Brisket Flat vs. Packer: Weighing All Your Options

Achieving a perfectly cooked beef brisket is every pitmaster’s dream. Fortunately, it’s also one that’s within reach for many of us. The question is, will you have better results with a flat cut or a whole packer? Read on to find out exactly what these terms mean—and how they might affect the outcome of your next smoke.

Brisket Flat vs Packer

A whole brisket, known as a packer, is made up of two muscles. One of them, the flat, is lean, tasty, and easy to prepare. If you’re pressed for time, or if you’re cooking for a smaller crowd, the flat is probably your best bet.

Defining The Terms

A brisket flat is only one of two pectoral muscles that make up the whole brisket. The other side of the cut is known as the point (see About the Point End, below). These can be cooked separately or together, but there are several marked differences between the two.

The flat is sometimes called the “first cut,” and it’s much leaner than the point. It has a long, rectangular shape that makes it easy to slice. Although there’s usually a layer of fat running along one side of the cut, it only contains a small amount of marbling. The fat cap can either be trimmed or removed after cooking.

Packer is the name given to the whole brisket before it’s divided into the two subprimal cuts. As you can imagine, it’s a sizable hunk of beef, usually weighing between 10 and 16 pounds. The flat alone, meanwhile, might weigh just 5 pounds. That’s why many people decide to familiarize themselves with the flat before tackling a whole packer.

When you buy a whole packer brisket, you’re getting an untrimmed cut that requires a great deal of attention. Even if you decide to leave the fat cap intact, you may still have to trim away some rough edges. It might also be necessary to cut it down due to size constraints.

sliced brisket

About the Point End

Some chefs decide to purchase the whole packer and divide the point and the flat themselves, cooking one half and saving the other for later. While the flat is more attractive to look at, the point has plenty to recommend it.

The point end of the brisket has a more irregular shape than the flat, and the grain tends to run in more than one direction. The meat is well-marbled, which gives it a rich beefy taste. Although it’s difficult to carve the meat into slices, it makes excellent shredded beef sandwiches.

Even casual barbecue fans might be familiar with the term burnt ends. This delicacy was invented in Kansas City, one of the barbecue capitals of the US.

Burnt ends are made by cooking the point of the brisket until tender, then cutting it into cubes. The cubes are then smothered in barbecue sauce and returned to the smoker for another hour or so.

brisket burnt ends

Another indirect benefit of the point end: It can be cooked to a slightly higher temperature than the flat without suffering any ill effects. The flat might dry out if it’s cooked past 210 degrees, but the point can handle a bit of extra time in the smoker thanks to its higher fat content.

When To Choose a Brisket Flat vs Packer

Since it takes less time to cook the flat, we would recommend choosing this cut if you’re working on a tight schedule. Tailgating parties or afternoon barbecues, for example, are perfect for making a smoked brisket flat.

The flat is also a better choice if your smoker is on the small side. There’s no reason to buy a packer if it won’t fit on the cooking grate.

As a bonus, it’s usually easier to find a flat than it is to procure a whole brisket. If you should happen to need more meat for a large gathering, you might save even more time by buying two or three flats and cooking them all together, rather than trying to find a whole packer.

On a related subject, a flat will have a higher meat yield ratio than a packer. When you prepare a whole brisket, you usually end up with about 50 percent of the raw weight, especially if you trim off a great deal of fat. A flat cut, meanwhile, might give you a yield of 65 percent.

Finally, when the meat is finished cooking, carving the meat into slices is a snap. If you’re wrestling with a packer, you’ll have to separate the flat from the point, then decide what to do with the meat from the other half. The process can be daunting for beginners and time-consuming for pitmasters at any skill level.

When To Choose a Packer vs a Flat

Of course, there are two sides to this story. Cooking off a whole packer brisket is a rite of passage, and one that every barbecue fan should experience at least once. It will give you a feeling of mastery, not to mention bragging rights at your next gathering.

In addition, when you smoke a whole packer, you’ll be able to choose between lean sliced brisket from the flat and rich, succulent meat from the point end. While this decision might be easy for some people, we prefer to have both on hand.

Despite the fact that the flat offers a higher meat yield (relatively speaking), most whole packer briskets are downright huge. If you choose to go this route, you’ll have an abundance of delectable smoked brisket to enjoy.

How To Cook a Brisket Flat

Start by preheating your smoker to 225 degrees. If the temperature tends to swing low, it’s probably a good idea to set it to 250 in the interest of saving time. There are ways to hold a brisket flat if it happens to be done too early, but you don’t want to fall short of your estimated finishing time.

Lay the brisket flat on a clean work surface and pat it dry with paper towels. If desired, trim the fat cap down to about 1/4 inch thick.

Coat the meat with a thin layer of mustard and season with equal parts salt and freshly ground black pepper. You can also experiment with different seasoning rubs, but we prefer to let the smoke flavor be the star here.

Set the flat in the smoker and cook until the internal temperature reaches 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit, about 1 hour and 15 minutes per pound. Remove from the heat and wrap in aluminum foil, then let rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing and serving.

How To Cook a Whole Packer Brisket

The procedure for a whole packer is similar, but there are a few notable changes. First of all, you can use olive oil to help the spices adhere. Thanks to the point end, the meat will have a higher fat content and therefore a more pronounced beef flavor, so it doesn’t need the extra boost from the mustard.

Second, make sure to plan ahead. A whole packer brisket can take 1-1/2 to 2 hours per pound to finish cooking when the smoker is set to 225 degrees. That means a 12-pound trimmed packer could be in the smoker for a full 24 hours. If you try to speed things up too much, the fat won’t have a chance to fully render.

Finally, keep a close eye on the temperature toward the projected end of the smoke. The flat might be ready to go before the point end, in which case you should separate them and allow the point to keep cooking while the flat rests. Fortunately, the job is much easier at this stage.

The Bottom Line

When you’re deciding between a brisket flat vs packer, think first about how much meat you think you’ll need. Then consider how much time you have to cook the brisket. Once you’ve put these two halves of the equation together, it should be easy to decide which one to buy.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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