When you smoke a large cut of meat, you can expect the finished product to weigh less than it did when you started. Since beef brisket is at its best when it’s cooked slowly at a low temperature, it serves as the perfect example. Here’s a primer on brisket shrinkage—what it is, what causes it, and how much meat you’ll end up with when you’re done.
This phenomenon occurs when the natural moisture in the meat evaporates out during cooking. It causes the brisket to shrink down by 30 or 40 percent. Dry heat cooking applications can cause the meat to shrink down even further. Extremely high temperatures will have a similar effect.
About Beef Brisket
The brisket is one of the eight primal cuts taken from the steer during the first round of butchering. It comes from the lower portion of the rib cage, which is an area that gets a lot of exercise. As such, the meat can be very chewy if it’s not cooked right.
If it’s left whole, the cut is huge—usually between 10 and 16 pounds, sometimes even larger. In these cases, it will probably be labeled as a “whole packer brisket,” or simply a “packer.”
There are two subprimal cuts contained in a packer brisket: the flat and the point. The flat is a long, lean, rectangular segment bordered with a fat cap on one side. This is the portion that’s typically used to make corned beef, as the meat is easy to slice once it’s been cooked to perfection.
The point is thicker, with a higher percentage of intramuscular fat (also known as “marbling”). The marbling, coupled with the irregularity of the grain, makes this a better choice if you plan to chop or shred the meat for sandwiches.
What is Brisket Shrinkage?
You might be surprised to learn that water is the primary component in raw meat products—and by quite a large margin. In fact, a cut of raw beef might be made up of 75 percent water. The actual number may vary depending on the cut, but brisket usually falls in the 70-75 percent range.
What does this have to do with shrinkage? Everything. When meat is cooked, this natural moisture is forced out, which reduces the overall weight and size of the original cut. Of course, some of the fat renders out as well, which contributes to the shrinkage.
How Much Will the Brisket Shrink?
When you’re planning a barbecue, you’ll need to plan on a certain amount of brisket per guest. On average, a serving size of 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person is acceptable. That’s why it’s important to take the “shrink factor” into account when deciding how much brisket to buy.
Dry heat cooking methods like smoking will cause the meat to shrink more than if you’d used a damp heat method such as braising. That’s because the surrounding liquid allows the meat to retain more moisture as it cooks. If you’re smoking the brisket, we would recommend erring of the side of caution and buy more meat than you think you’ll need.
On the other hand, meat also shrinks more rapidly when it’s exposed to high cooking temperatures. That’s not an issue when it comes to smoked brisket, which should be cooked at 225 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit for best results.
When you use the smoker, you can expect the brisket to shrink by 30 to 40 percent during cooking. Keeping these numbers in mind, if you start with a 15-pound whole packer cut, you should end up with 9 to 10-1/2 pounds of cooked brisket.
What To Do When The Brisket Won’t Fit
Sometimes, shrinkage allows you to get away with buying a brisket that’s too big to fit on your smoker’s main cooking surface. As the meat cooks down, you can reposition it so that the entire brisket is inside the smoker for the remainder of the cooking time. Here are a few tips.
With a large whole packer cut, you can create a shoehorn effect by crushing the sides of the brisket between the handles of the cooking grate. It might not be the most graceful approach, but the meat will fit eventually.
It’s also possible to fold a segment of the flat so that it’s partially doubled over. Some pitmasters find this to be an undesirable tactic because the meat won’t cook as evenly. However, because brisket has to cook for such a long time anyway, we think the difference is negligible.
As a last resort, you can drape a portion of the brisket over a foil-wrapped brick or hunk of wood for the first part of the smoke. Bear in mind that if you use this method, you won’t be able to close the lid until the meat shrinks to the appropriate degree.
Ideas For Leftover Brisket
Because we recommend buying more brisket than you think you’ll need, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with leftovers. Let’s take a look at some of the best methods for making all that delicious smoked meat disappear.
Barbecued Beef Sandwiches
This is an especially delicious choice if you have leftover meat from the point end, which is fattier and more flavorful. However, you can make a great brisket sandwich from slices of the flat, too.
Heat the leftover brisket in a little bit of cooking liquid or beef broth, adding barbecue sauce as desired. When the meat has heated through, serve it on toasted buns with tangy cole slaw and crispy fried onions.
Speaking of the point end: If you have a lot of meat left over from this half of the brisket, you can try your hand at making burnt ends. This delicacy originated in Kansas City, one of the barbecue meccas of the US.
Cut the leftover point into cubes about 1 to 1-1/2 inch thick and set the cubes in a disposable aluminum pan. Smother them in your favorite barbecue sauce and put them in a 225-degree smoker for 1 to 2 hours. At this point, the brisket should have absorbed the sauce and be tender enough to fall apart at the slightest touch. Serve warm.
When it comes to tacos, you can experiment with any number of ingredients. Just fill a warmed corn or flour tortilla with leftover sliced, shredded, or chopped brisket, then top as desired.
Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow when making tacos: Start with the protein, add at least one crunchy filling and one piquant filling, then top with a dollop of salsa. Green cabbage and pickled red onions are good partners for brisket, along with a hearty red salsa made from roasted tomatoes. Finish with a squeeze of lime.
Brisket Mac and Cheese
This is a decadent option, but it will transform a humble comfort dish into something truly extraordinary.
Prepare your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe, preferably using a tangy cheese like cheddar to offset the richness of the beef. When it’s time to mix the cheese sauce in with the pasta, add about a cup of shredded or chopped brisket. Bake until the top is browned and the mixture is bubbling around the edges. Wait at least 15 minutes before serving.
Brisket shrinkage is an unavoidable aspect of the smoking process. As long as you understand this and are willing to plan ahead, it shouldn’t have an undue effect on your cooking plans.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!