re-wrap the main brisket, and put back in the smoker. Cut the point into 1″ chunks and mix with a new batch of rub. Put on an aluminum dish and put in the smoker. These will make the best part, the burnt ends. They only need to be in the smoker for 1-2 hours, and they make a delicious appetizer to get everyone ready for the main course.
Now all you have to do is wait until the internal temp reaches 180F.
T-1 hour – Ping! It’s Done!
Once the inside of the meat reaches 180F, it’s done cooking. Prepare the cooler – I use the box the meat comes in, but a standard cooler will do just as well – by lining it with some more foil and dumping in some boiling water. Remove the meat from the smoker, leave it wrapped but remove the thermometer, and then dump it in the cooler. Leave the meat there until you’re ready to serve. It should stay hot for 4-6 hours, try to leave it in there for at least an hour. This will “rest” the meat and make it even more tender: it’s literally marinading in its own juices. Hmmm…
When ready to serve, remove from the box, put on a nice large wooden chopping board and slice across the grain of the meat. Try not to eat too many pieces yourself!
Hopefully, it will taste delicious and everyone will remember your Thanksgiving lunch. We certainly do.
Thanks go to Tim P. and Adam K. for their help perfecting this amazing roast over the past few years.