As with any topic in barbecue, everything is an argument and people have their own ideas about what is best. This even includes things like the orientation of brisket and whether or not the fat side should be up or down in the smoker.
In general, the fat side of the brisket should be oriented towards the heat source. The fat cap functions as an insulator and helps to prevent the flat from drying out.
Animals like steer use fat (adipose tissue) for energy storage as well as the regulation of bodily temperature.
There are several types of fat found on an a steer - subcutaneous, intermuscular, intramuscular, intercostal, etc.
This article explores the solid subcutaneous animal fat that sits on top of the brisket; This fat side is referred to as the "fat cap."
The brisket comes from the chest of the steer. The side of the brisket that faces the skin is covered with a layer of subcutaneous fat - this fat is referred to as the fat cap.
On a whole packer's brisket, the fat layer is rather thick, usually 1-2 inches - the thickness of the fat side depends entirely on how the steer was butchered.
It's typically recommended to trim the fat cap down to roughly 1/4 to 1/2" thick as you're not going to entirely render 1-2 inches of fat; Nobody would want to eat that much fat either.
Keep in mind, trimming too much fat can also affect the structural integrity of the brisket.
Trimming is done to make the brisket "aerodynamic." Meaning, we maximize airflow inside the smoker.
Things like protruding nodules and boxy angles will affect airflow (can you identify the boxy angles above?). These protrusions are apt to dry out, which you don't want.
If you're looking for a complete break-down of how to trim a brisket with the above factors in mind - read this article.
Their are three main opinions when it comes to brisket orientation on the smoker:
All of these options boil down to one concept:
The brisket's fat cap should face the heat source to function as an insulator.
Meaning, the question isn't fat cap up or down, it's what type of smoker do you use?
From there you can worry about having your fat up or down.
Say you're following a recipe online for smoking brisket.
If the person owns an offset smoker, they'll likely tell you to orient the fat side up.
What they fail to tell you is that they're doing this because the heat is coming from the top. They also likely orient the point end towards the firebox.
The picture below demonstrates the general flow of heat inside an offset smoker:
However, if you own a Weber Smokey Mountain you'd want to orient the fat side facing down because there is radiant heat from the bottom due to the heat baffle.
Here is a picture of the heat flow inside a Weber Smokey Mountain:
If you own a pellet smoker, you may start smoking with the fat up due to the radiant heat from the baffle, but flip the meat after a period of time so that the fat is down.
This way, your bark is set on the lean and won't wash away as moisture pools and fat renders.
The general flow of heat inside a pellet smoker is pictured below:
Since the heat rolls over the top of the brisket, I orient the fat cap up.
With this idea in mind, almost all people who smoke on an offset smoker will orient the brisket with the fat side up as the as the heat rolls over the top and out of the smokestack.
I already demonstrated the flow of heat in a regular offset smoker but even on a reverse flow offset smoker (pictured below), the heat functions in a similar way.
Keep in mind, in this example, the point would be oriented in the opposite direction due to the lower baffle. You'd want the point end to flip so that it takes the brunt of the heat.
I remember when I first got started smoking brisket, I saw on barbecue forums a number of people said to do fat side up because it provides "moisture" to the meat.
Meaning, as the fat starts to render it will penetrate the meat via gravity.
That doesn't make sense.
I quickly ignored these ideas because I remembered a demonstration from my 5th grade Teacher where She combined lipids (Fat) and water in a glass.
As you might expect, the fat and the water never combined - lipids are non-polar and water is polar - and the lipids sat on top of the water.
Meaning, this idea that somehow the rendered brisket fat could penetrate the brisket (which is primarily water) made no sense.
You will also hear folks say the fat can render and then braise the meat. This idea I can more-so get behind and is a big reason for why I foil boat all of my briskets.
Foil boating allows the fat to continue to render (which improves bark) because it remains exposed throughout the entire cooking process.
The collected meat juices will then braise (slow cook in a liquid) the meat side of the brisket.
The added benefit of the foil boat is that it preserves the "sugar cookie" bark that can become ruined through Texas crutching with aluminum foil or with wrapping in butcher paper.
With the idea that the fat acts as a heat shield, there are several smokers that require you to orient the brisket fat side down.
Apart from Kettle Grills/Smokers and Offset smokers, almost all other types of smokers should orient the brisket fat cap down because that's where the heat source is.
For example, in an electric smoker you have the heat source at the bottom:
Electric smokers are also very insulated. In most cases you don't even have to wrap because there is so much humidity within the smoke chamber which helps prevent the brisket from stalling.
The same could be said for gas smokers:
The only time I've ever flipped my brisket mid-cook was with my pellet smoker.
Pellet smokers work primarily based on convection heat (like your oven). However, there is also radiant heat from the bottom as that's where the heat source is (the firepot).
Meaning, you can start the cook with the fat side up to set the bark on the lean side. This helps to prevent the rub from washing away as moisture wicks and fat renders.
Once the bark is set, you want the brisket fat side down; This way the cap acts as a heat shield and so that it can start to render.
In my opinion, on other smokers, flipping isn't necessary. Granted, I'm also apt to be as lazy as possible.
This is a quick cheat sheet for folks to reference. It simply lists the different types of smokers and if the brisket fat cap should be up or down.
Note: This table isn't all encompassing. I did my best to list the most common types of smokers and cookers used.
|Type of Smoker||Fat Cap Up or Down or Flipped|
|Offset smoker (standard and reverse flow)||Fat Cap Up|
|Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) as well as most water smokers||Fat Cap Down|
|Ugly Drum Smokers||Down|