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Sear Brisket Before Smoking: To Do or Not To Do?

Should you sear brisket before smoking it? The answer depends on who you ask. This guide will give you our take on the issue—along with the data we collected before arriving at our conclusion.

Sear Brisket Before Smoking

When you sear a cut of meat, you’re attempting to create a crisp coating that will seal in the juices and give the exterior an appealing charred texture. Since brisket cooks for such a long time, however, it should have these attributes anyway. In general, it’s not necessary to sear meat when you’re planning on smoking it.

Why Should You Sear Brisket Before Smoking?

Searing is defined as browning the surface of food through exposure to intense heat. When you sear a brisket before smoking it, you’re creating a hard crust on the exterior of the meat.

This browning is called the “Maillard reaction.” It’s the result of a chemical process that occurs between sugars and amino acids, and it creates a layer of flavor that’s impossible to replicate.

You can sear meat in several different ways. It’s common to use a frying pan with a small amount of oil, but with a large cut like brisket, you might have a hard time finding a pan that’s large enough to get the job done.

If you opt to sear brisket in advance, you’re better off using the grill itself. For a step-by-step tutorial, see How To Sear Brisket Before Smoking, below.

Is This Step Necessary?

We don’t typically sear briskets before adding them to the smoker. Here’s why.

First—and most importantly—we’ve never been able to discern a difference between brisket that was seared in advance versus brisket that was added to the smoker raw. As long as we smoked the meat long enough, the flavor and texture were pretty much the same.

When you cook brisket for a long time over low heat, it should develop a good bark on its own. That means there’s no need to take that extra step.

In fact, searing the brisket could actually harm the bark. If there’s a great deal of sugar in the seasoning rub, it will burn when it’s exposed to direct heat. That will give the bark a bitter, acrid flavor.

On a practical level, this step will prolong the cooking process. You’ll have to wait for the smoker or grill to heat to a high temperature, then wait again for it to cool to 225 degrees. Since it already takes so long to smoke a brisket, this is a huge drawback.

Also worth noting: One of the reasons you sear a roast beforehand is to create a solid fond that can be used to make a sauce or gravy. If you’re using the smoker to cook your brisket, chances are you won’t be taking that step.

Searing Brisket Before Smoking: Pros and Cons

In the interest of keeping things simple, let’s break down the pros and cons of this step to help you make an informed decision.

Pros:

  • Gives the brisket a head start on developing a good bark
  • Helps to lock in the juices

Cons:

  • Will cause the sugar in the seasoning rub to burn through exposure to direct heat
  • Adds a time-consuming step to the smoking process
  • When done correctly, brisket should develop a decent bark on its own
  • No need to create a fond to make a sauce or gravy

How To Sear a Brisket Before Smoking

Should you opt to sear the brisket, here’s a guide to doing it properly.

1. Choose a whole packer brisket that weighs about 12 to 14 pounds.

2. Trim the meat, if desired, taking care to leave 1/4 inch of the fat cap intact.

3. Apply your favorite seasoning rub, using about 1 tablespoon of rub for every pound of meat. You can rub the brisket up to 24 hours in advance, or take this step when you’re ready to begin the smoke.

4. Set the grill or smoker temperature to 375 degrees.

5. As soon as the fire is hot enough, set the brisket on the cooking grate. Sear it well on all sides until the exterior is well-browned, using tongs to turn the meat as needed. This entire process should take about 20 minutes.

6. Remove the brisket from the smoker and set it in a disposable aluminum pan.

7. Reduce the smoker temperature to 225 degrees.

8. When the smoker has lowered to the target temperature, set the meat back on the cooking grate and close the lid.

9. If you’re wrapping the brisket, smoke the meat until the internal temperature registers 150-160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Take it off the heat and wrap it in a double layer of foil or butcher paper before returning it to the smoker.

10. Continue to cook the brisket until the internal temperature has reached the 195-200 degree range. To get an accurate readout, insert the thermometer probe into the thickest portion of the brisket flat.

11. Remove the cooked brisket to a large platter or roasting pan. Tent with foil and let the meat rest for 30 to 60 minutes.

12. Divide the point and the flat, shredding the point meat and carving the flat into thin slices.

13. Serve the brisket with barbecue sauce on the side, if you’d like.

The Skillet Method

If you’re smoking a smaller brisket flat—or just the point—you can skip the extra step with the smoker and use a cast-iron skillet to sear the meat instead.

Make sure your skillet is large enough to hold the entire cut. If any of the meat is flopping over the edge of the pan, this method won’t work as well.

Heat the skillet to medium-high. Add a tablespoon or two of extra-virgin olive oil to help keep the meat from sticking.

When the pan is nice and hot, add the brisket. Sear the meat for 3 to 5 minutes per side, taking care to pay attention to the edges as well.

Remove the brisket from the heat and set aside. Continue to smoke the meat according to your chosen recipe.

What About Reverse Searing?

Reverse searing is a method that’s typically used on grilled steak. It involves searing the meat over very high heat once it’s reached the optimum temperature. Because you don’t want to overcook the meat, reverse searing usually only lasts for a few seconds per side.

When you reverse sear a steak, your goal is to give the exterior an impressive dark crust that will seal in the juices. For smoked brisket, however, this step shouldn’t be necessary.

As we discussed earlier, the long exposure to smoke and heat should give the brisket a nice crunchy bark anyway. If the meat doesn’t have enough bark on it, the cooking environment was probably too humid, or you wrapped the brisket too early.

When this happens, you can attempt to crisp up the brisket by removing the wrapper during the last hour or so of the smoke. At this point, it’s probably too late for reverse searing to have much of an effect.

Final Thoughts

While searing is a useful step in some cases, it’s virtually redundant when it comes to smoked brisket. When you’ve done everything you can to ensure that the meat will have a crisp, flavorful bark, there’s no need to sear it in advance.

Happy grilling!