Brisket is a cut that straight out of the meat case is very, very tough and almost inedible. If you cut off a hunk and cooked it like you would a steak you would have a very, very sad meal. But like most tough working muscles the combination of time and heat can turn this muscle into a thing of beauty.
Where does the brisket come from?
Brisket comes from the lower chest of the animal. It is made up primarily of two different muscles: The pectoralis profundi and the pectoralis superficialis. The pectoralis profundi makes up the “flat” of the brisket and the pectoralis sueprficialis makes up the fattier “point” of the brisket (more on that later). These muscles support about 60% of the cattle’s weight when the animal is standing or moving so this is definitely a working muscle that contains quite a bit of connective tissue. Think of this muscle as the breast of the catttle. If you could take out your collar bones (cattle doesn’t have collar bones) and get down on all fours and feel your pecs you would see why this muscle gets so much work.
The point of the brisket will be the thicker, fattier side that has more intermuscular fat (marbling) and as a result it is usually moister (especially when smoked). The flat cut will be leaner and thinner. There is a big fat cap on most of the brisket and also a big vein of fat that runs between the two muscles. If you are at a barbecue joint you will usually be offered lean or moist. I almost always go for moist since there is more fat, more moisture, and more flavor. You can almost compare the texture difference of the two muscles to the difference between a ribeye (the point) and a sirloin (the flat). Both can be delicious but I would usually lean towards the ribeye.
How to cook a brisket
Brisket definitely takes time and heat to cook. Not necessarily a lot of heat but all the connective tissue needs a very long time to break down. This leads to brisket being primarily cooked two different ways: braised and smoked (or barbecued… I will probably interchange those words more than I should but I don’t really want to nitpick and get into all the differences right now). Braising is what you traditionally see in Jewish cuisine (think corned beef) and in Texas you will primarily see brisket smoked. Both these methods take many, many hours (probably 2-4 hours to braise and up to 12 or more hours for smoked) at a fairly low temperature. This gives the collagen in the connective tissue plenty of time to break down and turn delicious rather than tough.
Alton Brown has a great corned beef recipe I have made before. It is nice and salty, pink like any good corned beef should be (gotta love nitrates) and very tender and delicious. You can also take your corned beef, throw it on the smoker, and have some nice pastrami.
If you want smoked brisket? Well, go down to Texas, ask 5 different pitmasters how they cook their brisket and you will probably get different answers. Some cook fat side up, some fat side down. Some inject, some don’t. Some wrap their brisket, some don’t. Some use a lot of spices, some only use salt and pepper. They can all be delicious and are all somewhat different. Personally? I would probably just try to copy Aaron Franklin as much as I can. His book Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto is the best $18 or so you will spend if you want to learn how to cook a brisket. When I got that book I pretty much read it cover to cover the first night I had it. It isn’t really a standard recipe cookbook but more a how-to manual on how to smoke a brisket.
Here are a few videos from his PBS Show that quickly walk you through the process:
If you want to know more about how to select the right kind of wood, the smoker, and anything else related to brisket check out some of his other videos.
Another good resource (once again, somewhat different than Aaron Franklin’s) is from Meathead at Amazing Ribs: Barbecue Beef Brisket Texas Style
Now go argue among yourselves which way is best.
Where to buy a brisket
If you buy a full brisket or “packer” it will usually be 12-16 lbs or so. You can also find brisket sold as a brisket flat or brisket point. The point is usually a bit harder to come by but your grocery store, if they don’t sell a packer, will probably have a some flats. The flats work perfectly well for corned beef but if you are smoking a brisket seek out the full packer.
Costco or other warehouse clubs are usually good places to find full packer briskets. In some parts of the country you can find some nice prime briskets for about $3.00 per pound which is a great price. Speaking of prime… since the flat of the brisket is already fairly lean you really don’t want to go below choice grade. Try to find a prime brisket if you can but a choice will do as well, especially if you won’t be smoking it.
If you really want a top notch brisket to smoke go with one from Snake River Farms. Their “regular” brisket is choice or higher and based on what I have seen from their steaks it is usually the very top end of choice if not prime. But where they will really blow you away is with their American Wagyu Brisket. These briskets take you beyond prime and are one of the highest quality briskets you can buy. These are the briskets that many of the top competitive bbq teams use.
And there you have it. Hopefully you learned something about brisket. I know I learned a few things while researching this post. If you liked this be sure to share it on Facebook and let your friends know. And be sure to come back tomorrow for day 2!
If you want to learn more about brisket here are a few more resources to check out. I will add links here as I come across other good information so if you have a great video or blog post about brisket be sure to let me know:
More brisket info from JessPryles.com - Some great recipes and info on Texas bbq
SeriousEats.com Brisket Recipes - Lots of different braised brisket recipes here
Like what you read? Be sure to share it with your friends and come back tomorrow to learn about another cut of beef.