CAB Brisket: What It Stands For and Why It Matters

Pros on the circuit will often refer to their prized cuts as “CAB brisket.” The first time I heard the term, I knew that it meant the meat was high-end, but didn’t understand the definition. Here’s the rundown on this pitmaster’s acronym.

CAB Brisket

“CAB” stands for Certified Angus Beef. This designation was created by the American Angus Association to denote the breed’s superiority. Brisket that’s received this label has been graded as an Upper Choice cut by the USDA. Because it’s so well-marbled, it’s a great choice for the smoker.

About Brisket Grades

brisket packer point and flat

Every brisket is taken from the lower part of the steer’s ribcage, right above the shin. Most of the ones you’ll find in the supermarket are boneless, which means the butcher has removed ribs 1 through 4. A whole packer brisket will have both the point and flat intact, but the hard layer of fat between the rib cage and the flat has usually been removed.

It’s important to leave some of the fat intact when smoking beef brisket. This helps to keep the meat tender and moist during the cooking process, which can last for 24 hours or more, depending on the size of the cut. This is why most seasoned pitmasters prefer to buy a whole packer brisket and trim it themselves.

When grading beef, the USDA uses the fat content–also known as marbling–as their primary factor. The age of the steer is also taken into account, but the amount of marbling plays a huge role.

When the meat is graded Prime, it will have a great deal of visible intramuscular fat. Choice cuts offer quality meat, but they won’t have as much marbling as their Prime counterparts. Select cuts have an even lower fat content, which can be problematic when it comes to the smoker (see Are Select Cuts Suitable For the Smoker?, below).

Breaking Down the Grades

While Prime, Choice, and Select are familiar terms, they can be broken down even further. Each grade has three subcategories: Upper, Middle, and Lower. The Upper category is the one we’re here to discuss.

In butcher’s terms, “CAB” stands for Certified Angus Beef. This is one of the most sought-after brand names in the industry, owing to the superiority of Angus beef cattle.

To achieve CAB status, the beef has to grade out as Upper Choice, meaning it rates among the top third of the Choice category. As such, a CAB brisket should contain an impressive amount of marbling.

About Certified Angus Beef

In order to receive the CAB designation, the brisket must come from Angus cattle. This breed was named for Angus County in Scotland, one of the areas from which it originated.

The “Certified Angus Beef” standard was created by the American Angus Association in 1978. Cattle are eligible only if they are at least 51 percent black in color. Other qualifications include a 10- to 16-square inch ribeye area, a hot carcass weight of under 1,050 pounds, and a modest to high degree of marbling.

Why Choose a CAB Brisket Over a Prime Cut?

brisket on wooden board

Prime beef has one major drawback: It’s very expensive. In fact, a brisket that carries the Prime label might cost as much as $20 per pound.

A Prime cut might be worth the cost if you’re making a rib roast for a holiday gathering. However, it’s not always the best choice for the smoker. Because brisket needs to cook for a long time, the difference isn’t noticeable once it’s ready to serve. This makes it hard to justify the increase in cost.

A CAB brisket, meanwhile, will have a fat content that’s nearly as high as a Prime cut. In fact, some chefs will attest that they can’t tell the difference between the two in a side-by-side comparison. Since CAB briskets usually cost less than $3 per pound, they represent a great compromise.

The Downside

If you can find a CAB brisket, we would recommend snapping it up at once. Demand for these cuts is high, so you might have difficulty procuring one, especially during the warmer months when more people are cooking outdoors.

Even if you do manage to snag a CAB brisket, you might have a hard time finding the size you want. Most people are happy just to take what they can get in terms of size, but this could pose a problem if you’re hosting a large party or have a limited window of time in which to cook.

If you can only find a CAB brisket that’s too small to fit your needs, try choosing a second brisket to complement it. Another Choice cut would be preferable, but you can also choose a Select brisket (see below for tips). Actually, smoking the two cuts side by side may serve as a useful quality-control experiment.

As an alternative, you can try smoking the CAB brisket alongside a different cut of meat altogether. Smoked pork butt makes a superb addition to any barbecue, and it’s easy to cook both cuts at the same time. To make the process go more smoothly, try to find a pork butt that weighs about the same as the brisket.

On the other hand, if your brisket is larger than you’d anticipated, we would advise you to cook the whole thing off. Leftovers freeze well and can be used in a myriad of different recipes. That said, if you don’t have enough time to smoke a whole packer brisket, you can divide the meat in half and freeze the section you’re not using.

Are Select Cuts Suitable For the Smoker?

Although we recommend buying Choice brisket whenever possible, Select cuts can also turn out well, especially if you wrap the meat partway through the smoke to preserve moisture. Just remember that wrapping the brisket might affect the quality of the bark. For best results, remove the wrapper during the last hour or so.

If you typically smoke your brisket at a higher temperature, a Select cut could be the way to go. When the meat cooks more quickly over high heat, it won’t have as much time to dry out. Conversely, a Choice or Prime cut would turn out poorly if the fat wasn’t given a chance to render.

Finally, remember that Select brisket is likely to cost less than its Prime or Choice counterparts. That makes it a good fit for shoppers on a budget, as long as they understand that the cooking process will require a few adjustments.

Final Thoughts

Because we recommend choosing Choice cuts for the smoker whenever possible, we think CAB brisket is a discerning choice. The meat contains just the right amount of marbling, and the price is typically reasonable. Because the brisket comes from high-end cattle, you know you’re getting a quality product.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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