Brisket is the beef primal most commonly associated with Texas barbecue; It’s also what I'd deem one of the most difficult meats to smoke.
On a per pound basis, brisket is more affordable than other cuts of beef like ribeye or tenderloin. This is because of its fibrous connective tissues; The closer to the hooves, the tougher meat.
Beef brisket contains large amounts of connective tissue, collagen, and fat. In order to break down/render these components, you need to slow cook the meat.
The most popular brisket dishes are corned beef, pastrami, and barbecue brisket.
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The brisket primal is taken from the breast section of the cow under the first five ribs.
Brisket is best described as the toughest meat from the cow. Since cows don't have collarbones, the brisket supports much of the cow's weight (roughly 60%). As a result, a lot of fibrous connective tissues develop.
The beef brisket muscle is comprised of the superficial (point) and deep pectorals (flat) - individually these are sub-primal cuts; These two muscles are separated by a thick layer of fat. The point is oriented above the middle layer of fat and the flat is oriented below the layer of fat.
Each beef carcass yields two briskets - a left and right.
There is somewhat of a debate as to which side is best - the left or right brisket.
It's long been said that briskets from the left side of the steer are better because most steers rest on their left side; The implication being that the left side is more tender.
When the steer stands up, it uses the muscles on the right more than the left.
In my opinion, for backyard barbecue, this doesn't matter, at all.
Brisket will often come as whole and vacuum sealed; When sold this way, the brisket is often referred to as a “Packer’s brisket.”
You may come even cross "trimmed" or "super-trimmed" - essentially all this refers to is the removal of fat. This typically means leaving on between 1/8 to 1/2 inch of fat.
Just as an example, I messaged Porter Road before buying their "Whole Brisket" which is a trimmed version of their Packer Brisket - Their support agent told me that whole briskets have a 1/4" - 1/2" fat cap.
A common material used to seal brisket is Cryovac, which is a high barrier film that prevents the permeation of oxygen (anaerobic environment), water, water vapor, aroma, and light. The purpose being to prevent the growth of aerobic bacteria which extends shelf life.
The packaging will also contain information such as the company that processed the meat and an inspection legend (like USDA quality grading).
For commercial sale, the two muscles that make up the brisket can be and are often separated – The deep (flat) and superficial (point) pectoral muscles.
From personal experience, avoid smoking with briskets that have the point removed. While they're great for braising in the oven, it's next to impossible to prevent the flat from drying out.
You'll often see these flats called "first cut" or "cap removed."
Briskets can range in size from 8-20 lbs. Keep in mind, if you're buying a packer's brisket, there is a good chance you're removing quite a bit of weight just from trimming the fat cap and other regions of the brisket.
In terms of grading, I'd suggest looking for USDA Choice grade or higher; It will have more intramuscular fat than USDA Select. I personally wouldn't spend the extra money on a USDA Prime brisket - to me the difference is negligible, it also costs less.
You may come across Branded briskets - simply meaning the meat processor puts their name on the packaging. To name a few, Certified Angus Beef (CAB) and Meyer Natural Angus Beef.
To me, there is no difference between the branded briskets and unbranded.
These companies use a number of gimmicks to appeal to customers that they say results in better meat. For example, Meyer Natural Angus Beef says all Meyer products are "made without the use of added hormones or antibiotics on a vegetarian-fed or grass-fed diet."
In terms of shape, it's usually best to find one with a uniform flat; In a lot of cases you'll round out this area as it's prone to cooking unevenly. You also want fat throughout the meat.
When most people refer to brisket, or if they buy brisket at a grocery store, they are likely referring to the Brisket flat. The word flat is a good descriptor as it's quite literally a flat rectangular piece of meat.
When it's sold in a grocery store, the brisket flat is often separated from the point with the fat removed - ready for braising in the oven.
Aside from the names above, the flat is also referred to as the "lean." Lean describes the fat content in relation to the point - the flat has more lean meat than the point.
The first cut makes up the majority of the brisket - the first cut can be 3 to 10 lbs. It's perfect for slicing across the grain and being eaten as is or on a sandwich.
To people who do barbecue, the point is likely their favorite part of the brisket. Unlike the lean, the Point is fattier and much smaller.
The point has extensive marbling (intramuscular fat) and connective tissues; The result is more flavor but less overall meat yield.
The point can also be sliced in a similar manner to the flat - the point should be rotated and sliced in the opposite direction of the flat. However, it is also sometimes shredded or commonly turned into "burnt ends."
For some reason a lot of websites and resources will call the point the "deckle," however this doesn't make sense.
When looking at the USDA Institutional Meat Purchasing Standard (IMPS) - the brisket you'll find at your grocery store is "120 Beef Brisket, Deckle-off, Boneless. the IMPS defines it as:
"This item is as described in Item No. 119 except that the deckle (hard fat and M. intercostales interni on the inside surface) must be removed at the natural seam exposing the lean surface of the M. pectoralis profundi. The hard fat along the sternum edge must be trimmed level with the boned surface. The inside lean surface must be trimmed practically free of fat."IMPS
From the above we know that the pectoralis profundi is the brisket flat.
Meaning, the deckle is not the brisket point, nor the fat between the muscles. Deckle is hard fat and muscle that attaches to the steer's rib cage.
The briskets you buy from a grocery store have the deckle removed.
Note: 120A is Brisket Flat and 120B is Brisket Point.
When buying brisket, It's not uncommon to see discolored edges. The color is quite distinct and will be a shade of gray or brown - in stark contrast to the purple hue of the meat within the vacuum (meat turns red or "blooms" when exposed to oxygen).
The reason this occurs is because the edge of the brisket is exposed when the two briskets are split. These sides have antimicrobial treatments applied to them in the form of organic acids (like lactic acid), hot water, or steam pasteurization to destroy pathogens.
This process has been used by the meat industry since the early 90s in order to reduce the risk of E. coli and Salmonella.
These edges are commonly removed during the trimming phase, but they have no affect on the taste/output - personally, I remove them as it's as quick as running my boning knife through it; I simply use these trimmings for hamburgers or give it to my dogs.
Beef brisket is a tough cut of meat and essentially needs to be cooked low and slow for an extended period of time.
The most common cooking methods for beef brisket include:
Keep in mind - brisket is not like cooking a ribeye steak on the grill to somewhere between blue and well-done. A steak gets juiciness from free moisture where-as brisket gets it from the rendering of connective tissues and fat (gelatin) - which are two completely different things.
The conversion of collagen to gelatin doesn't even start until the internal temperature is at 140F and will typically fully render near 200F; The most popular finish temperature you'll hear thrown around is 205F for beef brisket.
Where I'm from in New England I don't really have a ton of options in terms of where to get beef brisket.
I do have a Walmart Supercenter near me that I regularly get my briskets from. I also have a BJ's Wholesale Club membership and can usually find briskets there too.
I've also bought brisket online before - which is a great alternative if you're having trouble sourcing brisket locally. I can vouch for the quality of meat from both Porter Road and Snake River Farms.
Keep in mind, it's likely going to be cheaper buying locally.