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Smoke Brisket In Pan or On Rack: Which Technique Works Best?

Should you smoke brisket directly on the cooking grate, or use a disposable aluminum pan instead? Even if this isn’t your first time making smoked brisket, you may be wondering which method is preferable. Let’s find out.

Smoke Brisket In Pan or On Rack

It’s easier to handle a large brisket if you smoke it in a disposable aluminum pan, and cleanup will be a cinch. This method also makes it easier to preserve the meat drippings. However, smoking the brisket on the rack will deliver a uniform bark and a more intense smoke flavor.

Smoking Brisket in a Pan: Pros & Cons

If you use your smoker on a regular basis, disposable aluminum pans can be a great asset. They provide a clean, sturdy resting place for large cuts of meat, and they’re available at an affordable price.

If you choose to rest a brisket in an aluminum pan, you’ll be able to salvage most of the juices. But is it a good idea to keep the brisket in the pan for the duration of the cooking time?

Again, this is an effective way to save the drippings, since they’ll be collecting in the pan instead of falling into the fire. It will also expedite the cleaning process—you can just throw the pan away instead of scrubbing the cooking grates.

Lastly, it’s much easier to handle large cuts like brisket if they’re in an aluminum pan. This perk comes in especially handy if you elect to wrap the brisket midway through the smoke.

On the other hand, the pan will prevent the smoke and hot air from circulating around the entire surface of the brisket. In our opinion, that’s a major red flag.

Worse, the portion of the brisket that’s in contact with the pan won’t be able to develop a nice crisp bark. You may be able to mitigate this by rotating the brisket from time to time, but that may just inhibit bark formation on the entire surface.

On a similar note, although you can use the collected pan drippings to baste the brisket throughout the cook, parts of the meat will boil in the liquid for long periods of time. That could make the brisket resemble pot roast in terms of texture.

Smoking Brisket on the Rack: Pros & Cons

When you place your brisket directly on the grilling rack, the entire cut will be exposed to the hot air inside the smoker. This will encourage a hard, flavorful bark to develop on the surface.

It’s also less wasteful to smoke the meat right on the rack. Depending on how often you make smoked brisket, you could end up going through a lot of disposable aluminum pans. This is problematic for both your grocery bill and the environment.

However, if you don’t use a foil pan, it will be difficult to take the meat off the smoker. The larger the brisket, the harder it is to handle. A whole packer that weighs 12 pounds or more may even require another set of hands.

Smoking directly on the rack also makes it harder to salvage the meat drippings. You may still be able to save some juices after resting and carving the brisket, but most of the fat will end up in the drip pan (see About The Drip Pan, below).

That brings us to the final point: Without a barrier between the brisket and the cooking grate, you’ll have to use a ton of elbow grease to get those racks clean. Some grates are easier to clean than others, but this is still a time-consuming and arduous task.

About The Drip Pan

The drip pan (or drip tray) is in place to collect the fat drippings and juices that are released from the meat during cooking. In addition to preventing grill flare-ups, this feature will prevent grease from contaminating the water pan, if you use one (see below).

Some pitmasters choose to fill the drip pan with water before they start to cook. That way, the water will absorb the heat that comes from below, helping to reduce temperature fluctuations.

As the water condenses and evaporates on the meat’s surface, it will help attract more smoke, giving the brisket a stronger flavor. If you add herbs and aromatic vegetables to the water beforehand, the resulting blend will make an excellent gravy when you’re done.

If you don’t add water to the drip pan, the drippings may dry out and burn. Keeping an eye on the moisture level throughout the smoke can be a real pain. That’s why smoking the brisket in an aluminum pan is preferable if you want to salvage the drippings.

Should I Use a Water Pan When Smoking Brisket?

What’s the difference between a water pan and a drip pan? In short, the drip pan is positioned beneath the food, while water pans are designed to go over the heat source. Depending on the type of smoker you have, the two could be one and the same.

When a smoker has a dedicated water pan, it’s not typically used to collect the drippings for gravy. Instead, it’s meant to regulate the smoker temperature and prevent the meat from drying out. You can use it to make gravy if you’d like, but it will have to be sparkling clean.

In a vertical smoker, when the water pan is positioned directly above the fire, the water inside won’t exceed the boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if the water pan is positioned alongside the coals, the water isn’t likely to heat past 180 degrees due to evaporative cooling.

What does all this mean for your smoked brisket? In essence, it means that the environment inside the smoker should hold steady at your designated temperature (we recommend 225 degrees). That means your total cooking time will be easier to predict.

Water pans are especially beneficial for electric smokers, because the humidity levels inside tend to be low. The added moisture will prevent the brisket from drying out during the long smoke.

So, should you use a water pan or not? When it comes to brisket, we would say no. When the atmosphere inside the smoker is too humid, the bark might be soggy—or worse, nonexistent.

We recommend smoking the brisket without a water pan the first time around. If you find that the bark is too hard, or that the brisket is too dry, feel free to experiment with the water pan the next time you fire up the smoker.

Should The Fat Cap Face Up Or Down?

This is one of those hotly debated topics that pitmasters can’t seem to agree on.

Advocates of “fat side up” claim that the fat will baste the meat as it renders, delivering moist and delicious results. Meanwhile, the “fat side down” camp argues that the melting fat will wash off the seasoning rub, and that it doesn’t offer any benefit.

Our advice would be to position the brisket so that the fat cap faces the heat source. That way, the fat will provide a barrier between the meat and the fire. In most cases, this means the fat will be facing down.

The Bottom Line

Because we prefer a well-developed uniform bark on our brisket, we prefer to smoke it directly on the cooking grate. In our experience, this doesn’t have a negative effect on the texture, and there are plenty of juices left behind on the plate if we want to make a pan sauce.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!