Smoked brisket is the holy grail of barbecued meats. When cooked right, it should taste tender, juicy and smoky enough to tingle the senses. Enjoyed by itself, slathered with barbecue sauce or served inside a sandwich, brisket is one of the most sought-after smoked meats in the country. Every aspiring pitmaster wants to master this cut of beef, but it can be an intimidating one to work with.
Located in the lower breast area on cattle, the muscles that make up the brisket support about 60% of a standing/moving animal’s weight (Source: Wikipedia). These hardworking muscles require an extensive network of connective tissue, which results in a tough cut of beef. To cook, brisket requires low heat and the magic of time to break down the rubbery collagen fibers that are present in the muscles. With some patience, you will be rewarded when this connective tissue transforms into that mouthwatering, unctuous texture so iconic of a properly cooked brisket.
But before you fire up that backyard smoker, remember that good technique in the kitchen goes hand-in-hand with a good product to begin with.
The last brisket I bought came from local butcher Chad Lebo of Cure in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. It was a grade 8 Wagyu brisket that weighed nearly 14 pounds, and it was beautiful. Lebo sources the best local meats from Nebraska and Iowa, including Imperial Wagyu Beef. Here are some of his tips on choosing the best beef brisket.
“A bad brisket cooked very well can still be good, but truly exceptional brisket has to start with high quality beef,” said Lebo. “USDA Choice is ok. Prime is better. Briskets graded Select aren’t really worth it. For the highest marbling, consider using Wagyu beef.”
Not only does Wagyu have remarkable marling, but its fat has a lower melting point. Lebo suggests adjusting the finishing temperature down by 5-10 degrees. Overcooking any brisket, even Wagyu, will result in dry, stringy beef.
As far as grass-fed beef, it has its advantages, but tender, juicy brisket is not one of them. “Save the grass-fed beef for other cuts,” Lebo said.
The Flat and the Point
If you can, buy the entire brisket. Called “packer” briskets, they offer the best overall value. There are two parts to a whole brisket, which include the “flat” and the “point.” When feeding a big crowd, the flat cut offers those pretty brisket slices that everyone wants, while the point is where you'll get fatty burnt ends and great shredded meat for sandwiches, burritos, tacos, soups and casseroles.
When buying a whole brisket, choose one that has the thickest and most uniform flat that you can find. Some briskets taper off too much in this area, which will result in uneven cooking and dry, wasted meat that you’d have to discard anyway. Choose a brisket with a flat that is at least 1 inch thick at the end.
“Anything less than an inch thick will have to be trimmed away or it will dry out during cooking,” said Lebo. “Look for a brisket with a flat that already has those thinnest bits trimmed off.”
If you don’t have enough mouths to feed and hesitate to buy a whole “packer,” you can also buy the point or the flat separately. The flat is widely available, as it looks more appealing to most shoppers.
The point cut alone is more difficult to find, and not as popular because of its shape. A giant ribbon of fat also runs through it, which isn’t as attractive as the more uniform flat. Some people also find the point cut too fatty for their tastes.
“For less trimming and better value, the top layer of fat should be no thicker than 1 inch,” said Lebo.
Some briskets have so much fat cap that it adds weight and drives up the price, considering that excess fat will be trimmed off before cooking anyway. Fat cap is good, but too much is useless.
Only about ¼ inch of fat on top of the brisket is needed to smoke, which helps to trap evaporating moisture and keep the meat moist. According to Amazingribs.com, the fat cap doesn’t actually baste and penetrate the meat – most of it just drips away during the cooking process – and too much can prevent your rub/marinade from reaching the muscle.
“Marbling is crucial,” said Lebo. “No matter what [grade you buy], there will be a cap of fat across the top of any brisket, but it is the fat and collagen within the meat that matters most.”
Now that you’ve chosen your brisket, it’s time to start cooking. But before you begin sprinkling on your favorite rub, Lebo leaves us with some trimming tips:
- Trim away the top layer of fat until it is ¼ inch thick.
- Feel for any harder pieces of fat or gristle and trim those away entirely.
- Make a straight cut across the flat end to remove any meat that is less than 1 inch thick.
- Trim away any raggedy bits that are sticking out.
- When trimming, slightly round off any square corners or edges, so they don’t dry out during cooking.