Brisket Basics 101
An introduction to brisket – where the brisket comes from, what does it look like, should brisket be cooked fat side up or fat side down? Brisket can be a daunting meet to cook. Whether its BBQ’d, smoked, oven roasted or braised, brisket can be demystified with information. Brisket is one of my favorite meats to BBQ and I hope that others can share the joy of cooking and enjoying it as well!
What is brisket?
Brisket is the hardworking front shoulder of beef. From a cooking level, brisket is found as 2 muscles in the BBQ world – the flat muscle that lays halfway on top of a fat wedge and the point muscle that sits on the far side and underside of the fat wedge.
- A brisket with both muscles can be known as packer or whole brisket.
- Flat part of the brisket tends to be leaner as compared to the point. Thus, the flat may be known as the lean cut.
- Point part of the brisket tends to be more moist with higher fat content. The point may be known as the deckle or moist cut if you are eating at a smokehouse, especially in Texas.
- Silver skin is the silvery looking membrane that may be visible on the flat. In large amounts, silver skin can prevent spice rub from sticking to the brisket and thus, prevent flavor penetration. In small amounts (smaller than the size of a Silver Dollar or a Loonie), leaving the silver skin on the brisket won’t impact the eating experience . Often, competitive cooks will remove the silver skin by fileting with a sharp knife to remove.
- Fat, there is a lot of visible fat on brisket. There will be fat woven into the meat – this will enrich the eating experience. There may be fat on both sides of the brisket and the fat wedge that narrowly sits between the flat and the point.
- Note: along the sides of the brisket, the meat and/or fat may be gray in color. This discoloration is related to preparation and disinfection within the beef processing facilities, thus, its best to use a sharp knife and remove.
Below is a photo of a whole Select (or AA) brisket out of the package.
How to choose a brisket for purchase?
For a backyard BBQ, briskets are often easy to choose. Pick a brisket of a size that will feed your friends and neighbors, in the price range that fits you. Often, the price will be driven by grade of beef. A higher grade brisket will typically have higher fat content. My personal preference for brisket is Choice (or AAA) or higher, but this comes with a heftier price tag. You can often see fat strands interwoven to the top of the flat, the more fat, usually the higher grade of brisket. Click here for more information on beef grading.
Trim a brisket
My general approach to most things, is simple. Not surprisingly, my approach to trim a brisket is also simple. I make small cuts so I can expose fat or meat and avoid making deep large cuts when trimming. You can’t undo a gash or cutting too deep.
- Remove silver skin on the flat, if necessary
- Remove side fat
- On the fat side, filet the fat (likely under the point) to reduce the fat to about 1/4″
Should you cook brisket fat side up or fat side down?
The invariable question, should brisket be cooked fat side up or fat side down? The query is whether the fat layer on the underside of the brisket (opposite the flat) should be cooked up (and the flat is laid across the BBQ grill), or fat side down, where the fat is laid across the grill of the BBQ.
I support cooking a brisket fat side down. By cooking the brisket side up and fat side down, the brisket flat will form a bark and be exposed to flavor. Most of the smokers I have, radiates heat from the bottom upwards. I also own a reverse flow smoker, where the heat pushes downwards on the meat and still, I’ve cooked the brisket fat side down. Same reasoning with reverse flow, the meat is exposed to build flavor, by creating a bark.
There is a thought that by cooking a brisket fat side up, the fat will melt and keep the brisket moist. Even at 1/4″ fat layer, the fat will not render to the point of melting. <I say this after cooking at least 75 briskets over the past couple years> While I do agree that fat insulates the brisket, moisture in the brisket is not related to cooking fat side up. Meanwhile, cooking meat side up allows the flat to establish flavor.
What happens to brisket when its cooking?
Because brisket is a hard working muscle, it has a large content of connective tissue, also known as collagen. Brisket can be known to be tough and chewy. but alas, how is it possible to also enjoy brisket that is flavorful and tender? Collagen is a magical characteristic in “tough” meats, it converts to gelatin between 160F to 180F (71C to 82C). Yes, gelatin like Grandma’s jello dessert! <Just not cherry flavor or bright lime green.> Brisket cannot be cooked to a “well” doneness like steak at 165F (74C) and be enjoyed with tender bites. The collagen needs to be cooked past that temperature! When cooking brisket (and other high collagen meats like pork butt or shoulder, chicken thighs etc.), the objective is to take the collagen to the temperature where it converts to gelatin and tenderizes.
How long does it take to cook brisket?
BBQ or smoking brisket is typically known to cook 8-12 hours long plus rest time, especially when cooking temperatures are typically 225-275F. Note, even if you only cook one brisket muscle or a smaller brisket, unfortunately, the time to cook brisket will not reduce by half or a significant amount of time. Brisket is truly a labor of love. BBQ or smoking a brisket takes time, a lot of time!
There is a methodology in the competitive BBQ world that includes cooking brisket hot and fast, meaning brisket can be cooked in 4-6 hours plus rest time at much higher temperatures. I recommend researching this methodology after cooking a few briskets with some experience under your belt. I can confirm that briskets can be cooked hot and fast with equal results in taste and tenderness. <For any competitive cooks, I spent a whole comp season cooking a brisket against my teammate and our briskets were equally submitted to judges with similar scores and finishing placements.😆 I didn’t win any internal bets, but collectively we still finished top 5 in almost every contest.>
How do I get a smoke ring?
A smoke ring is a chemical reaction between the salt and sugar in spice rub, moisture and the meat itself when cooking. If you want a vibrant smoke ring on your brisket, season your brisket overnight and place in the fridge covered (so the meat doesn’t dry out). And just to prove a smoke ring is a chemical reaction, you can achieve a smoke ring by cooking a brisket in the oven! Smoke enhances the chemical reaction, but it can be created – think of pastrami! Pastrami is cured and is essentially a smoke ring all the way through a brisket. Of course, if you want the smoke flavor on brisket, this is best achieved on a BBQ, smoker or grill with wood chunks or chips.
When is brisket done cooking?
Brisket is done cooking when the collagen has converted to gelatin. Often the internal temperature will exceed 190F (88C) and as high as 210F (99C). Using a temperature probe or bamboo skewer, you can feel when a brisket is ready by inserting the probe or skewer directly (perpendicular) into the brisket. When the probe enters into the meat easily with little resistance (as if it was inserted into softened butter).
What is rest? Why does brisket need to rest?
Resting meat allows meat to sit in its juices with residual heat. Resting allows the muscle fibers to relax and reabsorb some of the juices expelled in the cooking process. It allows the brisket to relax and the result is tenderness enjoyed in every bite.
Brisket can be rested at room temperature in a pan or foil wrap of au jus, sandwiched between old bath towels to insulate and retain the heat. Alternatively, placing the brisket in aus jus in a cooler in its juices will work just as well. Lastly, you can rest brisket in an oven turned off with a pan of hot water or keep the oven on “proofing” temperatures.