Beef brisket takes a long time to cook. It can be difficult to predict exactly how long, especially for larger cuts. That means you may need to rest the brisket in a cooler before serving time.
How long can a brisket rest in a cooler before the quality of the meat starts to go downhill? This guide attempts to answer this question—and any others you might have about the resting process.
How Long Can a Brisket Rest in a Cooler?
You can hold brisket in a cooler for up to 4 hours before the temperature starts to drop. At this point, you should remove it and let it rest for a bit longer at room temperature before serving. High-quality coolers might be able to hold the meat for an hour or two longer, especially when they’re preheated using the faux Cambro technique.
Why You Should Rest Brisket
All cuts of meat should rest for awhile before you dig in. Smaller cuts like steaks and pork chops don’t need to rest for long—about 5 minutes should do it. As whole packer briskets typically weigh more than 10 pounds, you’ll need to rest them much longer.
The meat we consume is essentially muscle tissue, which is made up of 65 to 75 percent water. When the meat is exposed to heat, this moisture is drawn to the surface, where some of it evaporates.
After you pull the meat off the grill or smoker, the remaining moisture needs time to settle back into the muscle fibers. If you were to cut into it immediately, the cooking juices would be lost, resulting in tough and dry meat.
This redistribution of moisture is the main reason why we rest meat. The process also makes the meat more tender. In the case of brisket, that means it’s easier to slice.
We’ve found that longer resting periods allow the flavors of the seasoning rub to mesh better with the beef flavor, too. A brisket that’s allowed to rest for an hour or more will taste better than one that’s only rested for 15 minutes or so.
How Long To Rest Brisket Per Pound
Since cuts like pork chops and steak can rest for just a few minutes, it stands to reason that the smaller the cut, the less time it needs to rest.
If you’re smoking just the point or the flat of a brisket and the meat weighs under 10 pounds, you can get away with resting it for just 30 minutes. Cuts weighing between 10 and 15 pounds should rest for at least 45 minutes, but we recommend an hour.
Brisket cuts that weigh more than 15 pounds should rest for an hour to 90 minutes. When briskets are this large, we would suggest dividing them into their subprimal cuts before adding them to the smoker. They’ll fit better that way, and the meat will cook faster.
What’s The Difference Between Resting and Holding?
The terms resting and holding are often used interchangeably in the world of barbecue. We’ve been guilty of it ourselves. However, there is a subtle difference between these two processes.
When you rest meat, you’re allowing it to cool slightly so that the juices can redistribute. Since cooling is the goal, it’s best to rest brisket and other large cuts at room temperature.
In short, we believe that holding is something you do in a cooler or low oven, while resting is done at room temperature. After holding the meat in a faux Cambro as outlined below, it’s a good idea to bring it to room temp for a bit before carving.
How To Create a Faux Cambro
You should be able to rest brisket at room temperature for up to 2 hours without worrying. If you’re still more than 2 hours away from your planned serving time, it’s best to hold the meat in a cooler instead. This is known as the “faux Cambro” method.
A Cambro is an insulated container that caterers use to keep food warm in transit. You don’t need to invest in the real thing in order to replicate this benefit. All you need is a cooler that’s large enough to hold the brisket, as well as a few clean towels.
Make sure the interior of the cooler is clean before you begin. Many people store coolers in their garage or basement, where they can attract cobwebs and dust.
Once the cooler is clean, fill it with hot water. It’s not necessary to boil the water beforehand—boiling water might actually damage the interior of your cooler. However, it should still be scalding hot.
Three gallons of hot water should be sufficient, but you might need a bit more if your cooler is very large. Be careful not to burn yourself when filling the cooler.
Close the lid and wait for 30 minutes. At this point, the cooler should retain its heat well even after you dump out the water. After you’ve emptied it, line the cooler with several clean towels and close the lid again.
When the brisket has achieved the correct internal temperature, remove it from the smoker. Wrap the meat in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil, then place it in the prepared faux Cambro. Close the lid to trap the heat inside.
Remove the brisket from the cooler and about 20 to 30 minutes before carving and serving the meat. We recommend unwrapping it during this phase, as the circulating air will allow the surface to cool down slightly. This makes it easier to carve the brisket into slices.
How Long Can a Brisket Rest in a Cooler: A Guide
Ideally, you should hold a brisket in a faux Cambro for 2 to 4 hours. This will ensure that the meat remains at the proper serving temperature without becoming so warm that it overcooks.
Although we suggest leaving brisket in the cooler for no longer than 4 hours, you may be able to hold it for longer. High-quality coolers might be able to help the brisket maintain its integrity for up to 6 hours.
If you need to push back the serving time, use a meat thermometer to ensure that the brisket’s temp doesn’t drop below 140 degrees. When meat sits at temps between 40 and 140 degrees for too long, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.
When your brisket is done cooking 6 to 8 hours before you plan to serve it, it’s better to hold it in a low oven instead. For gaps of 8 hours or more, we recommend letting the meat cool and storing it in the fridge, then reheating it slowly when you need it.
Resting Wrapped vs. Unwrapped
The question of whether to wrap brisket during the resting period is one that pitmasters can never seem to agree on. In fact, they have a hard time deciding whether to wrap the meat during the cooking process as well.
When you wrap the brisket prior to resting it, it will retain more moisture, thereby tenderizing the beef. It will also help the brisket stay warm for a longer stretch of time.
On the other hand, wrapping the meat tightly in foil will soften the bark. Depending on how long you rest it, this might not be noticeable. However, those who prefer a nice crunchy bark would do better to tent the meat loosely with foil instead of wrapping it.
When the brisket is resting in a cooler, however, the choice is clear. You’ll need to wrap it tightly in foil before putting it in the faux Cambro. Not only will this keep the brisket warm and moist longer, but it will also prevent the juices from making a mess.
The Bottom Line
When your brisket is finished cooking 2 to 4 hours before serving time, a faux Cambro can be a lifesaver. If you like to give yourself plenty of leeway in terms of time, you might want to invest in a special cooler for this very purpose.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!