Brisket is a tough cut of beef that requires long, slow cooking to become tender. Many pitmasters swear by resting the brisket for 1-2 hours or more after cooking before slicing to allow the juices to be reabsorbed. But is a longer rest time really better? Here’s a look at the evidence.
What happens during a rest?
When meat is cooked, the muscle fibers contract and squeeze out moisture. If you slice into meat straight out of the cooker, those juices run right out onto the cutting board. Allowing the brisket to rest gives time for the muscle fibers to relax and reabsorb some of those juices. The meat fibers reabsorb moisture through a process called carryover cooking. As the temperature evens out, the cooler interior of the meat continues to cook from the residual heat. This allows the collagen in the connective tissue to further gelatinize as well, helping retain moisture.
How long should I rest brisket?
There is no set rule for how long to rest brisket. Recommendations range from 30 minutes up to 4 hours. Most experts agree you should rest at minimum 1-2 hours. The most commonly recommended rest time is 1 hour. Here are some guidelines:
- 30-45 minutes: The bare minimum rest time. Allows the brisket to firm up slightly so it can be handled.
- 1 hour: The most common recommendation. Allows carryover cooking to finish and juices to reabsorb.
- 2+ hours: For very large briskets or those cooked very long. Allows for more significant carryover cooking.
- 4 hours: The maximum recommended. Beyond this risks the brisket cooling too much.
Does a longer rest make the brisket more moist?
The main argument for resting brisket longer is that it allows more time for juices to be reabsorbed back into the meat, making it moister. But several tests have been done to evaluate whether a longer rest significantly impacts moisture.
AmazingRibs.com tested resting brisket for anywhere from 45 minutes to 4 hours. They found very little difference in moisture between the different rest times. The only brisket that was noticeably drier was the one rested only 45 minutes.
Another experiment from Meathead Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com measured brisket that was rested for 1 hour against brisket rested for 4 hours. He weighed the briskets before and after cooking and found that the 4 hour brisket lost only 2% more moisture than the 1 hour brisket.
Serious Eats also tested 45 minute rests versus 2 hour rests and found no major differences in moisture. They concluded that once the brisket has firmed up enough to slice (about 45 minutes), additional resting does not have a large impact.
Effect of Rest Time on Brisket Moisture Loss
Based on these tests, resting beyond 1-2 hours does not dramatically change moisture levels. The brisket rests enough in the first hour or so after cooking. Extra time does not significantly impact moisture.
Does a longer rest make the brisket more tender?
Another potential benefit of a longer rest is allowing more time for the collagen to gelatinize and the muscle fibers to relax. In theory, this would create a more tender brisket. Testing shows that a longer rest does improve tenderness, but only to a point.
The folks at AmazingRibs.com tested tenderness by measuring the force needed to shear through slices of brisket. Brisket rested 4 hours required slightly less force than brisket rested only 1 hour. But the difference was minor.
Serious Eats also found a rest beyond 2 hours did not drastically impact tenderness. The brisket rested 1-2 hours was tender enough to easily slice and eat.
Conclusions from testing
The conclusions from these various brisket resting experiments are:
- Resting for at least 1 hour allows brisket to firm up enough to slice cleanly.
- Juices are reabsorbed and moisture equalizes within the first 1-2 hours.
- Collagen gelatinizes sufficiently within the first 1-2 hours to tenderize the meat.
- Resting longer than 2 hours provides minimal additional benefits.
For most briskets, a 1-2 hour rest is sufficient. The brisket has absorbed juices and become as tender as it will get after sitting that long. An exceptionally large brisket or one cooked for 18+ hours may benefit from going closer to 2 hours.
Downsides of prolonged resting
One downside of prolonged resting is that the brisket cools substantially. The flat section in particular can cool down into an unappealing, stiff texture if left to sit too long. The brisket also runs the risk of completely drying out if left for 4+ hours.
Many experts warn that going beyond 2-3 hours allows the brisket to cool too much. You want the brisket to still be warm and inviting when you slice it. Letting it cool for half the day defeats the purpose.
Should I rest brisket in a cooler?
A long rest doesn’t have to mean leaving the brisket sitting out on the counter. Many pitmasters transfer the brisket to an empty cooler after it finishes cooking. The insulation of the cooler allows the meat to retain heat and rest without cooling down too quickly. Holding the brisket in a cooler is an easy way to get extra resting time without the downsides of the meat cooling.
To rest in a cooler, remove the brisket when fully cooked and wrap in butcher paper or towels. Place wrapped brisket in an empty cooler and let rest 1-2 hours. The brisket will stay hotter than if left out. Just be sure to resist opening the cooler repeatedly, as this will cause heat to escape.
Tips for the best rested brisket
Here are some tips for optimizing the brisket resting process:
- Let the brisket rest at least 1 hour to allow juices to reabsorb.
- For very large or long-cooked briskets, go up to 2 hours.
- Rest in an empty cooler to retain heat if going beyond 2 hours.
- Keep the cooler closed to retain heat and moisture.
- Slice and serve once the brisket is still warm but firm enough to slice cleanly.
- Slice across the grain in thin slices for maximum tenderness.
While it’s possible to keep improving a brisket by resting it for 4, 6, or even 8 hours, the returns diminish after the first 1-2 hours. Letting it rest longer than 2-3 hours runs the risk of the brisket cooling too much. For most briskets, a 1 hour rest hits the sweet spot. An extra hour allows a little more carryover cooking for larger briskets. Resting in a closed cooler can extend this time without cooling the meat too drastically. But there’s no need to rest longer unless you have an exceptionally large or long-cooked brisket. With the right resting time, you can maximize both moisture and tenderness.