As much as I love smoked meat, I often find myself with more leftovers than my family can reasonably eat. After all, a full-size brisket can weigh up to 20 pounds before you trim and smoke it. That’s a lot of cooked meat to eat in one evening!
What should you do when you have a pile of leftover brisket and no way to quickly consume it?
It’s tempting to just toss the leftovers in the freezer and use it another day. But leftover smoked meat can be very disappointing. If you’ve ever eaten a slice of leathery, dry reheated brisket you understand the problem.
The good news is with a little preparation and planning, you can cook your brisket in advance and still produce an excellent and tasty meal.
- 1 How Far in Advance Can You Cook Brisket?
- 2 How Long Will Brisket Keep?
- 3 Properly Refrigerating Brisket
- 4 Should You Slice Brisket Before or After Freezing?
- 5 Properly Freezing Brisket
- 6 Taking Brisket From the Freezer- Tips and Best Practices
- 7 Best Methods for Reheating Brisket
- 8 Conclusion
How Far in Advance Can You Cook Brisket?
A lot of folks are wary of serving brisket that has been cooked in advance, especially for parties or family gatherings. You might worry that the meat will be dry and tasteless, or will lose its texture and fall apart when you slice it.
This is a shame because smoking a whole brisket can easily take up to 17 hours. It makes a lot of sense to cook your brisket in advance if you can. It certainly makes planning a party easier if you don’t have to time everything to your smoker.
So how far in advance can you cook it, and what is the best way to store and reheat brisket without drying it out?
How Long Will Brisket Keep?
Depending on how you store it, you’ll have a few days to a few months to enjoy your smoked brisket before it loses its tastiness. A smoked brisket will stay fresh if wrapped tightly in plastic and stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
If you plan on using your brisket within a few days, you can store it in your refrigerator as soon as it cools down. The USDA recommends consuming or freezing cooked meat within 3 days to avoid off-flavors and the potential for food poisoning.
If you’re not ready to use your brisket in the next few days, then you can opt to freeze it instead. As long as you wrap it well and use it within 3 months, your brisket should taste just as good defrosted and reheated as it did the day it came off your smoker.
Properly Refrigerating Brisket
There are a few rules for refrigerating cooked brisket to maintain the best flavor and texture, and to prevent any contamination that could cause illness.
The most important thing is to get your brisket in the refrigerator as soon as possible after it comes off the smoker. Ideally, you should refrigerate your meat within 2 hours of cooking it. The longer your meat sits at room temperature, the greater the chance that a nasty virus or bacteria will join the party.
Refrigeration will prevent your meat from spoiling, but it also can cause it to dry out. To avoid this problem, you’ll want to vacuum-seal your brisket or wrap it tightly in several layers of heavy-duty plastic wrap. Don’t leave any gaps, because the air circulating inside your refrigerator will definitely leave you with brisket-jerky otherwise.
I prefer to vacuum-seal my briskets with the juices collected during the resting period, but you could certainly collect and store the juices separately. You may need to add some broth or juice to your brisket when reheating it, however, since your meat will be a bit drier than when stored in its juices.
Some folks like to store their brisket in a pan inside their refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap or foil. I’m not a fan of this method, because just covering the top of the pan still leaves the edges of your brisket exposed. Go for a full wrapping of plastic or use a vacuum-sealer for the best results.
Should You Slice Brisket Before or After Freezing?
To slice or not to slice, that is the question when it comes to storing a precooked, frozen brisket. Before I can break down the Pros and Cons of slicing your brisket before or after freezing, I have to explain what freezing does to your meat.
When food freezes, the water inside the cells expand, forming ice crystals. These crystals can grow so large they damage the cell. This is why frozen foods often have a mushy texture once defrosted, from the ice-damaged cells inside the food.
The faster you freeze your food, the smaller the ice crystals inside the cells. You’re more likely to have large ice crystals form when you freeze a big chunk of meat because it takes longer to freeze solid. This is especially the case if your freezer is packed and doesn’t allow the air to circulate around your meat.
Food can also develop freezer burn when exposed to the air inside your freezer. This can happen even when you wrap your meat in plastic. Air can sneak through the gaps and dry out the edges of your meat.
These freezer burned spots of desiccated meat are not tasty at all, although they are not harmful. To prevent freezer burn, you’ll want to limit your food’s exposure to the air by sealing or wrapping it tightly in plastic. Vacuum-sealing is the ideal way to prepare meat for the freezer, whether raw or cooked.
With this information in hand, let’s talk about how freezing impacts your whole and sliced brisket.
Doing it Before
Why would you want to slice your brisket before you freeze it?
The main reason is convenience. If you don’t plan on using your leftovers all at once, having your brisket portioned into slices can make things easier. You can reach into the freezer and take what you need, leaving the rest for the future.
Of course, it all depends on how you package your slices. If you freeze all the slices together, you won’t be able to remove them separately. You’ll have to defrost the entire package even if you just want a few slices.
A better option is to freeze the slices individually on a sheet pan and store them in a plastic bag. The slices will freeze quickly and won’t stick together. Then you can grab a slice anytime you need a meat fix.
The downside is the slices are more likely to develop freezer burn when stored like this. Every time you open the package of sliced meat the quality of the remaining slices will decrease a bit from the exposure to air.
You can always re-vacuum seal your slices after removing a few but that really decreases the convenience. Overall, this method works well if you plan to consume your brisket quickly but the quality will definitely start to suffer after a month in the freezer.
Doing it After
For the best reheated brisket, I recommend freezing the brisket whole instead of sliced. Personally, I find the taste and texture of a whole reheated brisket superior to that of reheated, frozen slices.
You can cut your whole brisket into manageable portions first, or freeze the entire leftover chunk. The main challenge is getting the whole brisket to freeze as quickly as possible to reduce the damage from the formation of ice crystals.
The main benefit of freezing your brisket whole is it reduces the chance of freezer burn because only the edges of your brisket are exposed. Slices have a lot more surface area and it is harder to prevent them from developing freezer burn along the cut edges.
When you reheat a frozen whole brisket and slice it after, your slices will look and taste nearly identical to ones that just came off the smoker. If you’re planning on serving guests a brisket made in advance, I would leave it whole and slice it right before serving for the best results.
Properly Freezing Brisket
To freeze your cooked brisket, you’ll first want to cool it completely. In fact, I recommend refrigerating your brisket overnight before freezing it. The cooler it is before it goes into the freezer, the faster it will freeze.
You also want to avoid cramming your meat into a packed freezer. For the highest quality results, be sure your brisket has plenty of room for the air to circulate as it freezes. That will also speed up the freezing time and give you better tasting leftovers.
Packaging your brisket for the freezer is the key to getting the highest quality results when you reheat it.
While you can wrap your brisket in several layers of plastic wrap, it will likely develop some freezer burn since it’s nearly impossible to remove all the air. This may not matter if you’re only storing your brisket for a few days or weeks. But your meat’s quality will suffer if you try to store it much longer than that.
Using a vacuum-sealing system is a much better idea if you plan to store your frozen brisket longer than a week. This will remove all of the air from the package and eliminate any freezer burn. It also makes defrosting easier and much less messy, since nothing can drip from the airtight package.
I prefer to freeze my brisket in a vacuum-sealed bag along with the remaining meat juices. If I don’t have any juices left, I’ll substitute some beef broth or even a liquid like juice or beer that has gone flat. Of course, you can always add in some moisture when you reheat your meat too.
Taking Brisket From the Freezer- Tips and Best Practices
There are many methods for defrosting raw meat, but for cooked brisket, you really only have a few good options. The best method for defrosting your brisket will depend on how you packaged it for the freezer.
If you’ve frozen your brisket in a vacuum-sealed bag, then defrosting it is really easy. Remove the brisket from the freezer and let it hang out in the refrigerator for a couple of days until thawed. Then reheat and serve!
You can also place your vacuum-sealed brisket in a cold-water bath and allow it to defrost in your sink. Just change out the water every 10 minutes until it is completely thawed. Depending on the size of your brisket, this could take up to an hour.
Wrapped in Plastic
If your brisket isn’t vacuum-sealed, you’ll have to go for the slower, refrigerator-defrost method. Even using a ziplock baggie, you can’t do the water bath without risking a leak. That could expose your meat to nasty pathogens.
Place your plastic-wrapped meat in a baking pan to prevent leaks and allow it to sit in your fridge for a day or two until it is completely thawed.
Sliced and Frozen Brisket
For individually sliced and frozen brisket, you could defrost the slices in the refrigerator. That will usually only take a couple of hours. Just cover the slices with some plastic so they don’t dry out in the meantime.
Another alternative for individual slices is to just skip defrosting step and go straight to reheating. Since the slices are thin, they will quickly defrost in a warm bath of meat juice or BBQ sauce. This isn’t ideal if you’re serving a lot of meat, but works great for small portions.
If you’ve frozen your slices together in the package, it might take longer to defrost. If you’ve vacuum-sealed them, you can defrost the slices using a water bath as I described above. Otherwise, defrost the package for a day or two in your refrigerator until your meat is thawed.
Best Methods for Reheating Brisket
What’s the best way to reheat frozen brisket once you’ve defrosted it?
I’m a fan of the oven method, but it just depends on your situation. If you’re already using your smoker for the rest of the meal it might be easiesr to use that instead of the oven. Pick the method that works for you and will give you the results you’re aiming for.
What temperature should you reheat your brisket to? You should aim to bring the brisket back up to 160°F for the best and safest results, according to the USDA.
How to Reheat Brisket in the Oven
One of the fastest and easiest ways to reheat a whole brisket is to use your oven.
The trick is to reheat your meat to 160°F without drying it out. Covering it tightly will help seal in the moisture, and you can add meat juices or other liquid to the package for an extra boost too.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Place the defrosted brisket in a deep-rimmed pan or covered Dutch oven, or use several layers of heavy-duty foil to wrap your brisket. If you’re not using a pan/Dutch oven you’ll want to place your foil-wrapped brisket on a baking sheet.
- Add in any of the leftover meat juices to the pan/wrap. If you don’t have any meat juice to reuse, you can add some beef broth, flat beer, fruit juice or other tasty liquid.
- Heat your brisket until the internal temperature reaches 160°F. Remove and let the brisket rest for 5-10 minutes before slicing. The remaining juices can be used to flavor the slices or as part of a BBQ sauce.
Using a Sous Vide to Reheat Brisket
If you haven’t jumped on the sous vide trend, this might be your chance. It isn’t the fastest way to reheat a brisket. But it gives you more control than any other method and prevents your brisket from drying out.
A sous vide is a temperature-controlled water bath. You select the temperature you want to cook your food at and the device will maintain the water at precisely that temperature.
To use a sous vide, you’ll have to vacuum-seal your brisket. You don’t want any water to leak in and dilute the flavor of your meat.
- Set-up your sous vide and wait until the water reaches your desired temperature. For brisket, you’ll want your water temperature to be around 160°F- the same temperature you’ll want your brisket to reach.
- Drop your vacuum-sealed brisket in the water bath and heat until it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F. This can take anywhere from 3-7 hours depending on the size and thickness of your brisket.
- Remove from the water bath, rest for 5-10 minutes, and then unseal the bag and slice and serve!
The main advantage of using a sous vide for reheating a brisket is that your meat won’t overcook. Once the brisket hits 160°F it will stay at that temp until you’re ready to serve it. Since the meat is sealed in the vacuum-bag you won’t have any evaporation or loss of moisture.
Using a Smoker to Reheat Brisket
You can easily use your smoker or grill to reheat your defrosted brisket. It is a lot like using your oven but will likely take a bit longer.
Just wrap the brisket in several layers of heavy-duty foil, adding in some meat juice or other liquid. If you want a thicker bark, you can stop reheating at 155°F and remove the foil from your brisket. Then place it back in the smoker or grill until it hits 160°F.
If you’re using your grill, set up a 2-zone fire so you can reheat the brisket over indirect heat. Otherwise, your brisket may overcook or even start to burn inside the foil wrapper.
- Once your smoker or grill is preheated to 225°F, place your wrapped brisket inside.
- Reheat the brisket until the internal temperature hits 160°F, or pull the brisket at 155°F, unwrap and finish back in the smoker/grill for a drier bark.
- Rest the brisket for 5-10 minutes and then slice and serve.
Reheat Brisket in a Crock Pot
You can use a crock pot to reheat your defrosted brisket, but it isn’t really the ideal method. Your meat may end up with the texture of a pot roast rather than a BBQ brisket.
The challenge with using a crock pot is that they require a certain amount of liquid to operate, and they lose heat every time you open the lid. It can be difficult to monitor your meat’s internal temperature without opening the lid, and every time you open it you set your cooking time back by at least a half-hour.
This makes it very difficult to estimate how long you’ll need to cook your brisket to hit an internal temperature of 160°F. If you have a thermometer that works in a crock pot, this would be a great time to break it out! Then you won’t have to open the lid to check your brisket’s temp.
Most folks reheat meat using the high setting, but this could also cause the liquid to boil. The bottom of your meat may overcook and taste mushy and bland if it boils for too long.
- To reheat a brisket in a crock pot, you’ll need to add about a cup of meat juice or broth to the pot, or even more if you’re using a large crock pot and a big piece of brisket. You’ll want a good inch of liquid in the bottom before you add your meat.
- Cook on low for approximately 2 hours, then check your internal temperature. When your meat hits 130-140°F, flip the brisket over and continue cooking.
- Once your brisket reaches 160°F, you can remove it and allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes. Then slice and serve.
- The liquid in the crock pot can be reduced to make a demi-glaze or used for a BBQ sauce.
How to Microwave Brisket to Reheat it
I don’t recommend using your microwave to reheat your brisket. Any other method is going to give you better results. I will occasionally microwave a few slices of brisket but never use this method for serving guests.
Microwaves work by exciting the water molecules in your food. This makes the water boil and produces steam. When you reheat brisket in the microwave, the water inside your meat turns to steam. But it doesn’t steam your meat evenly.
If you microwave a whole brisket, the outer part of your meat will get hot as steam is driven from the surface. The inside will stay cool much longer, forcing you into another round of microwaving. As the inside heats up, more moisture boils and turns to steam.
What you’ll end up with is a pile of unevenly heated brisket that is mushy and dry on the outside and barley reheated on the inside. Worse, if you microwave for too long the moisture on the inside will be pulled to the surface and lost as well.
You can quickly reheat a few slices of defrosted brisket in the microwave for making a slider or sandwich. The texture may suffer and it won’t be as tasty as other methods but it is a quick way to get some brisket on the dinner menu.
Boiling Leftover Brisket
Next to microwaving, boiling is the least-desirable option for reheating a brisket except for one specific circumstance.
While I wouldn’t recommend tossing a whole brisket in a vat of liquid if you’ve used a vacuum-sealer you could boil the entire package. It would be just like using a commercial boil-in-the-bag product. Since your meat is sealed inside you won’t have to worry about it losing flavor in the hot water.
The trick is guessing when your meat’s internal temperature hits 160°F. You may have to open and reseal the bag a few times. And there’s always the danger of overcooking the brisket.
While I don’t recommend this method for whole brisket unless it is vacuum-sealed, you can quickly reheat sliced brisket in a hot liquid. The texture and flavor won’t match the other methods but it is very quick.
You can use this method for reheating individual slices of brisket, even if they are still frozen. It will just take a little longer for frozen slices vs defrosted ones.
- Use a wide frying pan and add a ¼ to ½ inch of meat juice or other flavorful liquid to the bottom. Heat on high until the liquid boils.
- Add your sliced brisket to the pan in a single layer, leaving room on the side of each piece. Don’t crowd the pan. This will look a lot like frying bacon in a layer of liquid.
- Return the liquid to a boil and cook for 30 seconds (slightly longer if the slices are frozen).
- Flip the slices and cook in the boiling liquid for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until hot.
You can use this method to cook several rounds of sliced brisket, although you may need to add more liquid to the pan to maintain the ¼ to ½-inch depth.
Don’t be afraid to prepare your brisket in advance! With a little preparation and planning, you can easily serve moist and tender slices of brisket to your guests without being chained to your smoker.
By vacuum-sealing your cooked brisket, you can freeze it safely for up to three months and quickly reheat it in your oven, smoker or using a sous vide. For a quick weeknight meal you can even boil or microwave a few slices of brisket for a BBQ sandwich.
Reheated brisket doesn’t have to be dry and leathery, or cooked into a stew. You can have brisket that’s as tasty as the day you smoked it when you store and reheat it using these methods.