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Brisket…Is it the Holy Grail of BBQ, and why is it so intimidating?!?!

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By Gary Robinson, Cooking Out Loud

 A perfectly cooked brisket, it is revered by many as the holy grail of BBQ. People are both fascinated and intimidated by this cut of meat. But why? Let’s take a deeper dive into this meat, what is brisket and why are people afraid of it?

Brisket, an Overview

Brisket is one of the primal cuts of beef, a Primal Cut is the first piece of meat separated from the carcass of the animal during the butchering process. According to the USDA there are eight primal cuts of beef, they are chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, short plate, shank, and brisket.  The Brisket is found on the cow’s breast/lower chest area, it is one of the most used muscles in the cow. The Brisket is comprised of two sub-primal cuts of meat, the Brisket Point and Brisket Plate (also known as the “flat”). 

The brisket includes the superficial and deep pectoral muscles, these muscles support approximately 60% of the cows’ body weight when the cow is standing or walking.  Being that the brisket is one of the most used muscles in the cow, the cut is very tough and needs to be cooked correctly to yield that oh so desirable melt in your mouth brisket!  The Brisket is comprised of a significant amount of connective tissue which is made up of collagen fibers, the collagen fibers will break down during the cooking process and transform into gelatin. This process results in a more tender brisket.

Brisket, as discussed above, is made up of two sub-primal cuts, the point and the flat.  The point is fattier due to the amount of marbling, whereas the flat which has less intermuscular fat which results in a leaner cut. 

Meat Selection

In the United States, beef grades are assigned based on the amount of fat marbled throughout the cut. The more fat that is marbled throughout results in a higher grade, also the more fat throughout the brisket should yield a tastier and juicier finished product.  

The USDA will grade beef if a producer or processor requests it.  Grading of beef is voluntary, and the processor or producer must pay for this service. Grading of meat should not be confused with the inspection of meat. During the grading process the USDA evaluates the meat based on traits related to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.  The USDA graded beef sold at the retail level is Prime, Choice, and Select.

Prime beef comes from young, well-fed beef cattle. The meat has an abundant amount of marbling throughout the cut of meat.  This grade of beef is generally sold in restaurants and hotels; however, consumers can find it in retail outlets. 

Choice beef is high quality, it does however have less marbling than the prime cut. 

Select beef is very uniform in quality and is usually leaner than the high grades of Prime and Choice. Select beef may lack some of the juiciness and flavor that you will find in the higher grades of beef. 

Here is an informative video created by the USDA and Colorado State University on the U.S. Beef Grading process, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEHwm1gIj-w

In the store you can usually find brisket in one of two ways, whole packer brisket and the flat. When you buy a whole packer brisket you will pay around $3.98 per pound for Choice grade, $4.98 per pound for Prime grade, and $6.98 per pound for a brisket flat. These prices were obtained from Sam’s Club website, if you buy from a local meat market expect to pay a much higher cost.

When I am doing a brisket, I normally go with Choice grade (prime is hard to find at times). I find that the quality difference between Prime and Choice is minimal and your neighbor (unless he is a KCBS judge) is not going to be able to detect the difference. I would steer away from select grade as the marbling and fat count is noticeably different and can result in a very dry brisket after a long cook.

Trimming the Fat

To trim or not to trim, that is the question.  Now you can ask your local butcher to trim your brisket for you, but that takes away a lot of the fun.  A brisket is going to have a lot of fat throughout the cut, the question is what needs to go and what can stay.

First let’s orient ourselves to ensure that we are looking at the brisket the same way. We will refer to the “fat cap” side as the top of the brisket.  On the bottom side of the brisket, you will find a very hard piece of fat that runs along the side of the brisket, we want to trim out almost this entire piece of this fat as this fate will not render all the way out during the cooking process. After removing the hard piece of fat look over the entire bottom side of the brisket and remove any large pieces of fat that you feel may not render out during the cook. Remember that you want to leave some fat, so do not go overboard on removing the fat. After you have removed the fat that you want to remove, trim off the silver skin from the brisket.

Now flip the brisket over to the fat cap side.  You will find another layer of hard fat that runs along the edge of the brisket, you will want to trim this away. Trim this away in small layers being careful not to go to deep and expose the muscle. You will want to leave a small layer of fat (about 1/4” thick) to protect the point in the cooking process. Once you have trimmed the hard fat area move on to the soft fat portion of the fat cap, again remove in small layers, trying not to expose the muscle (aim for 1/4” thickness throughout the entire fat cap).   If there are any large flaps of fat remove those as well. Inspect the brisket and remove any other hard fat areas.

You use a binder…are you kidding me?!?!

There is a long-standing debate on whether or not you should use a binder on your brisket.  Myself personally, I use a binder; I use the Willow Seasonings & Blends 1859 Colorado Gold Mustard Sauce. There is belief (no scientific evidence that I am aware of) that a binder serves many purposes, such as helping the rub stick to the meat, it helps with bark formation, and it acts as a moisture barrier. If you are not a proponent of using a binder you can skip to the seasoning. Generously slather a layer of your binder over the entire surface of the brisket, you will probably want to wear some gloves for this step. Now you are ready to add the seasoning.

Seasoning the Meat

Beef is very flavorful on its own and does not need a lot of help with a buch of seasonings. A tradtional Texas brisket rub is salt and pepper, however the rub has evolved and now includes other ingredients such as garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, etc.  For my brisket I put all of my trust in Willow Seasonings & Blends High Elevation Salt, Pepper, and Garlic (SPG) rub.  Generously coat the entire brisket with your seasoning of choice.

I like to let the seasoning “soak in” while I am getting the smoker up to temp.

Smoking

This is where all of your hardwork comes together.  Pre-heat your smoker to 225 degrees Faherenheit, I use post oak and cherry wood for my fuel source.

Once the smoker is up to temperature place your brisket on the smoker, fat cap side down. Now is when patience comes in…let the smoker do the work.  For planning purposes I figure about 1-1/2 hours per pound when smoking at 225 degrees.  Cooking a brisket at low temperatures for an extended period is vital to a successful cook (yes I know Myron Mixon goes hot and fast, but we will leave that method to the pros) and moist, tender, and flavorful brisket. 

I will not open the smoker for the first 2-1/2 to 3 hours of the cook, let the smoker work and allow the bark to begin setting.  At this time, I will open the smoker and feel the brisket, once a bark is starting to form, I begin the spritzing process.  I spritz the meat with apple juice, about every 30 to 45 minutes. Make sure that you are applying with a fine mist, so you do not wash the rub or bark off the meat.  

You want to allow the brisket to continue smoking until the bark has reached your desired color (I go for a mahogany color) and the bark is set (does not come off when touched). At this point I recommend wrapping the brisket, this has a few benefits:

  • Accelerates the cooking time (pushes through the stall)
  • Controls the appearance of the bark
  • Juicier meat

Some people will wrap around 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit, I prefer to go off of color and feel. 

That’s a Wrap

When you wrap meat, you are eliminating the air into which the moisture can evaporate, the juices of the brisket will get hot and aid in the cooking process. At this point the meat is no longer exposed to the direct heat of the smoker and the cooking temperature can be increased as well (I do not go above 275 degrees Fahrenheit). 

Some say that you are losing out on additional smoke flavor if you wrap the meat, I think that this is a very minimal loss as the meat was exposed to smoke for several hours.

After wrapping the meat, I am going to let it cook until the temperature probe when inserted feels like it is going into hot butter (this can be anywhere from 200 degrees to 210 degrees).  Once you have achieved the desired tenderness level you can unwrap the brisket and cook at 225 degrees to crisp up the bark if needed.

Time to Rest

 The rest is the final part of the cooking process. Once you remove your meat from the smoker you need to allow the brisket time to rest, the rest period can be anywhere from one to four hours. The rest is very important as it allows the meat to reabsorb the juices, which will add more flavor to the finished product.  Remember that brisket is a long cook and the resting time needs to be factored in. We talked about patience before, now you have to have patience and the ability to withstand the temptation to dig into this thing.

The method that I use for wrapping is to wrap the brisket in foil or butcher paper and then wrap in several towels or a blanket and place it in an insulated cooler or Cambro.  I try to rest the brisket at least two hours before pulling it out and cutting it for serving.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is nothing scary about a brisket, patience is the key to a very tasty brisket.  The good thing is that if the brisket is not “perfect” to your standards you can do another one next weekend.  Practice and patience are the keys to success!

Now go grab yourself a brisket and get to practicing!

By Gary Robinson, Cooking Out Loud

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