The sacred cow of Texas barbecue is brisket, but smoking one to perfection can be tough. So what’s the secret? “Keep it simple,” says Wayne Mueller, the third-generation owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor. “It’s simple ingredients cooked with a simple process that simply requires patience and practice.” Start with an untrimmed, or packer’s cut, brisket that is well marbled and has at least a quarter-inch-thick fat cap. (When cooking, place the fat cap up so the juices are absorbed into the meat.) Create a dry rub using one part salt and nine parts coarse-ground pepper, then liberally coat the meat with the seasoning and massage it in. Now you’re ready to smoke a brisket that’s a cut above.

The Wood

Build your fire using regional hardwoods, such as mesquite in the west, hickory in the east, and post oak and pecan in Central Texas. “Never use conifers, like pine, because they emit a distasteful resin that permeates the food,” Mueller says. When the coals glow red, the smoking can begin.

Direct Heat

Most backyard barbecuers use this method, but the brisket can quickly dry out because the meat sits directly over the coals. Avoid overcooking by soaking some wood chips in water (or in fruit juice for an extra layer of flavor) and adding them to the embers. The damp wood smolders and permeates the brisket with smoke. You can also offset the heat by raking the coals to opposite sides of the pit. Cook for 1½ to 2 hours per pound, at a temperature between 200 and 250 degrees, adding both dry and soaked wood chips as necessary to keep the temperature consistent.

Indirect Heat

This process, which employs an extension firebox on a smoker, produces fantastic barbecue but proves fickle even to practiced pitmasters; variables such as humidity and the size of the brisket can throw off results. “Rule number one is, open the pit as little as possible,” Mueller says. The temperature should always stay the same—between 250 and 325 degrees—and heat escapes when you open the lid. Cook for 60 to 90 minutes per pound, until the internal meat temperature is at least 180 degrees. You can also use Mueller’s feel test: “If you can poke your finger at least an inch deep into it, the brisket should be tender.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Smoking a Brisket.” Subscribe today.