Brisket vs Prime Rib: How to Make the Most of Each Cut

Brisket comes from the lower rib section of the steer, as many pitmasters are aware. But how does it differ from prime rib, that classic menu staple? And which one of them is superior?

Let’s go over the finer points of brisket vs prime rib, so you’ll know which one to use in any given situation.

Brisket vs Prime Rib

Brisket and prime rib are both primal cuts, meaning they’re taken from the steer during the first stage in the butchering. Brisket is taken from the lower rib section and is a tougher cut of meat, while prime rib comes from the forequarter and is naturally tender.

About Brisket

The brisket is cut from the area around the cow’s lower rib cage. It’s one of the eight primal cuts of beef, meaning it’s among the first sections to be separated from the steer during butchering. The primal cuts are later divided into subprimal sections, which are the ones you’ll find on supermarket shelves.

When the cow is still alive and grazing, this area gets a good workout. As such, beef brisket can be quite tough and chewy if it’s not cooked right.

Brisket needs to cook for a long time at a low temperature—usually around 225 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it ideal for the smoker. When it’s done properly, the connective tissue will break down and the fat will render, making the beef nice and tender.

Butchers usually divide the brisket into two segments, although it’s also possible to buy a whole packer brisket. These segments are the point, which has a triangular shape, and the flat, which is long and rectangular.

The point is sometimes referred to as the deckle, and it contains a high percentage of fat and connective tissue. This is the part of the brisket that’s used to make burnt ends, a delicacy among barbecue enthusiasts.

It’s easier to carve the flat into neat slices, which is why many chefs prefer it. There is a fat cap running along one side, but the meat itself is leaner than the point cut.

About Prime Rib

Like the brisket, prime rib is a primal cut. It’s taken from the forequarter of the steer and usually contains the sixth through the 12th ribs. Since the meat is cut from high up on the steer’s back, it doesn’t get as much exercise as the brisket. Therefore, prime rib is a naturally tender cut.

Be aware that the meat has to receive a Prime grading from the USDA in order to be called prime rib. If it doesn’t have the correct amount of marbling, a bone-in cut from this section will be called a “standing rib roast.” A boneless cut that doesn’t match the USDA’s Prime standard is called a “rib-eye roast.”

Marbling isn’t the sole factor in the USDA’s decision. The age of the steer is also taken into consideration. In general, the meat is more tender when it comes from younger animals. Once the cattle is over 30 months of age, it’s no longer eligible for the Prime classification.

It’s traditional to roast prime rib with the bone in, then serve it with a pan sauce made with the meat’s own natural juices. This sauce is called an au jus, and it’s simple to prepare.

The bone contributes a great deal of moisture and flavor to the meat. As a bonus, leaving the bone in often makes it unnecessary to use a roasting rack. We would suggest using bone-in prime rib whenever possible. However, if you’re unable to find one, a boneless cut should do nicely.

Brisket vs Prime Rib: A Side-By-Side Comparison

Cost

If it’s a bargain you’re after, beef brisket is your best bet. While a whole bone-in prime rib roast costs around $14 per pound, brisket typically runs at about $4 per pound.

That’s a notable difference even if the two cuts are the same size. However, if you’re buying a smaller brisket flat as opposed to a packer, you can save even more money. See the Size section below for more information.

Size

A whole packer brisket will usually have a total weight of 12 to 18 pounds. Interestingly enough, a whole prime rib roast has a similar average weight. That said, both cuts offer you the option of choosing a smaller size. Here’s how.

A whole standing rib roast usually contains 7 ribs, as we mentioned earlier. When you buy one of these roasts, you can expect it to weigh 15 to 20 pounds.

Rib roasts are also sold in smaller portions, with 2, 3, 4, or 5 ribs. A typical 3-rib roast weighs between 6 and 8 pounds—the same as a brisket flat. If you’re only interested in buying the flat portion and you’re hoping to save a few bucks, then the brisket could be your best bet.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the melt-in-your-mouth texture of prime rib. Even if you’re only serving a few people, it’s possible to buy a rib roast that’s small enough to meet your needs.

Remember that a bone-in rib roast will yield less meat per pound than a brisket of the same weight. This might not be a deal-breaker, but it’s something to keep in mind when shopping.

Flavor

Beef brisket is a very flavorful cut, particularly the point end. When it’s prepared in a smoker using real wood chips or pellets, the flavor becomes even more complex.

Prime rib is no slouch in this department either, thanks to the high amount of marbling. Bone-in prime rib roast has a rich, beefy taste that’s enhanced with the use of an au jus or other simple pan sauce. In fact, the race is close enough for us to call this one a tie.

Texture

Here, we have a clear winner: prime rib.

Although a low-and-slow cooking application can bring out the best in beef brisket, prime rib is naturally juicy and tender. If you’re having trouble making the comparison, imagine a hearty beef stew compared with grilled tenderloin steak. Both of them have fine qualities, but the latter doesn’t need a long slow cook in order to bring them out.

Preparation

When you’re cooking brisket in a smoker, it’s traditional to season the meat with a spice rub beforehand. This will help to complement the smoky taste and give the exterior a nice dark crust.

A combination of brown sugar, smoked paprika, ground mustard, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper will give the meat a nice flavor. For best results, apply the seasoning rub up to 24 hours in advance and let the brisket sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Conversely, you don’t want to mess too much with the prime rib before cooking it. Season the roast with a generous amount of kosher salt and let it sit at room temperature for about 3 hours. This will allow the meat to cook more evenly. If it’s resting in a high-traffic area, make sure to wrap the roast with butcher paper after you add the salt.

It’s best to have the butcher carve the meat away from the bones and then tie the roast back together with kitchen twine. That way, you’ll still get all the flavor that the bones provide, but you’ll have a much easier time carving the roast. If the butcher hasn’t already done so, we would recommend performing this step yourself.

Just before you put the roast in the oven, pat the meat dry with paper towels. Season with additional kosher salt and black pepper, then place it in a roasting pan with the rib bones facing down.

Cooking Time

When smoking beef brisket, plan on about 1-1/2 hours per pound at 225 degrees Fahrenheit. An 8-pound brisket should take 10-12 hours to cook at this temperature. Because smokers can sometimes run hotter than the designated temperature, be sure to check the meat often once you’ve reached the projected halfway mark.

Prime rib is best when it’s browned quickly, then slow-roasted at a lower temperature. Set the smoker to 500 degrees and let the roast cook for 15 minutes before lowering the temp to 325. At this point, it should cook for 11-12 minutes per pound if you like your meat rare, or 13-16 minutes per pound for medium rare.

Final Thoughts

Although brisket and prime rib are both primal cuts taken from the rib region, they have more differences than similarities. Once you understand what each cut has to offer, choosing the right one should be easy.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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