Do you know how to pick the best brisket on the shelf? If you’ve never thought about it before, now is the ideal time to learn. When you’ve finished reading, you’ll be able to make a discerning choice in time for your next barbecue session.
How To Pick The Best Brisket
When shopping for brisket, you’ll need to decide whether to buy a whole packer, or choose the point and/or the flat separately. Look for a thick, well-marbled cut in a rich reddish-purple hue. Choice and Prime are the preferred grades for brisket, while Select should be avoided.
Brisket is one of the eight primal cuts of beef. That means it’s one of the first major cuts to be separated from the animal during butchering. Primal cuts are usually further refined into subprimal cuts (see below), then again into portion cuts.
Because brisket is cut from the pectoral muscles of the cow, it’s responsible for supporting a lot of the animal’s weight. As a result, this is one of the tougher cuts of meat you can buy. That’s why it’s so important to choose a quality brisket every time.
About The Subprimal Cuts
Before you buy a brisket, you need to decide which cut to buy.
It’s possible to buy the whole brisket—also known as a whole packer—but these are enormous, sometimes weighing 18 to 20 pounds. Butchers often divide the cut into two subprimals, which are easier to work with.
The brisket flat is sometimes referred to as the first cut. This is a lean, rectangular piece of beef with a fat cap attached to one side. The shape, combined with the fact that the grain runs in a single direction, makes the flat easy to slice.
A brisket flat will usually weigh between 6 to 10 pounds, more or less. Since it’s leaner than the point, it will dry out more quickly. This is a great option if you’re planning on carving the meat into thin slices for a formal gathering.
Whether you’re choosing a whole packer brisket or the flat alone, select the cut with the thickest, most uniform flat. If the brisket is noticeably thinner in spots, it won’t cook evenly. The flat should measure at least 1 inch thick at the larger end.
Also known as the second cut, the brisket point is separated from the flat by a sizable fat pocket. This cut contains more marbling, so it’s richer and more flavorful than the flat. It also tends to be smaller—usually between 4 to 7 pounds.
The loose grain of the point meat, along with the heavy marbling, makes it difficult to slice. It’s better to shred the meat after cooking, then mix it with your favorite barbecue sauce and serve it piled high on toasted bulky rolls.
How To Pick The Best Brisket
Here are the categories you should keep in mind when choosing a brisket from the supermarket or butcher counter.
As with all cuts, which grade of beef you choose will make a difference in terms of flavor and texture. Prime brisket will come from younger animals, so the meat will be very tender, with excellent marbling.
Choice briskets don’t have as much marbling, but they’re still a good choice for the smoker. Try to stay away from cuts labeled “Select.” They don’t have enough marbling to hold up to the long cooking process, which can lead to meat that’s tough and stringy.
If superbly marbled beef is your top priority, look for Wagyu beef. The meat will have beautiful marbling, and the fat has a lower-than-average melting point. This will yield a finished brisket that’s both juicy and tender.
Take a close look at the fat cap that’s running along the flat. Does it appear to be thicker than 1 inch? If so, move on to another cut. You should trim the fat cap down to about 1/4 inch, so if it’s exceptionally thick, that will mean more work for you.
Also, the excess fat will drive up the total weight, which means a higher price tag. That might not matter if you use the brisket trimmings later, but if you discard them, you’ll just be throwing more money away.
For best results, the fat cap should measure between 1/4 and 1/3 inch thick. It can be tough to gauge the exact measure by sight alone, but you should at least be able to tell if it’s too thick.
Although you don’t want an extra-large fat cap, be sure to choose a cut that has a decent amount of marbling. The intramuscular fat and collagen are the qualities that give smoked brisket its inimitable texture and flavor.
The thickness of the meat itself is another factor to consider. Long, thin briskets are easy to overcook. Look for a thick, stout cut that will hold up well throughout the long smoke.
As we’ve discussed, the weight of the brisket depends largely on whether you’re buying a whole packer, or just the point or flat. Even within this framework, though, there are guidelines you should follow.
When selecting a whole packer, make sure that the cut isn’t too large for your smoker. You can always divide the point and the flat if you have to, but that would defeat the purpose of buying the whole brisket to begin with. It will also mean more time in the kitchen.
It can be difficult to handle oversized whole packer briskets, especially if you’re working alone. Furthermore, larger cuts will take much longer to cook. For best results, choose a whole packer that weighs between 10 to 14 pounds.
Of course, you’ll also need to factor in how many people you’re serving. One pound of raw brisket should yield about 1/2 pound of cooked beef. Since 1/2 pound per person is the standard recommended serving size, aim to buy 1 pound of brisket for each person on the guest list.
The sell-by or best-by date should be visible on the package, but that won’t tell you the whole story. In order to choose the freshest brisket, you should enlist a few other strategies.
You can tell a great deal about the freshness of a raw brisket just by holding it in your hands. If the meat is soft and flexible enough to bend slightly in the middle, then it should be nice and fresh.
Check the color as well. The meat should be a deep ruby color. Some cuts may even be dark purple, especially if they’re sealed in cryovac packaging.
One final note: Try to avoid buying a brisket that’s already frozen, or has been frozen previously. The meat begins to lose its moisture once it’s in the freezer. It will still be safe to eat, but the texture won’t be as appealing.
The Bottom Line
Choosing the right brisket is a matter of personal preference in some ways, but there are some basic guidelines that every shopper should keep in mind. Once you know what to look for, you’ll be able to pick out the best cut with ease.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!