While you can find brisket on the menu in many parts of the world, from sliced brisket in Vietnamese Phô to the Sauerbraten of Germany, in Texas, the ideal is a whole brisket slowly cooked over woodsmoke. Smoking a brisket in this fashion has come to define BBQ brisket here in the US.
A whole beef brisket is a very large cut of meat and often weighs up to 20 pounds. The first time you’re faced with buying and preparing such a massive chunk of beef you might feel a little intimidated.
Since the most economical and efficient way to make brisket is to buy a whole packer and cut it up yourself, I’ve put together this primer to get you started. If you’ve ever wondered what a brisket is, or the difference between the flat and point cuts, then this article is for you!
- 1 What is Beef Brisket?
- 2 What Does Brisket Taste Like?
- 3 Shopping for Your Brisket
- 4 Parts of a Brisket
- 5 Different Ways to Cook Brisket
- 6 When is Brisket Done?
- 7 Pork Brisket
What is Beef Brisket?
What part of the cow or steer does brisket meat come from?
Brisket is one of the 9 primal cuts of beef and comes from the front part, below the chuck and above the shank. There are two briskets per steer, one on each side, and these breast muscles cover the sternum and anchor them to the animal’s rib cage.
The breast or pectoral muscles of cattle carry about 60% of their weight, so it’s no surprise that brisket has a lot of connective tissue running through the meat. Brisket is ideal for low-and-slow cooking methods that give this connective tissue time to convert into delicious gelatin.
Most briskets sold in the US are boneless cuts, although you can occasionally order a bone-in brisket from a specialty butcher. In general, though, the bones are removed at the packing plant.
What Does Brisket Taste Like?
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of eating a poorly prepared brisket, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Why do folks like me rave about this cut and invest so much time into its preparation?
It’s hard to explain what a brisket should taste like because the results really depend on your method of cooking. BBQ brisket is going to have a different flavor and texture than one that’s been oven braised.
Ideally, a slice of smoked or grilled brisket should be tender but not to the point of falling apart. The meat should have a little chew to it, with a beefy flavor and juiciness from the marbled fat. The edges of a slice should be a bit crispy with a nice mix of crunchy fat and dried meat with the flavor of smoke and your dry rub.
A slice of braised brisket should also be tender but not so tender it falls apart. This isn’t pulled pork! The slices should have some chew to them and taste of beefiness along with the flavor of the fat and braising liquid.
Depending on how it’s cooked, a slice of braised brisket may have a crispy edge or two. But more typically, it has a stewed texture rather than the crunchier texture you get from smoking or grilling.
Shopping for Your Brisket
So how do you pick the perfect brisket for your smoker?
There are two factors to consider. The grade of your beef and whether you get a whole packer brisket or just a half-cut.
Grades of Beef
Beef in the US is primarily ranked or graded based on how much fat is marbled throughout the meat. The more marbling of fat, the higher the grade of the cut. Briskets with a higher quantity of fat marbled through the meat cook up juicer and are more tender than cuts with a lower grade.
There are 8 grades of beef, but as a consumer, you’ll mostly be dealing with Prime, Choice and Select cuts. Prime cuts are the best and most expensive briskets and can be hard to find without placing a special order. Most of the whole briskets you’ll see in grocery stores will be either Choice or Select grades.
I prefer the Choice grade briskets myself. They are less expensive than the Prime cuts but still have a lot of fat marbled through the meat. They cook up quite tender and juicy on the smoker too.
Select briskets can be tasty, but I find the lack of intramuscular fat really leaves the meat a lot drier than I prefer for my smoked meat. If you have the option, get a Choice-grade brisket and save the Select grades for braising or other moist-heat recipes.
There’s another type of brisket that’s becoming more available, albeit only in gourmet butcher and specialty shops. I’m talking about the famous Wagyu brisket. Wagyu is a breed of cattle from Japan known for its delicate texture and outstanding marbling of fat.
Wagyu brisket is often graded higher than Prime due to this extensive marbling of fat. I’ve only had the opportunity to try smoked Wagyu brisket once, and I can say that it was the best, most flavorful and tender brisket slice I’ve ever eaten.
It is very expensive, however, and not easy to find. The prices I’ve seen for Wagyu can be as high as $300 for a 6-pound brisket. I think I will stick with the Choice cuts myself.
Choosing a Packer Brisket at the Store
A whole boneless brisket often referred to as a packer brisket typically weighs between 8 and 20 pounds before it’s trimmed.
While you’ll often find store-packaged half-brisket flat or point cuts in the meat aisle, most of the whole briskets in grocery stores come cryovaced directly from the packing plant. These big slabs of meat are typically untrimmed, although the deckle is usually removed for you.
You may occasionally come across a rolled brisket, especially if you’re in the UK or Europe or shopping in the Jewish section of the deli. These brisket roasts have been rolled into a round shape and tied with string, and are sometimes stuffed with a tasty filling.
This is a good cut for making an oven roast, but you’ll have to unroll it if you want to make barbecue brisket. It’s just too thick to cook on a smoker or grill otherwise.
When selecting your whole brisket, look for the packer with the most even shape and best marbling of fat.
Even if all the packers are the same grade, there will be differences between the individual briskets. It’s worth the time it takes to search out the best one of the bunch for your smoker! Don’t just pick the heaviest brisket, either.
Even if I’m not planning on making a whole brisket for dinner, I tend to buy packer briskets and divide the point and flat cuts myself. I avoid the store-packed half-briskets because I find they are too aggressively trimmed and cook up dry.
For better flavor and control over the trimming, buy whole packer briskets and just divide the point and flat cuts at home if you want to smoke a half-brisket. Then you can vacuum-seal the other half and freeze it to cook later.
Parts of a Brisket
Let’s talk about the parts of the brisket you’ll see when you open up your packer from the store.
There are essentially 4 parts to an intact, whole beef brisket:
One end of your brisket is thinner and flatter than the other, with a more uniform square edge. This is the flat cut of your brisket.
The flat cut of the brisket is made up of the deep pectoral muscle known as the pectoralis profundi. It is a rectangular piece of meat and is the most common cut to see in the meat aisle. It’s often labeled as “brisket” when sold on its own.
The flat cut is larger than the point and makes up most of a whole brisket. It is a popular choice because it cooks up evenly without much fuss. It’s very easy to cut attractive slices from a brisket flat, and the meat delivers a tasty amount of bark along the edges of the slices.
Since the flat cut is thinner and less fatty than the point, it usually reaches its ideal temperature sooner. It’s also a more uniform shape than the irregular point cut, which makes for a nicer presentation.
The downside to the flat cut is that the meat is leaner and has less fat marbled throughout than the point cut. It is easier to overcook, and if you smoke it for too long it may resemble brisket jerky. That’s one reason I prefer to trim my briskets at home, so there’s enough fat cap remaining to keep my flat cut moist.
The other end of your brisket is smaller, rounded and up to several inches thicker than the flat end. This is the point cut of your brisket.
The irregular point cut is made up of the pectoralis superficialis muscles. The point partially overlaps the flat cut, and they are separated by a thick layer of fat and connective tissue called the deckle.
Contrary to the rumors on the Internet, the point cut IS NOT the deckle (see below)!
Even when trimmed, the point cut has a lot more fat than the flat cut and often cooks up incredibly juicy. It is a harder cut to smoke evenly because it varies from a half-inch up to several inches in thickness. It usually takes longer to cook than the flat, which can be tough when you’re making an entire brisket.
When smoking a whole brisket, folks often pull the brisket when the flat cut reaches the ideal temperature. Then they separate the point cut and return it to the smoker to finish cooking solo.
This is a great way to balance the needs of the different cuts without cooking them entirely apart and helps the flat cut stay juicier. If you toss your point cut back onto your smoker you can turn it into another BBQ favorite- burnt ends!
The Fat Cap
When you look at a packer brisket, you’ll see one side is covered in a deep layer of fat. This is the fat cap of the brisket. This cap covers the meat from the flat cut all the way to the point. The fat cap is typically about an inch or so thick.
The fat cap is made up of both soft and hard fats, which react differently to the heat inside the smoker. The soft fat may render out if the layer isn’t too thick, but the hard fat never does.
You’ll want to trim the fat cap of your brisket to between ¼ and ⅛ of an inch in thickness and remove most of the hard fat from the point end. This will leave your brisket enough fat to stay moist and juicy without preventing the bark from developing.
If you follow the line of fat dividing the flat and point cuts on an untrimmed brisket, you’ll eventually come to a big swirl of fat and cartilage. This is the deckle.
The deckle is the part that anchors the brisket to the rib cage of the steer. It is a thick layer of fat and tissue that divides the flat and point cuts and holds them together. It does not render out in the smoker, so you definitely want to trim it away.
Once removed, your brisket will lie flatter and the point end won’t be quite as thick as it was. This will help your brisket cook evenly in your smoker and makes it very easy to separate the cuts at the end of the smoking session.
Nearly all packer briskets sold in the US are deckle-free or “whole brisket deckle-off.” So you likely won’t even have to bother trimming it away. If you happen to buy a packer with the deckle still intact, definitely trim it out.
Different Ways to Cook Brisket
Brisket is one of those cuts that can be prepared in many different ways, as long as you follow one key rule: Keep the temperature low and cook it slowly!
Smoked or Grilled Brisket
Personally, I stand with Texans. I think the best way to make a brisket is to smoke it slowly over a wood fire. This method takes a lot of time, at least 12 to 18 hours, but the flavor and texture are outstanding and the crispy meat bark just brings the meal together.
You can also use your grill to cook a brisket slowly. You’ll have to put it over indirect heat to keep it from burning but the result can be quite similar to smoked brisket. Especially if you toss some wood chips on the coals as you grill.
You can shave a few hours off your cooking times when you utilize this hack. You can learn more about the science behind smoking a brisket here.
Braised or Oven Roasted Brisket
While BBQ brisket is King, not everyone is into spending hours cooking outdoors. If you don’t feel like smoking or grilling your brisket, you can certainly cook it in your oven or slow cooker instead.
Typically, an oven-roasted or crock pot brisket will be cooked partially emerged in a flavorful liquid such as beer, juice or broth. The increased humidity speeds up the cooking times, so you can get your brisket finished in around 8 or so hours instead of the 14 needed for the smoker.
Braising is a great alternative when you have a brisket that’s a bit leaner than ideal because the extra liquid keeps the meat moist as it cooks. The lower fat content of the meat doesn’t matter as much when you braise your brisket.
The downside to braising a brisket is it prevents it from developing that awesome meat bark some of us go crazy for. Even if you finish it in a hot oven, the exterior of your meat won’t be as crispy and flavorful as one from the grill or smoker. But it still makes a very tasty beef roast!
Other Uses for Brisket
Brisket is also used to make other dishes and types of sandwich meats, namely corned beef and pastrami.
Corned beef brisket is one that has been brined with salt and spices and then boiled or braised in a tasty liquid like beer or beef broth along with some veggies. You may associate corned beef with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, but I admit I’m such a fan I make this dish year-round.
Pastrami is another brisket product hiding in plain sight. Actually, pastrami is more often made from the plate cut, but you can use brisket as well. Like corned beef, pastrami is initially brined in salt and spices, and then coated with ground black pepper and slowly smoked.
When is Brisket Done?
It’s hard to judge when a brisket is done based on the cooking time because they come in such a wide range of sizes. A 6-pound brisket is usually going to finish a lot faster than a 20-pounder, after all.
So how do you know when your brisket is finished cooking?
Take the Temperature
The best way to know when your brisket is ready is to measure the internal temperature with a thermometer. A brisket is done when the internal temperature reaches 203°F.
I usually pull my briskets when they hit about 195°F and allow them to reach the final temp as the meat rests. This way I can be sure the meat doesn’t overcook and turn into mush or jerky.
Another option is the so-called toothpick test.
To use this method, insert a toothpick into the brisket meat in several locations. If it slides right into the meat, without having to push, then your brisket is ready.
I’m not a big fan of this method. It’s fine if used along with taking a temperature reading, but on its own, I find my brisket is usually toothpick-tender much sooner than the temp would suggest. My last brisket passed the toothpick test at 185°F, but still needed another couple of hours to reach the ideal 203°F.
My other problem with this technique is that the point and flat cuts of the brisket have a slightly different texture due to the differences in fat content. The point cut nearly always feels less-tender than the flat when poked with a probe.
So I would advise using this method with caution, and double-checking the temperature with a thermometer before deciding to pull your brisket from the cooker. Otherwise, you may end up with an undercooked, tough piece of meat.
While you’ll nearly always think “beef” when you hear the word “brisket,” there are other types of briskets out there. Lamb brisket, for instance, is something I’ve seen at the butcher a few times.
A new form I spotted at the store recently was a pork brisket. Just like the beef version, a pork brisket comes from the front part of the pig. It’s basically a picnic ham with the bones removed, not to be confused with the true ham, which comes from the back leg of a pig.
So a pork brisket is really just boneless pork shoulder, similar to the cut used for pulled pork.
A pork brisket can be cooked just as you would prepare beef brisket. Since they are much smaller, they usually cook up a few hours faster than the beef but have a similar flavor and texture.
One advantage of using pork is they are a lot less expensive than beef briskets. The disadvantage is they are not that easy to find, so you may have to ask the butcher to debone a picnic ham if you can’t find one in the grocery store.