The question of whether to smoke brisket with the fat side facing up or down is one that continues to be hotly debated. Some pitmasters opt for the “best of both worlds” approach of flipping the meat halfway through the smoke—or even more than once. But is this a good idea?
Should You Flip Brisket When Smoking It?
You may need to flip the brisket over during the smoke if one side is in danger of charring or overcooking. The best time to do so is about three-quarters of the way through the initial stage of the smoke, before wrapping (if applicable). In most cases, this means flipping it at around the 3-hour mark.
Fat Up vs. Fat Down: The Great Debate
Advocates of the “fat side up” method claim that the fat will baste the meat as it renders, leaving you with brisket that’s juicy as well as tender. They also point out that if the fat cap is facing down, it may cause more grill flare-ups, charring the meat.
It’s true that excess fat runoff can cause grease buildup in the bottom of the smoker. If this issue is left untreated, you might end up dealing with grease fires eventually. This is something that every pitmaster wants to avoid.
On the other hand, when the fat drips onto the heat source, it creates more smoke. This promotes flavor, which is one of the main reasons you’re cooking the brisket on a smoker in the first place.
Proponents of the “fat side down” technique believe that the fat acts as a natural barrier between the heat and the brisket, which will prevent it from drying out. Since melting surface fat doesn’t penetrate meat anyway, that nullifies the “basting” argument.
We would suggest positioning the brisket so that the fat cap is facing the direct heat. In most cases, this means you should put it on the grilling rack with the fat side facing down. If the heat source comes from above, set it with the fat cap pointing upwards.
About Hot Spots
When you smoke beef brisket, your aim is to keep the temperature low. 225 degrees Fahrenheit is our standard recommendation, but this may fluctuate a bit. If you manage to stay in the range of 200 to 250 degrees, chances are you’ll have a successful barbecue.
That said, hot spots are always a possibility, even when you’re cooking over indirect heat. You can recognize hot spots by checking the surface of the meat. If it’s charred or visibly overcooked in any area, then you should rotate that section away from the heat.
Once you’ve determined that the brisket is forming hot spots, you’ll probably need to flip or rotate the meat more than once during the cooking process. You want the bark to form an even layer around the surface of the brisket, with no bare patches or charring.
Should You Flip Brisket When Smoking?
If the sole heat source is positioned above or below the meat, it might be necessary to flip the meat over as it cooks. When the direct heat is too intense, it can lead to the hot spots we mentioned earlier.
Be aware that in offset smokers, the heat source is located to the side rather than above or below. In these cases, you’ll need to rotate the meat instead of flipping it over. Some smokers provide even heat distribution throughout, so no flipping or rotating is necessary.
Keep an especially close eye on the brisket flat when smoking a whole packer. This end of the brisket is thinner than the point, so it’s more prone to overcooking.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, every smoker offers a different experience. The more often you use yours, the easier it will be to figure out whether you should flip the brisket or not.
When Should You Flip Brisket?
Assuming that you’ll need to flip or rotate the meat in order to promote even cooking, this step may only be necessary during the first stage of the smoke.
When you opt to use the “Texas crutch,” wrapping the brisket in butcher paper or aluminum foil partway through the cooking process, flipping the meat becomes unnecessary. The wrapper provides a barrier between the heat and the brisket, so you won’t have to worry about hot spots.
Check the brisket for hot spots after the first two hours and flip or rotate the meat as needed. Try not to lift the lid too often, though, or you’ll let out a lot of precious smoke and prolong the cooking time.
Hearing this, you might be tempted to avoid potential charring altogether by wrapping the brisket before you add it to the smoker. Don’t do this. Without that initial exposure to the smoke, the brisket won’t have a chance to develop bark, and the flavor will be off.
A Word About Smoker Types
As we’ve determined, offset smokers position the firebox off to the side, which means the hottest spot may be to the right or left of the brisket. But what about other smoker types?
Electric smokers produce indirect heat. That means the brisket should cook through evenly without the need for rotation in any direction. This is true of any convection or fan-assisted oven.
In a charcoal smoker, the fire is positioned underneath the cooking grate. This means that you may need to flip the meat to the other side at least once during the smoke. Using a heat deflector may alleviate the issue, but the bottom side of the brisket is still exposed to higher temperatures than the top.
For best results, set the brisket on a charcoal smoker with the fat side facing down. About three-quarters of the way through the “unwrapped” phase—at around the 3-hour mark—flip the meat so that the fat side is facing up.
If you have a high-quality pellet smoker such as a Pit Boss or a Traeger, flipping probably won’t be necessary. That said, if you’ve noticed issues with hot spots in the past, you may need to rotate or flip large cuts of meat accordingly.
Testing Smoker Temperatures
There’s a way to test for hot and cool spots in your smoker without using an expensive whole packer brisket as a guinea pig. All you need is a dual-probe thermometer and enough time and fuel to get the brisket up to your usual target temperature.
Set the smoker to 225 degrees. When it’s hot enough, set one thermometer probe in the center of the grilling rack, placing another to one side. Make a note of any temperature differences, so you can adjust your meat’s position accordingly when you’re ready to cook.
For smokers with multiple racks, particularly gas or electric units, repeat the same test on the upper and lower racks. If there are any noticeable discrepancies, you’ll need to rotate either the racks or the meat itself during cooking.
Should You Flip Brisket More Than Once?
It’s usually not necessary to flip or rotate brisket more than once. You’ll only need to do so if the meat is cooking unevenly. Once you’ve wrapped the meat, it doesn’t need to be flipped again.
One note: Some recipes that involve smoking the brisket in an aluminum pan will advise flipping the meat more than once. That’s because the pan acts as a heat diffuser in itself. Frequent turning ensures that the meat will cook through and be moist and tender throughout.
Also, every time you flip the meat, you’ll lose some of the juices. When the brisket is in a pan, you’ll still be able to salvage that moisture. That’s not the case if it’s sitting directly on the cooking grate.
The Bottom Line
We prefer to interfere as little as possible when smoking brisket. Unless the meat is in danger of burning and/or drying out on one side, we would recommend leaving it right where it is.