We smoked brisket in several stages, and each stage plays an important role if you want a tender, juicy brisket. Resting or holding is an important stage when smoking brisket and it needs to be factored into your planning. Is resting brisket in a cooler necessary or can you just let it sit on the counter for half an hour? I wanted to find out all I could about the resting phase, so I sought advice from the expert pitmasters.
Placing brisket in a dry cooler is a common practice during the resting or holding period. Although meat can rest on a counter for 30 minutes, placing the meat in a well-insulated cooler will allow time for carryover cooking and hold the meat at a safe temperature until it is ready for slicing. Before placing the meat in a dry cooler, ensure the brisket is wrapped in foil and a towel. It is good practice to keep your thermometer inserted into the meat so you can continue monitoring the internal temperature. We can keep a brisket in a cooler for as long as it can remain at a safe internal temperature between 200°F and 140°F. Once the brisket drops below 140°F, it is in the dander zone for bacteria to multiply, therefore it should be carved and served.
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Resting or Holding?
Pitmasters rest their briskets in a cooler for a few reasons, but it’s practiced mostly for time management. The other reason to rest a brisket in a cooler if for carryover cooking, so there is some science behind the method. To explain why a brisket goes into a cooler after smoking, first we need to distinguish between resting and holding. Science of Barbeque author Meathead Goldwyn explains the holding phase allows for carryover cooking, which is especially important for a tough cut of meat such as brisket. Brisket contains a lot of connective tissue that will continue to break down while in the holding phase.
Once the brisket has reached the perfect 203°F internal temperature, by removing it from the smoker and placing the meat into a dry cooler, we give the brisket a chance to continue with the carryover cooking. This will allow the connective tissue to break down and will result in a more tender brisket.
The second reason we hold a brisket in a cooler is so we can keep it hot until we are ready to serve. Timing is important when smoking brisket. The last thing you want is to serve dry brisket after you’ve just spent 15 hours nurturing it over your smoker. So by holing the meat in a cooler, it will stay hot for hours. This allows you to time it perfectly and slice your brisket when you and your guests are ready to eat. That way you can almost guarantee your meat will be moist and tender.
Why A Cooler?
If you were to leave your brisket on the counter, you would need to carve and serve after half an hour. Coolers are well insulated, so the brisket will stay hotter for longer. Holding a brisket in a cooler will give you more flexibility so you can carve and serve at the perfect time. Some pitmasters use a hot box instead of a cooler, but this is more common for caterers and for those who compete in barbeque competitions.
The Danger Zone – Is It Safe?
Bacteria can grow rapidly in the ‘danger zone’; the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F. We normally remove a brisket from the smoker once the internal meat temperature reaches 203°F, which is well outside the danger zone. If the brisket remains in the foil wrapping, then is wrapped in a towel and placed in a cooler, it will take a while before it crosses over into the danger zone. When held in an insulated cooler, a brisket should slowly drop from 200°F down to 140°F over about 4 hours. Depending of the quality of your cooler, the brisket can remain over 140°F for much longer than 4-hours.
Always check the internal meat temperature with an accurate thermometer because you don’t want your brisket dropping lower than 140°F. You could use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat while it’s in the cooler, but the only problem with an instant-read is you will need to open and close the lid of your cooler. The best option is to use a leave-in digital thermometer such as a DOT or a TP20. That way you can continue tracking the internal temperature. If you don’t have a good thermometer or want to know more about the best tools on the market, you might be interested in my Thermometer Guide.
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Not All Coolers Are Equal
There are different coolers and some are more insulated than others. There are YouTube videos that test various coolers, and some coolers will keep your brisket hotter than others. The question is, how long do you need to hold your brisket, and how often? If you need to hold a brisket for 4 to 8 hours, then you might consider buying one of the better coolers on the market. However, if you only need to hold the brisket for a few hours, a regular cooler will do the job.
Do You Need a Fancy Cooler?
As mentioned above, the only reason you would need to spend a lot of money on a fancy cooler was if you need to take the brisket on the road and hold it above 140°F for several hours. Yeti and Kong are two of the more expensive coolers on the market, and there are some interesting comparison videos on YouTube. The Kong Cooler has built-in cutting boars on a side-table attachment which is perfect for camping. The Kong allows you to do all your food preparation and and meat slicing on the side attachments. The fancy coolers are great if you take your brisket on the road, however, for backyard use, a simple cooler like a Coleman is sufficient.
Can I Use Something Else?
Resting a brisket in a cooler is a common practice, however, not all pitmasters use the cooler method and prefer to keep the brisket in a double foil wrapping and hold in an oven at 170°F. A cooler is great if you are taking it to a gathering, and will stay hot for 4 hours or longer depending on the cooler.
How Long To Rest Brisket Without Using A Cooler?
If you are serving the meat directly out of the smoker, you only need to rest the meat for a minimum of 30-minutes before slicing. This will allow enough time for the meat to reabsorb its juices, otherwise the juices will spill out onto the bench when you’re slicing. If you need to hold the brisket for a little longer, then place it in the cooler wrapped in a towel.
Wrapping Brisket in a Towel
To help the brisket retain heat, it is common practice to wrap the meat in a towel before going into the cooler. However, don’t just use any old towel from your linen cupboard. I have heard stories about people wrapping their brisket in towels that had been washed in fabric softener, and the scent permitted the brisket, making it taste like lavender. So with that in mind, have a quick sniff of the towel before wrapping your brisket and make sure it has a neutral smell.
This brisket injection marinade is the secret used in competitions and made by a World Barbecue champion.
The Hot Box – Next-Level Holding
Caterers and many restaurants and barbeque joints use various hot boxes and holding ovens to hold briskets so they remain moist. The Faux Cambro is a popular hot box for keeping meat at a certain temperature after smoking, so too is the Alto-Shaam. These popular holding ovens will hold large roasts for over 8 hours without drying it out. However, these types of heating cabinets aren’t necessary for the backyard pitmaster.
Does Holding Soften the Bark?
One downside of resting brisket wrapped in foil and towels is the bark will soften, and sometimes go soggy. However, the alternative is far worse. If you don’t rest or hold the brisket before carving, the meat will dry out. One way to solve this problem is to remove the brisket from the foil and place it back into the smoker or the oven for a short period (30 minutes) to harden the bark. If you had a firm bark to begin with, it should dry out easily. Don’t leave it on the heat for too long, otherwise you will dry it out. For an in-depth look at brisket bark, you might be interested in another article I have written titled: How To Get Bark On A Brisket
Why We Rest a Brisket
As soon as you slice your brisket, it will dry out. Try to hold off slicing until you are ready to serve. Some pitmasters believe resting isn’t as important as people make it out to be, and other aspects of the meat smoking process are far more important. Some believe the juices that are lost when slicing can be immediately poured back over the meat and aren’t lost as most would suggest. Maintaining a stable temperature in your smoker is the more important than resting because high temperatures will draw all the moisture out of the meat. Also, techniques such as brining play a significant role in helping the meat retain moisture during the cook.
For more information on brisket techniques, check out a few more articles on different aspects of the brisket smoking process. I have in-depth articles on various brisket techniques such as wrapping, injecting, brining, and many more.
More Brisket Articles:
My Favorite Brisket Tools
Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.
Meat Injector: Injecting meat is a great way to take your barbecue to the next level and help you make competition-style brisket. An injector is the only way you will be able to get flavor and moisture into the middle of the meat. The Beast Injector is a stainless steel injector that is sturdy and affordable. Check the latest price on Amazon here.
Brisket Marinade: The best injection solution on the market is the Butcher BBQ Brisket Injection. This marinade is used in competitions and is made by World Barbecue Champion pitmaster, Dave Bouska. You can find the marinade on Amazon here.
Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.
Brisket Rub: These days I make my own rub when possible, but I always have a few pre-made rubs for when I’m running low. Barbecue guru Malcom Reed produces Killer Hogs, one of the best brisket rubs I’ve found over the years. Another great rub is Slap Yo Daddy, made by brisket master and multiple World Barbecue Champion, Harry Soo.
Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.
Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.
Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBooard website here.