But there’s more to making a great beef brisket than just setting up your smoker and monitoring your meat’s internal temperature. Making a killer brisket starts with your meat selection and preparation methods.
In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about prepping a whole brisket for your smoker, from shopping to trimming the raw meat. If you’ve ever looked at a pile of 12-pound cryovaced briskets in the store and wondered where to start, I’ve got your back.
- 1 How to Trim a Brisket
- 2 Should You Trim Your Brisket?
- 3 What Do We Mean by Trimming?
- 4 Step-by-Step Brisket Trimming
How to Trim a Brisket
Smoked brisket is a BBQ classic for a reason. Nothing beats the flavor of a thin slice of brisket as it melts on your tongue and nothing seasons your appetite like a day of meat smoking!
Before you can crack a beer and settle in beside your smoker, however, you’ve got to select and trim your brisket. These introductory steps aren’t as exciting as playing with your smoker, but they are important.
Your final results depend as much on the quality of your meat and how well you trim it as it does on your brisket-smoking process.
Should You Trim Your Brisket?
Staring at your whole brisket, it can be tempting to skip the trimming step and go straight to slathering on a dry rub. When you’re about to invest 12 to 20 hours into smoking a slab of meat, does trimming really matter that much?
Trimming is an important step when you’re smoking a whole brisket but is less of an issue if you’re making a flat or point cut purchased separately. Most of the time, these brisket pieces have already been trimmed and just need a bit of tidying up.
However, trimming a whole brisket is another matter. If you buy your brisket directly from a butcher they may have already trimmed it for you. But if you’re getting one of those big cryovaced packages from the grocery store, chances are your brisket will need to be trimmed.
An untrimmed brisket has a lot of extra fat and connective tissue attached to it. While some will melt or convert to collagen inside your smoker, a lot of this fat and cartilage never renders out. Instead, your brisket slices will have layers of these inedible bits streaked through them.
So trimming a brisket removes the extra fat and connective tissue that doesn’t cook-up tasty. Since smoke doesn’t penetrate very far, trimming away this layer of fat helps your meat develop more flavor too.
Then there is the shape of your brisket. A whole brisket is much thinner on the flat end than on the point (see Parts of Brisket below). By trimming your brisket, you can produce a more uniform cut that will be easier to smoke.
A trimmed brisket cooks more evenly and thus has a better flavor and texture than an untrimmed one.
What Do We Mean by Trimming?
In the case of brisket, trimming means to remove the excess fat, cartilage, silverskin, and muscle from the slab. You’ll also cut your brisket so it’s square-shaped and the thickness is similar throughout the slab.
Trimming may be a lot more aggressive than you picture. Depending on your brisket, you may have as much as an inch of fat on the cap and running through the fat layer. You may need to remove the deckle (see Parts below) and extra fat separating the point and flat cuts.
The fat on a brisket varies in texture from the soft fat on top of the flat cut to a harder type of fat that surrounds the point and deckle. The softer fat may eventually render out nicely if the layer isn’t too thick, but the harder fat remains in your smoked meat.
Removing this hard fat prevents your brisket slices from tasting overly chewy and greasy.
What if You Skip the Trimming?
It isn’t a culinary crime to smoke an untrimmed brisket, but it will leave you with a cut that cooks unevenly and isn’t as appealing as the trimmed version.
You’ll end up tossing a fair amount of unrendered fat and sinew anyway as you breakdown and slice your meat. Your guests will NOT want to eat those fatty, chewy parts you throw out.
Skipping the trim has other impacts on your smoked brisket, though.
You may remember that wood smoke doesn’t penetrate deeply into your food. Instead, the smoke particles “stick” to the outside of your cuts and develop that tasty combination of crispy flesh and fat that makes the meat bark so desirable.
If your untrimmed brisket has an inch or more of fat covering the meat, what will happen in the smoker? The thick fat cap will prevent your meat from developing a tasty bark.
Worse, all that smoke flavor is wasted on the fat cap anyway. Your guests are faced with chewing through a thick layer of unrendered fat if they want to taste any smoke-flavor at all. If they peel it from their slices, the meat will taste bland and flat since all the flavor went into the fat.
So trimming and shaping your whole brisket is definitely worth the additional 10 to 20 minutes of labor. You should not skip this important step if you want to make a great brisket.
Benefits of a Trimmed Brisket
You should take the time to trim and shape your whole brisket because:
- A trimmed brisket cooks more evenly than an untrimmed one.
- Removing the excess fat from the fat cap helps your brisket’s bark develop.
- The hard fat on top of the point cut doesn’t render out in the smoker.
- It’s easier to separate the flat and point cuts on your trimmed brisket during the smoking or slicing process.
- An evenly trimmed brisket looks more appealing.
Step-by-Step Brisket Trimming
It’s a lot easier to demonstrate brisket-trimming in person than it is to explain the process. There’s really no hard and fast rules to trimming either. I’ve included this great, detailed video if you want to see how it’s done.
While I break this process down into steps, you don’t necessarily need to do them in order. For instance, I usually start with trimming the fat cap from the top side of the brisket. But you could start by squaring your brisket if you prefer or trimming the underside.
As I mentioned above, I prefer to leave about ¼ inch of fat on my brisket, and I usually remove much of the fat layer between the point and flat cuts as well. It’s better to start with light trimming and then remove more as needed.
You can always trim more away if you leave too much, but you can’t get it back once you’ve trimmed it away!
Step 1: Set-up and Remove Packaging
Before you pull your brisket from the refrigerator you’ll want to have your trimming area ready. Since you’ll be handling the raw meat you don’t want to scramble around your kitchen searching for something mid-trim.
You’ll need a cutting board large enough to hold your whole brisket, a sharp boning or chef’s knife (I keep both types handy), a bowl for your discarded trimmings and a big pan to hold your trimmed meat.
If you bought your whole brisket from a grocery store it’s likely wrapped in an airtight cryovac package. I usually slice open this plastic covering in the sink so any juices from the brisket can drain away without splashing. Grab some paper towels and dry the surface of your brisket off so it doesn’t slip out of your hands.
Step 2: Identify the Parts of Your Brisket
Lay your brisket on your cutting board with the meat-side facing up. This will allow you to survey your cut and identify all the parts of your brisket before you start trimming.
One end of your brisket is thinner and has a square shape, while the other end is rounded and thicker. Those are your flat and point cuts, respectively.
If your brisket is completely intact, the point and flat cuts are separated by a hard, thick layer of fat and cartilage called the deckle. You’ll also have to remove this layer if it wasn’t taken off during the butchering process.
Now that you’ve identified all the parts to your brisket, flip it so the fat cap is up and start trimming.
Step 3: Trim the Fat Cap
The first thing I do is start by trimming the excess fat from the top and sides of my brisket. I prefer to use a boning knife for this task, but you could also use a chef’s knife to trim the fat.
Slice the fat along the sides of your cut until you can see the meat underneath. Then begin to remove the fat cap in strips, a little at a time.
You want to leave an even layer of fat behind. I usually leave about a quarter of an inch of fat along the top of my briskets, but some folks prefer a thinner layer of fat.
As you approach the point end, the fat will usually be harder and thicker. You can trim this stuff pretty close to the meat because it does not render well.
Leave some “windows” in your fat cap, areas where the fat is trimmed away completely. This way your dry rub makes contact with the brisket meat and helps it develop the tasty meat bark.
Step 4: Square the Sides
Now make a small cut along each side, removing any brownish-colored meat to expose the bright red stuff underneath. This will also shape your brisket into a rough rectangle.
Step 5: Trim Fat from the Underside
Flip your brisket over and start trimming away the fat, cartilage and silverskin from the underside.
If your brisket includes the deckle, this is the time to slice it away. You’ll end up leaving a small pocket behind where the point cut overlaps the flat cut. Just fold the meat back over the pocket and continue trimming.
If you’re planning to divide your brisket into separate point and flat cuts, this is the time to do it. You can use your fingers to separate them or the sharp tip of your boning knife. The point cut usually ends up about a third of the size of the flat cut, but it depends on your brisket.
Step 6: Final Trim and Done!
Flip your brisket back over and take a look at it. Give it a feel with your hands. Does anything else need to go?
Some folks really trim the point end back to make the brisket more uniform, but I like the irregular edge myself. It develops a tasty bark and crispy bits of meat, so I leave it alone.
Once you’re satisfied with your trimming, the brisket prep is done. You’re ready to slather on a dry rub and get to the meat smoking!