Brisket Fat Side Up or Down: The Long-Debated Topic

When you put a brisket in the smoker, should you place it with the fat cap facing up or down? There’s no right or wrong answer, but we can help you debate the merits of both. In fact, there’s even a third option you might want to consider. Read on to learn more.

Brisket Fat Side Up or Down

Whether you place the brisket fat side up or down depends on a number of factors, many of which are a matter of personal preference. The general consensus is to position the meat so that the fat side is facing the heat source, as it forms a shield that prevents the brisket from drying out.

A Word About Brisket Fat

Brisket is a fatty cut of meat by any standard. Much of this fat is the intramuscular variety known as marbling, which helps to keep the meat juicy during the cooking process. However, the long segment called the flat end or first cut also has a visible strip of fat running along the outer edge. This is the part that inspires the “fat up or down” debate.

Some pitmasters prefer to leave the fat cap intact, believing that it imparts more moisture and flavor to the cooked brisket. While it’s fine to take that approach, we prefer to trim some of the fat, leaving a segment that measures about 1/4 inch thick. Most of this will render out, and what remains should be easy to remove after cooking.

How To Trim The Brisket

To begin, remove the brisket from its packaging and rinse it thoroughly. While it dries, choose the knife you’ll use for trimming. We’ve found that a boning knife works best, as it’s the right length and width to remove the fat without cutting too deep.

Set the brisket on a clean work surface with the fat side up. Hold the blade nearly parallel to the brisket flat and slice along the length of the fat cap, taking care not to cut too deep. As you work, gather the fat in the hand that isn’t holding the knife, tugging to release it from the brisket.

When you’ve removed most of the fat cap, it’s time to carve away the large hunk of fat that connects the point end to the flat. You may have to dip the blade of the knife in fairly deep in order to remove this piece, but we think it’s worth the effort. If you leave it in place, the brisket will take longer to cook, and this piece of fat won’t be edible anyway.

Next, flip the meat over to the leaner side. There should be another chunk of thick white fat at the place where the point and flat intersect, nearly identical to the one you just removed. Slowly work the knife between the meat and this fatty section, being careful not to accidentally separate the point from the flat.

The point end contains a great deal of marbling–enough that we don’t recommend trying to trim much of it away. If you do, you might end up wasting perfectly good meat. However, if there are any stray bits of fat hanging around the edges, feel free to remove them so that they don’t burn.

If you want to save the brisket trimmings for another purpose, set them aside in a tightly lidded container. Otherwise, discard them. We would recommend storing fat trimmings in a zip-top bag in the freezer until you’re ready to take the trash out, especially in warm weather.

Brisket Fat Side Up or Down?

Let’s take a closer look at each method to determine if one is preferable to the other. We’ve also included the third option of turning the brisket over midway through cooking in order to get the best of both worlds.

Fat Side Up

brisket fat cap

Smoking brisket fat side up was the preferred method for a long time, even among seasoned pros. Since the fat renders out as it heats up, the brisket will receive natural basting throughout the smoke—or so the theory goes.

In practice, the meat doesn’t actually absorb the fat. Though beef can absorb small amounts of moisture through methods such as brining and injection, fat is a different story. This means most of that rendered fat will slide right down the sides of the brisket and wind up in the drip pan.

Brisket that’s cooked with the fat side facing up will also look less impressive once it comes off the smoker. With the leaner, more presentable side pressed against the cooking grate, the bark might not have a uniform appearance.

What’s worse, the fat might wash off the spice rub on the way down. This is the main argument against cooking brisket fat side up, particularly on the professional circuit.

If the brisket is only seasoned with salt and black pepper, this might not make too much of a difference, as salt can penetrate beneath the surface of the meat. When you’ve taken the time to concoct a creative spice rub, however, this is a matter worth considering.

Fat Side Down

Aside from protecting the spice rub, this method can help prevent the brisket from drying out. When the brisket is positioned with the fat side facing down, the fat cap acts as a barrier between the heat source and the meat itself, leading to a tender and juicy finished product.

Another reason to cook the brisket fat side down is flavor. When the rendered fat drips beneath the cooking grate, it will create more smoke, which will impart more of the rich woodsy taste that you’re looking for.

One caveat: A smoker contains two kinds of heat. The radiant heat from the source would certainly dry out the brisket on its own. However, most smokers are configured so that the ingredients are largely unaffected by this direct heat.

Instead, smokers use forced air (also known as convection) to allow for even cooking. With the heated air circulating around the brisket, the meat has less chance of drying out, even with the fat cap facing up. To learn more, see A Word About Heat Sources, below.

Also note that if you’re placing another type of barrier–such as a foil pan–between the brisket and the heat source, you won’t need the extra insulation that the fat provides. Of course, in this case, you may also be sacrificing the extra smoke flavor that comes from the fat dripping onto the heat source.

Switching Sides

As there are pros and cons to both methods, some folks decide to hedge their bets by flipping the meat over partway through the smoke. This gives both sides a chance to recoup any lost moisture and promotes even cooking. Proponents of this method will flip the brisket every two hours, basting the meat with every turn.

Remember, though, that the temperature inside the smoker drops every time you raise the lid. If any cooking juices have built up on the surface of the brisket, they’ll spill over when you turn it. Similarly, any pressure you put on the meat will cause it to lose a bit of moisture, even if you’re being careful.

A Word About Heat Sources

There is one type of smoker that calls for the fat-side-up method. If you’re using a horizontal offset smoker (sometimes called a barrel smoker), the heat will be coming from above the brisket rather than below. In this case, placing the brisket with the fat side facing up will create the same shield effect that we mentioned earlier.

The important thing to remember is that fat acts as a natural insulator. Check the smoker to find out where the heat source is located and whether it will be hitting the brisket from above or below, then position the brisket accordingly.

Whichever method you choose, check on the brisket about halfway through the projected cooking time. If it appears that the “hot” side of the brisket is getting too dry, try wrapping the meat in parchment paper to give it an extra layer of protection.

The Texas Crutch

While we’re on the subject of wrapping, one way to prevent moisture loss is to utilize the method known as the Texas crutch.

This technique was created as a means of beating out the stall that occurs when the temperature of the brisket hits the 150-degree mark. At this point, the cooking process will halt in its tracks and may not resume for hours. Wrapping the meat in foil or parchment paper helps to speed things along.

When the brisket is in its wrapper, there’s nowhere for the moisture to go. While this hastens the cooking process, it also affects the quality of the bark. To help offset this issue, remove the wrapping during the last hour of the smoke.

cutting brisket on wood

Final Thoughts

In the end, this debate comes down to a matter of preference, as well as the type of the smoker. Even most professionals agree that smoking a brisket fat side up won’t do any harm, and is the preferred choice when using an offset smoker.

However, if your smoker’s heat source is located below the grates, it’s best to opt for fat side down. This is especially true if you’re worried about losing the spice rub, or if you prefer an extra dose of smoke flavor.

Happy grilling!

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