Tough Brisket: Can It Be Saved? Tips and Techniques

Beef brisket is a great cut of meat for the smoker, but only when it’s done right. Because the meat is naturally chewy with a great deal of fat, this can be a tall order. Even the most accomplished pitmaster might have to deal with tough brisket at some point or another. Here’s how to handle the situation, just in case it happens to you.

Tough Brisket—Can it Be Saved?

Often, tough brisket comes about as a result of undercooking. The meat needs to be subjected to low temperatures for many hours in order to achieve that prized tenderness. If the brisket does turn out too tough, you may be able to salvage it by returning it to low heat for a few hours.

Why Does Brisket Need To Cook For So Long?

raw beef brisket

The beef brisket comes from the area beneath the steer’s rib section. As such, the muscles get a good workout when the steer is moving around—or even just raising itself to a standing position. Since beef cattle can weigh up to 1,200 pounds by the time it’s slaughtered, all that exercise can toughen up the meat.

Brisket is also high in collagen, a connective tissue. When collagen is heated slowly over a long period of time, it gets converted into gelatin, which moisturizes and tenderizes the brisket. If it’s cooked too quickly over a hot fire, the collagen won’t have a chance to break down, so the meat won’t be as tender.

How Else Is Brisket Prepared?

Smoking is a great way to cook brisket, because it imbues the beef with a savory rich flavor in addition to breaking down the connective tissue. However, there are other ways to tenderize brisket so that it won’t be so chewy when it reaches your plate.

One option is to cure the meat in a brine over several days. This locks in moisture and boosts flavor, as long as you don’t overdo it. When brisket is prepared this way, it becomes corned beef–a St. Patrick’s Day staple.

Despite the name, corned beef doesn’t actually involve corn. The name comes from the large “kernels” of salt that are used to create the brine. In addition to salt, brine can include herbs, spices, or sugar to create more memorable flavor combinations.

It’s possible to brine brisket for just a few hours, especially if it’s a smaller cut. A brining period of 2 to 3 days is preferable. Be sure not to leave the meat in the brine for longer than 10 days. If it’s brined for too long, the brisket will turn an unappealing gray color. Worse, the meat will be mushy when it’s finished cooking.

Why Is Corned Beef Pink?

If you’ve ever purchased corned beef in the grocery store, you’ve probably noticed its distinctive color. The pinkish hue comes from the curing salt that the manufacturers use to brine the meat.

Although you can buy pink curing salt when making corned beef from scratch, it’s not necessary in terms of flavor. If you plan to brine the brisket for longer than 2 days, however, it might be a good idea to use the specialty salt in order to prevent botulism and other food-borne bacteria from forming.

Can You Cook Brisket in the Oven?

If you decide not to opt for the smoker, you can braise the brisket in a low oven. Just be sure to set the temperature low enough to cook the meat slowly. Allow for at least one hour per pound when the oven is set to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. If the oven temperature is too high, the meat will be unpleasantly stringy.

Why is My Brisket Tough?

While cooking the meat too quickly at high temperatures is one way to toughen a brisket, it’s not the only way. There are several reasons why the meat might not be as tender as you’d like it to be.

Undercooking is one of the most common culprits when it comes to tough brisket. Most pitmasters are familiar with “the stall,” that dreaded period that occurs midway through the cook and seems to halt the process entirely. Amateurs might not have planned for this, and often remove the meat from the smoker too early as a result.

As a rule, brisket needs to cook to an internal temperature of at least 195 degrees. While 205 to 210 degrees is preferable, the temp will continue to rise during the resting period. However, pulling it off too early can be a disaster. If it isn’t cooked to the right temperature, the meat won’t have the desired texture.

Speaking of the resting period, it’s important not to neglect this. When you slice into the brisket too soon, the juices will run out onto the cutting board, leaving the meat dry and tough. Letting it rest for 30 to 60 minutes will allow those juices to redistribute, so the brisket will remain moist until it’s time to serve it.

Your meat might also have the wrong texture because you failed to slice it properly. It’s vital to slice brisket across the grain—that is, perpendicular to the muscle fibers. That way, the muscles will break down evenly, leading to tender slices of meat that melt in your mouth.

Is There a Way to Soften Tough Brisket?

Once you’ve taken that fateful first bite and learned that your brisket is too tough, is there anything you can do to save it?

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix. When you’re hosting a barbecue, this can lead to frustration. That said, there are steps you can take to salvage tough brisket if you have a day or two to work with. These are some of my favorite methods.

Brisket Sandwiches with Peppers and Onions

brisket sandwitch

To make these sandwiches, you’ll need to carve the flat end into slices. Start with about 2 pounds of cooked brisket. Try to give the slices a uniform thickness, somewhere between 1/4 and 1/4 inch. It will be easier to carve the brisket if it’s been chilled in the refrigerator for several hours beforehand.

Place the slices in a tray or baking dish and set the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. If you opt for a tray, make sure the sides are high enough to hold all of the ingredients—at least 2 inches. Add a few handfuls of sliced onion and green and red bell pepper and mix them into the brisket slices.

Pour in about 3 cups of beef broth and 1 cup of red wine, such as Chianti. Properly smoked brisket usually has plenty of flavor already, but if you’d prefer, you can add more seasoning to the broth at this point. Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper are classic additions, but take care not to add too much salt.

Cover the pan with foil and set it in the oven. Let the mixture cook for 3 to 4 hours, or until the brisket slices fall apart when nudged with a set of tongs.

Serve the brisket, onions, and peppers in toasted sub rolls. We would recommend choosing crusty rolls that can hold up to the broth mixture. There should be enough of the brisket filling to make about 8 sandwiches. If desired, serve extra broth on the side for dipping.

Burnt Ends

The point end of the brisket is hard to carve into uniform slices because of its irregular shape and high fat content. However, if the point end is too tough, you can chop the meat into cubes to make burnt ends.

This dish is a Southern barbecue staple, and it’s easy to make. Just set the oven or smoker to 225 degrees (if you’ve just finished smoking the brisket, this should be easy) and cut the brisket into cubes about 1-1/2 to 2 inches thick. Place them in an aluminum tray or roasting pan and coat them in a generous helping of quality barbecue sauce.

Roast the cubed brisket for 1 to 2 hours, until the sauce has caramelized and the meat is very tender. Serve with white bread and additional barbecue sauce, if desired.

Brisket Stew

This is a great way to use up your leftovers if you’ve cooked a whole packer brisket that turned out too tough. You can use both the point and the flat for beef stew, but remember that the point has more marbling, so you might want to add that meat to the pot a bit sooner.

To turn beef brisket into stew, cut the meat into cubes about 2 inches thick. Set them in a Dutch oven or stock pot and add enough beef broth to cover the meat at least halfway. Bring the mixture to a strong simmer, then cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Let simmer for 2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender.

Add cubed potato, carrots, and turnips to the pot. Continue to simmer for another hour or until the vegetables are tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot with plenty of rolls or crusty bread.

If the stew is too thin, you can improve it by thickening the gravy. Knead together equal amounts of flour and unsalted butter—about 1 tablespoon of each. Roll the kneaded butter into small pellets and begin whisking them into the sauce one by one. You can stop whenever the stew reaches the desired consistency.

Final Thoughts

It can be disappointing to spend so much time on a smoked brisket only to be rewarded with tough meat. Fortunately, it’s not the end of the world. With a little patience and the right recipe, you can still enjoy the fruit—or more appropriately, the meat—of your labor.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

1 thought on “Tough Brisket: Can It Be Saved? Tips and Techniques”

  1. Darren,
    Thanks for the primer on saving brisket disasters!. Invaluable and also encouraging. I made two rookie mistakes and will correct them in the future.(ending temp and poor carving technique). Going to make a bunch of chopped brisket sliders now to cover up my miscues!
    Thanks again.

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