According to the USDA, beef is the most common type of meat sold in grocery stores. Beef from cattle can be classified into various parts and cuts.

It’s really hard to imagine a cook-out or barbecue without some cut of beef. Among the best cuts are the tri tip and brisket. The cut you decide to cook solely depends on a few factors. For instance, availability of certain cuts of meat as well as taste preferences.

The Differences Between Tri Tip and Brisket

Brisket

The brisket cut is taken from the breast section of the cow under the first five ribs. It is usually sold without the bone and divided into two distinct cuts: the flat cut and the point cut.

Brisket can also be sold as a “packer’s cut” or “Texas-style” which uses the whole brisket. This cut is untrimmed and contains both the point and flat. A full brisket can weigh anywhere from 8-20 lbs and is roughly 12-20 inches long and 10-12 inches wide.

Brisket can best be described as the toughest meat from a cow. These muscles support much of the cow’s weight (roughly 60% of the overall weight). Since cows don’t have any collarbones, a lot of fibrous connective tissues develop (collagen) that make the brisket a tough cut of meat. This is why a brisket is cooked low and slow so the connective tissues and fat can break down.

Preparations

Finding a good brisket is half the battle. When buying brisket you want to check for evenly marbled fat down in the meat rather than having all the fat on the outside. You still want a decent fat cap on the outside but the fat inside the meat keeps it moist.

Buying brisket with the fat cap in tact allows you to trim to your own specifications. Typically the ideal fat cap is 1/4 inch thick. Remember, the fat is necessary to keep the meat tender throughout the cooking process. Fat marbled throughout the meat and on the outside cap is a good thing. The fat should also be white, not yellow or gray. The same goes for the blood, it should be red, not brown or gray.

A good size for a brisket is between 6-10 lbs. Keep in mind that you’ll be slow cooking your brisket at 225 degrees F for roughly 1.5 – 2 hours per pound of meat.

How to Smoke Brisket

  1. Start the process by trimming your brisket. The key here is to strike a fat balance for optimal taste. If you don’t trim the fat, it will taste too fatty. Trimming too much fat will lead to a drying out the meat. You should aim for a 1/4″ fat cap.
    • Trim the brisket when it’s cold, it makes things much easier.
    • Use a boning knife.
    • Remove the deckle (thick membrane that doesn’t render out).
    • Aim for uniformity and adjust fat levels according to your smoker’s thermal variance.
  2. Next up is the rub or seasoning. If you’ve never smoked a brisket before it’s best to go Texas style and use equal parts salt and pepper.  You can experiment based on your own taste preferences, but avoid using too much rub and overpowering the meat flavor of the brisket. There are lots of good dry rubs. Try them out and see what tantalizes your taste buds.
    • Allow the brisket to sit for 30 minutes to warm up. Then apply the rub evenly over the meat.
    • Work the rub into the meat rather than just sprinkling it over the top.
  3. Allow your meat to sit with the rub for 1-2 hours and let it reach room temperature before placing it in your smoker. This allows the salt to dry brine the outside of the brisket.
  4. Start getting your smoker ready. This depends on the type of smoker you use. You may have electric, wood fired, or even gas. As a general rule of thumb, smoke the brisket for 1.5 – 2 hours per pound of meat at 200 – 225 degrees F.
    • Your biggest concern here is ensuring you have consistent low steady heat.
    • Note: I personally use a Masterbuilt electric smoker with hickory wood chips.
  5. Once the meat is room temperature, you want to place the brisket in your smoker with the fat cap side up.
    • Use a thermometer to monitor internal temperatures so that you don’t overcook your meat. Set an alarm at 195 degrees F.
    • A thermometer also helps you identify when the brisket “stalls.” The stall occurs when the internal temperature is roughly 150 – 160 degrees F. Essentially the brisket starts to evaporate moisture and wick away the heat.
    • You can either wait it out, usually takes 1-2 hours to adjust. Or you can use the “Texas Crutch” where you wrap the brisket in tin foil or butcher’s paper and then place the meat back in the smoker.
  6. The ideal internal temperature for brisket is 195 degrees F. Once you reach this temperature you can take your brisket out of the smoker.
  7. It’s essential to let the meat rest for about an hour. Wrap the brisket in parchment paper and then aluminum foil. Then wrap the aluminum foil in a towel to prevent heat loss.
  8. Once rested, take the brisket out of the wrap and slice your meat. Always slice the brisket across the grain of the meat. This makes the meat more palatable and tender.

Tri-Tip

raw tri tip

Tri-tip is found on the other side of the cow. It is a roast cut from the bottom of the sirloin primal. It is also known as the “bottom sirloin butt” and “triangle roast” due to the triangular shape. There are only two tri-tips per animal.

Tri-tip, like brisket, is one of the most flavorful cuts of beef. A whole untrimmed roast will weigh roughly 5 pounds. Where-as a trimmed tri-tip will weigh 1.5-2.5 lbs with a thickness of 2-3 inches. The latter is the cut that’s found in grocery stores (if available).

Tri-tip is quite popular in the Western part of the states and is even featured as a category in some BBQ competitions. Due to being popular on the West coast, the cut is also known as a “Santa Maria steak” or “California cut.”

Preparations

To preface this section, Tri-tip cooks very differently from brisket. You might run into recipes that call for untrimmed tri-tip with the thick fat layer on top. In my opinion, the extra fat layer doesn’t add much.

Tri-tip is a naturally tender cut of meat and doesn’t require a low and slow cook like brisket. Tri-tip isn’t cheap but unlike brisket, you won’t lose half the weight due to fat removal and shrinkage.

How to Smoke Tri-Tip

In order to cook tri-tip you’ll want to follow these guidelines:

  1. Before seasoning, trim off any fat pieces that you want and pat dry with paper towels. This helps reduce the amount of steam during grilling and allows the meat to sear better.
  2. Next, pick your favorite rub. If it’s your first time, consider salt and pepper or a pre-made flavored rub.
  3. At this point you can decide if you want to let it sit in the fridge for a few hours or even overnight so the flavors can meld. This step is optional though; Allow the meat to reach room temperature as you setup your smoker and grill.
  4. The next step really depends on your type of smoker. For a charcoal smoker you’ll want to use about a chimney starer’s worth of charcoal and then add your chunks of wood. In the case of an electric smoker, load up your wood chips and set your temperature to roughly 250-275 degrees F.
  5. Next consider when you want to sear. Some folks swear that you should always sear your tri-tip on high heat first in order to lock the juices in. However, from personal experience, searing the meat after they’re smoked still results in juicy meat.
  6. You’ll smoke the meat until the internal temperature reaches 135-140 degrees F. This takes roughly an hour or more. After which you can sear the meat on both sides for roughly 45-60 seconds on your grill.
  7. Then let the meat rest for 20 minutes. I know this part is annoying but it’s a necessary evil. It allows the juices to flow and do their thing.
  8. Slice against the grain of the tri-tip and enjoy.

Final Thoughts

Among the different cuts of beef, the Tri-Tip and Brisket are some of the best cuts to put on the smoker. They each have distinguishing factors that make them different from each other.

The basic difference is that the Brisket is removed from the animal’s front while the tri-tip from the bottom sirloin at the cows back. Coming from opposite sides of cattle, they are also different with regard to their flavor and texture.

Dylan Clay
Author

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