How can you tell when brisket is done? A quality instant-read thermometer is always useful, but you might want to have a fallback method just in case.
The brisket fork test allows you to check the texture of the meat without cutting into it, so you can return it to the smoker if necessary. But does it work? If so, what’s the best way to go about it?
Brisket Fork Test
When a fork slides right into brisket as easily as it would cut into a stick of butter, the meat has reached the desired level of tenderness. Remember that it is possible to overcook brisket, so don’t wait until the meat is falling apart before taking it off the smoker.
At What Temperature Is Brisket Considered “Done?”
The USDA recommends cooking fresh beef to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit. In the case of beef brisket, though, the number should be significantly higher than that.
Brisket is made up of two pectoral muscles located in the front of the steer. Because these muscles support a great deal of the animal’s weight, the meat has a naturally tough and chewy texture. The only way to tenderize the beef is to cook it at a low temperature over a long period of time—sometimes an entire day or more, depending on size.
Once the internal temperature of a brisket reaches 140 degrees, the collagen in the connective tissue begins to convert to gelatin. This has the effect of softening and moisturizing the meat. The process intensifies as the temperature climbs, reaching its peak at 210 degrees.
Because the meat will continue to cook once it’s taken out of the smoker, we recommend that you start the resting period at around the 200 degree mark. If you don’t have a thermometer on hand, or if you suspect the readout isn’t accurate, you can employ the fork test as a means of gauging the tenderness of the brisket.
The Importance of Taking It Low and Slow
Since the collagen won’t break down into gelatin until the meat cooks to 140 degrees, some amateurs might be tempted to speed the process along. However, this won’t work with a naturally tough cut like beef brisket. If you cook it too fast, the fat won’t render properly, and the meat will be chewy and dry.
For best results, set the smoker to 225 degrees. The brisket should cook at a rate of 1-1/2 to 2 hours per pound at this temperature, which gives the connective tissue the time it needs to break down.
If you don’t have that much time to spare, it’s suitable to crank the temperature up to 275 degrees. This will reduce your cooking time to about 30 to 45 minutes per pound and can still deliver good results. While we believe that using a lower temperature increases the brisket yield, the shortcut shouldn’t have an adverse effect on the meat’s texture.
What Is The Brisket Fork Test?
When a fork or thermometer probe can slide in and out of the brisket at the slightest touch, it’s safe to assume that the meat has reached the proper temperature. If you have to force the fork to penetrate beneath the surface, return the brisket to the smoker to continue cooking.
Testing brisket with a fork requires a bit of practice. You have to be able to tell the difference between meat that’s fully cooked versus meat that’s achieved the right degree of tenderness. Try performing the fork test a few times during the stall (see Remember The Stall, below), so you’ll know what the brisket feels like at 150 to 170 degrees.
It’s important to remember that the brisket should not be flaking or falling apart when prodded with a fork. If it’s reached this point, the meat is probably overcooked. Instead, you want the pieces to pull apart under gentle pressure while still retaining their original shape and texture.
Should you find that the brisket slices are falling apart too easily, try carving them a bit thicker. This should help to hold them together until they’re served.
The Piercing Myth
Some folks claim that performing the fork test will cause the brisket to dry out, because piercing the meat allows too much moisture to escape. In truth, you don’t need to worry about that.
When you slide the fork into the brisket, you may see small beads of moisture appear on the surface. That’s because meat is made up of a number of cells, and each individual cell contains water. When you probe the surface of the meat, a few of those cells will rupture, which causes the liquid to rise.
Even if you were to perform the fork test a number of times, the loss of moisture would be minimal. Remember, too, that there’s very little difference between probing the brisket with a fork and checking the temperature with a thermometer, which is something that pitmasters do all the time.
Bear in mind, though, that your smoker will lose a small amount of heat every time you lift the lid to perform the fork test. That can prolong the cooking process and interfere with your results. Use your judgment, and try not to check the meat more than once every 45 minutes or so.
A Word About Probe Placement
Chances are that you’ll still be using a thermometer as you get the hang of the fork test, and that’s fine. It will give you a well-rounded picture of how the meat feels during various stages of the operation. In order to get an accurate readout, though, you’ll need to insert the probe in the right spot.
Steer clear of any fatty areas, which can give you a misleading number. If you’re smoking a whole packer or a flat cut, it should be easy to find a good spot, but this can get trickier when you’re cooking the point end all by itself.
Place the probe into the thickest section you can find, taking care to insert it against the grain. The probe should enter the meat at a horizontal angle. Wait a few seconds until the readout holds steady.
Remember The Stall
When beef brisket—or any large cut of meat—achieves an internal temperature of 150 to 170 degrees, it will suddenly stop cooking. At least, that’s what it looks like on the outside, as the needle on the thermometer refuses to budge.
This process, which is called “the stall,” can last for several hours—and it’s perfectly normal. It happens because the natural moisture in the brisket is slowly evaporating throughout the smoke. When the heat of the smoker can no longer combat the cooling effect of the evaporation, the temperature reaches a plateau.
Of course, the cooking process does resume eventually. It’s just a matter of waiting until all the excess liquid has been consumed. That doesn’t mean that the meat will dry out during the stall—there will still be plenty of moisture left as the collagen continues to break down.
Don’t make the rookie mistake of turning up the dial on the smoker when the brisket hits the stall phase, especially if it’s already set to 275 degrees. Should you decide that you can’t wait any longer, you can wrap the brisket in foil until the internal temperature begins to climb again.
The Bottom Line
The brisket fork test might take some getting used to, but it’s a skill worth having. Over time, you might find that you’re able to guess the temperature from the look and feel of the brisket alone.