Aside from buying a good brisket, trimming is an often overlooked part of the process.
Essentially, the goal of trimming is to:
A lot of folks might deem trimming to be wasteful - however, so is meat that can't be eaten due to being dry or burned. I'd much rather trim and freeze this meat to be used at a later date for tallow or burgers.
Note: This is a long, in-depth guide to trimming brisket. Feel free to save or bookmark for future reference.
Trimming guides will typically use colloquial phrases to describe the various "sections" of a brisket. These are terms that my Father taught me and I've continued to call these sections these names.
What I may call certain sections, others may call something else - hence colloquial.
Below is a diagram that shows the fat side and the meat side of a brisket.
A beef carcass has two briskets and on every brisket is a meat side and a fat side; Simply put, the meat side has meat and the fat side has fat.
The brisket primal is comprised of two muscles - the point and flat; These muscles are separated by a seam of fat.
Before trimming, it's always best to work with a sharp knife as apposed to a dull one.
If you don't already have a boning knife and plan to smoke brisket often, I'd suggest buying one.
The two most common knife brands that you'll see mentioned are Victorinox and Mercer. Mercer is cheaper and typically runs between $9 - $15.
To preface: This is a quick backyard barbecue trim. I don't run a barbecue restaurant nor am I entering a competition. You can take as long as you want trimming your brisket, this trim typically takes me 5 minutes.
To reiterate: Our goal is aerodynamics and maximizing edible meat, that's it.
It is entirely personal preference which side you choose to work on first. I prefer to work on one side of the brisket at a time, as apposed to flipping the brisket over.
My preference is to do the fat side first because fat can be hard to work as it warms up - Meaning, if you did the meat side first, the fat side has likely already warmed up.
Dylan's Tip: If you buy the brisket unfrozen, put it in your freezer for 30-60 minutes before trimming. This makes the fat and meat much easier to work with.
The fat side is more important than the meat side simply because every brisket is different. I mean that in terms of the thickness of the fat cap, the size of the mohawk, and various other sections described below.
The main things to tackle on the fat side are the Mohawk, the hump, the slope, and fat cap thickness. As long as you tackle these things, you'll markedly improve your brisket.
Again, always be thinking about aerodynamics.
Unlike other colloquial phrases, this namesake makes the most sense.
The Mohawk is a large scraggly piece of fat and meat that points upwards. More or less, the the brisket essentially looks like it has a Mohawk haircut.
If this part isn't removed it will burn and be inedible. However, it's also wonderful meat that can be ground up for brisket burgers.
You want to glide your knife through the mohawk and then round the point muscle off.
The reason for removing edge meat is that it's typically "browned." While I've certainly left this on before, I typically just like to remove it and save the meat for burgers.
Some people like to do this after mohawk steps 1.2 and 1.3; I like to do it before.
The reason for this "browning" is due to oxidation; These edges have no affect on taste.
Once you've trimmed the mohawk and the edge, you'll notice there is an adjacent piece of hard fat. You want to remove this hard fat by slicing to the right of the mohawk at a 45 degree angle.
Most if not all this cut is hard fat, which won't render well.
On the extension of the mohawk, there is the flat muscle. Typically on this side of the flat, the meat is thinner than the hump side.
You want to slice this corner so that the flat is roughly uniform - an inch thick is a good goal. When slicing, simply cut at a 45 degree angle.
Don't worry much about rounding right now as you'll do this when you work on the other side.
Next to the mohawk is a "hump" of fat that needs to be trimmed down.
Personally, I like to feel the top of the hump as the hard fat will be readily apparent when you touch it. Where-as the fat that's render-able will almost feel and look like cottage or ricotta cheese.
Using your knife, you can start shaving off fat. Your goal is roughly 1/4 inch of fat.
Don't sweat it if you scalp your brisket a bit here or in the slope fat. Even folks who have done this for a while are victims of this (even I scalped a small spot!).
Remember, this is backyard barbecue.
To avoid this, you can do what I call "peak cuts" to get an idea of how much fat separates the lean meat. Simply do a quarter sized cut into the meat and peak into the hump.
If you're still not sure what I mean, I have an example below of peak cutting into the slope fat.
Similar to the mohawk edge, there is likely oxidized meat here. Use your knife to remove this meat.
The hump flat is usually thicker than the mohawk flat but will usually be "boxy." Boxy angles are bad for aerodynamics.
With your knife you want to round off this edge.
If you have a smaller smoker - like me - this spot is a great place to make the brisket smaller. You can round as much as you need to make your brisket fit your smoker.
Often, most folks will recommend 1/4 - 1/2 inch thick in their flat fat cap; I typically stick with 1/4 inch.
In the flat fat you can make peak cuts to see where you're at so you can avoid scalp issues.
My recommendation for trimming here is cutting towards the edge rather than surface cutting. This way you're naturally being more aerodynamic with your cuts.
The reason for trimming the flat fat first is that it makes it easier to determine where to end your slope fat cut.
On every brisket there is a spot on the other side of the hump fat where the point muscle meets the flat muscle. The fat essentially slopes down from the brisket to the flat.
There is a chunk of fat at this intersection. Your goal is to remove the chunk of fat that sits here.
By angling your knife, you can drop from the edge of the hump fat, down to the level of the flat fat. You can then dig out the slope fat with your knife.
The meat side is far easier to trim than the fat side. There are really only two spots to worry about - the deckle fat and the silverskin on top of the fat meat.
Lastly, you can round out boxy edges.
The deckle fat is a large piece of meat that lays on the fat seam between the flat and the point.
Using your hands you actually physically pull the deckle fat away from the brisket and you'll feel and hear that there is a natural seam as the fat tears away.
Using the tip of your knife at an angle you can make a slight cut and start pulling it back towards you. As you pull it away from the brisket you'll hear it tearing, which is good.
The reason for removing the deckle fat is because it's hard fat that will not render when smoked.
However, this fat is perfect for rendering into beef tallow because there is almost no lean meat interspersed.
Once you remove a large chunk, I like to continue removing until I can visually see the point muscle's lean meat. Again, you do not want to entirely remove all the fat because it will separate the two muscles.
So this might be the opposite of what a lot of other folks might say but I personally don't taste a ton of difference when I leave the silver skin on or off.
As someone who does backyard barbecue, all I do is remove large nodules of fat and less transparent pieces of silver-skin.
With that said, I don't sit there for 10-15 minutes painstakingly sliding my knife below all of the silver skin.
I've done both and the differences are borderline minimal in the grand scheme of things.
I smoke my briskets fat side up on my Weber kettle. Meaning, even if the silver skin were to shrink, it's not my presentation side, the fat side is. Meaning, nobody would see it.
This is something else that a lot of other articles and videos don't really touch on and that's boxy edges.
Put simply, boxy/square edges result in poor aerodynamics in the smoker.
Non-rounded edges will end up finishing much faster than the rest of the brisket. Granted, you can salvage these spots by spritzing the meat.
Personally I'm apt to be as lazy as possible and simply trim them from the get go.
Just to give you a baseline of what the trim should look like before and after.
Here's the fat cap untrimmed and trimmed:
Here's the meat side untrimmed and trimmed:
A lot of the "purists" and even the uninitiated to the brisket world might see the above as wasteful. However, I'd much rather remove pieces that I know will compromise the cook to be used later.
All the above trimmings I put in ziploc freezer bags. The total trimmed weight was roughly 2 lbs 9.7 oz.
Typically folks will render brisket trimmings into something like beef tallow or grind up the meat to be used for something like brisket.
Personally, I use the deckle/hard fat for tallow and the rest of the trimmings for burgers; You can actually see how I make this trimming into brisket burgers, in this article.
Tallow is a great cooking fat and brisket trim burgers are some of the best burgers you'll ever eat.