Beef brisket is very difficult to cook well, and even the most seasoned chefs struggle with getting it right. It's a cut of meat that benefits from low, slow cooking to ensure moist, tender results. But a brisket isn't up to snuff unless that tender meat has a nicely charred, crunchy exterior. The crispy crust that forms on the outside of expertly cooked brisket is known as the bark. Although pit masters will endlessly debate brisket cooking methods, there are a few tried-and-true techniques you can use to achieve the perfect bark.
Brisket comes with a thick layer of fat, known as the fat cap, attached to one side of the meat. As the brisket cooks, the fat cap slowly renders and most of it melts away, but a thin layer will remain even after the brisket is finished cooking. While the rendering fat ensures a moist brisket, a crunchy bark cannot form on the fat cap. You can remove most of the fat cap, leaving about 1/8 to 1/4 inch attached to the brisket. The remaining fat is enough to baste the brisket in flavorful juices without inhibiting the growth of a crispy crust. If you wish, you can completely remove the fat cap to create a bark on both sides of brisket, but the fat cap actually goes a long way in ensuring a juicy, tender brisket.
A rub containing salt and sugar is essential for a crunchy crust. The sugar and salt actually cure the surface of the brisket, reducing excess moisture and encouraging the formation of the crispy bark. You can flavor the rub with any of your favorite seasonings, like paprika, cayenne and chili powder. To apply the rub, pat the brisket dry with paper towels. Massage the rub into the brisket, and wrap it tightly with plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator for at least two hours and up to overnight.
Some brisket recipes call for wrapping the meat in foil for a portion of the cooking time or after the meat is finished cooking. Wrapping the brisket in foil captures the juices that run out of the meat and helps it to retain moisture. Although the foil contributes to a moist brisket, it will inevitably soften the crispy bark that you've worked so hard to achieve. You don't have to forgo the foil to save the crust, however. Simply remove the brisket from the foil and cook it over high heat for about 10 minutes per side before slicing.
A nicely crisped bark and a burned, charred exterior look deceptively similar, so you can't rely on visual cues to tell you when the brisket is ready. Cook the brisket low and slow to prevent burning. Use a digital meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. The brisket is ready when it's somewhere between 190 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. The brisket's temperature will continue to rise after it stops cooking, so remove it from heat when it's about 5 degrees F below your desired done-ness.
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