What Is Brisket?
The brisket is a large intimidating piece of beef that is the pectoral muscle of the cow (see diagram below). As cows are large and heavy animals, their chest muscles do a lot of work. This makes the brisket a tough muscle with a lot of connective tissue, but it also packs tons of incredible flavor.
For this reason, brisket is relatively inexpensive and perfect for "low and slow" cooking methods like barbecue smoking and braising. It's also delicious as corned beef. The proper preparation takes this poor man's cut and makes it fit for kings.
The brisket used to be ground up into hamburger before it became so popular. Recently, brisket prices have been rising because of this growing popularity, and it's no longer nearly as inexpensive. But for the number of people you can feed with the cut, it's still a great value.
Types / Varieties
Briskets generally come as whole brisket ("packer cut") or separated into the "flat" and the "point" (or "deckle"). The flat and point are actually two different muscles that make up the brisket, which have different grains and textures. Generally, BBQ chefs prefer the whole brisket, which can weigh 10 to 20 pounds), while indoor cooks prefer the smaller separated cuts.
Whole Packer Cut
The packer cut is the whole brisket, and includes the flat and the point. For the smoker or grill, it gives you both the leaner flat and the more-marbled point. Since space is plentiful on the grill and smoker, best to go for the whole packer and have plenty for a crowd or leftovers.
Flat vs Point
The flat is a leaner cut, with a fat cap to kept it moist and tasty. It's a rectangular cut that is great for slicing and is best for corned beef. The point has more fat and connective tissue and is better for shredding. The point may have slightly more flavor, but is also a smaller cut and can be harder to find on its own.
Brisket and Culture
- In Texas... it's smoked.
- In Cuba... it's vaca frita (boiled and deep fried).
- In France... it's boeuf à la mode (pot roast).
- In Vietnam... it's served sliced super thin in pho.
- In Jewish-American food... it's served as pastrami in the deli and braised in home kitchens.
How to Buy Brisket
You're going to spend hours cooking the brisket, so it's important to pay as much attention when buying the meat as when you're cooking it. Do your homework. Even a great chef can't make bad ingredients taste perfect.
- Brisket basically comes in three USDA grades: Prime, Choice and Select. Prime is best, with Choice and Select slightly lower. The more marbling and tenderness, the higher the grade. I try to buy the highest grade I can afford and find that Prime is well worth the extra cash. But it's certainly best not to choose anything lower than Select.
- A super-premium product is Wagyu. Either from Japan, or from cattle with Japanese bloodlines, Wagyu beef is extraordinarily tender and fatty. It's a splurge, for sure.
- As with most foods, it's always best to buy local. But local sources for beef may be hard to find. Sustainably and humanely produced meat, typically from an American rancher, will usually be of higher quality. Importantly, buying beef of this type supports both ranchers and good ranching/animal care practices. It will be more expensive, but brisket, in general, is not pricey compared to other cuts.
- Fresh is generally better than frozen, as freezing slightly affects the texture of the meat, breaking down the cellular structure and making it softer. This is not as critical with suppliers like Snake River Farms and Crowd Cow, which do a great job at freezing and packing.
Where to Buy Brisket
- Online: There are quite a few online suppliers of premium meat that specialize in brisket. Snake River Farms and Crowd Cow are two of the best where you can get prime grade to Wagyu delivered right to your doorstep.
- Local Butcher: Checking out your local butcher is a great place to get high-quality meats and plenty of tips on how to cook it.
- Costco: You'll find great quality brisket at great prices. Splurge a few dollars more per pound and get USDA prime grade.
How to Store Raw Brisket
If a fresh brisket is perfectly vacuum packed, it can keep for a few weeks in the fridge (always check the dates on the package). But since there is little benefit to aging brisket, it's best to use it soon after buying. And a 15-pound brisket will take up considerable space in the fridge anyway.
Best Ways to Cook Brisket
Brisket needs a low-and-slow cooking process that will make this tough beast tender. For me, the best way to cook a brisket is in the smoker, Texas style. See my full recipe for Texas Style Smoked Brisket.
But that doesn't mean it won't be delicious and tender if you braise it, or cook it in a hot pot or slow cooker, in the oven or even as corned beef.
Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
Oak is the way to go when it comes to smoking brisket. In Texas, they use Post Oak (affiliate), which you can find online or at your local BBQ store. If you have local oak available, go for that as local is usually better. It's often pretty cheap to find oak firewood on Craigslist.
Since it will be smoking for so long, use wood chunks in your charcoal smoker rather than chips as they burn a lot longer. Oak pellets are available if you use a pellet smoker.
A Simple Rub Is All You Need
Simple is best when it comes to a brisket rub. Use a 50:50 ratio of Diamond Kosher Salt and coarse 16 Mesh Ground Black Pepper; that is really all you need. This will bring out the flavors of the beef and all that wonderful smoke flavor you will be adding (if you are smoking it).
If you are roasting the brisket, you might want to spice it up a little and add in some chili powder, brown sugar for sweetness and garlic powder.
How to Slice Cooked Brisket
For smoked brisket, the two parts (the flat and the point) should be separated after cooking and resting, as they have different grains. Once fully rested, separate and slice each part against the grain. Use a long slicing knife with a Granton blade for best results.
Tip: Only slice off as much as you will serve at that time, as the meat slices can dry out.
How Long Does Brisket last?
Cooked brisket should be refrigerated and eaten within 3 to 4 days. It can be frozen without ruining the texture if done carefully. It can be sliced prior to freezing, and carefully vacuum packed (air is the enemy!) with all its cooking juices. Eat any frozen brisket within a month or two.
Tools and Equipment of the Trade
- Thermapen Instant Read Probe Thermometer
- Thermoworks Smoke Alarm remote thermometer
- Sheet Pans for seasoning the brisket and bringing it out to the smoker.
- Diamond Kosher Salt
- 16 Mesh coarse ground black pepper
- Dry rub shaker
- Large cutting board
- Boning knife for trimming the fat
- Slicing knife with a long Granton blade
- Pink butcher paper for wrapping (24" wide is best).
- Post Oak wood chunks or oak pellets
- Lump charcoal for charcoal smokers
Cookbooks to Up Your Game
- Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto
- The Brisket Chronicles: How to Barbecue, Braise, Smoke, and Cure the World's Most Epic Cut of Meat
- Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling