Corned Beef vs. Brisket: How to Tell the Difference

Are corned beef and brisket the same thing?

This is a common question among barbecue enthusiasts, especially the ones who have recently discovered the joys of smoking large slabs of meat. The answer isn’t simple, but it’s not overly complex, either. Once you understand the distinctions, you’ll be able to tell the two apart with ease.

Read on to explore the great corned beef vs brisket debate.

What’s the difference between brisket and corned beef?

To answer the question we posed at the start: Corned beef and brisket are not the same thing. Although they do start out that way, that’s where the similarities end.

Beef brisket is sold raw, similar to a roast. Corned beef, meanwhile, is brisket that has been cured in brine, which allows the meat to preserve its vibrant red hue. If the meat hasn’t gone through the brining process, it will be labeled as brisket, not corned beef.

Understanding Brisket

The brisket is a primal cut of beef, meaning it’s one of the first sections to be separated from the animal during butchering. It comes from the lower chest region of the cow, above the front leg and just below the neck. Therefore, one cow will yield two whole briskets. This area gets a lot of exercise, which means the meat will be correspondingly tough. That’s why brisket is best suited to long, low-and-slow cooking applications.

Brisket is a fatty cut that’s sold in large pieces, typically 7-10 pounds. Because of its high fat content, ground brisket is a popular choice for making hamburgers. Chefs should bear in mind, however, that it shrinks quite a bit during cooking. You can expect to yield about two-thirds of the brisket’s total weight when the meat is done.

Brisket: Flat Cut vs. Point Cut

When you purchase a whole brisket, you’re getting both the point and the flat cuts. These two cuts are also sold individually, but they are not interchangeable. The flat is leaner, with a thin layer of fat running through it. The point will share this fat layer, but it will also include an additional fat cap measuring about 1/2 inch thick.

Preparing Beef Brisket

If you’re planning on making smoked brisket, you’ll want to trim away a small portion of the fat cap. Be careful not to trim too much, however. If you’ve cooked the brisket properly, this fat will render and melt into the meat, giving it an unforgettably juicy texture.

Preparing brisket is a fairly carefree endeavor once you’ve gotten started. Because it requires such a long cooking process, you can prepare your side dishes while the smoker does its work. While braising is also an option, we prefer to cook our brisket outdoors. Just be sure to check the temperature every once in a while to make sure it remains stable.

How long does it take to smoke a brisket?

You should plan on smoking the brisket at 225 degrees for about 1-1/4 hours per pound. That means a 7-pound brisket will cook in roughly 8-9 hours. Don’t forget to apply a generous amount of seasoning rub that contains both salt and sugar—this will help to produce that sought-after dark outer layer known as the bark. The meat is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit.

For more detailed instructions on how to make the perfect smoked brisket, see our recipe below.

Possible Uses for Smoked Brisket

It’s impossible to make a small amount of beef brisket. Delicious as it is, chances are you’ll have plenty of leftovers, so here are a few suggestions on how to make the most of them.

  • Smother the meat in your favorite barbecue sauce and heat in a saucepan until warm. Pile onto a toasted bulkie roll and top with crispy fried onions.
  • Use as a nacho topping, or add it to your next pot of chili.
  • Chop the meat finely and combine it with bread crumbs and tomato sauce. Use the mixture to make stuffed green peppers.
  • Mix the meat in with your next batch of scrambled eggs.
  • Saute with carrots, celery, and pearl onions, then mix in some frozen peas and homemade beef stock. Top with mashed potatoes and bake in the oven for a great Shepherd’s pie.

Texas-Style Beef Brisket

Ingredients

  • 1 whole beef brisket, about 7 pounds
  • Barbecue sauce, for serving
  • For the spice rub:
  • 1/4 cup smoked paprika
  • 1/4 cup sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder

Directions

1. Make the rub. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

2. Season the brisket all over with the spice mixture. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

3. Remove the brisket from the fridge at least 1 hour before you plan to start cooking.

4. Set your smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare the wood chip tray, if necessary. For instructions on how to smoke with wood chips when using a charcoal grill, see this video tutorial.

5. When the fire is hot enough, place the brisket in the center of the grilling grates, fat side up.

6. Close the lid and cook until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember that the temperature will continue to rise 5-10 degrees during the resting period.

7. Remove the brisket from the heat and wrap it tightly in foil. Let rest in a warm place for 30 minutes.

8. Carefully unwrap the foil and place the meat on a cutting board. Trim away any visible fat.

9. Slice the meat thinly across the grain. Serve at once with barbecue sauce on the side.

Understanding Corned Beef

As we pointed out, corned beef is brisket that has been cured in brine. This brine is traditionally made with large, coarse grains (or “corns”) of salt. If you’ve ever been present at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, chances are you’ve come across this delicacy in the form of a “boiled dinner,” where it’s usually served with cabbage. Corned beef is also the foundation of the popular Reuben sandwich, which is served on rye bread with sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese.

Although the brining procedure distinguishes corned beef from brisket, both are meant to be cooked over long periods at a low temperature. When corned beef is cooked properly, it should shred apart easily when prodded lightly with a fork. For best results, it should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you’re worried about being able to tell the difference between brisket and corned beef when you’re shopping, remember that the corned beef is a cured meat product. That means that it should be sold in a vacuum-sealed package, usually with plenty of liquid still surrounding it. By contrast, brisket is sold raw, so it will arrive in regular meat packaging.

Is corned beef unhealthy?

As with any cured meat, corned beef should be consumed in moderation. The high sodium content could easily exceed your recommended daily intake, so this is a dish that’s best enjoyed only on rare occasions. If you cut down on the serving size by incorporating it into one of the dishes we’ve suggested below, you’re headed in the right direction.

Should you rinse corned beef before cooking it?

Although it isn’t necessary to rinse the corned beef beforehand, doing so may help to cut down on sodium levels. Bear in mind that you also may be removing some of the natural cooking juices, so use your judgement.

Possible Uses for Corned Beef

Wondering what to do with those leftovers? Here are a couple of suggestions.

  • Saute with leftover boiled potatoes and plenty of butter to make corned beef hash.
  • Finely chop the meat and use it as a filling for homemade egg rolls.
  • Use it as a topping for baked potatoes.
  • Swap it in for sirloin in a classic beef Stroganoff.

Can You Taste the Difference?

Absolutely. Because of the brining process, corned beef is noticeably saltier than brisket, though not unpleasantly so. The cured flesh is also slightly drier, even if it’s served in a sauce.

You should also be able to tell the difference between the two at first glance. Corned beef has a reddish hue, whereas brisket will brown as it cooks.

Corned Beef vs Brisket: Which is Better?

There’s no definitive answer. Which one you choose depends largely on how you plan to serve it. That said, brisket is definitely the more versatile of the two. If you’re hoping to have plenty of leftovers to repurpose into sandwiches and such, brisket is the clear choice.

If you’ve never understood the difference between these two protein powerhouses, we hope we’ve succeeded in clearing up your confusion. Just remember: While all corned beef is brisket, not all brisket is corned beef. Once you’re clear on that distinction, the differences are sure to stand out.

Happy grilling!

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