Brisket and flank steak might have a lot in common, but they’re not the same cut. Here’s a primer on what sets these two popular hunks of beef apart—and why it’s important to know the difference.
Brisket vs Flank Steak
Brisket and flank steak both consist of well-exercised muscles from the steer’s underside that will be tough if they’re not cooked correctly. While brisket requires the low-and-slow treatment, flank steak should be cooked to medium rare and sliced thinly across the grain.
Since these pectoral muscles get so much exercise during the cow’s lifetime, the brisket is naturally tough. As such, it needs to cook for a long time at a low temperature in order to tenderize the meat.
You can divide the brisket into two portions: the flat, which is the larger section known as the “first cut,” and the point, also called the “second cut.” The flat is leaner and offers greater visual appeal, but the point is more juicy and flavorful.
Flank Steak Basics
The term “flank” is descriptive, as the flank steak is taken from the abdominal muscle beneath the chest region. This muscle is part of the underbelly, so the cut comes from another area that gets a good workout.
Although flank steak is very lean, it can also be tough if it doesn’t get the proper treatment. That’s another similarity between brisket and flank steak—both can be downright unpleasant to eat when they’re cooked incorrectly.
Be forewarned that flank steak is sometimes sold under a different name. On restaurant menus, it may be labeled as bavette steak. Some butchers might also label it as “London broil,” but this term refers to a preparation technique, not the actual cut.
Brisket vs Flank Steak: Breaking it Down
Flank steak is typically priced at $7 to $14 per pound. That’s a relatively low price for steak, as the per-pound price for fancier cuts like tenderloin can climb into the $25-$30 range.
The average price for beef brisket hovers around $5 per pound, but you might be able to score better deals at big-box stores. Conversely, your neighborhood butcher might charge a bit more, but in their defense, you’ll be able to see what you’re buying.
These numbers might make brisket look like a better deal on paper. However, it’s not that simple.
For one thing, brisket is sold in larger portions, so there’s a good chance you’ll spend more money overall. The total meat yield will also be lower, thanks to the long cooking process.
The bottom line? When you’re cooking for a big crowd, brisket is likely your best bet. For smaller groups, you can opt for flank steak instead.
When you cook brisket low and slow, it should be tender enough to melt in your mouth. The collagen will break down and the fat will render, providing the naturally tough cut with moisture and flavor.
You can grill flank steak over a hot fire, but it’s vital to slice the meat against the grain. Otherwise, each bite will be tough and chewy.
210 degrees is the ideal target temperature for smoked brisket. When the meat is undercooked, it’s too tough to eat. On the other hand, going too far past the 210-degree mark will result in dry brisket.
Flank steak is best enjoyed when it’s cooked to medium rare. We would recommend pulling the steak from the grill when the internal temperature hits 130, then letting it rest for about 5 minutes before slicing and serving the meat.
In spite of their differences, brisket and flank steak are both versatile cuts of meat that can be used in a variety of recipes.
Although it’s customary to serve brisket as the centerpiece of a meal (with or without a side of barbecue sauce), it also makes terrific sandwiches. This is especially true of the point meat, but you can tuck leftover slices from the flat into a bun as well.
Shredded or chopped brisket can also be used as a filling for tacos or baked potatoes, a topping for nachos or pizza, or the base for a savory stew or chili. In fact, you can use it in most recipes that call for prepared beef.
Similarly, you can enjoy flank steak hot from the grill, served with chimichurri or your favorite steak sauce. Sliced across the grain before cooking, it makes an excellent base for stir-fries, fajitas, and sandwiches.
So, can you use brisket in a recipe that calls for flank steak, or vice versa? Not necessarily. As we mentioned, brisket isn’t a good fit for quick-cooking techniques. It’s also more tender when cooked, so the two aren’t interchangeable.
Because of its high fat content, brisket packs a punch in the flavor department. When you smoke a whole packer, the marbling from the point end contributes a lovely richness and depth to the finished product.
We should point out that while the flat cut doesn’t have a lot of marbling, the fat cap will help keep it moist and flavorful as it cooks. When smoking the flat alone, try to make sure that at least 1/4 inch of the fat cap is still in place.
Choosing the right wood for smoking can also make a huge difference in terms of taste. Thanks to the long cooking process, brisket will take on a lot of flavor from the smoke. Oak is our preferred choice, but feel free to experiment with bolder ones as you prefer.
Even though it’s a lean cut, flank steak has a bold, beefy taste of its own. It might not be as flavorful as fattier cuts like the ribeye—but on the other hand, it serves as a better backdrop to marinades, which makes it more versatile.
If it’s flavor you’re after, you can’t really go wrong with either of these cuts. Which one you choose should depend more on your cooking method and what you’re hoping to get out of the meal.
For those of you who want to get a meal on the table quickly, flank steak is the clear choice. You only need to cook it for a few minutes per side, and while it lends itself well to marinades, simple seasonings are really all you need.
Brisket, on the other hand, represents a sizable time commitment. The meat should cook for at least 1.5 hours per pound. That means a 6-pound brisket flat could be on the smoker for 9 hours—longer if your unit runs on the cooler side.
While most of the cooking time is hands-off, you’ll need to plan ahead when smoked brisket is on the menu. If you’re in a hurry to get dinner on the table, opt for flank steak instead.
Don’t make the mistake of buying a brisket flat when you’re looking for flank steak—or vice versa. While these cuts have certain similarities, they require different cooking techniques. You don’t want to get caught unawares when it’s time to fire up the smoker.